Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur: February 28, 2021 Update
Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen and Eric Reeves, Co-Chairs
(details on how to support our ongoing efforts appear below)
We would like to welcome a new member to the project, our Online Campaign Coordinator, Julie Darcq.
The daughter of a veteran humanitarian worker in Sudan and South Sudan, Julie’s role is to amplify our media-communications; creating awareness of the project and raising funds vital to the rehabilitation of the girls and women in Zamzam camp.
Julie holds a Master of Arts degree in International Relations and Cultural Diplomacy, and is currently enrolled in a professional course in Online Marketing Management.
Introduction (Eric Reeves)
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.
Reports from February 2021 have been extraordinarily encouraging, with abundant evidence of the success of Team Zamzam in helping girls and women who have been so deeply harmed by the sexual violence they have experienced. The psycho-social counselors, who are the primary means for our successes, offer a number of revealing accounts of what has been achieved as well as the grateful responses of girls and women—and their families—to the assistance they have received.
Word of our project in Zamzam is now spreading beyond the camp; sadly this too often means that more sexual violence is revealed—vicious, ethnically-targeted, and ongoing. But this can’t diminish the successes of psycho-social counseling within Zamzam; moreover, the counselors are instrumental in helping us identify the most desperately impoverished families so that we may provide them with the most basic necessities. Team Zamzam counselors are also advising the populations of all four quarters of the immense Zamzam camp (more than 100,000 people) on how to prevent the transmission of Covid-19.
The most dramatic success of the past month is the first apparently successful surgery to repair a fistula in one of the rape victims. With a cost of $400 per surgery, we at present can’t afford more than one such surgery a month; but every successful surgery is a life rescued from one of the most shaming and debilitating medical conditions a Darfuri female can be made to endure.
The commentaries Gaffar has gathered, and the detailed information about what has been accomplished, can all be found below.
I should note again that all purchases of supplies are the result of 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/).
From emails of February 2021 from Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen
(These observations and commentary have all come to me from Gaffar via regular emails; he, in turn, is in continual communication with the team on the ground in Zamzam; identifying names have been redacted throughout; the text has been very lightly edited for grammatical and idiomatic clarity).
February 25, 2021
The coordinator sent me the following message this morning.
“Last night a woman from the countryside in the eastern suburbs of El Fasher called me to tell that that at the end of last rainy season [the rainy season typically ends in October—ER] she and her eleven-year old-daughter were raped at gunpoint, and that she was afterwards stabbed nine times in the body; her throat nearly cut off by knife. She said her wounds have healed but her daughter is still deeply traumatised and can’t sleep at night. The poor girl is apparently going through bad times and she seems to be haunted by nightmares. I [the coordinator of Team Zamzam counselors] asked her how she had found my contact information and who told her to contact us. She said that she has been advised by someone who went through our private talk sessions. I’m delighted that people now know what we are doing here and have began to share this information with other victims. This woman is not from this camp but its worth of paying her visit next week.”
February 21, 2021
Very chilling testimony has come from Zamzam. The testimony below was recorded this morning by Team Zamzam’s counselors, in Zamzam, in presence of [an international journalist].
In the victim’s own words:
“In the name of Allah the most merciful and the most gracious. My name is Haider (xxx), I live in Zamzam IDP camp. On February 12, 2020, a terrible and sickening disaster occurred for me in the Qalab area while I was with my seven sisters (with myself we were eight people all together).”
“This incident happened when we left from Zamzam in the morning to fetch straw and on our way, we were attacked by Arab militias. They raped all the girls, and kept me at gunpoint; and then they beat me up badly. After the incident, I was taken to hospital in El Fasher and so were the girls; unfortunately, nobody came to talk to us to find out what exactly happened. Neither the government nor any responsible party came to help us or to understand what had happened to us, as if nothing had. What happened was that the girls were gang-raped at gunpoint and I myself was badly beaten and stabbed with a knife. The beating was so brutal and the rape was so horrific that we are still suffering and some of girls are still traumatised.”
“After one year, nothing has happened and nobody has been prosecuted. Government officials say that some of the criminals were arrested, but I do not believe anything they are saying. They just lie to us and we have lost faith in them.”
Services and supplies provided, February 1 – February 20 2021
A – Distribution of basic necessities:
 Number of beneficiaries: 48 families, including elderly and disabled people, and the most impoverished families.
 Type of food/necessities that had being distributed: Sugar, flour, pasta, washing soap, and cooking oil.
B – Medicine/sanitary soap/kits for women:
 62 boxes of pain-relief pills for fistula victims.
 32 boxes containing women’s cotton, shaving razors, shaving creams, toothpaste and toothbrushes for the victims of sexual violence. 600 bars of sanitary soap were distributed to elderly people.
 Providing health awareness/instruction on the danger and seriousness of Covid 19 outbreak. Since the beginning of February, the counselors have addressed more than forty large gatherings of people as well as hundreds of people in small groups throughout all sectors of the camp.
 Drawing tools consist of variously coloured pencils, drawing paper, charcoal papers, exercise-books, erasers, sketch pads, and various colour spray paste in tubes. About 28 women and girls have participated in several drawing sessions and they have benefited from the experience of artistic expression.
C – Psycho-social counseling for women and girls traumatized by sexual violence:
Sessions: 78 private talk sessions on an individual basis. 13 open talk sessions in groups meetings.
Psychological counseling is continuous, on a non-stop daily basis, and every day they are receiving on average 7 – 9 new victims, in addition to those who are already on the priority list.
D – Medical treatment/surgeries for urinary fistula patients:
One of the urinary fistula patients has had a successful operation and she is receiving medical treatment at the clinic in El Fasher; she will discharged within ten days. According to the doctor’s assessment, her condition did not reach the third level and therefore there is a great chance that she will recover successfully from her operation.
Until she fully recovers, the counselors will take all necessary steps to follow up with her progress, assist her physically, provide her counseling support, and help her with all her needs to make sure that she regains her strength.
February 18, 2021
There have been progressively positive developments on the part of Team Zamzam and the overall situation of the camp in February 2021.
Since Thursday, February 11th, the Zamzam team has been engaged and intensified its activities to distribute the basic necessities despite the challenges, restrictions and decisions imposed by the North Darfur government. The state of emergency which has been imposed by the government has created immense challenges for their movements and their mobility, but they have been able to overcome the challenges and continue their work wit the same high spirit and determination.
Since the beginning of February they have managed to reach out to all four the sectors of the camp to facilitate and organise their distribution activities, to intensify sessions of private talks, to raise awareness of Covid-19, and to provide advice as needed. They are identifying new victims, who still pour in on a daily basis.
Additionally, the team completed complex paperwork for a surgical procedure for one of the urinary fistula patients. The patient has now undergone the operation and is being kept in the clinic for two weeks of recovery before being discharged.
[Also, on Saturday, February 13, four counselors had very constructive talks and individual interviews with a reporter From Radio France International (RFI) in El Fasher, during which they highlighted what they have been doing in the past five months and their experiences with victims. The reporter promised to meet with them again when he returned from western Darfur in the coming days in order to provide him a detailed report on their activities, their the positive impact, and the progress that they are making as a team.]
The beneficiaries of the Team Zamzam distributions are very happy with our small project, and some of them have sent us very warm thanks and appreciation through audio recordings and short video clips. Some of them even insisted to the counselors that they want to convey their message of appreciation directly to us by telephone, and yesterday the counselors called directly to talk to one elderly man who was disabled by war and whose daughter is one of the victims of sexual violence.
The elderly man said: “Dear, I can’t find appropriately sufficient words to thank you for bringing smiles to our faces, but I will ask everyone around me in our neighbourhoods and in the camp to remember your good deeds in every prayers.” He continued by saying: “If in Darfur everyone were to do what you are doing now to help us, this community will be a much better place.” He concluded, “God bless you all.” As for the victim of sexual violence, his daughter said, “Thank you very much for the gifts and I now feel much better about myself; I have now regained my confidence because of the sympathy and the solidarity this team has shown me.”
February 12, 2021
Team Zamzam has defied the governor’s emergency restrictions and gone back into action. Despite the curfew and the general emergency situation imposed by the North Darfur governor, the Zamzam team today started its work in Section A and they will continue with the rest of the sections in the coming few days. I asked them if they aren’t frightened or worried by the general emergency situation, and their response was defiant. Some of the counselors have walked for hours this all way from El Fasher to Zamzam to work. The team coordinator said, “The living situation here inside the camps is very bad and getting worse by the day; we cannot let our humanitarian duty be restricted by the nonsense and illogical decisions issued by the state governor.”
February 10, 2021
The emergency situation in North Darfur threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of camp residents. Two days ago, the government of North Darfur declared a state of general emergency due to the security chaos resulting from the state of chaos created by uncontrolled armed militias in the markets and residential neighborhoods.
The effect of the public emergency at this time has been very negative and has had serious effects on the camp residents whose their daily lives depend on working in marginal labouring jobs in the city of El Fasher for survival. One of the counselors from Zamzam told me a short while ago about the deterioration of the living conditions inside: “If these conditions continue in this way, many people will die of hunger.” She continued, saying: “For many people here, their lives depend on daily work and now they cannot leave the camp because of the emergency.”
February 7, 2021
The priority list for those in need of urgent medical treatment for fistulas has gone up from 4 to 20 patients, and there’s a clear possibility this number will grow further in the coming months. The continuity of other activities—such as providing health advice on danger of Covid-19 and talking to victims of sexual violence in private sessions—did not stop, but rather continued on a daily basis, (except for Thursday and Friday) every week. The counselors indicate they are making tremendous positive progress on a monthly basis.
February 1, 2021
Summary of outcomes of today’s meeting (January 30, 2021, preparing for February 2021):
The meeting took place today in the presence of all the members of Team Zamzam. At the outset the coordinator gave a warm greeting of appreciation and gratitude to all the team members, volunteers, and in particular those who are supporting this project:
“We have now entered the fourth month, engaged in a noble and wonderful humanitarian work through which we were able to bring deep happiness and were able to provide support and reassurance and to implant fresh hopes into the hearts of most deprived people, many of whom are on the verge of psychological breakdown.” And she continued by saying ” This project hasn’t helped only those who are suffering, but it helped us too to earn income and because of this project we have the opportunity to work—and we are lucky to learn new skills and be to support our ourselves and families.”
Concerning victims of sexual violence:
The coordinator said: “Thanks to this amazing project, we were able to reach a large number of silent victims and we expect other victims to come forward, since our work is have such a positive impact on their lives.” She continued by saying: “Now we must focus on redoubling our efforts, as we did last month, to become engaged constructively, and to conduct more private sessions talks and bring some joy to those who are on priority list [women suffering clinical depression or extreme psychological trauma—ER].” The coordinator continued: “We now have about 19 people on priority list and some of them are very difficult to deal with; but we are trying everything we can to find an effective way to get them out of this miserably sad situation, and I am confident that we can help them gradually.”
On the topic of urinary fistula patients [who have received antibiotics for urinary tract infections], “they recovering well and we will try our best to guide them and help them; whenever they need us, we are at their disposal.”
Overall health situation of the camp:
According to their observations, there are no major concerns to be noticed at the present time, but their overall observation indicates that there are still many sick people. This has been reported to them by their relatives and families from all parts of the camp, and illness is quite prevalent within groups of the elderly. No one knows for sure whether the cause is Covid-19 or other diseases, since there are no hospitals or other health services within the camp.
Nor is there any presence of government resources within the camp to provide at least some advice to the displaced persons. Counselors said that they will continue in providing advice on how to avoid unnecessary gatherings and give information to the inhabitants by explaining the danger of Covid-19, since there is no one else on the ground to provide such information except themselves. They strongly believe that what they have provided in the past three months has contributed hugely to raising awareness and minimising the risks of breakouts of Covid-19. One Team Zamzam member told me: “Whenever we go around to talk to the people about the danger of Covid-19, camp inhabitants come around to compliment us with appreciation, kind words, and gratitude.”
The deteriorating economic situation and its impact on camp inhabitants:
The deteriorating economic conditions in Sudan, and the suffocating living crisis caused by exorbitantly high prices, have had an immensely negative effect on lives of the camp’s residents. The crisis has hit particularly hard widowed women with children, and the worsening economic hardship is forcing many of them to leave the camp as early as 4am in the morning in search of jobs in bricklaying industry, where most of them end up being exploited by greedy people on very low wages.
This worsening economic hardship is not only forcing mothers and young girls into laboring, but is forcing young boys to drop out school. According to their observations, there are many as 700 young boys who have quit school this year alone to work in El Fasher market, helping their families make daily ends meet. For the time being no one knows how many children have left school due to worsening economic conditions; but they are many, and most of these young boys find themselves working in hard jobs, such as in the bricklaying industry, or working in restaurants, cleaners, as shoe-shine boys, and sometimes as porters.
The conclusion of team meeting:
 We have agreed to continue distribution of basic necessities with the same approach for the month of February, with priority to the victims and the most impoverished families.
 We have agreed to allocate $500 dollars for the purchase of basic necessities, and this includes $300 dollars for the essential medicines for victims of urinary fistula and $200 for boxes containing women’s cotton, shaving razors, shaving creams, and toothpaste, etc.
 We have agreed to continue the private session talks with the victims who are on the list of priorities.
 We have agreed to choose one of the fistula victims to help her with the expenses of the surgery. The chosen patient for this month is Amira Mohamed (xxx). The counselors will take all necessary steps to book an appointment for her in the El Fasher clinic in the coming few days.
 We have agreed to provide $200 for drawing materials and to give these to those who wish to draw as a form of therapy.
 For distribution in February, the activities will start on Wednesday, February 10; other activities, such as private talk sessions and raising awareness, will continues as usual on a daily basis, five days a week.
 We have agreed to monitor the situation of young boys of the camp who are quitting school and see if we can find a solution for them in future.