KALMA, Sudan – The seven women pooled money to rent a donkey and cart, then ventured out of the refugee camp to gather firewood, hoping to sell it for cash to feed their families. Instead, they say, in a wooded area just a few hours walk away, they were gang-raped, beaten and robbed.
Naked and devastated, they fled back to Kalma.
“All the time it lasted, I kept thinking: They’re killing my baby, they’re killing my baby,” wailed Aisha, who was seven months pregnant at the time.
Her last name is not being used to protect her from reprisals.
The women have no doubt who attacked them. They say the men’s camels and their uniforms marked them as janjaweed – the Arab militiamen accused of terrorizing the mostly black African villagers of Sudan’s Darfur region.
Their story, confirmed by other women and aid workers in the camp, provides a glimpse into the hell that Darfur has become as the Arab-dominated government battles a rebellion stoked by a history of discrimination and neglect.
Now in its fourth year, the conflict has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and rape is its regular byproduct, U.N. and other human rights activists say.
Sudan’s government denies arming and unleashing the janjaweed, and bristles at the charges of rape, saying its conservative Islamic society would never tolerate it.
It has agreed to let in 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers, but not the 22,000 mandated by the U.N. Security Council. It claims the force would be a spearhead for anti-Arab powers bent on plundering Sudan’s oil.
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 civilians have died and 2.5 million are homeless out of Darfur’s population of 6 million, the U.N. says, and a February report by the International Criminal Court alleges “mass rape of civilians who were known not to be participants in any armed conflict.”
Rape as a strategy
Kalma is a microcosm of the misery – a sprawling camp of mud huts and scrap-plastic tents where 100,000 people have taken refuge. It is so full of guns that overwhelmed African Union peacekeepers long ago fled, unable to protect it. It is so crowded that the government has tried to limit newcomers – forbidding the building of new latrines, so a stench pervades the air.
Anyone venturing outside must reckon with the janjaweed, as Aisha and her friends found out.
In Sudan, as in many Islamic countries, society views a sexual assault as a dishonor upon the woman’s entire family. “Victims can face terrible ostracism,” says Maha Muna, the U.N. coordinator on this issue in Sudan.
Some aid workers believe the janjaweed use rape to intimidate the rebels, and their supporters and families. “It’s a strategy of war,” Muna said earlier this year.
Sudan’s government is especially sensitive about such accusations and denies rape is widespread.
Sudanese public opinion would view mass rape much more severely than other crimes alleged in Darfur, said a senior Sudanese government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from his superiors.
He acknowledged the janjaweed had initially received weapons from the government – something the government officially denies – and said authorities now are struggling to rein in the militias.
Nasser Kambal, a prominent human rights activist and co-founder of the Amel center, a Sudanese group helping victims of rape and other abuse, offers a similar view.
“I don’t think raping was planned by the government. Killing and looting and torture, yes, but not rape,” he said.
Kalma isn’t the only place where multiple accounts of rape have surfaced. About 120 miles away, in the town of Mukjar, two men separately described women being brought into a prison where they were being held and raped for hours by janjaweed.
They said the assailants shouted that they were “planting tomatoes” – a reference to skin color: Darfur Arabs describe themselves as “red” because they are slightly lighter-skinned than ethnic Africans.
According to Muna, U.N. agencies are working closely with Sudanese authorities to improve the government’s response to rape allegations. In 2005, the government created a task force on rape in Darfur, headed by Attayet Mustapha, a pediatrician, government official and women’s rights activist.
Mustapha said social workers were being deployed to address the problem and a special female police unit was being assembled in Darfur.
“We tell officials that the government has decided to enforce a zero tolerance policy toward rape in Darfur,” she said.
U.N. workers say they registered 2,500 rapes in Darfur in 2006, but believe far more went unreported. The real figure is probably thousands a month, said a U.N. official. Like other U.N. personnel and aid workers interviewed, the official insisted on speaking anonymously for fear of being expelled by the government.
Victims usually can’t identify their aggressors, which makes prosecutions impossible. Only eight offenders were tried and sentenced for rape crimes in Darfur by Sudanese courts in 2006, said Mustapha, the task force leader. “They received three to five years prison, and 100 lashes” in accordance with Islamic law, she said.
Informal camp leaders, known as sheikas, in Kalma said they report over a dozen rapes each week. Human rights activists in South Darfur who monitor violence in the refugee camps estimate more than 100 women are raped each month in and around Kalma alone.
The sheikas say they are making some headway toward persuading families to accept raped women back into their embrace and let them report attacks to aid workers. One advantage is that they get a certificate confirming they were raped.
“We tell husbands they might be compensated one day,” said Ajaba Zubeir, a sheika. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”