Tabit and sexual violence in Darfur

Tabit and sexual violence in Darfur

Darfur has practically been closed off to journalists, politicians and independent civil society organizations, and sexual violence and rape have now become a reality in women’s day-to-day lives.

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By Yosra Akasha

In nine months, our neighborhood will be full of new born Arab infants… They came to drink Maresa and ended up using us all. They had guns; we could not say anything to stop them.

Bitterly but sarcastically, Mariam told a women’s rights activist about what had happened to her while they were chatting over tea in Nyala. That was two years ago.

Sexual violence and rape have now become a reality of women’s lives and part of their everyday encounters in Darfur.

Over the past few years, and after the ICC arrest warrant for Omar Albashirand other government officials, Darfur has practically been closed off to journalists, politicians and independent civil society organizations.

Last year Sara, a 16 year-old girl from Zamzam IDP camp was hospitalized for ten days after being gang raped by two young men. One of them was an officer with the National Reserve Forces (Abu Taira).

She proceeded with her case and reported it to the police. However, the officer was never charged. The other rapist was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years, yet after a very quick appeal, was found not guilty and released.

Sara was grieving; she wanted and needed for her story to be heard and travelled long distances in order to meet with the activist who recorded her case, as the displacement camp remains inaccessible to journalists and activists from Khartoum.

Under the current oppressive and highly monitored situation in Darfur, Radio Dabanga, a very popular community radio with a huge network of local reporters – working with an extremely low profile – remains the only outspoken media outlet that regularly documents and reports rape cases. This has given it the reputation of being “The Rape Radio” among Sudanese activists.

Radio Dabanga has been broadcasting in shortwave since 2008 to inform the people in Darfur of social, political as well as other events around them. It was initially broadcasting from Khartoum but, due to government interference, it is now broadcast from the Netherlands by Free Press Unlimited.

On 5 November 2014 Darfur was in the international headlines, including the BBC, as UNAMID had issued a statement after being denied access to Tabit village to investigate rape allegations. Radio Dabanga was the first to broadcast that military forces had invaded Tabit and raped 200 women. However, four days later the UNAMID mission reported that they had been allowed access and that no evidence of rape was found.

Hildebrand Bijleveld, the Director of Radio Dabanga and Free Press Unlimited chronicled these events in Tabit as follows:

On 31 October 2014, we were informed that a young lady from Tabit, engaged to a soldier, got pregnant. Her family went to the military barracks to complain and told the soldier that they would have to deal with him if he came back for their daughter. In the afternoon, her brothers were arrested and the village was surrounded by military forces because a soldier went missing. It was 4-5 pm Sudan time on Friday and we could not verify the information, thus we did not publish the same day.

On November 2 we got information from another source that the military forces had raped a large number of women in Tabit. Alarm bells were ringing. We got hold of two rape survivors who reported their cases, but they were still in the village. So, for their own safety, another person from the village testified on their behalf.

Early morning on Monday one of the victims disappeared. We had four recorded testimonies but were only able to release one, because we had to make sure that the survivors were safe.

On November 4, a UNAMID convoy moved from Shigil Tobai, located to the South of Tabit, to investigate the incident. To our surprise and according to UNAMID’s statement, they were stopped by a military road blockade. (Even though they had come from the south and should have already passed Tabit before reaching the blockade).

People reported that they had already spoken to UNAMID. This is why I think UNAMID was purposefully seeking military verification over the investigation of rape. UNAMID also mentioned that no one had arrived from Tabit to the Zamzam IDP camp even though we had sent our reporters to Zamzam to meet with some of the women who had fled Tabit. Those women were not even approached by UNAMID.

On November 7, a popular committee was formed to document the rape cases. They had to work through the night, going from door to door. They were able to document 57 rape cases of which 8 were minors.

On November 8, the military forces came to Tabit and threatened people who talked. The following day, UNAMID sent a delegation accompanied by the police and military to investigate rape incidents. The people were scared.

UNAMID claimed they talked to 8-9 students; however there aren’t any secondary schools or universities in Tabit.

UNAMID’s public statement offended the people; even the UN Security Council dismissed it.

All they said is that there was no evidence.

Mr. Bijleveld on Radio Dabanga’s reputation as “The Rape Radio”:

Radio Dabanga was started by Darfurians with the mission of reporting current affairs. We cover all issues of the peace process, rule of law, sports and social events. Our team works with some of the best Sudanese journalists. Its 100% independent and committed to the highest professional standards.

Journalists are on the front lines when violations happen. Our commitment is to report and inform the people… We are not a lobbying or advocacy organization.

Regarding the high prevalence of sexual violence in Sudan and mainly in Darfur, Mr. Bijleveld commented:

I have lived in Sudan for almost two decades, while rape is a miserable crime, society and authorities would never tolerate a rapist and he would be punished regardless of his affiliations. It was against the ethical and moral values of society. Now rape is being used as a tool to suppress and terrify the people and perpetrators are not being punished.

The recent incidents in Tabit outraged Sudanese social media users. After UNAMID’s statement, the discussion was shifted from anger at the prevalence of sexual violence in Darfur to Radio Dabanga and their stand versus UNAMID’s credibility.

The latter has a reputation for covering up government violations and under-reporting incidents, as stated by Aisha Elbasiri, a former UNAMID spokesperson who resigned because her access to information was blocked. Having a discussion over whether or not Tabit ‘happened’ reflects a major misunderstanding of sexual violence. During the Tabit outrage, Radio Dabanga reported the rape of two women in central Darfur and the abduction and rape of another in West Darfur. The two incidents went unnoticed. No demands for investigation or for the support of the survivors were made. Questioning the occurrence, or even the blatant denial, of such heinous crimes based on the argument that the military base near Tabit is small, composed of only one hundred soldiers, is invalid. Such an argument reflects the fact that rape and sexual violence are perceived as consensual sexual acts, not the violent crimes they are in reality.

The truth is that sexual violence is a weapon of war that has been normalized as part of everyday life in Darfur. No support is being provided to the survivors and no perpetrators are being brought to justice. The government of Sudan will continue to use its propaganda machine to deny the existence of these heinous crimes as the list of survivors and victims of sexual violence gets longer and longer.

Yosra Akasha is a Sudanese blogger & activist. As an advocate for the rights of women, refugees & displaced communities, Yosra has been selected as a correspondent for Voices of Our Future 2013 by World Pulse. She blogs in English/Arabic here and tweets @sudanesedream

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here. This is an edited version of a blog entry originally posted on 14 November 2014.

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