by Joyce Mulama
(IPS) NAIROBI -- "Five to six men would rape us, one after the other, for hours during six days, every night. My husband could not forgive me after this -- he disowned me," says a woman whose story was recorded in a new report by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights watchdog.
The 35-page report, 'Rape as a Weapon of War in Darfur', launched in Kenya's capital, Nairobi this week, contains interviews with 250 women raped in Sudan's western region of Darfur.
The interviews were conducted in refugee camps in Chad, where the women, together with about 170,000 other people, have sought refuge from pro-government Arab-militias, known as Janjaweed.
According to Amnesty International, rape has been used as a systematic way to dehumanize women, including pregnant ones.
"In many cases, the Janjaweed have raped women in public, in the open air, in front of their husbands, relatives or the wider community to humiliate, punish, control, inflict fear and displace their community," notes the report.
Amnesty International has accused the international community of doing little to help the women in Darfur.
Pollyanna Truscott, Amnesty International's Darfur crisis coordinator, told journalists that gang rapes were common in the region. "In one case, a 17-year-old girl was raped by six men in front of her house as her mother watched. Her brother was then tied up and thrown into a fire," she said.
Gang rapes have also been recorded by a United Nations Task Force on Darfur. In a March 2004 statement, the task force said, "the UN Children's Fund's survey in Tawila (Darfur) confirms a host of disturbing findings including a very large number of rape cases targeting 41 school girls and teachers, gang rape of minors by up to 14 men."
But Amnesty International could not tell the number of women raped by the militias. "We would not like to pinpoint figures. We interviewed hundreds of women and the testimonies revealed massive acts of rape. But I can say that the numbers run into thousands," Erwin Van der Borght, the group's deputy program director for Africa, told IPS.
The Darfur conflict, which erupted in 2003, involves the Janjaweed (armed men on horsebacks), allegedly backed by the government. Besides raping, the militias have also been accused of killing, abductions, torching villages, crops and cattle belonging to members of black Muslims in Darfur: the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa.
This forced the three ethnic groups to form armed groups the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) -- to counter the Janjaweed.
The attacks have led to deaths of 30,000 people, according to Amnesty International. UN estimates that about 1.2 million people have been displaced, one million of these internally displaced and about 170,000 have fled to neighboring Chad. The displacement has caused a humanitarian crisis, described by the UN as the worst in the world.
Amnesty International is now calling for tangible action from the international community to stop the violence and address sexual violence on women and girls. "We need immediate action, not words, from the international community to particularly address the sexual crisis that is being caused by the militia supported by the government of Sudan," Truscott remarked.
But the government has denied supporting the Janjaweed. Justice Minister Ali Yassin announced Saturday that three committees, each composed of a female judge, a female police officer and a female legal advisor, would be appointed for the troubled region.
The committees will "help the rape victims to file lawsuits," said Yassin in a statement.
Last month the United States added its voice to the growing humanitarian crisis in Darfur, following a two-day visit there by U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell. Disappointed by Sudan's reluctance to restore law and order, Powell threatened unspecified UN action against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government if it failed to crackdown on the militias.
Last week the 53-nation African Union (AU) also failed to bring the government and the SLA and JEM to the negotiating table. The rebels refused to hold talks with the government until their demands were met.
These demands include disarming the militias and prosecuting war criminals.
Another visit to the region by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan early this month also highlighted the growing concerns about Darfur. Annan noted that the ongoing peace talks to end a separate conflict in the south would be jeopardised if they failed to address the Darfur war.
The talks between the Islamic regime in Khartoum and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which opened in Kenya in 2002, aims at ending Africa's longest war, spanning 21 years. More than two million people have died and over four million have been displaced by the war.
The negotiations, under the auspices of Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), are in their last phase, discussing details of security arrangements. After this, they will embark on a final round, which will involve compiling the six protocols -- that they have agreed upon -- into one document. This document will then form the basis of a comprehensive peace agreement.
IGAD comprises Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
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