For Darfur Women, Survival Means Leaving Camp, Risking Rape

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 16, 2006

GRAIDA, Sudan, Sept. 15 -- The tall, light-skinned man reeking of sweat and cigarettes often gallops his horse right into the nightmares of Darelsalam Ahmed Eisa, 18. Each time, she said, he throws her to the ground, pushes up her skirt and forces himself inside her while muttering: " Abdah. Abdah. Abdah ."

Slave woman. Slave woman. Slave woman.

He was in her dreams just last night, she recalled, as real and horrifying in his green camouflage uniform as he was the day he raped her two months ago. But when Eisa awoke this morning, there was no time for terror, no time for tears. She covered herself in an orange and blue cloth, grabbed the family's ax and departed for the perilous Darfur countryside, out of the relative safety of a sprawling camp for people displaced by the violence in this region of western Sudan.

In the wilderness, Eisa can find grass for the donkeys and firewood for cooking. But it is also where government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed roam, terrorizing villagers. Violence and disease in Darfur have killed as many as 450,000 people since 2003, and an estimated 2 million have been forced to flee their homes.

The government and a rebel group reached a cease-fire agreement in May, but since then, rapes in and around camps for people displaced by the fighting have surged, aid groups and residents say. The International Rescue Committee has recorded more then 200 sexual assaults among residents of a single camp near Nyala, a town in South Darfur state, during a five-week period in July and August.

More and more often, women in Darfur face the starkest of choices: risk being raped by leaving the camps in search of firewood and grass, or starve. If they invite their brothers or husbands along to protect them, the Janjaweed will still rape the women, they say, and kill the men.

"It is better for me to be raped than for my brother to be killed," said Eisa, soft-spoken and round-faced, with hair braided into tight rows beneath her head scarf. She has two children, ages 2 and 5, but no husband. He divorced Eisa last year, she said, after she quarreled with one of his elder wives.

But Eisa is not alone. On this morning, as she walked with the ax on her shoulder, her sister, Aziza, 15, was just a few paces behind. Other women and girls, on foot and on donkeys, soon joined them in a haphazard convoy of mothers, daughters and sisters flowing west, away from the low morning sun.

They passed braying donkeys and smoky wood fires in the camp. They passed children playing soccer and rolling pot lids with sticks. And they passed an African Union military base, close enough to hear a sputtering generator there that powers satellite televisions. On the screens, images of slinky Bollywood dancers entertained the lonely men who are posted at the base to monitor the cease-fire but rarely venture beyond the double-coiled razor wire of their perimeter.

Eisa, her sister and an 18-year-old friend had followed the same path on the day in July that they were attacked.

But that day, they had gone farther -- about two hours west instead of one -- in search of a variety of grass that fetches a higher profit at the camp's makeshift markets, about 75 cents per sack rather than the 50 cents paid for the grass collected near the camp. They had four donkeys with them that day, so 25 cents more per pack meant maybe a couple of dollars more in earnings for the day.

After walking for about two hours, they had nearly reached the better grass when dozens of Janjaweed militiamen on horses and camels suddenly appeared, surrounding the young women.

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