Nicholas D. Kristof: A policy of rape continues by the government in Darfur

Published: Friday, Jul. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 15A

ABGADAM REFUGEE CAMP, Chad – Kaltouma Ahmed cried softly as she told why she fled Darfur this spring: Armed men in uniforms attacked her village, shooting her 13-year-old son dead, burning her home and then stripping and raping her.

As the men raped her, she said, they shouted insults against her ethnic group, the Salamat Arabs. "We'll exterminate the Salamat men, and Salamat women will become slaves," she quoted one of the attackers as saying.

Darfur isn't in the headlines anymore, partly because there has been a lull in the killing in recent years. The Sudanese government, which tends to calibrate its brutality to the degree of attention it receives, is taking advantage of the lack of scrutiny by stepping up its decade-long campaign in Darfur of mass murder, burned villages and sexual violence.

We're at the 10-year-anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Darfur, yet, instead of subsiding, it has been amplified this year. Just in the first five months of 2013, according to the United Nations, another 300,000 people in Darfur have been driven from their homes – and untold numbers killed or raped.

Rape happens all over the world, of course, but, for 10 years, the Sudanese government has used rape as a weapon of war to humiliate the ethnic groups that it targets. This strategy is effective because it terrifies villagers into fleeing and is so stigmatizing that women are extremely reluctant to talk about it.

Yet six brave women who are refugees from just one Darfur village, AbJaradil, were courageous enough to speak out about having been raped. They say that it is their way of fighting back.

Timoma Abdurahman, 25, said that her ordeal began when armed men in Sudanese military uniforms from the government-backed Miseriya tribe surrounded her house.

"You Salamat are slaves," she recalls a leader of the attackers shouting. "This land does not belong to you."

As Timoma watched, the attackers then killed her father. "They ran over him with a vehicle, over and over, until he was dead," she said, breaking down. When she had composed herself, she continued her story: She and her sister were then force-marched to a military camp and raped, as attackers mocked them and the Salamat tribe.

This is the last stop on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a student with me on a reporting trip to the developing world. The winner, Erin Luhmann of the University of Wisconsin, and I interviewed these brave survivors from Darfur here at the Abgadam Refugee Camp in eastern Chad. (You can read Erin's reports from the trip, and see her video on my blog at nytimes.com/ontheground.)

I began the win-a-trip journeys in 2006 partly out of hope of encouraging university students to pay more attention to genocide in Darfur. I would never have imagined that these mass atrocities would be continuing in 2013. The standard refrain after such episodes is "if only we had known" – well, we've known about Darfur for 10 years, and hundreds of thousands of deaths have ensued.

The survivors whom Erin and I interviewed say that the Sudanese government is behind the attacks, noting that many of the attackers wore government-issued military uniforms and arrived in trucks with mounted machine guns, sometimes with government license plates. And, after all, this is the same script that Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has followed for a decade all across Darfur (and, before that, in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains).

Granted, there are no magic wands to end the horrors of Darfur, but groups like the Enough Project have outlined solid proposals to put pressure on Sudan. Bipartisan legislation now in Congress – the Sudan Peace, Security and Accountability Act of 2013 – might help.

Even speeches, news coverage and other expressions of international interest tend to curb the brutality a bit. And Sudan's leaders are particularly sensitive to revelations about their policy of rape. So let's hope that these women's courage and outspokenness will lead us to find our own voices.

Jawahir, a 17-year-old Salamat girl, said that three men, wearing military uniforms and carrying guns, had taken turns raping her during 11 hours of captivity. One held her arms, another her legs, while the third raped her.

"We're going to finish off the Salamat this year," she quoted one of the attackers as telling her. It has been three months since then, and Jawahir said she still has health problems related to the attack.

"My fiancé knows the situation," she said. "He's a long way away, so we don't know if he'll accept me or not."

I asked Jawahir how she found the courage to speak about such a taboo subject.

"This is something that happened," she said. "So people should know. I want the world to know."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Nicholas D. Kristof



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