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War against women

Stark choices: women leaving their camp to collect firewood. Unprotected, they risk being raped by roaming militias, and many are. But if the men go, they risk being murdered, and if no-one goes, the family will starve.


Nura sits quietly in her family’s recently built hut. She leans against the bamboo fence and stays silent. Newly arrived in Duma, a small town in the middle of the barren plains of South Darfur, the 15-year-old girl has refused to come out for two days now.

Her older brother does the talking: ‘The day before yesterday we returned to our village together.’ He points at the horizon in the direction of the mountains. ‘When we had to flee last week, we didn’t have time to dig up the money box buried in the yard. So we went back for it.’

On the journey they encountered the feared men with machine guns. The Arabs on horseback – he daren’t utter the word _Janjaweed_ – forced the two to an abandoned village nearby, where they battered him with their gun barrels. His sister was next. ‘They dragged her to another house. I could not see what happened, but I heard her screaming and couldn’t do anything. The whole way back, Nura cried.’

The father of the siblings arrives at the hut, and tells the story to me once more. He is especially keen that the correct amount of money that was stolen from him gets put down on paper. He painstakingly dictates the exact number of Sudanese dinars and adds that he was also robbed of a strong mule. He doesn’t say a single word about the fact his 15-year-old daughter was raped by four men.

Sexual violence against women is occurring on a massive scale in Darfur. Amnesty International calls these mass rapes a weapon of war. After years of pressure from women’s organizations around the world, a 1998 landmark United Nations decision confirmed the concept of rape as a war crime, one that has increased during recent years. Darfur fits the pattern of Cambodia, Liberia, Peru, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, with violence against women being systematically used by warring parties.

Destroying the future

Mariam is a midwife at a hospital in South Darfur. She’s been in the profession for decades, but when I met her, she told me the last few 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,’ the midwife explains.

Rape is an enormous taboo in Sudan. Survivors mostly keep the experience to themselves, though they frequently say they ‘know somebody who has been abused’; only after long talks might a survivor admit that she herself was the victim.

‘I hide under my bed till it’s over. Those moments remind me of that last night in my village’

Women impregnated from rape are in even worse circumstances. According to a popular myth, you 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 from the enemy and ask for a pill to make it go away.’ But she cannot help; abortion is legal only to save the life of the woman. ‘I tell the girl it won’t matter any more whether her baby is Arab once the war is over. I go with her to her family to talk about this.’

In Darfur, the Arab militia and military make a point of abusing women in front of their families or entire village. Raping a woman is such an effective weapon because it affects an entire community, for decades. French anthropologist Véronique Nahoum-Grappe calls it ‘destroying the future’. Children who witness the crime are traumatized, men flee from their partners out of shame, and women become ‘damaged goods’, sometimes literally, if they can no longer have children because of the violence. Through raping wives and daughters, Nahoum-Grappe explains, the attackers actually target the ‘real enemy’: the men behind them. Having to have your enemy’s baby goes one step further and turns this sexual violence into a tool for ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Struggle to survive

Meanwhile, the rape victims in Darfur struggle to survive. A report by the Dutch branch of Médecins Sans Frontières, issued two years ago, noted that their organization alone had treated almost 500 rapes in a four-and-a-half-month period. Because comprehensive research is made impossible by the lack of humanitarian access to much of Darfur, it is hard to state exact numbers. But it is safe to say that there are many thousands of women who have been raped.

Hawa, 18 years old, is one of them. She now lives alone in a tiny cabin. In the midst of a teeming Darfur refugee camp where most families must share huts, this seems a luxury. But for Hawa it’s terrible, especially at night, when gunshots sound throughout the camp. ‘I hide under my bed till it’s over,’ Hawa tells me. ‘Those moments remind me of that last night in my village.’

One 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.’

Hawa fled to Camp Kalma, South Darfur, near the capital Nyala. I met her three months later, but she was still being reminded of the rape every day, not only because she suffers pain in her stomach and cannot sit for long, but because the rapes are why she now lives alone in her hut built of sticks and plastic bags. The uncle and aunt who raised her ignore her: a raped woman isn’t worth much in Darfur. Hawa asks plaintively: ‘Who will marry me now?’

With impunity for rapists still the rule, it is not easy to help women and girls such as Hawa. Relief workers in Sudan face difficult circumstances. The Sudanese Government is displeased with foreign witnesses of the violence in Darfur, especially when they focus on helping abused women. The regime dismisses stories of systematic rapes as ‘concoctions’, and they respond to reports about it by arresting or threatening the aid workers or journalists responsible.

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

Gruesome injustice

Rape of women in times of war is not a new phenomenon. The Old Testament repeatedly speaks of attackers aiming to kill a man, but instead raping ‘his concubine’. The soldiers in the Second World War were no better. The ‘comfort girls’ forced into prostitution by the Japanese are a well-known example – and a fact of history which Japan still struggles to recognize. That victorious Allied Forces also forced themselves on the German women they conquered is less commonly known.

In recent years the war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide were the stage for an horrendous amount of rapes. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo one out of three women has been raped during the last decade by militia, government soldiers or both. And the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl by US soldiers in Iraq confirms how pervasive this terrible practice is.

Darfur fits the pattern of Cambodia, Liberia, Peru, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, with violence against women being systematically used by warring parties

Rape, used as a weapon of war, can be construed as a gruesome enlargement of societies’ unequal attitude towards women in peacetime. Women in many parts of the world are still seen as the property of men, rather than their own person. In Sudan, rape within marriage is not seen as a crime – and beating your wife when she ‘misbehaves’ is widely condoned.

In this context it is useful to look into the evidence against Ali Kushayb, one of the two men whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) has named as suspected of war crimes in Darfur. The prosecutor accuses this Janjaweed leader of targeting not rebel troops, but civilians. ‘This strategy became the justification for the mass murder, summary execution and mass rape of civilians,’ the prosecutor states.

Kushayb is said to have encouraged his men to consider the Fur people as their ‘loot’. Which translates culturally as: kill the men, rape the women. He might never have said exactly that, but in this context the meaning was clear. And, according to the ICC, the Janjaweed leader went further than that. The prosecutor’s evidence puts him in Arawalla, West Darfur, in 2003. During an attack on that village he was seen personally inspecting a group of naked women tied to trees before they were raped by men in soldiers’ uniforms.

Feminists like Susan Brownmiller and Robin Morgan argue that rape is inherent in the nature of war: it is never about sex, but about power and the military culture of violence. With gender equality far from reality, it is imperative that those involved in rape are punished.

In this respect national and international justice failed terribly for years. It was not until the last decade of the 20th century that rape was taken seriously as a war crime. Male-dominated international institutions, male judges, prosecutors and researchers preferred to concentrate on ‘serious crimes’ like murder. In its initial stages the Rwanda Tribunal, for example, did not even mention rape in any of the charges. It only came up coincidentally when a witness referred to it in her testimony.

For the mass raping of women in wartime to come to an end, there has to be an end to impunity for rapists, and those who incite them. Until the perpetrators can be sure that they will be held legally accountable for their actions, they will not change.

*Femke van Zeijl* is a freelance reporter from The Netherlands who has travelled extensively in Africa. Last year she won the Filip de Cock Encouragement Award for Third World Journalism. She is currently working on a travel book focusing on women in Africa. www.fvz-journaliste.nl/english.php

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