Conakry, Guinea – For more than a decade, Oumou Barry has kept her torn, bloodstained dress in a plastic bag along with a CT scan of her broken scapula as evidence of her rape by a Guinean soldier at a stadium in the capital, Conakry, on September 28, 2009.
“This is the dress I was wearing that day,” the 63-year-old retired secretary and grandmother of 11 told Al Jazeera. “I always have it with me when I do interviews. This is proof of what they did to me.”
She was among hundreds of Guineans who came out to protest against military strongman and coup leader Dadis Camara’s decision to run for the presidency.
In December 2008, Camara seized power hours after the death of President Lansana Conté, proclaiming himself head of the transitional government and promising to organise free and fair elections excluding members of the military government.
By April 2009, he had back-pedalled, hinting that he might run for president. Hundreds took to the streets to peacefully protest, and the Guinean military entered the stadium where protesters had gathered and started firing guns at the crowd.
At least 150 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Reports also show that women were specifically targeted by Guinean soldiers. Witnesses said that four women were shot dead after being sexually assaulted.
“It came as a shock to the public because of the scale and scope of the sexual violence that was described,” Souleymane Sow, country director at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera. “From 2009 to 2012, the question of sexual violence and rape was never addressed. There weren’t many mechanisms that encouraged victims to speak up.”
However, on the 13th anniversary of the massacre, the highly anticipated trial of Camara and other defendants began.
Barry was among the first survivors to speak about the horror that unfolded at the stadium. Behind an office door at the victims’ association headquarters, an organisation created to pressure the government to seek justice and reparations for survivors, she revealed her scars; dents on her leg and hips; and the thick stitched-up line travelling from her shoulder to her upper back.
The soldiers had used live ammunition as well as machetes and knives to attack the protesters.
“I still don’t know how I made it out of there,” she said. “It was chaos everywhere. When people realised there was no way out of the stadium, they panicked. Everybody was stepping on each other … on bodies.”
She struggled to recount what happened next as she crawled her way to the stadium’s exit after it had finally opened. “A young soldier screamed at me and told me that I was going to get what I deserved,” she said. “He then knocked me down, spread my legs and forced himself on me.”
‘So many of us lost everything’
Gender-based violence remains a taboo subject in the West African country, where victims often bear the stigma of their assaults.
“When my husband found out that I was raped at the stadium, he divorced me,” Barry told Al Jazeera. “He felt it was too shameful to bear.”
In 2021, the police dealt with more than 400 cases of rape, and most of the victims were minors, according to a recent report from Amnesty International, which concluded that the real figures of rape cases are undoubtedly much higher.
In 2016, Guinea strengthened its penal code regarding rape, but victims who want to file a complaint with the police are still required to show a medical certificate to prove assault.
“That’s why this trial is so important,” Sow said. “We not only hope that the killings will be condemned, but also, the sexual crimes that were committed. Impunity surrounding gender-based violence has to end.”
Like other survivors of the massacre, Barry has found healing in community. A few years ago, she joined SEMA, the Global Network of Victims and Survivors to End Wartime Sexual Violence, and has been advocating for other survivors to make their voices heard.
“Six hundred people came out to tell their side of the September 28th story, but to this day, many survivors won’t speak out,” she said.
“They did all sorts of things to me,” Saran Cissé, also a member of SEMA, told Al Jazeera. “They behaved like animals. When I finally made it home very late that night, I chose to hide my wounds to my family. I didn’t tell them what happened. I tried to sleep, but the pain was excruciating.”
Shortly after the massacre, Cissé left Guinea to go to Senegal for medical treatment.
“When I returned home, I tried to move on, but people were looking at us, blaming us,” she said. ”I couldn’t sleep at night. I was traumatised and exhausted. Many of us lost our husbands after they found out we were raped. So many of us lost everything.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Camara denied responsibility and blamed the violence on rogue security forces.
A few months later however, a Human Rights Watch investigation found that crimes against humanity had been committed and that the circumstances of many of the killings and abuses described suggest that “they were committed with either the consent or an explicit order from Guinean military commanders as high as President Moussa Dadis Camara”.
In the decade after, human rights organisations have increasingly complained about delays in the judicial process.
“The was no political will for it to happen,” said Frederic Loua, a human rights lawyer who served on the national investigation commission launched in 2009. “Alpha Condé was president for over 10 years, and it wasn’t his priority at all. It wasn’t a priority for any of the political actors for that matter.”
A year ago, current President Mamadi Doumbouya came to office after another military coup. It is under his government that the trial has been launched.
For several weeks, 11 suspects, including Camara and former high-ranking government and military figures, have taken the stand in a trial broadcast on national television every night.
“The stakes are high,” Conakry-based political analyst Kabinet Fofana told Al Jazeera. “If Dadis Camara is found guilty, it could set precedent for political leaders in this country.
“We find ourselves in a similar political equation to that of 2009 with a transitional government that is expected to organise elections soon, so, of course, this trial is garnering a lot of attention and there is a lot riding on it,” he added.
But activists and opposition leaders wonder what will happen next.
“Who can be found guilty of what happened?” asked Fofana, head of the Guinean Political Science Association. “Who ordered the killings? Did someone order soldiers to rape women? If so, how can we prove it when most of the suspects seem to be blaming the next person?”
On October 17, the prosecution began questioning Marcel Guilovagui, Camara’s former aide. He’s suspected to have played an important role in the massacre. But Guilavogui, who has been imprisoned since then, still rejects the accusations. “I was never at the stadium. I didn’t shoot anyone. I didn’t have a machete,” he said.
Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, one of the protest organisers, was in the stadium with his supporters and is relieved that the trial is finally happening.
“I was left for dead on the pitch,” he said in a recent interview with RFI. Thankfully, I was picked up and taken to the Samory military camp, where I regained consciousness.”
Diallo said the trial requires an independent judiciary.
“There are legitimate concerns that [the trial] will be used to condemn the organisers of the demonstration,” he said.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reported that security forces engaged in an organised operation to hide the evidence of their crimes, persecuting survivors and removing the bodies for burial in mass graves.
“There were roadblocks all over town,” Cissé told Al Jazeera. “Soldiers everywhere. It seemed to me that they were doing everything they could to hide evidence of what they had done.”
“Following the trial has been difficult because most of us can’t afford to commute to court every day,” Cissé said. “We need government support to attend the hearings. We don’t want to watch the trial on television. We deserve to be there in court.”
But the victim’s association’s priority has been for their ordeals to be acknowledged and to obtain compensation.
“Thirteen years is not 13 days or 13 weeks,” said Barry, who’s been anxiously waiting for the day she’ll finally get to tell her story from the stand.
“We want this trial to raise awareness to what can happen to the weak in this country, so that it never happens again,” she said. “We want reparations for what was done to us and taken from us, so we can go on rebuilding and healing.”