November 12, 2020 update on work of the Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur

November 26, 2020

Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur: Providing Safety and Rehabilitation for Girls and Women in Darfur 

Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen and Eric Reeves, Co-Chairs

November 12, 2020

There are now 13 women trained and working to address the terrible legacy of brutal sexual violence during the Darfur genocide. Our team is providing psychosocial counseling of a sort that, to the best of my knowledge, does not exist as a priority in any humanitarian work being done by international humanitarian organizations. The team operates in the four quadrants of Zamzam camp outside El Fasher, capital of North Darfur (Zamzam is the second largest camp for displaced persons in Darfur and has been in existence for almost the entire genocide).

But the need could hardly be greater after 17 years of genocidal counter-insurgency tactics that have included prominently the rapeand gang-rape of many tens of thousands of women and girls, some as young as eight years old. Women and girls have often been raped and gang-raped in front of their families and villages, with catastrophic consequences for their physical and mental health. In addition to a high level of mortality among young girls, other physical consequences loom large, including fistulas and the branding or scarring inflicted by the assailants—this as a way of denying the women and girls they rape a chance for marriage.

But the psychological damage can be just as great as the physical injuries: severe clinical depression, including suicidal ideation (and sometimes action); Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD); ostracization by family and village; and terrible feelings of guilt. Many of these girls and women have never spoken to anyone about their assaults.

Inevitably, when I think about these atrocities, one example from early in the genocide comes to mind: it defines how I think about what Darfur needs. During an infamous attack of 2004 on a village near Tawila, North Darfur—presided over by janjaweed leader Musa Hilal—one reported feature of the assault has always proved painfully inescapable in my memory: In front of her father, as well as much of the village, a ten-year-old girl was savagely gang-raped over a long period…the father made to watch. He was then killed, so that the horrific rape of his daughter would be his last memory.

Whether the girl survived or not was never reported, but as I contemplate a life for her, should she have survived, I think of a kind of trauma that none of us can possibly imagine emotionally. And in the course of my researches, I’ve been led to the conclusion that with no accurate census of these crimes, we must assume on that basis of the data available that many tens of thousands of girls and women have been raped and subject to sexual violence over the course of the past 17 years. And rape continues to be regularly reported, with an uptick now that the harvest season has begun in earnest.

But there must be hope. I’ve thought about this project for a very long time, and recently have worked hard with my colleague Gaffar to make it happen. But only very recently have I finally allowed myself the reward of imagining a specific victim—say a 16-year-old girl gang-raped when she was twelve—finally having someone to whom she can at least speak about her trauma, and even receive culturally appropriate counseling. How might her life be changed on finding that person to help her make sense of, respond to her trauma? Or finding help in coming to terms with the terrible guilt that so many girls and women feel deeply, painfully? Or in thinking practically and realistically about what life in Darfur might still hold for her?

This is what we are working for, an effort that we hope to expand beyond Zamzam camp, even as the reality is that our “Team Zamzam” is now also tasked with providing emergency food distributions to the neediest in the camp, and providing material for the sewing of thousands of masks and as many bars of disinfectant soap. The Covid-19 pandemic seems grimly poised to rampage through the crowded conditions that prevails in Zamzam and all the camps for displaced persons.

But there has been a growth of hope, Gaffar tells me in this email from November 11—and no commodity has been scarcer in the camps of Darfur than hope:

"The [counselors] are happy to be part of this project. They said that 'this project has not only changed their lives but it has planted a seeds of hopes in them.' 

It's fruits of your thinking which is making very positive impact on the lives of those marginalised Darfuris woman, and I will be forever grateful to be part of this noble project."

Eric Reeves, November 12, 2020

Some photographs from this past week:

The distribution of bars of sanitary soap
Most of the members of the Team Zamzam counseling cohort, with sanitary soap and fabric for the sewing of face masks
Two of the younger members of Team Zamzam