Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur, January 24, 2021 Update

January 24, 2021

Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur

January 24, 2021 Update (details on how to support our ongoing efforts appear below)

Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen and Eric Reeves, Co-Chairs 

Gaffar and I continue to be in regular communication about developments in our humanitarian project focused on Zamzam displaced persons camp and the El Fasher area of North Darfur (October 2020 mission statement for our project can be found here). Our focus remains sharply on the plight of girls and women who have been the victims of brutal sexual violence during the genocidal destruction of the past eighteen years.

Most gratifyingly, we now have sixteen women working as trained psycho-social counselors in the camp and its environs;they are assisted by about a dozen volunteers, some of them girls who have themselves been victims of rape. Together, the counselors and those who securefor them the material goods that Gaffar and I have purchased make up “Team Zamzam” (see photographs at the end of this update).

Todate, almost 300 victims have received counseling sessions and the response has been extremely encouraging. Almost a third of these girls and women have returned for one or more follow-up sessions, and some have been put on a“priority list” because of signs of deep clinical depression. Gaffar cites in his communications several messages from counselors and the women within the camp who have facilitated these counseling sessions, as well as providing amale guardian to protect privacy and guard the counselors against harassment. Several appear at the end of this update.

Surgical Intervention for Fistulas

We have also begun to work on providing surgical treatment for some of the victims ofsexual violence who suffer from debilitating fistulas, often deliberately inflicted by the militiamen and soldiers targeting non-Arab groups throughout Darfur. Rape has been a deliberate and devastating weapon of genocidal counter-insurgency warfare; moreover, in addition to being raped, women are often penetrated with sharp sticks, spears, and other weapons that almost guarantee a fistula will result.

But the cost of a fistula surgery in the El Fasher clinic is up to $400 per procedure. And while women who are candidates for such life-restoring surgery can count on Team Zamzam for support going and returning to Zamzam camp, the cost of surgery is far beyond their means. And yet for many girls and women, fistulas have virtually destroyed their lives, leaving them in extremely difficult, sometimes crippling physical condition. The shame and self-loathing that often accompany sexual violence alone is greatly magnified in the lives of women who have lost all chance of marriage and in many cases productive and reproductive lives.

We are at present able to provide resources for only one surgical procedure a month, although with help we hope to increase this number. The response of national officials in Sudan is that while fistulas are indeed a terrible medical condition, they are the result of childbirth, not rape. In many cases, such an explanation is disturbingly absurd: the woman pictured below has never been married, never given birth, but was the victim (as a girl) of brutal gang-rape (I have obscured her face, but the nature of her day-to-day life is all too fully revealed).      

From the beginning of widespread violence in 2003, authorities in Khartoum have refused to acknowledge the reality of pervasive sexual violence in Darfur. And yet my own research, over many years, has led me to an inescapable conclusion: many tens of thousands of non-Arab Darfuri girls and women have been raped, and that the predators among the Arab militia forces and regular Sudan Armed Forces have acted—and continue to act—with almost total impunity.

Our project in Zamzam camp is, as far as I know, the only humanitarian effort anywhere in Darfur with a primary focus on addressing the terrible aftermath of sexual violence and the desperate need for psycho-social counseling and medical assistance. At present, the latter takes the form of purchasing sanitary materials for fistula victims (more than 100 boxes of “shaving razors, shaving creams, women’s cotton”), as well as inexpensive antibiotics that can address the bladder infections that are so common among such victims.

We have also provided food supplies for more than 250 of the most desperately needy families in Zamzam.

Our monthly budget for “Team Zamzam” is $3,000, of which $1,600 forms the salary pool for counselors; $400 is set aside for a fistula surgery and follow-up care; and $1,000 funds purchases of the most needed items in Zamzam camp. These have included sanitizing soap, valuable in any circumstances in such cramped quarters as an IDP camp, but especially valuable as Covid-19 begins its relentless advance in Sudan.

The virus, once loose in the desperately overcrowded displaced persons camps, will be largely unstoppable; social distancing is simply impossible. We have also provided a large supply of masks, as well as great lengths of fabric that can be sewn into masks within the camp. And the team counselors are providing urgently needed information about Covid-19. To date, most camp residents have seen a limited number of Covid-19 infections, and have understood them as a “late season malaria.” This is deadly misinformation, and our counselors are a critical resource in informing residents of prophylactic and medical realities.

In speaking about supplies we are providing as part of our project, I should note in particular the remarkable efficiencies and economies that Gaffar is able to effect using his network of contacts on the ground in the Darfur/Sudan region. Purchases of all goods are made with local knowledge of markets for a wide range of items; and we operate with no overhead: all resources go fully and directly to counseling services, fistula surgeries, and critical supplies for camp residents.

We wish, of course, to be able to do even more; and certainly there is a great deal more to be done, and on an urgent basis.

Assistance to our efforts can take one of two forms: either a direct (unfortunately non-tax deductible) contribution to me at 31 Franklin Street, Northampton, Massachusetts 01060—or purchase of a woodturning(s) from my website gallery (https://www.ericreeves-woodturner.com/gallery/).

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I’ll conclude this part of our update with Gaffar’s summary of what he has heard from the women and girls of Zamzam (lightly edited for clarity).

Subsequently, I append comments coming directly to Gaffar from these same women and girls (Eric Reeves, Co-Chair, Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur)

• Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen, Co-Chair, Project Responding to SexualViolence in Darfur

“The diverse competencies of our counselors, as well as their different life experiences inside of Zamzam camp, have enabled them to create a highly conducive and friendly atmosphere among the camp residents in each of the camp's four sectors. This has enabled them to reach victims easily in every corner of the camp without hindrance.  All this diversity of background and their life experiences in living with the displaced people have enabled them to have an exceedingly good understanding of what is going on inside the camp.

Their experiences now enable them to create trustworthy relationships with many victims; and the counselors love their work and deeply appreciate the opportunity to participate in this undertaking. The team members are now operating independently, but in full harmony with each other; they look forward to a brighter future in which they may take on even more projects. They are eager to improve their skills further.

All they need is moral support and financial assistance to maintain their newfound momentum; this in turn may help to bring a more positive attitude towards women in this male-dominated society. All they wish for is a chance to begin to lay new foundation, with their own examples to encouraging others.”

Part 2: Recent comments from the women and girls of Zamzam camp on our Project:

From the Team Zamzam coordinating counselor (received January 21, 2021)

Since January 9th we have carried out several activities from distributing basic necessities to intensifying and redoubling our private sessions talks with the victims. We faced some challenges from some of the victims who are still suffering from severe depression.   

We have about 12 cases on the priority list suffering from severe depression and these victims some of them are afraid of gatherings/contact with anyone and this while some of them are afraid of going out into the streets of their homes and there are those who are afraid of even hearing the voices of men from a distance.

We have changed our strategy in dealing with these broken victims and we have assigned 4 counselors to be directly responsible for managing these rather sensitive cases in a very professional and confidential manner so that we can restore their collapsed psyche. As for the others, most of them are happy with the private sessions and we have more than several people who came back to attend the sessions constantly and some of them have even started to share their aspirations and dreams for the future with us.

Some of these victims want to learn to write and read, and others want to learn to draw and sew. These victims' dreams are simple dreams, but they are beautiful and realistic dreams that can be achievable, and I wish we could provide them with a drawing workshop with tools so that they can learn and enjoy what they adore so much.  We have one to these who is very obsessed with drawing and whenever she come to see us in the private sessions, she sits on the on the ground draw her village, domestic animals such cows, goats, donkeys, camels and sometimes people working in the farms.

I don't think these girls are crazy but rather traumatized at being labelled and stigmatised by their families and neighbours. But they just need someone to listen to themand, most importantly, to respect them and understand their concerns. With regard to a patient of fistula, she finally chose treatment by medicines, andwe do not have a solution but respect her choice and will continue to support her until she gains some wellbeing and strength.

Please do not forget the issue of drawing workshop--I think it is very important.

Thank you, God bless you all and plenty of love from Team Zamzam

December 31, 2020

[The team coordinator went on by saying to Gaffar and me:] "Thanks to you, we have been able to help, to provide psychological and moral support to many victims who were forgotten by their society; some of them have suffered for many years in total silence without any means, without a minimum support or considerations from the community around them. Some victims were on the verge of suicide had it not been for your generous support through this wonderful program.”

[The coordinator continued:] "In this past month, and the month before that, we have successfully managed to distribute essentials for human health, including hand sanitizing soap for impoverished elderly people; small boxes for women and girls containing cotton, shaving creams, razors, toothpaste with toothbrushes (in addition to this, we have provided instructions on how to avoid unnecessary gatherings and gave instructions about the dangers that come with the spread of the Covid-19. And we were able to listen to more than 60 new victims in private sessions."

[The team coordinator concluded:] "The most important thing in all of is that we have been able to create a conducive environment and establish friendly relations with camp residents, sector officials, and the most influential women of the camp. This has facilitated our efforts to reach victims directly without any obstacles or hindrances.”

December 27, 2020

“Praise be to God for the grace. After great efforts made by me and others within our community, we have made substantial progress with various constituencies—whether they are representatives of different sectors, those responsible for women's sections, various groups of youth, influential women within the camp, some local omdas of various sections, and the sisters of Team Zamzam team. We have been able to break down many of the restrictions and misconceptions within our larger community. In turn, this has made it easier for us to reach a considerable number of victims within the past two months.

“Most of the victims we spoke with are victims of sexual violence, and at the same time they are the victims of their families, who prevented them from talking with others about what they have suffered because of fear of bringing shame and bad reputations to their families.

Many of the victims are still suffering from some psychological problems and have difficulties in interactions within the community around them and even with their families. But after counseling sessions and talking with them individually, their behavior has begun to change for the better—something this program has allowed us to achieve.”

December 15, 2020

[Gaffar reports:] “The counselors have told me that the psychological state of the victims—especially those who were seen in the sessions of the last month—is improving steadily, with more victims approaching the counselors every day; their observations leave them to believe that they will see more victims soon. The counselors are very happy with their work and all of them are saying:

"This noble task has changed their lives, given them fresh confidence in their abilities, and most importantly is enabling them to work as women, to participate in social activities, and contribute to improving the psychological well-being of the forgotten victims—too long ignored by their male-dominated society, which too often ignores the reality of sexual violence.”