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.
Aisha Hamid, one of seven women gang raped while collecting
firewood outside their refugee camp in July 2006, holds her son Osman, who
was seven months pregnant with at that time, at the south Darfur refugee
camp of Kalma, April 11, 2007. [AP]
"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.
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, told to an Associated Press reporter and 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, UN 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
It has agreed to let in 3,000 UN peacekeepers, but not the 22,000 mandated by
the UN 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 UN 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."
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 UN 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 in an
interview earlier this year in Khartoum, the capital.
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
"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.
Some 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
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, UN 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.
In an interview this year, Mustapha said social workers were being deployed
to address the problem and a special female police unit was being assembled in
"We tell officials that the government has decided to enforce a zero
tolerance policy toward rape in Darfur," she said.
UN 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 UN
official. Like other UN 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.
In May, after the top UN human rights official charged that Sudanese soldiers
had raped at least 15 Darfur women during one recent incident, Justice Minister
Mohammed Ali al-Mardi asked where the evidence was.