Project Update, May 31, 2021: Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur
Project Co-Chair Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen is in very regular communication with the coordinator for the counselors in Zamzam IDP camp, a woman of obviously great skill, determination, and moral strength. Further representative highlights from her reports this month (May) appear below and reveal both the challenges and remarkable successes of recent weeks. But here it is critically important to note again the deteriorating security situation in the El Fasher area and Darfur generally: with completion of the January 1, 2021 withdrawal of the UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the last vestige of an international commitment to civilian protection ended. Increased violence has predictably ensued, including the most brutal forms of sexual violence. Much is conveyed in the coordinating counselor’s reports. In the absence of reporting from Darfur by any major human rights organization, the narratives in these reports give particularly important insight into realities on the ground.
Coordinating counselor’s report of May 23, 2021:
Between 15 – 23 May
• 56 individual counseling sessions for girls/women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-eight
• 23 group counseling sessions for girls/women age between the ages of sixteen and twenty-eight
Total counseling sessions: 79 counseling sessions.
• 13 New fistula patients registered.
• 7 New victims of sexual violence came forward
Coordinating counselor’s report of May 12, 2021:
- 26 group counseling sessions in Dar Al-Naim and Zamzam
- 115 individual counseling sessions in Dar Al-Naim and Zamzam
Number of repeat visits: Zamzam camp
- 26 victims repeated 2 times
- 14 victims repeated 3 times
Coordinating counselor’s report of May 10, 2021
“First about the [rural area] in which we are working. The real name of this area (Keshnij) is Dar Al-Naim, and it is located about 35 – 40 kilometers to the east of the city of El Fasher. It consists of the town of Kushnij, the village of Sheikh Ahmed, and the village of Arayed, and it is inhabited by about 7,000 people. Around this town there are about 23 villages within an hour, and hundreds of other villages about two hours away by walking. There are only two schools in this town and seven other schools in the whole district.
There are about 130,000 people living in this area, and there is only one health center. It is not functioning because there is not enough medical equipment, no trained medical professionals, and no electricity. The area consists of 13 village councils and they are administratively subordinate to Dar al-Salam governate. The inhabitants of this area are suffering from the insufficient health system, a lack of sufficient water during the summer season, and security—especially during the autumn [harvest] season.
With regard to the matter of health, if a person becomes ill, the closest city to them is El Fasher, which is a day’s walk away on foot or on the back of a donkey or a camel. As for water, lack of it is one of the main problems that the inhabitants of this area suffer from. There are only four water wells here, and the villagers walk for hours to the nearest water well—and then queue up for hours to get water. An entire day is spent getting drinking water.
As for security and safety, it is one of the main unspoken problems here. The people of these villages are all farmers who depend for their lives on agriculture. Most of the problems and attacks happen here in the autumn season, and the sources of these problems are the Arab nomads. The attacks take the form of beatings, threats, kidnapping of girls for sexual purposes, and deliberately sabotaging the agriculture. Since we came here three days ago, we have registered 43 young girls and 26 women on the list of those sexually assaulted in this area alone, and we are now engaged on private sessions talks; but in our estimation there could hundreds other victims in neighboring villages.
[The coordinating counselor offered one particularly telling narrative]:
“My name is Awatif Yagoub and I’m twenty-one years old. About two months ago while we were on the way back to our village after fetching water from wells with two of my cousins, a friend from next door, and three other girls from my village. We were attacked by three men who approached us from behind at sunset. I’m the oldest in the group and I tried to fight back to protect my cousins and other young girls who were with us. They hit me in the head and knocked me down unconscious.
“Luckily, some of the younger girls had managed to run away, but unfortunately I and one of the other girls were tied up with ropes. After this, they did their dirty stuff on us and then rode their camels and went away. Their bizarre accent indicated they were not from this area. They are very cruel and disgusting people. For me, I’m fine now but the other girl is still so depressed. She’s not eating well and she is losing weight and hair.”
Coordinating Counselor’s report of May 7, 2021
The activities of the team began this morning in the Kushnij area east of El Fasher city, in the locality of Dar al-Salam governorate. Since early morning today we have already distributed “Eid Package” to 40 families. They receive five kilos of sugar; two kilos of flour; and two kilos of pasta.
[It should be highlighted again that the counselors of Zamzam also constitute a critical distribution network for food to the very most needy and destitute; feminine hygiene kits; sanitizing soap; supplies for art therapy; and masks for protection against Covid-19. The counselors are among the only sources of reliable information about the threat of the virus and necessary prophylactic measures in Zamzam—ER]
In addition this, this morning twenty-eight young girls ages 13 – 26 and nineteen women over 30 came to register for counseling sessions.Among the new arrivals there is the harrowing testimony of Fatuma Abdullah Adoum from the village of Baidu in the state of East Darfur in the locality of Shearia:
“I’m a mother of three teenager daughters and older sons in their twenties. One of my sons disappeared years ago, but I have never lost my hopes in finding him one day. My son may be somewhere and I’m sure one day he will come to take revenge for his sister’s humiliation suffered at the hands of those devil Mahariya Arab nomads.
“After living in this camp for years, last year we decided to follow our village people, who were told by the sheiks to go back to our village to farm. At the beginning I was a little bit hesitant about this idea but since most of neighbours were going back I decided to follow. After years away, I went back there with of two of my daughters and in our village everything seems to be changed. But the rains were looking good and promising for farming at the beginning. We settled down, cleaned our farm and began planting.
“Only three weeks after this, one day at early morning at sunrise, my daughters and I were attacked as we slept. I fought back fiercely for nearly fifteen minutes against four strong men, but they knocked me down to the ground and tied me up. Luckily, one of my daughters had managed to escape but the 16-year-old one was not lucky and she was tied up alongside me. They then ripped off my daughter’s clothes violently and they began taking turns on her: three of them [raping her] while the fourth man guarding them from few meters away with a Kalashnikov. They continued this for nearly two hours. My poor daughter screamed helplessly for assistance in a pain; it was the most excruciating sound I ever heard or imagined in my life. While they were doing disgusting things, they were all laughing and looking at me with hate.
“Those people are so hateful that you think they never came from woman’s womb. They hate women as much as they hate black people [non-Arabs, often referred to by means of derogatory names, e.g., abid and zurga].
“My daughter came here to get good help from sisters of Team Zamzam and now she’s feeling a lot better. I will go back to my village again in few weeks to prepare for farming but this time only with my son and I will certainly be carrying my knife with me all the times. I dare them to come to attack me again; but you know Janjaweed are always obsessed with young girls. I’m still suffering from pain on the back of my neck as a result of strangling, but it’s getting better now. I advise all the young girls to take extra care and be very vigilant if they want to go to farming in the rural areas. I advise them to run as fast as they can when there’s potential attack, because those crazy people are only after you.”
[The world is content with the fiction that large-scale, ethnically-targeted violence, including sexual violence, is largely a thing of the past in Darfur. It most emphatically is not, and international pretense about realities on the ground in Darfur only encourages more violence. The UN and other international actors for many years touted the return by IDPs to their villages; but they never mention how often these “returns” became occasions for brutal violence, including rape and murder, forcing a retreat by the displaced from their villages and lands back to the camps from which they had been encouraged to leave—ER]
Coordinating Counselor’s report of May 5, 2021
“Firstly, on behalf of my colleagues and all the victims of sexual violence, fistula patients, the handicapped people, the group of Zamzam women, the most impoverished families, and all the beneficiaries of this project, I send a warm greeting and appreciation to all those who support this project. This wonderful project has not only created a job opportunity for us, women and girls, to support our families, but has also brought happiness, joy, and reassurance to those who were on the verge of psychological breakdown.
“This project enabled us to get close to the people, taught us the culture of humanitarian work, and gave us a rare opportunity to know the magnitude of the impact of violence that has affected Darfur’s women during the war, after the war, and violence that is still continuing on a daily basis in the rural areas. This project has enabled us to expand our knowledge of the horrors of wars and its psychological and social impact on the lives of women here in Darfur.
“Through talking to hundreds of victims of sexual violence over the past six months, we have come to realise that the extent and the magnitude of suffering is still deep and it may take years to repair the damage. At the beginning we thought this problem existed only in the IDP camps; but eventually we learned that there are as many victims as one could imagine in the rural areas where people live in small farming communities. So once again for those who are supporting this project: you should be proud of what you are doing. Because if it hadn’t been for this project, things would have remained very bad. For these reasons, we have decided to carry this banner as a written gesture of thanks and recognition for the entire month of May for all our activities. May Allah bless you all and bless your families during the blessed month of Ramadan.”
Work and planning for May:
“Regarding the work and planning for this month of May. Firstly I must say that our activities for the month of April were slightly affected because of a change in schedule [i.e., because of Ramadan]. Despite that we have performed our duty and we have also recorded two visits to the countryside; but we still feel that there were shortcomings and this was due to slow coordination and effective communication between the counselors and also because of the slight change in the work schedules.
“The month of Ramadan was quite complicated for the counselors and for the girls who come to attend private sessions; but thank God Ramadan is almost over and next Wednesday things will return to normal. As for this month of May, activities will continue as in the past, and we have now divided counselors into two groups: one of them will maintain here to work in Zamzam camp; the other group will head into the countryside. And for this month the Kushnij area in the Dar al-Salam governorate in North Darfur has been designated as the point to meet people of the farming communities of this rural area.
“We have chosen this area to conduct interviews with people and to hold private talk sessions with girls because this area in the east of El Fasher city is surrounded by hundreds of small villages of farming communities; and according to our assessment, we believe that there could be hundreds of victims, especially young girls, suffering from depression and in need of urgent attention.”
Concerning Fistula patients:
“Praise be to God, for April we were able to achieve three operations per month and this looks encouraging in itself, despite the fact that we still have 57 people in the list of priorities, and for this month we will try conduct three more operations for [all were eventually successful—ER]. For us, three operations per month is big relief for them and for their families as well. Those went through operation were happy and even now most of them still come around to thank us whenever we are at work. For this month, we have already selected three from the priority list for operations, and on Saturday May 8th two counselors will accompany them to the clinic for their initial procedures and hopefully they will receive their treatment before 20th of May.”
As I noted in the April 30 Update on this project, what seems particularly remarkable in the reports coming to me from Zamzam IDP camp is how fully the counselors have seized on the opportunities our project has provided them. With modest resources, they provide counseling—now to over 1,000 girls and women since our project began last September. And they provide counseling services to not only to those in Zamzam most seriously traumatized by sexual violence, but now travel into rural areas that are far from fully secure. They assist women suffering from fistulas to gain access to the surgical clinic in El Fasher and provide not only transportation, but pre- and post-operative care. We are now funding four fistula repair surgeries per month at $400 per procedure and have had nine successful such procedures (sadly, the waiting list is very long, and growing, and counselors have the unenviable task of establishing priority). (What is a fistula? Click on the link.)
Most of the work of the counselors remains responding the acute, at times overwhelming psychological trauma of sexual violence, typically in the form of rape, gang-rape, and vaginal or anal penetration with sharp objects. Counselors have now provided treatment to well over 1,000 girls and women since our program began in September 2020. And the counselors only become more skilled, more resourceful, and more in demand for their therapeutic help—including in rural areas where word of their growing abilities and understanding continues to spread rapidly. The success of the counselors can hardly be overstated, and a number of testimonials to these successes have been collected on this site.