This is a news article that I shared with my students when we were studying the
genocide ”crisis” in Darfur. The Darfuri women who share their stories become heroes in that despite all the repercussions they face for speaking out, they are taking a stand not only for their people, other Darfuri women, and their children, but for victimized women around the world.
Taken from: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article2489206.ece
September 27, 2007
Since 2003, Janjaweed bandits have been preying on the women of Darfur. Nobody knows how many they have raped, nobody knows how many pregnancies have resulted from these attacks, or how many babies have been killed by their ‘disgraced’ mothers. But now the women are beginning to speak out.
As soon as she saw the two darkly clad men riding towards her on camels, their heads and faces swathed in scarves, Nafisa Mohamed knew what she must do. “I told my son and my daughter to run as fast as they could.” The men were the Janjaweed, nomadic Arab bandits who have been slaughtering Darfuri men and raping women, in a military offensive engineered by the Sudanese government. Jinn is Arabic for demon and jawad means horse. Darfuri people will tell you that the Janjaweed are indeed devils on horseback. Nafisa had been living for a year in Kalma camp, which houses about 120,000 Darfuri people who have had their homes destroyed by the Janjaweed. On this day she walked several miles away from the camp with two of her children to collect firewood. When the men approached, she feared they would try to kill her 13-year-old son and rape her 11-year-old daughter, but thought that if she surrendered herself and submitted they wouldn’t bother chasing her children. She knew they might kill her. Certainly they’d rape her.
The first man went off in pursuit of other women, while the second tore off her tobe, a large veil that covers the head and body, and screamed at her: “Unclean slave! I will give you a pale-skinned baby.” Then he thrust himself upon her so violently, she bled: “Slave woman! Your children will be Arabs, and they will inherit this land.” Afterwards, Nafisa, full of self-loathing, ran as fast as she could back to the camp where her other children were waiting. Her greatest fear was that she’d become pregnant by a Janjaweed.
Nafisa, 30, and her children live in Kalma camp near Nyala, the capital of Southern Darfur, where the Khartoum government has been conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Arabs for the past five years. Around 300,000 have died as a result, and more than 2m have lost their homes – over a third of the population. In 2004, when Nafisa’s village was destroyed by the Janjaweed, she had trekked to Kalma camp with thousands of others to escape the slaughter. Even then, what was happening in Darfur was condemned by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, as “genocide”.
Nafisa is a Fur, from the original tribe of Darfur. She is strong, resourceful and beautiful. She is also almost illiterate, as she left school at the age of 11 to become engaged to a man nearly 20 years older. She married him at 13, and had his five children. Then he left her for a second wife. He gave the family’s food card from the World Food Programme (WFP) to his new wife. “I couldn’t afford to be pregnant,” says Nafisa. “My children would be shamed by a Janjaweed baby.” Within weeks, however, it became clear that she was pregnant. “I hated the Janjaweed baby I was carrying,” she says. “I hated myself.”
In October 2006, during Ramadan, Nafisa went into labour and gave birth to a perfect baby girl. And then a small miracle happened: she was overwhelmed with love. “I thought, this baby doesn’t deserve my hatred or anger. This baby is a gift from God, so that is my baby’s name, Quisma, which means ‘gift from God’.” As Nafisa reaches this part of her story, Gisma, who is 10 months old, and has been suckling noisily under her mother’s orange tobe, peers out at us. “The love that I feel for my daughter is as powerful as the hatred I feel for her father,” smiles Nafisa. “Gisma is part of me.” Gisma is lucky, and she may be exceptional. Nafisa knows raped mothers who have placed their innocent offspring in plastic bags and thrust them down latrines. “But that’s bad,” she says. “A child is a child, and no matter what its birth, it should be given every chance to live.”
Since violence convulsed Darfur in February 2003, rape has been part of the Janjaweed’s gruesome pattern of violence against the Darfuri people, though rape was virtually unheard of before these attacks. But it’s impossible to determine how many babies have been born from rape, partly because of a widespread belief that pregnancy only results from wanted sex, and partly because of the subsequent shame of these mothers in this traditional Muslim society.
In the early years of the conflict, some rape victims who had babies were ostracised, and some of them rejected their babies. The Sudanese journalist Nima Elbagir recalls “a hugely disturbing” encounter in Western Darfur in 2005 with a 14-year-old rape victim. The girl was dark-skinned but her baby was light-skinned, suggesting its father was a Janjaweed. The girl was so traumatised, she refused even to hold her baby, let alone feed it. When Elbagir returned some months later, she learnt that the baby had died from lack of nutrition.
In Sudan, a child’s identity is determined by the ethnicity of the father. In Darfur, the rapists have a ready-made excuse for their crimes on the battlefield: to replace the existing communities with a new generation of Arab children.
Darfur is a complex African crisis, rooted in violent ethnic and historical factors, and recently exacerbated by drought and famine. Most of Darfur’s 6m people are either farmers or nomadic herders. Most farmers are African and most nomads Arab. Until recently, the two groups mixed fairly easily. Competition between the tribes tended to be economic rather than ethnic. The three main African tribes are the Fur, who are also the largest, the Zaghawa and the Masalit. Almost everyone is Muslim, speaks Arabic and has dark skin.
The recent violence also has its roots in the cultural legacy of slavery, now outlawed. Until little more than a generation ago, Darfur was Sudan’s slave-trading ground. For many Arab Sudanese, Darfuri women are seen as beautiful, sexually generous and comparatively liberated. By some Arabs they are seen as fit for little more than slavery or prostitution.
Earlier this year, in a dizzying vindication of lawless Janjaweed behaviour, the Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal summarised the contempt the Janjaweed feel for Darfuri women: “Why would you want to rape these women? They’re disgusting; rape is shameful. We have honour, but our men wouldn’t need to use force. These things hold no shame for these women.” Some rural Darfuri women are not circumcised – certainly none of those I spoke to was – unlike Sudanese Arab women, who are often subjected to an extreme form of genital mutilation. To the Janjaweed, this is conclusive proof that many Darfuri women are unclean.
Women in Darfur who report rapes are risking their lives and stand more chance of being prosecuted than the rapists. (Earlier this year two women were sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery, although their sentences have yet to be executed.) In sharia law, a woman needs four male witnesses to testify to a rape. If she is married, reports a rape but doesn’t have these witnesses, she may be prosecuted for adultery and stoned to death. The Khartoum government has always vehemently denied that its soldiers rape women. Because of what one Sudanese human-rights activist describes as the government’s ongoing objection to the focus of rape in Darfur, the official statistics for last year’s rape cases amounted to a paltry seven. The Janjaweed, like the police and the rest of the military, enjoy immunity.
Six months ago, Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, publicly denied that rape had ever been a problem in Darfur. “It’s not in the Sudanese culture to rape,” he said. “Rape doesn’t exist.” In the teeth of such denial, non-governmental organisations risk being expelled from Darfur if they speak out. In 2005, when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) published a damning report on the scale of rape, two senior members were arrested – a stark warning to other NGOs. Later that year, police arrested a rape victim in Nyala who’d gone to a clinic for help.
Earlier this year, after lengthy negotiations with the government, a delegation from the US-based group Refugees International arrived in Khartoum to investigate rape in Darfur. They were ordered to leave Sudan within 24 hours.
Fatima was cooking when she heard the vehicle outside her front door. In it were eight men, some in military fatigues. She’d been expecting them ever since she’d been seen rescuing her neighbour’s six-year-old daughter when the Janjaweed were attacking neighbours’ houses. It was 2003, and the Janjaweed’s brutal campaign was beginning to intensify. What happened next is hard to fathom because Fatima emits a sound from somewhere deep within her that is piercing and startling, like the cry of a wounded animal. Her wail continues for what seems an age. Tears pour down her face as she recalls how the men beat her, whipped her, then proceeded to rape her, passing her from one to the other. Then they whipped her again. She pulls aside her black tobe to reveal a large scar on her shoulder. Then another by her ribcage and left breast. “When I remember that day I can’t control my crying. On that day I lost my children; I lost my heart.”
We are in a large tent that is the women’s centre in Otash camp, near Nyala. Our translator says that Fatima is like many women from Western Darfur whose villages have been destroyed. “What happened to these women is so terrible that we’d find ourselves sitting with them from 6am to 6pm while they wept. Often they don’t want to admit that they became pregnant as a result of rape because they fear that they and their children will be stigmatised.”
But like most Darfuri women, Fatima, 37, is resourceful and courageous, and before the men returned she had prepared emergency supplies – a jerry can of water and a bag of food. When the rape took place, her three older children were helping their uncle at the market. She hopes they’re still with him, because she hasn’t seen them since. (Her husband had been killed some months before.) Within hours of the attack, she strapped her 18-month-old son on her back, took her four-year-old’s hand and set out in the direction of Nyala. It took her 30 days to reach Otash camp. But she arrived safely, and eight months later gave birth to a baby girl, Maryam.
Four years on, Fatima still lives at Otash, in a small, sweltering hut. A rope bed with a filthy blanket stands along one side; at the back is a sack of millet. From the roof hang cooking utensils and jerry cans. A rush mat covers part of the dirt floor. Fatima’s sons appear. She picks up Maryam and sits her proudly on her lap.
Fatima’s life since the rape sounds relentlessly hard. She earns a little money washing blankets for others in the camp, for which she is paid the price of a bar of soap. That money and the WFP’s millet and oil are what she and her family survive on. “My children don’t have enough to eat,” she says. “I still cry and cry because of that terrible day. Time has not healed.” People view her with suspicion because of her situation, and men can be disrespectful to a woman alone. Sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night to find a man in her hut. “I scream ‘Thief!’”
Ask Fatima why her village was attacked in 2003 and she says: “I had heard that the Sudanese want the land of the Fur, so they want us to leave our land.” Which is more or less what the conflict amounts to. In the past two decades, relations between the Arab and African tribes in Darfur have become increasingly strained as persistent drought has forced the camel-riding Arabs onto the more arable lands of the African farmers. Hostilities simmered with the arrival of more Arabs from Chad, Mali and Mauritania. But Khartoum’s leaders ignored the tensions, and even appointed Arabs to Darfur’s top jobs. In February 2003, a group of African rebels calling themselves the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) swept into the airport in El Fasher, northern Darfur, killed 100 soldiers and posted their manifesto on the internet, demanding a democratic Sudan for all Arab and African tribes.
Khartoum’s government realised that since most Sudanese rank-and-file soldiers were from Darfur, they couldn’t be relied upon to turn on their own families and communities. The president called on Arab warlords to crush the rebels. The most enthusiastic recruits came from small bands of Arab nomads who were little more than freelance bandits. They relished the opportunity to grab land and livestock: the Janjaweed – evil on horseback – were born.
Goaded by Khartoum’s exhortations of Arab supremacy, the Janjaweed began a brutal and effective system to destroy the Darfuri people. Liaising with the Sudanese air force and army by satellite phone as villages were being shelled, the Janjaweed would then ride in on camel or horseback to finish the carnage. They’d kill the men, rape the women, often in front of their families, then burn down the rest of the villages. As a parting gesture, boy babies might be thrown into the fire. In February 2004, 75 people were killed in the town of Tawilla and more than 100 women raped – some by as many as 14 men; six girls in front of their fathers.
In March 2004, just before the world’s leaders commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Mukesh Kapila, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Sudan, told the BBC: “This is ethnic cleansing; I don’t know why the world isn’t doing more.” By January 2005, the UN had completed an international inquiry and concluded that the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed were responsible for crimes against humanity, but said they could find no evidence of a policy of genocide. The UK’s then foreign minister, Lord Triesman, doesn’t balk at the term “genocide” but prefers “ ‘crimes of concern to humanity’, which includes war crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing”.
Khartoum had often described the Janjaweed’s attacks as overenthusiastic counterinsurgency. Whether it was this or a carefully orchestrated campaign of ethnic cleansing, Triesman knew he had to negotiate with Khartoum: “We [the international community] were like rabbits in the headlights – because of the complexity of Darfur. People were appealing to Bashir’s better nature. They should have saved their breath. You don’t get bad people to become good people by schmoozing them. The government of Sudan believed we didn’t have the mettle to test them on the two things that mattered most to them – their leaders ending up before the International Criminal Court, like Milosevic, and they didn’t want it to appear as if they did not exert authority in their own country.”
Today, with most people in central Darfur living in camps, the women are most vulnerable to the Janjaweed when they leave the camps to collect firewood and hay. Gathering firewood is one of the few ways to supplement basic aid. It used to be men’s work; now it’s yet another task performed by the women. Gladys Atinga, a Ghanaian who runs the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) gender-based violence programme in Southern Darfur, says this is also causing a profound change. “Many women have lost their husbands because of the war. They see the remaining men taking advantage of the war, protesting that they’re targets of the killers, so can’t collect firewood. They see how irresponsible and useless the men have become.”
The African Union’s (AU) troops in Darfur sometimes accompany the women as they collect wood, supposedly to protect them. But they don’t usually go the whole distance, and their “firewood patrol days” are known throughout the community, so the attacks on the women on other days are more intense. Until the UN hybrid force arrives in 2008, women will be vulnerable. Meanwhile, Darfur is descending further into tribal anarchy. It’s often hard to work out who is fighting who, let alone why. Some of the most brutal recent rapes are by former SLA rebels led by Minni Minnawi now fighting alongside government militias. Atinga describes how this summer she helped women raped and mutilated by former SLA rebels. “These women haunt me,” she says.
But a remarkable breakthrough is happening. In this highly conservative society, where rape has been the ultimate female disgrace, Darfuri women are beginning to talk. When rapes increased around Kalma camp recently, four women leaders encouraged more than 300 women to demand a meeting with members of the international community to discuss ways to improve protection. “War is terrible,” says Atinga. “Yet despite what they’ve endured, Darfuri women are being transformed because of the war and are becoming more powerful.”
Along the road from Nyala to Manawashei are convoys of WFP and Red Cross vehicles. In the early years of the conflict, when aid agencies were scarce and their neutrality respected, neither side attacked vehicles carrying aid. Today, they are some of the bandits’ biggest prizes. The sight of camels wandering among thorn bushes makes even experienced UN drivers visibly tense, particularly on a 12-mile stretch they call the “forest”, where the Janjaweed have camps.
At Manawashei’s camp, the queue of women for Dr Nourad Umdadin is long, even in the heat of the midday sun. Some come to the doctor at night. A few weeks ago, a father and his 15-year-old pregnant daughter knocked on the doctor’s door one evening. The girl had been raped on firewood patrol, and the doctor says her father was distraught with anxiety – the girl wouldn’t be able to marry and would bring disgrace on her family. Abortion is against the law in Sudan, but the doctor performed what he describes as “a suitable medical procedure”.
Occasionally, he says, young women take action themselves. Discovering she was pregnant, a 17-year-old rape victim drank iodine, believing it would poison the foetus. By the time she came to see the doctor, “she was fainting and I could do nothing”. The doctor sent her to hospital, where she died a slow, painful death. A gentle, compassionate man in his early thirties, the doctor stretches out his palms in a supplicatory gesture. “What can I do to help these young girls? First they’re raped, then their shame is so great they do terrible things to themselves.”
Eighteen months ago, Haja Ibrahim, 25, set out from Manawashei camp with some other women to collect hay. When they saw the Janjaweed, the women tried to escape. Two succeeded, on donkeys, but Haja couldn’t run fast enough. While the men raped her, she screamed. For a month after the rape, she couldn’t – or didn’t – speak at all. Today she speaks in a husky whisper. “After they raped me they branded me with a knife, saying that is what they did to slave women or to their camels.” But the women who’d escaped on donkeys returned with others from the camp, and the bandits fled. “I was lying almost naked in the dirt. My mother cried and cried when she saw me.”
When Haja found she was pregnant, her husband, who’d left her some years earlier, refused to send money to her other two children. Like Nafisa, Haja says she loves her baby. However, she hates it that there are still some who taunt her child for its Janjaweed parentage. “People are shocked at what happened to me, but I think women understand and are angry for me. And they think we should talk about the terrible things that have happened to us.”
As Gordon Brown and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy unite to tackle the problems in Darfur, David Triesman says all the “building blocks” are in place for resolution of the conflict. Those blocks include the threats of the International Criminal Court, sanctions, an arms embargo and the strengthened AU/UN hybrid force. Triesman is confident that “Gordon will see this as a moral issue in which an ethical outcome is essential.” He adds: “And if there isn’t a ceasefire when the hybrid force arrives, I’d be inclined to say to the Janjaweed, ‘If you don’t stop fighting, we will come after you and kill you.’”
Tough talk, but Triesman insists: “Only when Darfur is no longer a war zone will there be effective protection of women.” And what will happen to the children of the raped Darfuri women, to the babies of the Janjaweed? If the children’s mothers are brave enough to care for them in the first place, they will perhaps be integrated within their communities. “A blind eye will be turned towards their paternity,” says Pam Delargy of the UNFPA. “A general amnesia will take place.”