CONAKRY, Guinea – The bodies are missing.
Families here have collected the names, addresses and photographs of at least 108 people who were killed when soldiers opened fire on a protest almost three months ago, but whose bodies were never returned. Some were taken to hospital morgues and later removed by the military, witnesses told The Associated Press. Others were loaded into military trucks at the stadium which left in the direction of the capital's main military barracks.
They are believed to be buried in the mass graves dug after one of the modern world's worst massacres by government forces on their own people.
"I saw my son lying in the morgue. I touched his body," says Mohamed Bah, whose 19-year-old son was shot. "But since that day, I haven't seen him. His body is with the government."
The mass graves are one more sign of the instability that is rocking this bauxite-rich West African nation of 10 million people, where president Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara was shot at by his own presidential guard earlier this month.
Guinea is now effectively leaderless as the state of Camara's health has been a mystery ever since he was airlifted to a Moroccan military hospital on Dec. 4. Although Guinea's vice president is now coordinating the junta's activities, the government has repeatedly declined to refer to him as the interim president, sowing fears of a power vacuum.
On the morning of Sept. 28, soldiers loyal to Camara sealed off the exits to the national soccer stadium where tens of thousands of protesters had gathered to demand an end to military rule. The troops entered and immediately began firing their assault rifles, spraying bullets from left to right into the unarmed crowd, according to survivors.
Bodies were scattered across the field, in pools of blood, draped over walls, curled under the bleachers and piled next to the exits. Women were dragged to the grass and soldiers took turns gang raping and sexually assaulting them with rifle barrels and pieces of wood. Women who belonged to the country's largest ethnic group were targeted.
Within hours, the military launched a cover-up, according to witnesses, including members of the military. An investigation by a human rights group also discovered a cover-up.
Soldiers barred ambulances from entering the stadium. They took control of the capital's morgues. Doctors say the soldiers separated the bodies of the people who had been crushed to death from those who died of gunshot wounds.
Four days after the massacre, the government released 57 bodies, denying responsibility for the massacre and saying the majority had died of suffocation during a stampede inside the stadium. Witnesses said the military ordered the stadium repainted to get rid of blood evidence.
The military junta insists that only 57 people were killed, but a victim's association has compiled a list of 108 other victims who were known to have been at the stadium — and whose bodies were never recovered by their families.
Guinea has endured successive dictatorships since winning independence from France. Last December, army captain Camara seized power and promised to quickly organize elections in which he would not run.
Since seizing power, the junta has laid waste to the country's economy, already one of the poorest in Africa even though it has half the world's reserves of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum.
When it became clear that Camara didn't intend to step down, opposition leaders organized a protest. Video footage shot early on the morning of the demonstration shows a sea of people marching toward the stadium, joyously singing the national anthem and chanting "Liberty."
The European Union imposed sanctions on Guinea after the massacre and the United Nations sent a team to investigate. Their report is due in the coming days and is expected to recommend prosecution for members of the ruling junta for committing crimes against humanity.
Bah, a 65-year-old tailor, recalls getting a telephone call from the hospital telling him that his son Mamadou "Mama" Bah was dead. He says he rushed to the Donka Hospital morgue and found his son on a table with a bullet hole in his side.
He had paid a taxi to idle outside and he wanted to load his son into it, but the hospital workers told him to come back the next day because the paperwork wasn't ready. When he returned on Sept. 29, soldiers were blocking the entrance to the morgue. He came back every day for the next four days, until the 57 bodies were put on display at the Grand Faycal Mosque in Conakry. He walked past each of the bodies — but didn't find his son.
"They only put out the bodies that had no bullet in them. All those that died of bullet wounds, we didn't get their bodies back. We only got back those who died from being shoved or trampled," he said.
Namia Mara also found soldiers blocking the entrance to the hospital when she came looking for her son, but she got past the first checkpoint by saying she was a hospital worker. She found soldiers sitting in front of the locked door to the morgue and casually walked around to the back. She hoisted herself on a ledge to try to see into the room through a ventilation hole. She says she screamed when she recognized her son in the pile of bodies. She was escorted out. Her son was not among the bodies displayed at the mosque.
Witnesses told the AP they saw military trucks loaded with bodies arrive at two military camps in the capital. A soldier whose unit is deployed at the Almamy Samory Toure camp in downtown Conakry says he got a phone call telling him to stay away from the camp. When he asked why, the officer calling him said, "It's awful. You don't want to be here. They've unloaded 47 bodies." He said that his friend described how the cell phones of the dead kept ringing inside their pockets.
The account of the young man, who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation by the army, was corroborated by what another witness told U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. A source inside the camp told the rights group that he saw three trucks carrying bodies pull in around 1 p.m. on the day of the massacre. He said 47 bodies were unloaded and placed inside the camp's auditorium.
By evening, he said, the camp received a call that a downtown morgue was overflowing and a military truck was sent to retrieve another 18 bodies. In the middle of the night, he said, the presidential guard took all 65 bodies, allegedly to be buried in mass graves, according to Human Rights Watch.
Several witnesses also say trucks carrying bodies arrived at Alpha Yaya Diallo, the capital's largest military base and the de facto seat of the government since Camara seized power.
A university student says he went to the camp the evening after the massacre to try to find his brother, who had been at the demonstration and whom he feared had been arrested. He was walking toward the prison building when he happened upon the bodies being unloaded and hid behind a building.
He said the bodies were being put inside a large pit. His account matches information shared by other witnesses.
Another mass grave is reportedly down a hill from Alpha Yaya. Residents say that on the evening after the massacre, security forces cordoned off the road leading to the overgrown Yimbaya cemetery.
A 26-year-old mother whose home overlooks the cemetery said she was on her terrace nursing her baby when she saw a military truck and two pickups drive past the security cordon and stop in front of the cemetery. She said she saw the gate open, the trucks drive inside and soldiers unloading what looked like bodies. She did not want to be identified out of concern for her safety.
Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday that between 150 and 200 people were killed on Sept. 28. Senior researcher Corinne Dufka concludes the military engaged in a systematic effort to misrepresent the number of dead in order to lessen their culpability.
"We know that bodies were removed by the military from the stadium and from the morgues. They had to have been taken someplace — so it's likely that they ended up in mass graves," says Dufka. "They owe it to the family members of those who disappeared to reveal what really happened."
Dufka said Human Rights Watch had received credible reports of mass graves at the Alpha Yaya military camp and at the Yimbaya cemetery. Satellite images of the cemetery also showed that a section of earth had been disturbed immediately after the massacre.
Nearly three months since the massacre, the families of the missing say that they are having a hard time grieving. Khadiatou Barry, a 20-year-old whose husband's dead body was captured in cell phone footage taken inside the stadium, says she started wearing white, the traditional color of mourning to convince herself that she's a widow.
"What I want is for people to help us so that we can know where they buried my husband. Even if it's just bones, I need to find him," she says. "If I don't have a body, it feels like it didn't happen. I feel like I am dreaming. I keep thinking, maybe he is away traveling."