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Report: Rape is common against Darfur women

Peter James Spielmann

NEW YORK — A survey of dozens of women who fled Sudan’s Darfur conflict found that a third of them reported or showed signs of rape, and revealed a widespread fear of ongoing sexual violence in their refugee camp in Chad, a human rights group reported Sunday.

About half the rapes reported by the women were perpetrated in Darfur by janjaweed militiamen allied to the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, and half were assaults by Chadian villagers near the U.N. refugee camp, usually when the women left the camp to search for firewood or shepherd livestock, the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights reported.

Physicians for Human Rights called for the prosecution of rape as a war crime and urged the International Criminal Court to issue warrants against Sudanese suspects. They also sought better protection for refugees in the Chad camps by Chadian police and international peacekeepers, including firewood-gathering patrols.

The issue is a highly contentious one for the Sudanese government, which denies systematic rape or violence against women ever took place.

PHR said three doctors and a human rights researcher interviewed 88 women in November at the refugee camp in Farchana, Chad, where more than 20,000 Darfuris are watched over by some 2,000 Chadian soldiers, about 34 miles from Sudan’s border.

Among the 88 women, 29 of them suffered “confirmed or highly probable rape,” PHR found, with three women having been assaulted twice, for a total of 32 attacks.

Of the 32 attacks tallied by PHR, 17 happened in Darfur and 15 in Chad. In addition, five women reported witnessing gang rape by militiamen in Darfur.

PHR’s researchers considered a rape “highly probable” if the woman passed out during the attack and showed physical evidence of assault, or if she credibly told of being raped and then later recanted to hide her shame.

The Darfur conflict began in 2003, when mostly ethnic African rebels in the western Sudanese province took up arms against the northern government in Khartoum, complaining of discrimination and neglect. The conflict has since claimed up to 300,000 lives and displaced 2.7 million people. About 250,000 of those displaced have fled across the border into Chad, where they live in refugee camps.

The sampling method used by PHR to interview refugee women — finding interviewees through camp leaders and by word-of-mouth — does not allow for drawing general conclusions about the prevalence of rape in Darfur or among the whole female population of the Farchana camp, the group said.

Recording rape cases or interviewing victims of sexual violence, particularly in Darfur’s Muslim culture, is a difficult task. Women are often reluctant to speak about it, fearing social stigma or further trauma. It is also particularly difficult inside Darfur, where displaced women live mostly in government-controlled areas and fear reprisals.

U.N. officials said documenting the violence has become even more difficult following the Sudanese government’s decision to expel 13 foreign aid groups, working mostly in Darfur.

The expulsions were in response to the March arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. He accused the aid groups of spying for the court, and despite the international uproar has refused to let them back in.

The ICC has issued arrest warrants for al-Bashir, a government security official and a militia leader on charges of leading a campaign of atrocities — including rape — against three of Darfur’s major ethnic African tribes. But Sudan refuses to deal with the court and dismisses the allegations.

The PHR survey supported widespread claims of rape often told by Darfuri refugees, and recounted by human rights and relief officials.

Between Oct. 2004 and Feb. 2005, Doctors Without Borders, or Medicines Sans Frontiers, reported treating 500 rape victims in southern and western Darfur.

The rapes reported in Darfur fell into a common pattern, with a village overwhelmed by turbaned gunmen wearing green or khaki uniforms, often arriving on horse- or camel-back. Air strikes by the Sudanese military usually followed.

“[Ethnic African] women were sometimes called ‘slaves’ by their assailants and Darfuri males were targeted to be killed. Assailants typically burned their villages and confiscated their livestock,” the PHR report says.

In one incident cited by PHR, a rape victim from the Masalit tribe recounted how at the age of 13 four Arab gunmen on horseback attacked her family’s farm in a Darfur village, shot and killed her father, and raped her.

“When they shot my father, they saw I was a little girl. I did not have any energy or force against them,” said the girl, now 19. “They used me. I started bleeding. It was so painful. … I was sick for seven days. I could not stand up.”

After fleeing Darfur for Chad, the refugees are not being massacred by Arab militias or bombed by Sudanese planes, but they still face the constant threat of rape, chronic hunger and deprivation.

In 2007, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ office released a report documenting 52 cases of rape in all 12 U.N. refugee camps in Chad, but noted that number was almost certainly very low due to the reluctance of victims to describe their ordeal.

Of the 15 confirmed or probable rapes in Chad reported by PHR, all but one were attributed to local villagers, with only one report of a Chadian soldier assaulting a Darfuri woman.

Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.

(Associated Press)