"This baby has come from Allah and I will accept him"

Refugees in Darfur, Sudan, face the consequences of mass rapes by members of the government-backed militia, pledging to care for "Janjaweed babies."

Published December 6, 2004 4:11PM (EST)

The gunmen made Mohammed Aadam lie with his face in the dirt while his sister was being raped. He had been sitting in his hut that morning, playing cards with friends, when the Janjaweed attacked. "The Janjaweed were shooting and people from the village were running into the forest," said Aadam, 23. "They ordered me and some of the other men to lie down on the ground. They had captured some of the women, including my sister, and we heard the women cry out as they were raped."

Ten months later, his sister Asha Mohammed has given birth to one of the many "Janjaweed babies" born after the mass rape of Darfur women. According to the U.N. and human rights groups, thousands of women were raped as their villages were razed by the government-backed Janjaweed militias that have devastated western Sudan over the past 20 months.

Deeply shaming in a conservative Muslim society, the rapes were intended to inflict a collective humiliation on the region's black African tribes. Victims say they were accompanied by beatings and racial insults.

Tribal leaders have said that there is no stigma in sex acts under duress, but the pregnancies have torn many families apart. Aadam's sister Asha, 30, was divorced by her husband, a migrant farmworker who lives in Libya, after he discovered she was pregnant from the rape. Cradling her 7-day-old son Salim, she said: "He told his brothers he was angry with me and stopped sending me money."

Asha lives in a camp on the outskirts of El Geneina, the state capital of west Darfur, where thousands of refugees from burned villages live in tents and thatched shacks. It is a place where divorce can lead to social exclusion and poverty. But her brother has not abandoned her. She lives with him now, and when she gave birth he persuaded a local family to let her use their hut instead of the ramshackle shelter in the camp. "This pregnancy happened because my sister was taken under duress," Aadam said. "Because it happened by duress, the community will accept it."

But it remains to be seen whether the children of rape will be accepted as they grow older. Asha said that she would bring her son up as a member of her own tribe, the Massaleit. "I'm not happy to be pregnant from an Arab, but this baby has come from Allah and I will accept him," Asha said. "I will raise him as a Massaleit and teach him our language." In Darfur society, however, tribe is decided by paternity. Asha's brother said: "The father is an Arab, and so is the child. But no one will do anything to harm the baby. We will only know his true character when he grows up."

In another of El Geneina's camps, 16-year-old Salima fears her life is blighted. She was beaten and raped by Janjaweed in a forest clearing as she fled an attack on her home village. Now she is five months pregnant. "Before this there was a man who wanted to marry me. But after the rape, I don't know. I haven't heard from him." Her mother, Fatna, tries to reassure her. This is a shared trauma, she says, and no woman can be singled out for dishonor. She insisted: "The community will not treat my daughter badly. They will not say bad things about Salima. What happened to her has happened to so many others here too."

There is no official acceptance of the scale of the rape in Darfur. There is no counseling, scant medical care and little hope of justice. Under Sharia law, which applies in Sudan, rape is treated as a serious crime, punishable with 10 years in prison and 100 lashes. But human rights groups say the authorities have sought to create "the impression of prosecution" rather than justice for the crimes committed.

When 15-year-old Khadija Hassan told police of her rape, they initially called her a liar. "I told them I was not telling lies," the teenager said, "but after the medical examination at the hospital they accepted my case." A few days later, police told her they had been unable to trace her attackers. "I am angry," Khadija said. "I want police to arrest the men who attacked me, to punish them."

As her father, Hassan Ibrahim, speaks of the rape of his daughter, sudden tears burst from his eyes. "I am so angry about this. If I had the force to do it, I would go and fight the men who did this to my daughter. There is agreement between the attackers and the police. That is why they will not arrest the men."

In August the Sudanese government established three all-female committees to investigate rape claims. They were to have doctors as members but none was appointed, so no medical examinations were made. The committees, given three weeks to complete their reports, concluded that Darfur had the same -- very low -- rate of rape as before the conflict. According to the pressure group Human Rights Watch, the committees were used "to put a female face to the official denial of rape."

In a rare departure from the official line, a Janjaweed commander in El Geneina, Ramadan Dayu Hassan, admitted to the Observer that rapes had taken place, but blamed it on "out of control" elements among his militia. "These were not men from the original Arab tribes who did this, but it may be that there were men who were out of control among our soldiers."

But the sheer scale of the rape suggests that this was not the work of a handful of militiamen, but a systematic campaign of brutality. In the camps, it is the midwives, drawn from among the refugees, who have the most detailed knowledge of the full extent of the rapes. They insist that the police are failing to act despite a wealth of evidence, including injuries from beatings that often accompanied sexual violence.

One midwife in a camp near El Geneina said: "The police want to cover up the cases. If a girl goes to the police, the police tell her: 'It is better for you not to say anything about this rape.' We have seen cases where women were injured. One had a cut to her neck from a knife, another was bruised on the hand by a stick, another was struck on the head by an ax. There are witnesses. The girls are usually in a group when they are attacked, and some of the others escape."

For the victims, the future holds another painful question: How to explain to their children who their fathers were? In her thatch hut in a corner of a camp, 15-year-old Muna Abaker quietly recalls the horrific circumstances in which her daughter Shima was conceived. She had gone out with a group of girls to collect grass for thatch, when the Janjaweed attacked them. They beat her on the arms and legs before raping her. "I will not hate my daughter," Muna said firmly. "But I will tell her that her father is unknown to me, that he can never be found."

The names of some interviewees have been changed.

By Jeevan Vasagar

MORE FROM Jeevan Vasagar

Related Topics ------------------------------------------