Project Update, July 30, 2021: Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur

September 27, 2021

Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen and Eric Reeves, Co-Chairs 

Julie Darcq, Online Campaign Coordinator

Overview (Eric Reeves)

Our project responding to victims of sexual violence in Zamzam IDP camp (North Darfur) has continued to expand, both in geographic reach and in the numbers of girls and women assisted. Of particular note, additional resources have permitted seven women suffering from severe traumatic fistulas to receive reparative surgery in the nearby El Fasher clinic. All seven procedures were successful, and the lives of these seven girls and women have been reclaimed—from agonizing pain, constant urinary infections, social and even familial ostracizing, and excruciating shame. Testimonials from two of this month’s patients give a sense of how life-changing this surgery has been:

"My name is Jara Arbab and I'm 20 years old. I am fine now, and thank God and thanks for everyone who helped me to get treatment, and my special thanks to my sisters of Team Zamzam, who helped me with kind words and warm hugs. Had it not been for them and their constant attention, I would have still been in the bed that Ihave been in for almost a year and a half.  Since ten days ago the pain eased and I feel that I can do things that I have been denied in the past year and a half. Now I can move and walk easily, I can wash my clothes, I can cook and I can do many things.

“I missed so much going out with my friends but I can reward myself. The only thing I don't want to do anymore is to go to our village in the countryside, where I went through this pain. There were two Janjaweed men riding camels and they had weapons. I had been tied-up for two days, and each day they took turns on me many times, and laughed and spit on my face. I pray God punish them in this life and in the day of judgment. The same people did this to my friend from a neighbouring village two months after me. She nearly got her throat cut off and she has breathing problems and always complains of pain.

“When my friend's uncle and older brother tried to get those people arrested, the next day they came in a group, surrounded our village, and all of them were armed. Everyone in the area got scared of them and they let the arrest complaint go.

“Thank you for helping me.”

Fatima, the coordinating counselor for Team Zamzam, has made repeatedly clear just how difficult it is for victims, especially girls, to speak out in Darfur’s traditional and highly conservative cultural ethos, where rape is a crime virtually unknown except in the context of genocidal counter-insurgency of the sort that has raged in Darfur for eighteen years

"These girls have found it hard to tell their stories because they think it's shameful to let their families know what happened to them; but they told us in private sessions a lot of disgusting things that happened to them, and I believe they are telling the truth. What makes us feel proud and grateful about this project is that we have managed to break some of the barriers of fear, shame, and lazy thinking in this illiterate society, which believes it is shameful to talk about such disgusting and disgraceful things, even though they are happening everywhere, every day in Darfur—to their daughters’ girls. But thankfully now some have begun to understand the importance of sharing."

[The testimonial below is from the mother of Munira, one of this month’s seven fistula patients]:

"My name is Awadiya Haroun and I am Munira's mother. I came here today because I want to give you words of thanks on behalf of my family fo rhelping my daughter, who suffered from great pain for about three years. For three years my daughter cried a lot and even we cried with her until our tears dried. We were dreaming one day that we could find her treatment costs, but here in Darfur we live in a camp among people who are all suffering from poverty like us.

“You don't know what it is ike to see your daughter suffer in pain and wake up in the middle of night and cry. Because of her, I too suffered in silence and it was very painful to go through that. My words of thanks wouldn't be enough, but if you were a mother who went through such an experience, you would understand the feelings of my happiness and gratitude. Munira now for the first time in three years eats well, sleeps well, always wakes early, and she begins to talk positively about her future—she feels so energetic! I have nothing to give you except my words of thanks, but you are all invited next Friday for dinner at my home to come taste Munira's cooking. I will never stop praying for the people who helped provide the funds for her treatment. God bless these good-hearted people.” 

[Two other quite long testimonials, more broadly revealing of the experience of many tens of thousands of girls and women during the Darfur genocide, appear in the Annex.]

As word of success of these fistula surgeries spreads—not only in Zamzam camp itself but also in surrounding rural areas—the waiting list for surgery grows painfully longer. Roughly 75 girls and women are now on this list, creating terrible triage issues for the counselors who oversee the patients (all patients are transported to El Fasher from Zamzam, and receive from the counselors full pre-and post-operative care).

As life-transforming as fistula surgery has proved for some two dozen women to date, the most substantial work of the counselors of Team Zamzam remains psychosocial counseling, which has now assisted over 2,000 girls and women. These psychosocial interventions have been in many cases as dramatic as for those receiving fistula surgeries (for several moving testimonials, see this post). Team Zamzam now comprises 19 counselors, whose training and (now) extensive “clinical” work makes them invaluable in the difficult tasks they have undertaken.

This past month the intrepid Team Zamzam counselors continued their work in rural areas near this vast camp for displaced persons, finding a great many girls and women—and indeed whole village populations—in dire need. Moreover, because this is the height of the rainy season, many people remain on their farms, tending crops that were planted in late spring, and thus away from the relative safety of the camps where they must spend most of the year.

In the absence of any meaningful international human rights monitoring in Darfur, especially in rural areas of North Darfur, the reports of the counselors supplement the meager information that comes from such news sources as Radio Dabanga and Sudan Tribune. It was recently, and authoritatively, reported that Sortony displaced persons camp (some 100 miles to the west of Zamzam) came under serious assault, with artillery fire directed on defenseless camp residents. At least seventeen civilians—including children—were killed. Many more were wounded and the camp was looted. Despite demands that command responsibility for the attack be made public, the government of Sudan—and the international community—has remained silent.

Given the brazen use of artillery in the attack, responsibility is almost certainly that of the brutal Rapid Support Forces (RSF), responsible for so much of the epidemic of rape and sexual violence over the past eight years. The commander of the RSF is Hamdan Daglo (“Hemeti”), now the deputy head of Sudan’s powerful Sovereign Council—and thus almost certainly the second most powerful man in the country. His forces—beginning with the creation of the RSF by former president and génocidaire Omar al-Bashir in 2013—have been responsible for most of the terrible ethnic violence that continues to destroy Darfur, with no serious international response. Irregular militia forces (loosely known as Janjaweed) operate throughout Darfur without hindrance by the RSF, targeting non-Arab/African populations with impunity. 

During the 2015 major genocidal counter-insurgency campaign by the RSF in the Jebel Marra region of central Darfur, many tens of thousands of civilians were displaced to Sortony camp, then the site of a base for the failed UN/African Union Mission in Darfur(UNAMID). Amnesty International established conclusively that the RSF aand regular army forces had indiscriminately used powerful chemical weapons that were often deployed in areas without a military presence.

Team Zamzam is on the front lines in responding to much of this violence in North Darfur, although their own security is a very serious concern. There are now three security personnel, residents of Zamzam, working with the counselors; but they are of course unarmed in deterring violence, both in the camp and the rural areas in which counselors continue their vital work assisting victims.

Additionally, as previous monthly reports have noted, the counselors provide critical services within Zamzam and (on a very limited basis) in the most stricken rural areas. This month’s Annex gives a detailed account of what has been provided in the way of food for the most impoverished (including the disabled, the blind, the very elderly, and widows with children); they also continue to distribute large quantities of sanitizing soap (one of the only prophylactic measures available in Zamzam, as Covid-19 spreads apace throughout Sudan). Additional supplies of medicine, feminine hygiene kits, and some protective masks are also provided.

Detailed additional information about the accomplishments of Team Zamzam, as well as photographs of the counselors at work, may be found in the Annex.

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