-- The breeze ruffled Katuma Abdullah Adam's green scarf as the sheik and his helpers slowly poured water over her head. Once, twice, three times they repeated the ritual as the pregnant 15-year-old wept in shame.
"You can now enter paradise," the sheik said, ushering Katuma inside a dark hut so her swollen body could also be washed, along with her nose and mouth, as a symbolic cleansing of the sin she had suffered.
To the family of Katuma, who was raped and impregnated by an Arab militia fighter five months ago in the war-torn region of Darfur, this shamanistic cure was the only form of redemption available in a situation where legal justice is elusive, officials are embarrassed to discuss rape and the chances of catching and prosecuting attackers are next to none.
While a ritual bath cannot substitute for a court of law, according to Sudanese culture it may help mitigate the negative long-term social effects of rape -- the public ostracism of the victim, her devaluation as a future bride and the lifelong stigma that will fall on any child born of the crime.
According to the United Nations and human rights groups, thousands of women have been raped by gunmen in the course of a 20-month conflict that pits African rebel groups against Sudanese troops and pro-government Arab militias known as the Janjaweed. The United Nations says more than 70,000 people have died.
In August and September, the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that it had treated 123 cases of rape in South Darfur, at least 100 of which occurred during attacks on villages by armed men. Victims said they were assaulted at gunpoint and in some cases gang-raped.
Despite widespread documentation of the rapes by international groups and promises by the government to investigate and prosecute rape cases, sexual violence remains a low official priority. Sudanese society ostracizes rape victims and associates them with deep shame.
There is also little public trust in the police and the courts, because Janjaweed militiamen accused of the crimes are seen as backed by the government.
A recent report by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, called rape "a weapon of war in Darfur," often accompanied by racial insults, whipping, undressing and public sexual acts as a form of humiliation. To the Arab Janjaweed, attacking African women is seen as a way to mortify African rebel groups, the report said.
Many women have also reported being told by rapists that they wanted to produce Arab babies and weaken African tribal lines.
Amnesty International documented hundreds of rape cases and described the horrific long-term social consequences for the women. But U.N. officials and others said international pressure had done little to make local officials address the plight of women who are victims of rape, as well as resulting health problems and pregnancies.
"The government as a whole is in denial about the scale and the severity of the problems," said Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who visited Darfur in late September. "Cases where attempts are made by women to report to the police are disbelieved, or in any event, no further action is taken on their report."
On a recent trip to South Darfur, U.S. Reps. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) visited camps in the region and were told they would see a "rape tent," where victims could report the crimes. When they arrived at the designated camp, however, there was no such tent. Refugees said there never had been one.
Jackson shook his head and said: "These guys are professional sugarcoaters. What are we going to do about this?"
Abdullal Abu Bakar, who works for the government and runs the camp, winked conspiratorially and laughed, partly from embarrassment. "There was not a single case, I tell you," he said. "That's why we closed the tent.' "
Katuma Adam still sees the men in her nightmares. It was late May, the height of the rainy season, when the Janjaweed gunmen attacked her village in North Darfur. One of them grabbed her. His hand slipped under her dress.
"He pushed into me and it was hurting me very much," she recounted recently, after the ritual washing in a shelter built of sticks and rags, inside a camp for victims of violence in Darfur. "I had no strength. I just shut my eyes."
Afterward, she said, she was covered in blood and crying. "I felt very, very thirsty and in shock." She was not yet 15.
There was nowhere Katuma could turn for help -- no counseling services, no legal aid offices, no sympathetic law enforcement agency. Darfur, a region engulfed by human crisis and flooded with refugees, barely has a functioning police force or justice system.
For weeks after the attack, Katuma remained sequestered in her hut, her head pillowed on a pile of rocks. She stayed inside even through the thick afternoon heat, too ashamed to emerge and seek shade under a tree like others in the camp. She said her legs felt like stone and her mind was numb with depression. She worried constantly about her child's future, and her own.
"I will never find love," she said after the cleansing ceremony. "Will this washing help me find a husband?" Katuma and her mother, Aisha Bakhet Adam, consented to be identified by name.
Aisha Adam, 43, a sturdy widow with six children, has no time for melancholy musings. She is on a mission. Every day, she listens to radio reports about the war. She knows that many people have died and many more have been displaced. And she knows that in four months, her daughter will give birth to a child of the Janjaweed.
Aisha Adam has few illusions about the chances of proving the rapist's guilt. What she needs is evidence of her daughter's innocence, a way to convince potential suitors and their families that she did not ask to be raped. A police report or a court case would be ideal, she said, but she had no idea how to approach the government.
After thinking it over, she decided the water ritual might help reduce her daughter's shame and protect her unborn child from becoming a social outcast.
So on a recent day, the mother crawled out of her waist-high hut, doffed an orange head scarf and oversize sunglasses and trudged purposefully along the footpaths of this garbage-strewn camp until she found Adam Abdul Karim, a local sheik, waiting in a food line. She told him she needed his help.
"I don't think the government will ever catch this man, and I don't think my daughter will ever mend her heart unless we do something now," she told him. "I am very ashamed, [but] I am trying to hide my embarrassment and help my daughter. Right now, we are alone with this problem."
Karim consulted a sheaf of ragged notes and suggested he perform the ritual washing. It was a custom normally applied in local African tribes when a woman's husband died or she gave birth to a child out of wedlock. This would be the first time at this camp, Karim said, that it would be used to exonerate a victim of sexual violence.
"She is unclean, touched by her enemy," he said. "This is one option we can try."
Officials See No Evil
The government of Sudan says it takes rape seriously, and its officials say they are making a sincere effort to address the problem. Under sharia, or Islamic law, rape is viewed as a serious crime; the penalty is 10 years in jail and 100 lashes.
Recently, the government also suspended a law requiring women to report a rape to the police before they can receive medical help. Nevertheless, there remains a widespread belief among senior officials that the victims are fabricating their stories.
"That is not our culture," said Hussein Ibrahim, a minister with the government's Humanitarian Affairs Commission. "It's just impossible and all half-truths. Okay, maybe there are one case or two cases, like anywhere, like in the United States or Britain. But they are not widespread."
But medical workers and human rights activists said they have been dismayed and angered by official suggestions that rape victims are making up sensational stories. Even as children are being born from militia rapes, they said, not a single arrest has been made or a single case brought to court since the war began.
"I don't think it's fair to say the women are fabricating this," Arbour said during a recent visit to Khartoum, the capital. "I would find it very, very bizarre that the women would lie, considering the shame they receive for saying they are raped. There are very severe levels of sexual violence here that are not being properly addressed."
Arbour said she saw no evidence of a government rape-inquiry commission that had been promised, and that despite making appointments, she was unable to locate anyone from the commission.
Inside Katuma's hut, the sheik's female helpers washed her back, her face, her nostrils, her mouth. They emptied pitchers down her left side, then her right. Water dripped from her entire body and tears ran down her cheeks. She stood in a muddy pool of water.
"I don't want this," the pregnant girl mumbled. "I want to lie down." Already shy, she dreaded being stared at, having people know. She did not want her picture taken, did not want to go outdoors, and said she might just remain in the camp forever.
Outside, a cluster of ragged children peered through holes in the straw walls, dying of curiosity. They pressed in so hard they nearly knocked over her hut.
In the gloom, Karim supervised the work and nodded in satisfaction. But still, he said, Katuma's life would be hard.
"The man will want a virgin wife without a baby first," he explained. "Maybe, years from now, people will understand she was hurt in war by the enemy and is now clean. But it would be better if the courts and the government could . . . set an example that it was okay and it wasn't the fault of the women. Even a few arrests would help."