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GLOBAL | winter 2006

The Agony of Darfur
Again, rape surfaces as an international war crime.

Hawa has a tiny cabin to herself. In the teeming Darfuri refugee camp where most families must share huts, this seems a luxury. But for the 18-year-old it’s terrible, especially at night when gun-shots ring throughout the camp.

“I hide under my bed until it’s over,” says Hawa (names have been changed for security reasons). “Those moments remember [sic] me of that last night in my village.”

That Friday night, gunshots woke her. She saw other villagers running from attackers—men with Kalashnikov rifles riding horses and camels. “Janjaweed. I started running, but…” Two men caught her and another girl. “They tied our hands together and raped us.”

That was three months earlier in the now-3-year-old counterinsurgency mounted by the northern Arab Sudanese government against the rebellion by Darfur and its tribal African peoples—a counterattack many have termed genocidal. Hawa, like neighbors from her village and 110,000 other refugees, fled to Kalma Camp in South Darfur, near the capital, Nyala. But she is reminded of the rape every day, not only because she still suffers pain in her stomach and cannot sit for long, but because the rapes are why she lives alone in her hut built of sticks and plastic bags. The uncle and aunt who raised her now ignore her: A raped woman isn’t worth much in Darfur. Hawa asks plaintively, “Who will want to marry me now?”

Sexual violence against women is occurring on a massive scale in Darfur. An Amnesty International report now calls the mass rapes a weapon of war. After years of pressure from women’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world, a 1998 landmark United Nations Rwanda International Criminal Tribunal decision confirmed the concept of rape as a war crime, one increasing during recent years. Darfur fits the pattern of Cambodia, Liberia, Peru, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Uganda, with violence against women being systematically used by opposing parties. Rape and war have been connected throughout history, but never before has there been such structural attention to sexual violence in wartime.

Tineke Ceelen has seen it before, in Liberia. “It is shocking to see the female
body being used as weaponry,” says Ceelen, director of the Dutch Stichting Vluchteling, a foundation that supports the refugee camps. “By structurally raping women, you destroy social cohesion. You kill someone, it is over. But rape continues to have an effect. You’re affecting women and men [who then] often leave their wives.”

In Darfur, the Arab militia and military prefer to abuse women in front of their families or entire village. Furthermore, the rape tragedies are exacerbated by most young girls having already been forced to undergo infibulation, an extreme form of female genital mutilation. This genital cutting and then stitching together of the labia makes sexual assault all the more vicious, and injuries that result increase the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission.

Mariam is a midwife at a hospital in South Darfur. She’s been in the profession for decades, but says these last years have been incredible. A girl she had seen that very morning had been “raped by five Arabs. The sixth cut her vagina with a knife. She was in hospital for months and now is going back to her family, in a refugee camp. She is afraid of what her parents might say. I am going with her for a conversation with her family. Step by step we tell them what has happened, that it wasn’t her fault. I try to prevent her repudiation.” Rape is an enormous taboo in Sudan. Survivors mostly keep what happened to themselves, although often they say they know somebody who has been abused. Only after long talks might a survivor admit that she herself was the victim.

Women impregnated from rape are in even worse circumstances. According to popular local belief, one cannot get pregnant from rape, so there have been cases where pregnant rape survivors have been imprisoned for “adultery.” Mariam says, “A lot of abused girls do not want a baby of the enemy and ask for a pill to make it go away.” Mariam cannot help, as abortion is legal only to save the life of the woman. “I tell the girl... it won’t matter anymore whether her baby is Arab, once the war is over. I go with her to her family to talk about this.”

From the barren plain they come walking, six women carrying all their possessions on their heads: a table, wooden beds, blankets. Militia on horseback attacked their village. In Duma, 40 kilometers from Nyala, the stream of refugees materializes before one’s eyes. Four women sit on the sand next to some thornbushes. Their things lie scattered around them, a few cane mats and blankets. They sit as if paralyzed, staring. They don’t know where their husbands are—dead, maybe.

Safety in the camps is nonexistent. Especially at night, the police wreak havoc—ostensibly to arrest rebels or bandits—and militia enter the camp. The most elementary daily chore, finding firewood for cooking, is perilous. When Tamar went looking for wood with her cousin Fatna, men in military uniforms suddenly appeared.

“They beat us with sticks,” Tamar whispers. “I started running away.” Tamar escaped; her 12-year-old cousin didn’t. One of the men tied her up and took her with him on his horse. The next morning she was found, barely able to stand, and had to be rushed to a hospital in Nyala.

There is still hardly any aid for such girls. Relief workers in Sudan face difficult circumstances. The Dutch branch of the group Doctors Without Borders issued a March 2005 report noting that their NGO alone had treated almost 500 rapes in a four-and-a-half-month period, and that more than 80 percent of survivors identified the attackers as government soldiers or militia. The Sudanese government is displeased with foreign witnesses, especially when they focus on helping abused women. The regime refuses to allow aid workers to bring in rape kits, and dismisses stories of systematic rapes as concoctions. Their response to the report was to arrest two leaders of Doctors Without Borders and charge them with spreading false information. This is a pattern: More than 20 members of foreign-aid agencies were threatened or arrested between January and June of last year.

“Educating women about health and hygiene is just about possible,” sighs an aid worker who wants to remain anonymous. “But psychosocial help to rape victims is a very sensitive issue.” Her organization has started training local women in Darfur, two from each tribe, to teach them how to recognize victims of gender-based violence. It would not work to start a center specifically for rape victims, she says: “Much too stigmatizing; nobody would dare go there.” So aid workers try to integrate this help with other activities. “Such cumbersomeness can be terribly frustrating,” says the aid worker. “The number of women in Darfur facing horrible traumas is unimaginable. Yet we can only help a fraction—if we’re lucky.”

Hawa, isolated in her little hut, says she just wants to get away from the environment that reminds her of what’s been done to her. Although she never
saw the turban-wrapped faces of the rapists, she cannot forget “those eyes
between black cloth.” She wants to return to her parents.

“Maybe they haven’t heard what happened to me,” she says. “If I bring them some sugar and some nice fabrics, hopefully they will want me back. Then I can start all over again.”