This article ran in German in the February 2009 issue of the Swiss magazine Annabelle, under the title “Life in Flight: The Forgotten Women of Darfur.”
By Deborah Scroggins
After a day and a half of traveling, we reached eastern Chad. “The new Darfur,” as some aid workers are calling it, eastern Chad is home not just to refugee camps housing 230,000 people from Sudan’s western province of Darfur, but the scene of new fighting as the war in Darfur has spilled across the border, driving 180,000 Chadians from their homes. Thus our first surprise to find the landscape beautiful in a sleepy kind of way, with purple mountain vistas and pastures turned electric green by seasonal rain. The war and all the outsiders it has brought seem to be dragging Goz Beida, the capital of Dar Sila province, out of a time warp. More than a decade after they became ubiquitous in Darfur, cellphones and gaudy Saudi-built mosques finally arrived here last year. The Darfurian refugees who have made their way here are mostly subsistence farmers in their own country. Nevertheless, aid workers say the Darfurians tend to be more worldly and enterprising than the local Chadians.
Women have always had a hard life here. They work in the fields, carry the firewood and fetch the water; they care for their children and their homes. Now that fighting has broken out between the local Dajo and Masaleit farmers and the Arab herders alongside whom they have traditionally lived, things are even harder.
All the people who live in this area have relations who live across the border in Darfur. Back in 2004, the Dajo and Masalit farmers welcomed their kinsmen escaping the wholesale massacre of tribes accused to supporting a rebellion against the Sudanese government. Then, in “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic so typical of the Horn of Africa, the area soon became embroiled in the Darfur conflict. Faced with an internal rebellion of his own, the Chadian government of President Idris Deby began supporting Darfur’s rebel groups. The government of Sudan retaliated by arming Chadian Arabs and encouraging them to form janjaweed militias like the ones that have terrorized farmers in Darfur. Now the janjaweed are attacking and burning Dajo and Masaleit villages. Some Dajo and Masalit done the same to some Arab villages.
With the violence out of control, people say they often have no idea who is doing the killing. “What we want above all is security,” women told us again and again. “Men come at night to demand our things. We don’t know who they are and we have no way to stop them.”
And yet life goes on. People still stop at the end of a long day to clasp hands in greeting.
In the Djabal refugee camp, we sat down with teenage Darfuri girls. About half of the girls were already married, many with small children. If they had stayed in Darfur, they probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to study, but here they were attending school. And they had ambitions. Aziza, aged 15, said she wanted to be a nurse. Muna, also 15, would like to be Sudan’s foreign minister. Other girls had more prosaic dreams. “I want the peacekeepers to come to Sudan and bring security,” one said. “I want them to disarm all the people so I can return home.” On a day to day basis, they said they worry about feeding their children and finding clothes for them.
The cruelty the women have endured often is almost unimaginable. In a self-help group run by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, women told us about being raped in Darfur.
The conversation started slowly. A woman in a black and silver-striped veil said that when the janjaweed came to her village in Darfur, she ran away with her twin babies. After some time had passed, she left the twins under a tree and went back to see what had happened. The janjaweed were still there. She was captured and raped by four men. Later she found the twins. But another one of her six children was killed that day.
Maryam, another woman, told us the janjaweed killed her parents and her brothers. After that they raped her.
Hawaye was next.
“I was sitting with my baby in my arms when the janjaweed came to my village,” she said, weeping softly. “They beheaded him.”
“They took me in their vehicle for 15 days. When I came back, my husband asked why I didn’t fight with them and get killed. He didn’t want me anymore.”
Hawaye began sobbing – dry, rasping sobs that shook her shoulders.
Since then, she said, she’d been on her own. Another man wanted to marry her, but when the neighbors told him she’d been raped, he divorced her. Everyone in the camp knows she’s been raped, so when she goes outside, she always cries.
Without men, the raped women said they were poor. Their children didn’t want to go to school because they were ashamed of their clothes.
In Chad, as in Darfur, one of the most dangerous jobs for a woman is collecting firewood. Women need firewood to cook food. But, time and time again, we heard about women who were raped when they roamed too far away from the refugee camps in search of fuel. The problem, of course, is that with so many thousands of people congregated together, the nearby firewood has long been exhausted. The rapists might belong to the janjaweed. They might be local people angry at having to share land and resources with the refugees. Or they might just be random men taking advantage of the women’s vulnerability. We asked why the men didn’t take over the job if it was so dangerous. The women said men caught collecting firewood would be killed.
This young mother from Darfur is wearing a necklace of Quranic verses sewn into leather squares. The amulets are meant to protect her from illness and misfortune. In this part of Chad, everyone, including the refugees from Darfur, is a Muslim. But the Chadians wear their religion more lightly than the Sudanese. Beer is for sale and the Islamic fashion of veiling seemed to come as afterthought for many of the Chadian women we met. Pounding grain outside their straw huts or even sitting down to lessons, they sometimes went bare-breasted. The conflict here is tribal and economic, not religious.
When refugees such as the ones from Darfur cross an international border, they automatically fall under the protection of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees. The entire Western aid circus kicks in for them; their camps have to adhere to some international standards. Not so for “internally displaced persons” such as the Chadians who have run away from the same kind of janjaweed attacks as the Darfuris. Although international aid groups are helping the Chadians, their camps remain in far worse shape than the Darfurian. At the Gassire camp, we found a Chadian families living in little shelters made of sticks. The Dajo women we spoke to said they’d come to the camp after their village was attacked by Arabs on horseback. They couldn’t understand why. “We Dajo lived with Arabs. We even married with them. Now they are killing us.”
Tiero, the name of their village, meant nothing to me. But later I read an account of a UN team who visited the walled town shortly after it was burned on March 31. Apparently Chadian and Sudanese militias on horseback combined to attack it. According to the report, the killing went on for hours
Female chiefs at Gassire complained about the World Food Program’s practice of handing out rations to the male heads of household. They said the men kept back some of the food to sell in the market or to feed their donkeys. When we asked the male chiefs whether they would consent to let the women distribute rations, they quickly said no. In conflict situations like the one in Chad, rebel groups quite often force refugees from their own tribes to pay a kind of tax in relief food. Of course, it’s forbidden for the refugees to have any contact with armed groups, and the Chadians denied doing anything of the sort. But the women did ask, again and again, for an international peacekeeping force to come and protect them from the mysterious armed men in camouflage uniforms whom they said came around at night demanding food and money.
The Chadian women at Gassire tended to have six to eight children each. The women in our delegation noticed that some of them didn’t have enough milk to breastfeed their children. They brought up the problem with male chiefs. “Have you considered giving your wives a break so that they could have fewer children and more space between births” they asked the men. The men tittered nervously. They seemed to be thinking, “What these crazy Western women will come up with next?” After some consultation, the head chief said that refraining from sex was no problem for the men because they had multiple wives. But he wasn’t sure that their wives would agree. At the thought of women unable to resist sex, everyone fell apart in the laughter of mutual incomprehension.
The Darfurian refugees at Djabal have a primary school with a building all its own. They asked us whether the international community could provide an upper school for them, too. They are not allowed to attend Chadian schools and their young people who pass exams have nowhere to continue their education. By contrast, the Chadian children at Gassire were gleefully learning to read from a 17-year-old school leaver with a blackboard. Their parents didn’t seem to mind. They said it was more education than they had had in their villages.
The group of eminent European, North American and African women I was traveling with had come with two aims. First, they wanted to speak with women from Chad and Darfur and carry their stories back to the halls of power in Europe. Second, they wanted to assess the prospects for the proposed European Union peacekeeping force for Chad. Nearly everyone we met was in favor of the force, which now seems to be on the verge of happening. But the Somali member of our delegation, a woman with long experience of civil war and its palliatives, warned the refugees against expecting magic from the peacekeepers. “In the end, you have to solve your problems yourselves,” she said.
Deborah Scroggins is the author of “Die Weisse Kriegerin: Ein Schicksal in Afrika” (Aufbau: 2006). She travelled to Chad with a group of women headed by Mary Robinson, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and president of Ireland.