Home | News    Sunday 20 June 2004

Rape scars Sudanese women, Arab militias use it as genocide

BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN

KAS, western Sudan, June 2004 (KRS) — Hawa Hussein’s eighth child has been growing in her belly for three months, but it’s hard for her to love this child.

The baby brings flashbacks. Of four horsemen from an Arab militia called the Janjaweed. Of the March evening when they swept into her quiet village, and dragged her down a red dirt path into the wilderness.

Of the gang rape, again and again, for 10 days.

"They tortured me because I was a Fur," said Hawa, 35, referring to her black African tribe, her soft voice falling to a whisper. "This baby doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the Janjaweed."

In Africa’s war zones, rape is a weapon used to intimidate and control civilian populations. But in the vast, sand-blown province of Darfur, human rights activists and Western aid workers say, it serves an additional purpose: genocide.

Despite a cease-fire between black African rebels and the Arab Sudanese government, in village after village, women and girls as young as 12 are being abducted, whipped and raped. Some become sex slaves, while others are impregnated and discarded on roadsides.

There are no laws, no police and no courts to protect the violated. And rape is a source of shame in a Muslim community, where children are valued for carrying forward traditions and bloodlines, ensuring the tribe’s survival.

Those who bare their dark secret risk abandonment by husbands and exile to a lonely life. Most victims suffer in silence, hiding the rapes as best as they can.

"This is an awfully efficient way of erasing someone’s identity," said Nils Carstensen, a senior researcher for Danish Church Aid, a relief group, who visited Darfur recently.

No one knows how many women and girls have been raped or how widespread the campaign is. But in crowded refugee camps and remote aid-worker outposts, horrific stories swirl like dust devils.

They tell of armed men who burst into huts at night to grab women sleeping in the arms of their husbands. They tell of girls robbed of their virginity, then branded with hot irons to forever remind them of their humiliation.

They tell of moms and dads being forced to watch.

"Rape often appears to have taken place while victims were restrained, often at gunpoint, and at times in front of family members," said a U.N. human rights report on Darfur that was published last month.

Many of the victims have found their way to Kas, a small town bursting with 40,000 Sudanese who poured in as their villages were set ablaze. Here, they live in a world of collective trauma, of starving girls dying in their mothers’ laps, of fathers who watched as their sons were slaughtered.

Inside a primary school, rape victims haunt the dingy corridors. Some tightly clutch their secrets. Others dread the day when their unwanted children enter their new, inhospitable world.

Some have taken strength from their shared woes and, at the urging of village elders, emerged from their silence.

Khadiyah Adam, 15, recalled in a meek voice how Arab horsemen snatched her and other Fur girls from their village and took them "to a faraway place." Arab women and girls weren’t touched.

Step after step, Khadiyah’s dignity was peeled away. They beat her with a stick, prodding her like a cow. They spit on her and called her their slave. They ripped off her clothes and pushed her to the ground.
"I couldn’t do anything but cry," said Khadiyah, her eyes drifting to the floor. "They wouldn’t stop."

When the men were finished, they spit on her again. They tied her hands and legs, releasing her only for the next assault. This went on for days. Then, as suddenly as they came, they left. Khadiyah’s mother found her drifting in the woods, scared and barely able to walk.

As Khadiyah spoke, she fiddled with her green shawl. Her small body sank lower into her chair with each sentence. Her thin, tiny hands fell to the leg of a desk, and squeezed.

"I am sick now," she said, her eyes again drifting to the floor. "My body is in great pain."

She squeezed harder.

When asked if she was pregnant, Khadiyah looked up and solemnly said: "No."

Others like her in the camp are in pain all the time. Hawa Juma, 25, outwardly pleasant and younger than she looks, said she felt as if "everything is broken inside." Six men raped her.

In other conflicts, victims are left with AIDS, vaginal fistula - in which the rape rips apart the vaginal tissue - and other lifelong health problems.

Khadiyah wouldn’t know. She’s never seen a doctor or a rape counselor. Few of the hundreds of victims in Kas have.

As Khadiyah left the classroom, eleven women, some visibly pregnant, sat on the cement floor, backs pressed against a peeling wall.

"They’ve all been raped," a village elder said.

Venturing outside the camp is a gamble. The Janjaweed still hover, preying on women searching for firewood.

Hawa Hussein has no choice. Selling firewood is how she feeds her children. Her husband left for the capital, Khartoum, in search of work more than two years ago.

One day recently, she ran into a gang of Janjaweed in the nearby woods. She dropped the wood and fled back to Kas. The next day she went out again.

"We have nothing to eat," Hawa said, as the setting sun rolled the refugee camp into night. "I must go out to get firewood."

In six months, Hawa will have another mouth to feed. She will keep the baby out of tradition, because in Fur culture a baby can’t be refused.

But she knows it will be an outcast. It won’t have a Fur name, and it won’t go through any of the rituals to welcome a newborn child, she said. And there will come a day, she knows, that she’ll have to choose between her child and her tribe.

If you ask her today, she’ll choose her tribe.