|Rape a tool of war in Sudan
By Paul Jeffrey
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
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,"
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 Darfurthe
Texas-sized western region of Sudanwho 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
attackersincluding Arab militias who allied themselves with the
government's campaign against two regional rebel groupstoday 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
"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 everyonethe rebels, the Arab militias, the governmentare
part of our people," said Bushra Gamar, the program manager in Darfur
for the Sudan Social Development Organization, one of the local partners
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 patrolsaccompanying
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
stovea more efficient design that consumes less fuelfrom 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
"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.