Rape – a tool of war in Sudan

By Paul Jeffrey
Response magazine

Hawa Awad was sleeping with her husband in the middle of the night when the attackers came to her village of mud-walled thatched-roof huts. Machine gun fire from helicopter gunships forced them to run from their simple home, only to find men on camels and horses waiting to kill all the men they could shoot, and then to rape the women. Ms. Awad was gang-raped by six men and left to fend for herself in the ruins of her burned and looted village.

Over the ensuing days, as she and other survivors made their way to camps for other victims of the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, Ms. Awad discovered the rape had left her pregnant.
"I was so sad when I learned I was pregnant. I hoped I would die," she said.

Ms. Awad was interviewed in June by Response in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur. Aid workers asked that her real name and photograph not be used. The 19-year old nursed her baby girl as she talked, the bracelets on her wrist rattling as she angrily waved her arms to describe the attack.

Ms. Awad said she remained depressed until she shared her feelings with other women in a session sponsored by the ACT/Caritas Darfur Emergency Response, a joint effort of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a global alliance of Protestant aid organizations, and Caritas, the international network of Catholic relief and development agencies. The United Methodist Committee on Relief is a member of the ACT alliance.

Ms. Awad is one of some two million Africans pastoralists in Darfur–the Texas-sized western region of Sudan–who fled from attacks that killed as many as 400,000 people and left hundreds of villages in ashes. Yet the violence they fled has followed them to the IDP camps. Some of their attackers–including Arab militias who allied themselves with the government's campaign against two regional rebel groups–today lurk around the camps, and according to camp residents and aid workers, any man who wanders far from the camps in search of firewood is likely to be killed. Many families therefore choose to send women to fetch firewood; although several women have also been killed, they are more likely "only" to be raped.

The government in Khartoum has been condemned internationally for what some, including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, have described as genocide. What is clear for most displaced women in Darfur is that rape has been systematically used as a tool of that war.

"The women in these camps come from villages that were attacked, and they watched their husbands and fathers and sons be slaughtered. When the attackers were done with the men, they raped the women, even the old ones. Then the women ran away and came here to the camps, but if they leave the camp to get firewood they're captured and raped again," said Alawia Ahmed, a community care advocate with the ACT/Caritas program.

Local authorities have done little to stop the sexual assaults, aid workers report.

"The women go to the police, but the police don't record these things in their papers. They tell the women they won't help them because they allegedly fight against the government. They simply won't help them. Unless they see an attack on a woman right in front of them, they let them to do what they want," said Ms. Ahmed.

The rape of displaced women as they search for firewood is a sensitive in Sudan. Two officials of Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) were arrested in May and charged with publishing false information and spying on the Sudanese government. The charges stemmed from a March MSF report documenting the rape of 500 displaced women over the course of four and a half months. According to that report, more than 80 percent of the victims said their attackers were soldiers or members of the government-allied militias. The report did not accuse the government of Sudan.

The arrest of the two, who were released on bail but not allowed to leave the country, provoked protest from relief agencies and several foreign governments. In June the government announced that the charges had been dropped. Yet a July report from the United Nations removed any doubt that the issue had been resolved.

"Rape and gang rape continue to be perpetrated by armed elements in Darfur, some of whom are members of law enforcement agencies and armed forces, and the government appears either unable or unwilling to hold them accountable," the report stated. "Many women do not report incidents, out of fear of reprisals, and are discouraged from reporting by the lack of redress for sexual violence."

"No barriers anymore"

Many suggest such foreign reports on the situation in Darfur have barely scratched the surface.
"What the media have reported is not even 10 percent of the cases. It is a shame for us. In many cases we cannot take action because we have no evidence. But we're hoping to recruit lawyers and we'll deal with this issue very strongly. Even if they hang us, we will do it. This is against our culture. It's shameful that our people are doing this. And I say our people, because everyone–the rebels, the Arab militias, the government–are part of our people," said Bushra Gamar, the program manager in Darfur for the Sudan Social Development Organization, one of the local partners of ACT/Caritas.
A top United Nations official said in June that rape is increasingly being used as a weapon of war in Africa.

"Although we repeatedly condemn such violence, it persists virtually unchallenged. Far from making progress, we have regressed. More and more women are being attacked, younger and yet younger children are victims of these atrocities," said Jan Egeland, under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, according to the New York Times.

"It's much more dangerous to be a civilian in these wars than to be a soldier," he said.

Mr. Egeland noted that religion and tradition in Africa once afforded women respect and protection, proscribing rape. "But there has been such a deterioration in the social and moral fabric that sexual violence has become a method of war, and not just soldiers do it, many civilians do, too. It's like there are no barriers anymore."

According to Mr. Egeland, rape is often racially motivated. "It's often a method of ethnic humiliation and elimination; attackers say they are implanting themselves and their tribe in you and in effect ending you as a race," he said.

Violence against women is but one facet of the dire situation faced by the displaced in Darfur.

According to Joseph Akwoc, the relief and rehabilitation coordinator in Nyala for the Sudan Council of Churches, the IDP camps "have become prisons." He said that while aid groups have recently been afforded more freedom of movement in the war-torn region, thus heading off what many feared would be a disastrous famine during the rainy season, the displaced are literally stuck in the camps.

"The humanitarian community has been allowed freer movement, so we can get to the camps and provide services and seeds and tools. But the IDPs often won't take the seeds and tools because they don't have land to cultivate. Or if they do, they won't go work it because they know they'll be killed. Or the attackers will wait until the millet and sorghum are mature and then let their cattle in there, and if the farmers protest they'll be shot," Mr. Akwoc said.

The arrival earlier this year of African Union troops in Darfur has helped in a few places. The troops are few in comparison with the size of the region and the tasks they face, and their mandate has been limited to providing protection to A.U. police officials who are monitoring a shaky cease-fire between the government and two rebel groups. Aid organizations have argued forcefully for an expansion of the A.U. forces' mandate to include protection of the civilian population.

In several places, A.U. soldiers have mounted firewood patrols–accompanying displaced women as they set off in search of fuel.

"It has made women more secure. When they go on these firewood missions, a whole multitude of women go along. The A.U. has made a difference, but it's quite under-funded and under-staffed. It is essential that additional assistance be given the A.U. The current number of troops must increase dramatically if we're going to see more impact on the ground," said Patrick Musibi, the ACT/Caritas field coordinator in Zalingei.

Less fuel, less risk

Kaltouma Musa cooks her family's meals over a wood stove in her hut in the middle of a burgeoning IDP camp near Zalingei. Her stove's design is contributing to her security.

In a workshop sponsored by the ACT/Caritas program, Ms. Musa made her stove–a more efficient design that consumes less fuel–from clay and dung and a few bricks. Musa got so excited about the new stove that she trained ten other women how to make them. "The stoves are saving our lives," she said.

Ms. Ahmed said the voracious appetite of the displaced for firewood has worsened the region's environmental crisis, with huge swaths around the camps being cleared of anything that can burn.
"Before, they had to go out every day for firewood, but now they may go only once a week. With one piece of wood you can cook your meals all day. It's cleaner, healthier, and doesn't contribute as much to desertification," Ms. Ahmed said.

The ACT/Caritas program in Darfur has also encouraged women who've been victims of the assaults to speak out. It built community centers in several camps where people can safely gather to discuss their common concerns, as well as engage in small-scale income generation projects such as weaving baskets.

"A lot of people, especially the women who have had to face such atrocities, have so much bottled inside them. There was no psycho-social program that I know of to help these women deal with these experiences until our program recently started one. But before that, when women members of our staff were doing other work, they would take whatever opportunity to get these women to discuss what happened," said Mr. Musibi.

The rapes at times have resulted in pregnancies, and many women have faced rejection from their own families when their pregnancy became known. In some cases, they've been driven out of the family home to fend for themselves.

When Ms. Awad's pregnancy became known in the first IDP camp where she settled, she experienced rejection from others. "People said it was my mistake. They asked me why I didn't run away when I heard there was going to be a war. I had so many insults that I left the first camp and moved to another. I love my daughter. I didn't choose her, but I keep her and love her. What happened is not her fault. But sometimes I look at her and remember the day of the attack, and I don't like that. It makes me sad. It also makes me angry," she said.