Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Justice for Darfur Rape Victims

Activists call on ICC to bring alleged rapists in Darfur to trial, as reports speak of a massive upsurge in rape cases.
Whenever I have taken a camera into one of the many camps for refugees in Darfur, the children have immediately arranged themselves into a group. They want to be in the picture. And they insist on seeing the digital image. They smile and laugh while they point themselves out.

At first glance, the burgeoning camps always seem happy places because of the uninhibited excitement of the children - that is if you ignore the tattered clothes and the reports from aid agencies, which paint a bleak picture. For the truth is that the settlements - known in international bureaucratic jargon as camps for Internally Displaced Persons - are places, once you move beyond the children's cheery welcomes, where human suffering can be smelled, seen and touched. And women and girls seem to bear the brunt of the suffering.

Fiona Laird, a midwife posted until recently at southern Darfur's Kalma camp with the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontiéres, MSF, spoke in a BBC radio interview about the horrific rape cases she had seen on a daily basis.

The worst case was that of a nine-year-old girl who had left the refugee encampment to gather grass for thatch and as fuel. A smiling man approached her and asked her to help him. She agreed, but as they moved further from the camp she told him her mother had told her not to wander so far.

Turning ugly, the man gagged her and tied her on top of the bundles of grass before raping her repeatedly. On release, she staggered back to the camp where Laird treated her for bleeding so severe that the child was unable to walk for many days afterwards.

In new reports to the United Nations Security Council, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and six separate UN agencies have condemned what they describe as a “massive upsurge in rape in Darfur”. The reports come as the Nairobi-based African Women's Development and Communications Network, FEMNET, has urged the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague to bring alleged rapists in Darfur to trial. "The ICC offers an alternative avenue for justice - other than that provided by Sudan - for the women and girls who comprise almost ninety per cent of the victims in the Darfur conflict," said FEMNET communications officer Christine Butegwa.

The UN reports say that attacks on women and girls occur both inside and outside the refugee camps, with many different groups participating in the crimes. Warring parties seek retribution against their opponents by inflicting humiliating punishment on civilians in complete disregard of obligations under international law.

As in the case of the little girl described by Laird, it is not only the “enemy” who rape women and children. In many cases it is also those who should protect them - policemen, elders from the communities and soldiers of the national Sudanese Army, as well as rebel fighters from the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, SLM/A, and the Justice and Equality Movement, JEM.

In 2005 there were many reports of members of the Janjaweed - Arab militia supported by the Sudan government - raping darker skinned African women, telling them they would bear light skinned babies. Human rights activists have described rape of this kind as a form of ethnic cleansing, a claim that goes to the heart of the allegation that “rolling genocide” is slowly but surely taking place in Darfur.

It is a story that is told from Darfur on a daily basis many times over. In the Darfur settlement of Rokero, an international aid worker described to Washington Post reporter Emily Wax the mass rape by Sudan government militiamen of some 400 women. "It's systematic," said the aid worker. "Everyone knows how the father carries the lineage in the culture [of Sudan]. They [the militiamen] want more Arab babies [by Darfur's African women] to take the land.

"The scary thing is that I don't think we realise the extent of how widespread this is yet."

Since the conflict began in Darfur in February 2003, more than two million people have been displaced and between 200,000 and 400,000 killed. The uprising by rebel groups can be traced back to the discontent of black African tribes with what they initially described as Khartoum’s “marginalisation” of the people of Darfur, an arid area the size of France in western Sudan.

After peace talks brokered by the African Union, the Sudan government and a faction of the SLM/A under the leadership of Minni Minnawi signed a peace deal in May. But other rebel groups refused to sign and stepped up their anti-government guerrilla warfare. Minnawi's faction turned on its former resistance allies and joined in attacks on them with government forces.

In a situation of increasing complexity, civilians inevitably bear the brunt of the violence. Government and rebel forces create fear as they raid and capture villages, destroy or grab crops and rape and kill members of the local population.

The conflict is widely interpreted along ethnic lines: brown-skinned Arabs against black Africans. Years of intermarriage between Arabs and Africans have diluted distinguishing physical characteristics, but the cultural divides established down the centuries persist.

Ordinary people flee their villages in panic during the daily attacks. They walk for days on end to reach one of many refugee camps in Darfur or across the border in neighbouring Chad. In September, Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, said the UN was feeding more than three million Darfurians.

Those who reach the camps do not always find the security they long for. Egeland said around a million people in refugee camps are out of reach of humanitarian aid because the fighting makes it impossible for aid workers to get to many areas.

The United States government has accused the Sudan government of genocide in Darfur. Late in the twentieth century there were genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In both cases, rape was used as a weapon of ethnic cleansing, as in Darfur.

During the Yugoslav war, thousands of Muslim women were raped by Serbian and other forces. According to "Women War Peace", an assessment of the impact of armed conflict on women published by the UN Development Fund for Women UNIFEM, tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim women were deliberately raped and impregnated by Serbian men to “dilute” the Bosnian identity.

Little attention was given to rape as a war crime until comparatively recently. This changed in 1998 when Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former mayor in Rwanda, was convicted of genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.

Akayesu was indicted on various counts, including rape. It was the first time the crime was included as a component of genocide in an international court ruling.

Aid organisations working in Darfur have found that women raped there are often further traumatised if they dare to report the incident to the police. Sally Chin, an analyst working in Sudan for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that women often find the policeman they report a rape to is the same man who raped them. They are often also accused by police of waging war on the central government.

A Médecins Sans Frontiéres report describes how a 16-year old Darfur girl who became pregnant after being raped came up against Sudan's archaic and discriminatory laws which demand, among other things, that any woman alleging rape has to do the impossible and provide four male witnesses to support the charge. When the girl was eight months pregnant, police officers charged her with contravening a Sudanese law that makes extra-marital sex illegal. She was locked up with 23 other women - all victims of rape - and beaten up daily.

She was released after ten days, but only after paying a fine to atone for her “sin” of having sex out of wedlock and becoming pregnant.

Jane Lindrio Alao, a psychologist working with the Amel Centre for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, based in Darfur, said of the requirement that four male witnesses are needed for rape to be proved, "All four should witness the actual penetration. So even if you could get two such witnesses, the accused could not be charged. How many women have the luxury of having witnesses to their rape?"

Huge numbers of abandoned babies are among the consequences of unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape in Darfur. An aid worker who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity said, “Life in the camps is extremely hard. The women cannot deal with the stigma attached to babies born out of rape and often abandon the infants.

“These communities often shun the woman when they find out she is pregnant. It does not matter that she was raped. According to their beliefs, a woman who has had pre-marital sex and has become pregnant is tainted.”

There are no reliable social services to care for the abandoned children, according to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, “Children born out of rape/wedlock”. Babies are brought to the police who take them to hospitals: but many are found too late to save their lives. For those who survive, there is no standard procedure or service offered after the hospital examination.

Access to medical care is yet another trauma. In Darfur's traditional societies, it is seen as an aberration for a woman to be treated by a male doctor. And raped women who can get access to medical care may not want to seek help for fear of the unknown, which in turn leads to health and emotional problems like sexually transmitted diseases and depression.

In Rwanda, rape victims get a sense of justice, which aids the healing process, when they see their perpetrators being brought to the Rwandan tribunal or taken through traditional “gacaca” village assembly courts where perpetrators of lesser crimes are brought to justice. Victims of the Yugoslavia genocide also see justice done at the International Court for the Former Yugoslavia.

In Darfur, there is not yet any kind of retribution. Countless thousands of raped women and girls live with the knowledge that they may die from HIV infections or other complications caused by rape without ever seeing justice being done.

Although the ICC has severe limitations, Christine Butegwa of FEMNET said she and other members of the two-year-old Darfur Consortium, which brings together more than 200 African civil society organisations, hope that current investigations into war crimes in Darfur by the court’s chief prosecutor, Argentina's Luis Moreno-Ocampo, will result in fair trials and compensation for victims of sexual violence. The Amel Centre's Jane Lindrio Alao said, "Refugees and rape victims among the women are keeping silent and protecting themselves, waiting for the day of the ICC."

Stephanie Nieuwoudt is a freelance South African journalist based in Nairobi who frequently reports from Arusha on the ICTR trials.

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