The ongoing work of the women of Team Zamzam has reached the two-and-a-half-year mark and shows every sign of continuing to yield remarkable achievements in assisting girls and women who have been the victims of sexual violence. At this point, well over 4,000 of these victims have been assisted with psychosocial counseling, counseling that typically helps alleviate the depression, isolation, and shame that come with violent sexual assaults.
I have noted before that the counselors of Team Zamzam are uniquely qualified at this point to provide such difficult assistance. They possess the linguistic and cultural fluency that are essential, along with the tremendous experience they have acquired over the past two and a half years. More than half the women who work as counselors for Team Zamzam have lived in the camp for most of their lives and know the neighborhoods and sectors extremely well. They are supremely effective interlocutors for victims who in some cases have never spoken to anyone—even in their own families—about the terrible trauma they have experienced. Most are deeply depressed and suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); intense feelings of shame are often exacerbated by social shunning, even by old friends.
As the counselors have all learned, tremendous patience and empathy are required. Breakthroughs are often exceedingly difficult to achieve. But the invaluable esprit de’ corps that has developed among this group of committed women sustains them all, even in the most challenging of cases.
Group counseling sessions typically have between six and twelve women/girls, with two three-hour sessions, divided by a break for lunch or tea. Individual counseling sessions are tailored to the particular needs of a given victim.
Beyond this Team Zamzam has overseen the care required by patients who have had reparative surgery for traumatic fistulas, sometimes deliberately inflicted by their Arab militia attackers. Pre-operative counseling, transportation to and from the clinic in El Fasher, and post-operative care are all provided. To date, Team Zamzam has overseen more than 60 fistula surgeries. Beginning in April, the counselors have decided to allocate funds from the monthly budget to make possible one additional reparative fistula per month, thus three altogether. The counselors found this a difficult decision, since it necessitates a reduction in the allocations for food and medicines (the total monthly budget now stands at $6,000). But given the exceedingly long list of girls and women enduring such terrible pain and psychological injury, there was clear consensus about the importance of this re-allocation of $400 for an additional monthly surgery.
A detailed account of what has been achieved by Team Zamzam between February 22and March 21, 2023—including food distributions for the holy month of Ramadan—appears as an ANNEX.
Character of continuing sexual violence
The report of the coordinating counselor provides several grim examples of the threats posed by the Arab militias active in North Darfur and other Darfur states, commonly referred to by the residents of Zamzam as Janjaweed. The terror that has faced the non-Arab tribal groups of Darfur since the beginning of the genocide (spring 2003) is all too well reflected in the following narrative taken from the coordinating counselor’s March report:
The phenomena of sexual violence and rape of girls and women by the Janjaweed militias in North Darfur state occur on a daily basis and are increasing.
The rape of women and young girls by the Janjaweed in the vicinity of Zamzam camp has become a common and systematic practice. Most of the heinous crimes occur while the girls and women leave the camp to collect firewood or fetch other necessities from agricultural areas. Other girls have been raped asa result of militia attacks on their villages. The perpetrators of these heinous crimes always benefit from almost total impunity, which only leads to an increase in these terrible crimes. The authorities have consistently failed to take effective measures to investigate complaints of rape. Indeed, to make matters worse, some of the girls who were raped have been arrested for adultery.
Just last month (February 2023) a group of young girls with two women were raped near Zamzam camp. Afterward the Sheikh and elders of the camp immediately reported this crime to the police. The police arrested three of the criminals but they were all released the next day.
In another telling example, last September the Janjaweed accompanied the regular armed forces in a military operation in Zamzam camp. Dozens of young girls and women between the ages of 13 and 24, in areas around Zamzam camp, were raped and severely beaten before being released.
A specific, detailed example
On February 20, 2023, at exactly seven o’clock in the morning, Nadia Abdullah went out with three of her cousins two kilometers west of Zamzam camp to gather straw for their livestock. When the girls reached their destination, four armed Janjaweed men on camels appeared and began to ask the girls questions such as, “where do you come from? why are you here? which tribes do you belong to?” The girls became frightened, and Nadia replied that they were from Zamzam camp. After this, one of the militiamen pulled out his weapon and demanded that the girls lie down. One of the assault victims said that the attackers demanded they throw their phones on the ground; but when they refused, they were beaten until they lost consciousness.
“Why did you leave your dirty camp that is full of harmful black beasts? You are worth nothing to us Arabs except as pleasurable objects!” These words terrified the girls even more as they endured the following humiliation. Nadia said: “I screamed and begged them to stop, but they continued to beat us very violently.They put a weapon to my head and told me ‘to shut up or we will finish you.’ The Janjaweed then said that no one should move from her place, and then asked all of us to take off our clothes.” Another of the victims said: “After that each one of them seized one of us and then carried out their heinous crimes [i.e.,rape—ER] while one of them stood guard with a weapon on top of a camel.”
During all this, however, Nadia resisted and managed to escape her ordeal. But the attackers chased her, and when they realised they couldn’t catch her, they fired at her, wounding her in the arm and stomach.
As for the other victims, they were insulted and [physically] humiliated by the aggressors for several hours. This continued until people heard screaming while they were passing by an area close to the scene of the assaults. They told the people of the camp that they heard the sounds of screams and gunfire. After that, people from the victims' families rushed to the scene and found them in terrible psychological condition, their clothes torn, and their bodies covered with beatings and scratches.
The victims were taken to the hospital first, and then procedures began with the police to make a formal complaint. And after that, some of the victims' families followed the trail of the aggressors until they reached the Qilaab area, and there they found one of the perpetrators, but they could do nothing.
After an initial examinations and primary treatment in the hospital, the medical report confirmed the presence of several deep scratches at the entrance to the three victims’ urinary tracts which had been caused by gang rape with extreme violence. But even now, no legal entity of the state has taken any steps to assist these victims or hold the perpetrators accountable—and this is inevitably the case in Darfur for the countless other victims of sexual violence. Team Zamzam visited the victims to provide them psychological and moral support and will follow up to support them when they have fully recovered from their injuries.
The international community has essentially foregone any meaningful efforts to provide security for the girls and women of Darfur. All regional and national authorities wield power that ultimately flows from the junta of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemeti”) and Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) General Abde Fattah al-Burhan. These two ruthless men are locked in a power struggle that may well lead Sudan into a catastrophic civil war. Such a war will play out in enormously destructive fashion throughout Darfur.
How to Help
Assistance is urgently needed and will be greatly appreciated by Team Zamzam, and by the girls and women whose suffering they seek to alleviate. The distribution of food and medicine presently comes as many within the camp daily move closer to starvation. Here I should also stress the tremendous efficiencies of purchases by a staff with local knowledge, as well as the value of their deep understanding of where need is greatest within this vast camp, swollen with recent displacements caused by insecurity.
NB: It is now possible to make a tax-deductible contribution to our project, using a portal on the website of a 501/c/3 organization operating inSudan. OperationBroken Silence, working primarily on health and education issues in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, has created a special site for a tax-deductible contributions to our project, and we hope this makes contributing to the health and well-being of girls and women in Zamzam easier for donors.
We also hope that all will keep in mind our project as a whole operates with truly extraordinary efficiency, in ways matched by no humanitarian organization operating in Darfur that I am aware of, a region I have been researching for two decades.
There is absolutely no overhead for this project.
Those wishing to assist in funding the work of Team Zamzam may also send a check directly to Eric (Eric Reeves, 31 Franklin St., Northampton, MA 01060)