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.
- Slideshow: Sudan’s Darfur Conflict
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.
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, 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."
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 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 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. 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 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.
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 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.
In May, after the top U.N. 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.
"We always seem to get sweeping generalizations, without naming the injured, without naming the offenders," he told reporters.
In Kalma, collecting firewood needed to cook meals is becoming more perilous as the trees around the camp dwindle and women are forced to scavenge ever farther afield. It is strictly a woman’s task, dictated both by tradition and the fear that any male escorts would be killed if the janjaweed found them.
Agreeing to tell the AP their story earlier this month through a translator, the seven women’s voices wavered and hesitated, broken by embarrassed silences. All gave their names and agreed to be identified in full, but the AP is withholding their surnames because they are rape victims and vulnerable to retaliation.
The women said they set out on a Monday morning last July and had barely begun collecting the wood when 10 Arabs on camels surrounded them, shouting insults and shooting their rifles in the air.
The women first attempted to flee. "But I didn’t even try, because I couldn’t run," being seven months pregnant, said Aisha, a petite 18-year-old whose raspy voice sounds more like that of an old woman.
She said four men stayed behind to flay her with sticks, while the other janjaweed chased down the rest of her group.
"We didn’t get very far," said Maryam, displaying the scar of a bullet that hit her on the right knee.
Once rounded up, the women said, they were beaten and their rented donkey killed. Zahya, 30, had brought her 18-year-old daughter, Fatmya, and her baby. The baby was thrown to the ground and both women were raped. The baby survived.
Zahya said the women were lined up and assaulted side by side, and she saw four men taking turns raping Aisha.
The women said the attackers then stripped them naked and jeered at them as they fled. On their way back, men from the refugee camp unraveled their cotton turbans for the women to partly cover up, but the victims said they were laughed at when they entered the refugee camp.
"Ever since, I’ve made sure that women living on the outskirts of the camp have spare sets of clothes to give out," said Khadidja Abdallah, a sheika, an informal camp leader, who took the women to the international aid compound at the camp to be treated.
They were given anti-pregnancy and anti- HIV pills, thanks to which their families haven’t entirely ostracized them, the women said. The baby Aisha was expecting at the time is doing well. His name is Osman.
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 workers warn of an alarming new trend of rapes within the refugee population amid the boredom and slow social decay of the camps. But for the most part, they added, it all depends on whether janjaweed are present in the area.
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."
The seven women say they haven’t left the camp since they were attacked. They have started their own small workshop and make water jugs out of clay and donkey dung to sell to other refugees.
As they worked on their large pile of jugs and bowls, they said they are even poorer than before, because they now have to buy their firewood from other women.
"But at least we never have to go out again," said Aisha.
None of the women has any faith that Sudanese or international courts will ever give them justice. All Zahya asks is that one day she can return to her village.
"If people could at least help end the fighting, that would be enough," she said.