Burkina Faso victims seek answers from ex-torture site after feared military unit disbanded

A rundown colonial building in Burkina Faso that was once the headquarters of the presidential guard brings back horrible memories for Mousbila Sankara, who was among dozens of people who were imprisoned and tortured there. Some never made it out alive.

In the wake of a recent failed, bloody coup by the presidential guard, a feared unit that has since been disbanded, many people in Burkina Faso are debating what to do with its headquarters, the most notorious site in this West African country, highlighting a broader push for an end to impunity here.

The building is the site where revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara was killed in a 1987 coup. It was only this year that an autopsy determined that human remains found in Sankara's purported grave in Dagnoen Cemetery on the eastern outskirts of Ouagadougou were indeed of the slain leader, and that he had been shot about ten times in the chest, head and legs.

In recent weeks, politicians, civil society leaders and human rights activists have called for the Conseil de L'Entente building and nearby outbuildings to be thoroughly cleaned out and searched for evidence of torture, and even for human remains. Some have called for the building to house embassies while others have suggested it be turned into a memorial.

The white building near the state radio station in central Ouagadougo was used as President Sankara's offices after he took power in 1983. His best friend, Blaise Compaore, led the coup in which Sankara was killed. During Compaore's 27 years in power, the building became the scene of some of the most gruesome political crimes since the nation's independence from France in 1960. Compaore was himself ousted one year ago in a popular uprising.

Today, the site is poorly maintained, with overgrown grass and rusted windows and doors. The main entrances are guarded by soldiers, who do not permit photographs to be taken.

Mousbila Sankara, President Sankara's cousin, was hauled into the dreaded presidential guard headquarters in December 1989 and held there until he was freed in August 1991. A Sankara loyalist, he had served as his country's ambassador to Libya and had resigned to protest the killing of the president.

"No words can explain the ordeal we went through. We did not know when it was day or night," Mousbila said in an interview with The Associated Press, describing being waterboarded and choked with hands and ropes to the point of unconsciousness. He said he was kept naked with 13 other people in the building's former kitchen.

"We were allowed to see a doctor when we were on the brink of death," said Sankara, a slender man who wore a turban and sighed frequently as he described the abuse.

The driver of Compaore's younger brother, Francois, was accused of stealing money and believed to have been tortured and killed in the building in 1998. The death of the driver, David Ouedraogo, coupled with the killing of respected journalist Norbert Zongo who was investigating the case, triggered strikes and violent demonstrations.

Many activists are also suspected to have been detained and killed in the offices over the years, said Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkinabe Movement for Human and People's Rights. The organization has registered more than 100 unsolved deaths and missing persons cases since 1990.

The presidential guard carried out a short-lived coup in September against a transitional government. After it fizzled with a split in the military's ranks, the presidential guard was dissolved and its former head, coup leader Gen. Gilbert Diendere, was charged with crimes against humanity.

Halidou Ouedraogo, a veteran human rights activist, noted that while the Regiment of Presidential Security, or RSF, has been disbanded, its crimes remain unaccounted for.

"The time has come to bring forward all unsolved crimes," he said.

Given the number of possible ghosts within the offices' walls, it is time for "an exorcising of the area," Zougmore added.

Saran Sereme, a businesswoman and presidential candidate for elections to be held on Nov. 29, was tortured in the building after attending a pro-Sankara rally following the president's assassination.

She is now seeking to eliminate all military presence from the complex and convert it into a memorial to those who were tortured or killed there.