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With hundreds detained and a disputed number of people killed in Gabon’s violent post-electoral crisis, several families in the Central African nation are on a desperate hunt for information on their missing loved ones.
On Wednesday evening, shortly after the final results of Gabon’s fraught presidential elections were released, Bruna had a brief phone conversation with her sister, Carena, that left her feeling very alarmed.
Carena was at the campaign headquarters of Jean Ping – the opposition candidate who has rejected the official election results – in the Gabonese capital of Libreville. Like many Ping supporters that fateful evening, Carena and her mother, Henriette, had gathered outside their candidate’s campaign office to hear the much-anticipated poll results.
Trouble was expected in the lead-up to the August 27 poll and trouble subsequently broke out days later when the Gabonese interior minister finally announced that President Ali Bongo had been reelected, beating Ping by a wafer-thin margin of less than 6,000 votes.
Bruna – a 25-year-old resident of the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand who asked that the family name not be disclosed due to security reasons – had been closely monitoring the events back home. When she got through to Carena in Libreville on Wednesday, she found her sister “panicking”, Bruna recalled in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “She [Carena] told me, ‘They are firing at us, Ali [Bongo] is killing us.’”
Bruna hasn’t spoken to her mother and sister since, and nearly a week later, the family is concerned about their well-being.
Wednesday, August 31, was a dark night in Gabon’s history. Shortly after Ping declared himself the rightful winner of the 2016 presidential poll, his supporters took to the streets of Libreville, setting fire to the parliament building amid chants of “Ping hey-ho, Ali must go”.
Gabonese security forces proceeded to launch a brutal crackdown on Ping’s campaign headquarters, according to opposition supporters. Days later, photographs of the building circulating on social media sites showed an exterior pockmarked by bullet holes, while office floors inside the building were smeared with blood.
Government officials say at least three people were killed in the post-electoral violence. But in an interview with FRANCE 24 Tuesday, Ping put the death toll at “between 50 to 100”. More than 800 people have been arrested in the post-electoral crackdown, leaving many families scrambling to trace their loved ones.
Missing French nationals in Gabon
France, the former colonial power in Gabon, has expressed concern about the safety of its nationals in the country. On Monday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s office released a statement noting that, “France has no news about several of its compatriots”.
Gabon is home to around 14,000 French citizens – many of them dual nationals – and many French companies have commercial interests in the oil-rich nation.
Responding to France’s concerns, the Gabonese government on Tuesday released a statement maintaining that their justice ministry services were “at the disposal of the families [of missing nationals] to answer questions”.
The statement, however, stressed that “under Gabonese law, dual national citizens residing in Gabon cannot rely on another nationality in Gabon, and are therefore subject to Gabonese laws and regulations”.
Watching and waiting
The official assurances have done little to assuage Bruna’s concerns.
Over the past few days, her father, Henry, has been looking for his wife and daughter everywhere: at the central prison in Libreville, local police stations and other judicial premises. On Monday, he joined dozens of families at the Libreville courthouse, where the first of hundreds of hearings against the new detainees began.
The 61-year-old retired Gabonese diplomat had hoped to catch sight of his wife and daughter while the detainees, under heavy surveillance, were led from police trucks to the courthouse. But his hopes were crushed. Explained Bruna: “We thought they might appear before the court to be judged, even if they have no reason to be there – they have nothing to do with the violence. But they were not there.”
Henry however did manage to figure out Carena’s whereabouts when he saw her name on a list of prisoners being held by the DGDI (Direction Générale de la Documentation et de l’Immigration), the government body formerly known as the Cedoc, which is none other than the headquarters of the Gabonese intelligence services.
“Several people have told me of similar suspicions about potential Cedoc detentions. But this information is unverifiable. The central prison, police and above all the intelligence services say nothing about the arrests or detention conditions,” explained Sébastien Németh, a journalist at FRANCE 24’s sister radio station, RFI, reporting from Libreville.
Information has remained scarce in Gabon in recent days. Following the clashes Wednesday, internet access was cut completely for five days, newspapers were not published and two private television stations were attacked.
By Monday morning, internet access had been partially restored, and images of violent arrests and wounded prisoners began to circulate on social media sites. But they have been impossible to verify under the current climate of silence and fear.
“These photographs are alarming us about the conditions in which my mother and my sister may be detained,” said Bruna.
By Tuesday, her father had received a brief message, passed on by a police officer, that his wife, Henriette, was alive and in detention. However he had no details about her whereabouts or the conditions under which she was being held.
Testimonies trickling out of Gabon have not been reassuring. Over the weekend, Gabonese lawyer Jean-Pierre Akumbu M’Oluna deplored “the degrading and unbearable” conditions under which the detainees are being held. A 26-year-old Gabonese journalist told AFP he was detained Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon naked in a cell with four others.
From the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand, Bruna posted a photo of her mother and sister on the Facebook page, Nos Disparus 241 (Our Missing 241), launched over the weekend by members of the Gabonese diaspora. Under the picture of Carena and Henriette, the caption says, “Free political prisoners! What are we hiding?”
It’s a question that remains unanswered to Bruna’s utter dismay. “For now, nothing has come out of this, we’re just contacting Gabonese people from abroad. But we have not lost hope,” said Bruna. “Besides, my father is not visiting the morgues and hospitals because he’s not assuming the worst.”