SUDAN - Young Women Rape Victims of Militia Fighters Give Birth, Experience Shame & Social Exclusion

By Robyn Dixon
Times Staff Writer

November 02, 2004

KALMA CAMP, Sudan - She has been in the world for 18 days and already her life is tainted. Curled naked under a blanket close to her mother, Nashwa is too young to know shame, the emotion that will be like a shadow to her.

The men in her community in South Darfur province say it would have been better for Fatima Adam, 15, to have died than to have had Nashwa, conceived out of rape, the child of an enemy fighter.

The shame will stain Fatima, her family and the child forever, ruining Fatima's chances of marriage, education and a decent life. Arab militia fighters attacked her village, Tulus, about 10 months ago, killing 26 people and raping 10 girls ranging in age from 14 to 17.

A July report by Amnesty International documented 500 cases of rape in the Darfur region of western Sudan, and added that because of the taboo on discussing rape, that number is probably only a fraction of the total. A UNICEF report said 41 girls and teachers were gang-raped in the village of Tawila alone in February while others were abducted as sex slaves. There were reports the women were branded like cattle.

The trauma of the mass rapes has been deepened by the traditional view that the victims are somehow to blame for what happened and the cultural imperative that a bride be a virgin.

"A girl who's a virgin is like the standard, brand new. It's like a car. With a girl who is raped, it is like she is secondhand," said Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed, a community leader from Karande village. "If she does marry, it can only be to an old man."

"They can't find a husband, never," said Abdulkarim Adam Eeka, a leader from Tabadiya village. "It's our tradition."

As Fatima Adam ran terrified through the grass during the attack on Tulus last year, two Arab militia fighters chased her down on horseback, leaped to the ground and threw her down to rape her. A third attacker caught up on foot.

"One said, 'This is because you are the Tora Bora,' " Fatima said, the term used by Arab militias to describe the black rebels of Darfur who rose up against the Sudanese government early last year. "I just heard they were insulting me. They shamed me, but I didn't know the meaning of their words."

After the rebellion, Arab militias attacked hundreds of villages across Darfur, raping, pillaging, killing, burning structures and forcing more than 1.2 million blacks from the Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa tribes off their land - assaults described as genocide by the U.S. Congress. Human rights groups and Western diplomats believe the militia fighters have had support from the Sudanese government, a claim denied by officials in Khartoum, the capital. The U.N. estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 people have died.

And the brutality is far from over. The team leader at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, David Del Conte, said recently that in the last several months, at least 250 women had been raped in the area southwest of Kass, a southern Darfur city.

A typical militia strategy is to set up camps around a village in the weeks before the main attack, not allowing villagers to fetch water or firewood. Men who venture out are killed, so fathers have to make the terrible decision to send the girls and women to the well outside the village, knowing they face rape but not death.

Hadiya Abaker Osman, a 20-year-old newlywed, was raped with a group of 10 girls and women in an attack on her village, Donki Deras, in June.

"Two people used me. They said, 'Your fathers tried to take over the government so we came to rape you.' I said, 'My father is a poor man and he is weak. How can he take over the government?' And they hit me on the face."

When she told her father she had been raped, he wanted to know why she didn't resist.

"My father said, 'We will complain only to God.' And that's all he said."

A week later, Osman's husband was killed in the main attack on the village.

"They shot him down from a camel," she said. "I saw them kill him." She had been married just three months.

Adam Isa, 35, covered his eyes and wept when he recalled the rape of his niece, Hadiya, 16, in their village of Kailek in February, one of two girls snatched in view of the villagers during an attack. He had adopted the girl after her father died seven years ago.

When she returned to their home after the attack and told him she had been raped, he had no reply for her but tears. His heart still churns with anger, shame and the painful knowledge that even though he knows the names of the men who did it, he is sure they will never be prosecuted.

"She brought shame on our family," he said. "I still feel the shame. I can't forget it. I'm angry at the people who did it. But I'm weak. I have no strength to take vengeance. I'll leave that to God."

Sudanese authorities are doing little for victims of sexual assault. Hussein Ibrahim Karshun, of the government's Humanitarian Affairs Commission in Darfur, said that it was difficult to prove whether women had been raped and that steps would be taken to set up some kind of mechanism to determine this. He said police were being trained on how to deal with rape victims and that female police would be recruited.

The Amnesty International report on rape in Darfur said the communities in the area did not seem ready to provide full support to rape victims and their children.

Intellectually, some refugees understand that the women were blameless victims, but they still see a lifetime of shame as inevitable.

"They are brave, I know, but the society can't understand them - that it happened by accident. It is the uneducated people. They don't understand," said Eeka, the leader from Tabadiya village.

Some girls are likely to run away from their families to escape the shame, said Ayub Mohammed Adam, a community leader from Dogu village.

"If a girl has a baby after this kind of incident, she has no future and no hope," he said. "She can't study and her mind will be destroyed. In the future, everybody will blame the baby and it will always carry the shame."

The Amnesty International report said a child born of rape would face ostracism and be considered an enemy. Some women might abandon such babies. In some communities in Darfur, people believed it was impossible to become pregnant from unwanted sex, the report said.

It said many women pregnant from rape had stayed away from refugee camps where their families are living because of shame. Women raising children alone were the poorest and most vulnerable, the report said.

When Osman, the newlywed, considers her future, she falls silent and her eyes fill with tears. Her husband is dead and she has little chance of remarrying.

"This action stays in my heart every day," she said. "I can never forget it. I feel the shame."

After she was raped, Fatima, the 15-year-old, felt as if her life was stained with sorrow. When she realized she was pregnant, she was horrified.

But the first time she held her newborn child, she said: "I felt she was my baby. Of course I will love her. How could I not?"