Living with the legacy of rape and genocide

The Scotsman, UK
July 20 2004

Living with the legacy of rape and genocide


THEIR faces told the story. Three women with covered heads sitting on
a straw mat, eyes conveying a truth that words cannot express.

Nineteen days earlier, they had arrived in the tiny border village
riding donkeys, one with a two-year-old child.

I sat with the women and we looked across the border to the mountains
of Sudan, the country they had been forced to flee.

“They killed my husband when they raided the village,” 26-year-old
Fatima told me. “We could not count but it seemed like a thousand of
them came, riding horses and camels. They had guns and swords. The
government also came. They rode in cars and fired Dushka guns.”

Fatima fled to El Geneina, a large town in western Sudan.

“I went out of the town to find wood and was stopped by three Arabs
on horseback,” she said.

She was repeatedly raped before finding her way back to the shack
where she stayed with her two children – a girl, Najat, 7, and a boy,
Mohammed, 2.

Now five months pregnant as a result of the rape, she could no longer
bear the uncertain future: “It was risky travelling here to Chad, but
what would happen if I stayed in Sudan?”

She decided to leave.

The other women – a 48-year-old, also called Fatima, and Zenaib
Suleiman, 30, told similar stories. Fatima had eight children, all of
whom were killed with her husband as they ran during the raid.

“There is nothing left anymore. They burned the village to the
ground,” she said.

She, too, was gang-raped by the Janjaweed Arab militia on the
outskirts of El Geneina, having been bound and badly beaten.

Zenaib, like her younger companion, is also pregnant from rape.

The three women waited in El Geneina, fearing what would happen next.
Five months after arriving they found donkeys and rode west. Far from
the reach of international aid workers, they found hospitality in
their Chadian neighbours.

Further into Chad, people from western Sudan are gathering in
makeshift camps. Each has their own sad story. Many are widows and
fatherless children. During the past six months, a million people
have been forced to move to conditions that defy survival. Thousands
have been killed.

Aid agencies are battling appalling conditions to save hundreds of
thousands of lives. The World Food Programme is stepping up food
delivery before the roads are cut off by the rainy season that has
already started. I witnessed a food truck stranded in water on one

“This river eats vehicles,” an Oxfam worker told me. Three others
broke down at the same spot during the past week.

Breidjing camp, in the centre of eastern Chad, has swollen from 5,000
to 30,000 people in the past six weeks. Saidi Kagaba of CARE
International, managing the camp, says that if they do not install
clean water and sanitation soon, epidemics are a high possibility. At
least 60 per cent of the refugees are children. They laugh, despite
their ordeals. It is hard to imagine them in a few months time on the
edge of death.

The immediate plight of the refugees overshadows the underlying
problem – a crime of huge proportions. Despite conflict between the
Sudanese government army and the rebel groups, black Darfurians are
not fleeing war or natural disaster. The refugees I met are victims
of plans to rid the region of its black population altogether.
Militias, trained and armed for the crime, had Sudanese government
support all the way. “The government and militia are the same,” every
refugee said when I tried to define the relationship between the two.

One question is asked in the West as if everything hinges on it: “Is
this ethnic cleansing or genocide?” The assumption is that if it is
genocide, international law obliges nations to intervene.

The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish refugee
from Poland who lost his family in the Holocaust. He understood that
different methods are used to destroy groups of people. The Nazis
used guns, gas and even lethal injections to destroy the Jews. They
also used the environment, through starvation in ghettos and camps,
and through exposure and exhaustion during death marches.

Lemkin was also aware that the Turks had destroyed a million
Armenians a generation earlier by driving them into a wilderness to
die in what they called a famine. So he made it clear that intent to
destroy a group “in whole or in part” constitutes genocide, even if
cunning methods are employed.

This includes “deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life
calculated to bring about its physical destruction”.

The definition was enshrined in international law when the United
Nations’ Convention to Punish and Prevent Genocide entered into force
in 1951. The difficulty of proving a government’s intent to commit
genocide is used as a reason to refrain from significant action.
However, the UN’s genocide convention was adopted both to punish and
prevent genocide. If nations are obliged to prevent genocide they
must act when the signs are present, not after it has happened. By
the time we know for sure, it will always be too late.

The convention is vague about the point at which nations should act.
However, if the legal obligation is ambiguous, the convention
reinforces the moral and political obligation – action must take
place when the indicators of genocide are present.

I have seen and heard first-hand reports of systematically burned
villages, expulsions and summary killings in Darfur. That is evidence
enough for referral to the Security Council and action.

Preventing genocide is no longer about international law, but about
political will.

An invasion of Sudan is not necessary at this stage. The UK
government is prudent to pursue a political solution, but the
perpetrators must know the international community has the resolve to
follow through. They may think twice if they know they will be
pursued through the International Criminal Court. Sadly, the nations
who sit on the council have historically dithered at times like this,
putting national interests above the security of the vulnerable they
are supposed to protect.

Meanwhile, Fatima sits with her friends on the border. Two things are
on her mind. What will she do with her unborn baby? “It is not easy,
but the child has not committed a crime and my community know I did
not do this to bring shame,” she says.

She looks out to the hills and plains of Sudan, wondering if they
will ever go back. “How can I go home? Masseleit and other [black
tribal groups] are not wanted anymore. We cannot go back until there
is justice and security.”

So far there is little sign of either. International effort is
focused on keeping the refugees alive, no referral has been made to
the ICC and the government responsible for these crimes is the one
asked to restore security. The architects of this genocidal crime are
content to know that, so far, they have got away with murder.

– James Smith is executive director of the UK-based genocide
prevention organisation, the Aegis Trust.


AMNESTY International yesterday accused Arab militias in Darfur of
gang-raping and abducting girls as young as eight and women as old as
80, systematically killing, torturing, or using them as sex slaves.

Cases of women and girls having their legs broken to stop them
running away have also been reported to the group.

In a report called Rape as a Weapon of War, Amnesty outlines the
sexual violence against women it says is happening on a massive
scale. It says Khartoum is actively violating its legal obligations
to protect civilians.

“Soldiers of the Sudan government army are present during attacks by
the Janjaweed and when rapes are committed, but the Sudan government
has done nothing so far to stop them,” Amnesty researcher Benedicte
Goderiaux said.

Darfur’s rebels accuse the government of arming the Arab Janjaweed to
loot and burn African villages in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Khartoum denies the charge.

The Amnesty report, launched in Beirut and Nairobi, details gang
rapes, public rapes, killings of those who resist rape and abductions
for sexual slavery.

It is based on hundreds of testimonies collected from refugees in
camps in Chad. Although the sample of victims was limited, Amnesty
said it pointed to widespread abuse.

The London-based group said rebels fighting the Janjaweed may also
have raped civilians, but facts were limited.

Efforts to end the crisis through negotiations are in tatters after
rebels stormed out of peace talks last week.

Amnesty called for an end to the conflict, better protection of
civilians, Janjaweed disarmament, trials for those carrying out the
attacks and an international commission of inquiry to examine war
crimes in Darfur.

– A Sudanese court sentenced ten Arab militiamen to amputation and
six years in jail yesterday in the first conviction of Janjaweed
fighters for looting and killing in the Darfur region, it was
reported yesterday.

The court in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state, also said
proceedings would begin to try other Janjaweed militia accused of
burning a village.