Project Update, September 27, 2021: Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur

September 27, 2021


Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen and Eric Reeves, Co-Chairs 

Julie Darcq, Online Campaign Coordinator

Nancy Reeves, editor and financial facilitator

Overview (Eric Reeves)

We are now over a year into the project at Zamzam Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in North Darfur, and it seems to me most appropriate to survey the successes and challenges we see. It is most important to characterize the remarkable, truly remarkable, emergence of Team Zamzam as a group of women deeply committed to responding to the horrific consequences of sexual violence in Darfur

These women are now extraordinarily skilled and dedicated to their work: they have gained an immense amount of experience collectively and work as a cohesive team. The division of labor is clearly highly effective; women on the team are powerfully motivated, indeed passionate about their work and the cause in which they are engaged. All they required was a financial catalyst—and a vision of how great the need is for a response to the consequences of brutal sexual violence in Darfur that has continued for almost two decades...and continues to this day.

That there is such a desperate need for a program like the one represented by Team Zamzam has shocked even the counselors. While aware of the problem in a broad sense, there was nothing like the fine-grained and increasingly statistically informed knowledge that they now have. Sadly, all signs point to a great many more girls and women in need of help than even the very skilled and knowledgeable coordinating counselor could have imagined.

And there may soon be more victims, girls and women fleeing the heightened ethnically-targeted violence during the past spring and continuing fall agricultural seasons. Understanding of the immense scale of the problem has worked to energize even greater efforts by the counselors, increasingly in rural areas, where there is considerable risk but absolutely no medical resources of any kind. Many girls and women from these rural areas are drawn to Zamzam upon learning of what is offered in the way of counseling and surgical services.

The project has also changed the lives of the counselors (now nineteen in number; soon to become 20 again). The women of Team Zamzam are much more financially secure with their monthly salaries, and their ability to feed their families without recourse to menial work that had been all that was available to many of them. They also have a sense that the world outside Darfur actually cares about the suffering of girls and women who have been victims of sexual assault. This only increases what is already are markable esprit de corps. Their energies seem boundless, and their ambition to make of their program an example for other parts of Darfur is simply breathtaking.

Fistula surgeries in September*

There were seven reparative fistula surgeries in September, bringing the total number of surgeries to 29. All have been successful. Assessments are made on the basis of post-operative care by three of the counselors, and they are implicit in a number of testimonials coming from women whose surgery was over a month prior. Seven more surgeries are scheduled for October, although the waiting list for surgery includes over 80 women and girls.

Given the large-scale and continuous violence in North Darfur in recent months, the counselors expect many more women will be arriving in Zamzam camp as the harvest season comes to an end—or earlier, since so many villages have been attacked and looted, and many farms have seen their crops deliberately destroyed by armed Arab groups allowing their livestock (camels and cattle) to forage on nearly ripe grain and fruit (see photos and narrative in the Annex to this update). Reports of heinous sexual violence have accompanied accounts of Arab militia (“Janjaweed”) activity in the area between Zamzam, Tawila, and the border between North and South Darfur.

Crop and village destruction in North Darfur has been massive this agricultural season

As the counselors have become more intrepid in taking their work and skills to rural areas outside Zamzam camp, they have perforce become the primary source of human rights reporting in this region (there is no organizational or UN human rights reporting). Given the total absence of formal human rights reporting on the ground, and the inability of the civilian government to demand that the military and police elements in the region protect civilians, the eyewitness statements of victims and the accounts that the counselors have collected are the basis for important news stories, including from Radio Dabanga (the preeminent source of on-line news about Darfur), Le Monde, and most recently The Times (London). Such reporting highlights the risks the counselors are willing to take in providing front-line medical care for desperate populations (several of the testimonials give specific examples of recent, extremely brutal sexual violence in this troubled area). 

Psychosocial counseling

It would be difficult to overstate what all evidence suggests is the growing skill of the counselors in providing psychosocial counseling to victims of sexual violence suffering from clinical depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and social—even familial—isolation. Their empathy, commitment, and patience has long been clear. But with so much experience—and with a reputation that has grown immensely, both within the camp and in nearby rural areas—they enter into counseling efforts, both in individual and group settings, with invaluable credibility. Again, see the collected testimonials of girls and women who have been profoundly assisted by the counselors.

Precious little in the way of shelter and humanitarian assistance awaits those who feel to Zamzam

Over the past 13 months Team Zamzam has counseled more than 2,000 girls and women—often with life-changing effect. The level of ignorance about sexual violence and its effects—and the pervasive shame that victims typically experience—makes the task of counseling a challenging one. Earning trust is the first requirement, and both by reputation and enhanced counseling skills, the women of team Zamzam now enjoy great trust with virtually all girls and women they seek to help.

My colleague Gaffar, whose mother and much of his family live in Zamzam, recently sent me this broad assessment of the feelings among the counselors:

“These days the counselors have become the main talking point among the women of Zamzam. Our coordinator told me that many women and young girls are hugely inspired by the efforts of the team members.

“As a consequence, there is increasing confidence and new momentum among the women of the camp. Our donors should be very proud of what they have contributed in the way of very significant change.They should know that their contribution are helping immensely and having avery positive impact on the entire society camp.

"One of the counselors recently said to me: ‘Gaffar, our American friends who have sustained this project have not only saved the lives of many thousands of people, but they filled our spirits with flourishing seeds of collective action and the essence of humanitarianism.’”

While “many thousands of people” is no doubt hyperbolic, it encompasses a vision of what this present project might eventually accomplish.

Distribution of humanitarian supplies

On average, the counselors distribute approximately 35 comprehensive feminine hygiene kits per month to women who are scheduled for or are recovering from fistula surgery, as well as women who suffer from bladder infections from other causes. The kits, assembled by the counselors from a large supply of individual items, cost approximately $12 each. The contain toothpaste, tubes of shaving cream, fresh razors, body cream, and cotton menstrual pads. 34 such kits were distributed in September.

Additionally, the counselors distributed food to the disabled, widows with children, the mentally ill, and the extremely impoverished. Food supplies include pasta, rice, sugar, cooking oil, tea, flour, and sanitary soap. 284 families (612 individuals) were assisted in September(nearly 2,000 people over the past three months). The counselors also distributed specific medicines for individuals in need, as well as additional sanitary soap. The entire September budget for such supplies ($1,300) was expended.

Looking forward

Sadly, much too much of what lies in the future for the people of Zamzam will be determined by whether or not civilian governance in Sudan can bring an end to the terrible realities of ethnically-targeted violence—a slow-motion continuation of the genocide that began in 2003 (with all too many antecedents). The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok is struggling to assert civilian authority, but is plagued by international indifference and the ruthless ambitions of military leaders in the hybrid transitional government, which includes as a rival executive body the militarily dominated “Sovereign Council.”  

The two most powerful members of this body are General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan and the commander of the Rapid Support Forces militia, Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemeti”). Hemeti’s RSF led the genocidal assault on non-Arab/African populations in all regions of Darfur during the last years of the al-Bashir regime (2013 – 2019); and during the year of “the Revolution” (2019) he and the RSF were responsible for numerous atrocity crimes in and around Khartoum, crimes that have now been extended to the region of South Kordofan. Unless al-Burhan and Hemeti—both of whom have blood on their hands not only from the Darfur genocide but Sudan’s participation in the brutally destructive conflict in Yemen—are gradually removed from present positions of power, Darfur’s suffering will not end. 

All this is well known to the counselors, who are unusually well informed politically. The coordinating counselor wished to have included in this month’s update her assessment of the current political state of affairs in Darfur and Sudan, and I have included it in its entirety in the Annex to this update. More particular statistical information about the month’s activities by team Zamzam is also included.

The courage, dedication, compassion, and solidarity of the counselors of Team Zamzam ensure that despite the serious, and dangerous, obstacles to their work, hey will persevere as long as girls and women need assistance in recovering from the terrible damage of sexual violence.

* A Short Report on Fistulas from the Coordinating Counselor, Team Zamzam

September 13, 2021

As I promised in my previous report, I want to shed some light on the fistula patients who come to us, their psychological state, and our achievements in responding to these serious medical crises. I conclude with some of the testimonies [these are all to be found here—ER] .

When we started dealing with fistula patients several months ago, we did not realize the extent of the suffering and pain experienced by these girls and women; nor did we have a sense of ​​their number. But it is now almost nine months since the first case, and we have a more complete picture of realities in the camp.

The psychological state of the patient is our most important focus before, during, after the surgical treatment; we remain engaged with the patient until she is fully recovered. With regard to this critical psychological component, we have a specialized team consisting of six counselors that is in place to assist the patient. We have developed our own protocols and have approached all issues in a professional manner.

From the daily reports, we note there are measurable improvements in the lives of patients, and we are very satisfied with our procedures and our successes to date.

As for the total number of patients, since [July 1] to the present, we have facilitated treatment for a total of 21 patients. Still, we have about 80 patients on waiting list; and there are an additional six to eight new prospective patients added to the list each month.

The health conditions of patients differ from one patient to another, but when the patient comes to register, we first evaluate several aspects of her medical and psychological profile. Then, based on a final evaluation, we place the patient on the list pending further evaluation.Sometimes we place a person on the critical list, where she is considered a priority for immediate treatment.

We have no idea about the total number of fistula patients in North Darfur State, but given the information we have collected so far from several reliable sources, especially information received from two secret women’s networks, we can say that there are several hundred patients in Zamzam camp alone. The number is even greater in rural areas and the other camps of North Darfur, such as Abu Shouk camp and Salam camp. The evidence makes clear that the primary causes of this serious medical injury is rape and gang rape. We know this because the majority of patients are adolescent girls who have never married. 

To eradicate this terrible pathology from our society requires not only medical treatment and psychological counseling, but a much wider understanding by society of the need to fashion the means to end to this barbaric crime against girls and women.

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