Darfur refugees still suffering in Chad

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Rape is a weapon of war in the Darfur region of Sudan. That's been the case since the conflict first erupted back in 2003. A new study for the group Physicians for Human Rights tries to document the long-term impact of rape on women who are now in camps for the displaced. The researchers focused on one camp in Chad. They found that not only are women there living with the trauma of earlier attacks in Darfur, they're also facing a continuing threat of being raped in and around the camp. The World's Jeb Sharp spoke with the researchers and filed this report.

JEB SHARP: Pulling off this study was no easy feat. The Chad Sudan border region is notoriously dangerous and politically unstable. As for the research itself, asking questions about rape is incredibly sensitive, not least because of the stigma faced by the victims. The research team spent several weeks interviewing 88 women in the Farchana refugee camp in Eastern Chad. They were told of 32 incidents of rape, 17 in Darfur and 15 in Chad. Most of the rapes in Chad happened when women left the camp to search for firewood. Dr. Julie VanRooyen is one of the researchers.

DR. JULIE VANROOYEN: These women are refugees. The place they are staying is supposed to be a place of refuge for them and it is anything but. It is not safe. They are continuing to be attacked. They live in fear of being attacked, and there are many deprivations that they continue to experience just in terms of food and water and clothing, for example. So everything that they suffered in Darfur five to six years ago is really compounded by these ongoing insecurities that they experience everyday.

SHARP: The researchers were also struck by the atmosphere of intimidation in the camps and the low position of women there. Dr. Sondra Crosby is another member of the team.

DR. SONDRA CROSBY: It's palpable. The women have to get permission from their husbands to do anything, essentially. The women do all of the work in the camp. The women don't really have any rights or say in the relationship. The men are allowed to have more than one wife.

SHARP: Crosby didn't just observe the intimidation, she felt it herself. The researchers were harassed by local officials. They even decided to forego research at a second camp because of the menacing way they were treated by a key official. Despite all the obstacles, the interviews went well. The women refugees readily told their stories and the telling seemed to have a therapeutic effect. For many of the women, it was the first time they had spoken of what happened to them. The stories stuck with Drs. VanRooyen and Crosby.

VANROOYEN: Of all the women that I met, there were two that I will never forget. I had a woman tell me that when Janjawid came to her village all of the women with babies on their backs were gathered together and made to show they ... The soldiers went down the line and asked the women one by one to show us the baby on your back. So the women had to unwrap the child. If the child was a male child, the soldiers shot and killed it on the spot. If the child was female, they threw it to the ground. If the baby lived or was uninjured after being thrown to the ground, the women were allowed to pick it up and carry on. The woman, who told me this, came to the interview with a child who was five years old. I asked her, "What did you have on your back?" And she said, "It is this child." She had the daughter with her in the camp. She also told me that her grandmother was with her and her grandmother had a boy on her boy, and when her grandmother was asked to show the child, she refused and the soldiers killed the child and grandmother immediately. And I will never forget that story.

CROSBY: One quick story that I will never get out of my mind and I still to this day think of her, a woman who told me about the Janjawid and the Sudanese soldiers invading her village and she left and tried to get away and they caught her and they gang raped her, four to six men. They beat her so badly she couldn't resist. At the time of the rape, she was eight months pregnant and described giving birth to a dead baby afterward and being very, very sick. Couldn't make it with her group to the border to flee to Chad so had to walk bit by bit. Got some help from traditional healers and once she got to Chad, she was raped by a Chadian soldier outside of the camp and became pregnant. After that, her husband divorced her and she's now living as a stigmatized woman in the camp and as a rape victim, and people have stigmatized her. She has been expelled from her family and has her child who is a product of this rape.

VANROOYEN: I think Sondra brings up an important point, the incredible stigmatization that these women face after rape is unbelievable. We talked to numerous women that were raped and that were immediately divorced, that were kicked out of their families. They were made to eat outside separate from their families like a dog. The other woman that I will never forget is a woman who was 17 when she was raped. She was unmarried. She was raped in the surrounding area of the refugee camp outside, and she became pregnant and as a result of the rape she did not initially tell her family because of fear of repercussions. When she could no longer hide the fact that she was pregnant, she told her mother. Her mother called in her uncles who beat her and took all of her clothes and left her naked on the floor five months pregnant and sold he clothes in the refugee camp. And when this woman came to me for the interview, she was literally dressed in rags because she had no clothes. This is in a society, a culture that's extremely modest and this woman literally her rags kept slipping off her shoulder baring her breasts because she had no clothes. And this was a case where this is the only time that I completely went outside of protocol. I couldn't stand that. It just killed me that she had no clothes to wear and I had one of the translators who was working with us come with me and we bought clothes, we bought her clothing so that she could have something to wear.

SHARP: The researchers' report reads as an indictment of the notion that Darfuri women refugees have found safe haven across the border in Chad. Ultimately, Physicians for Human Rights wants to see the refugees go home. They also want to see these crimes of sexual violence prosecuted so they don't keep happening. Sondra Crosby says it's difficult to witness this level of suffering and not be able to do anything about it.

CROSBY: And I think as physicians we're used to seeing people suffering and being able to help them, and in this particular situation there was really nothing we could do aside from listening to their stories.

SHARP: For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp.