Mastora, who was born in Sudan, cannot return to her birth country because she has spoken out about the sexual violence faced by women in Darfur.
When I told a fellow networker that I was planning on writing about the sexual violence facing African women in refugee camps housing people affected by genocide, he advised me not to write about this particular taboo until my blog was “very well established.” I’ve always done things my own way, following my inner compass and not the opinion of others for self-guidance on the right thing to do. I am a believer in the First Amendment, which allows us freedom of speech as well as the freedom to stop listening to others and to decide what we want to read for ourselves. For those reasons, I am giving you the story of Mastora and the women she is trying to help in her native country of Sudan.
A geography lesson is in order first. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, is located on the eastern side of the continent, and borders the Red Sea, Egypt, Chad, Uganda and six other countries. Across the Red Sea from Sudan lies Saudi Arabia. The region of Darfur is roughly the size of France, is located in the western part of Sudan and shares a border with the country of Chad. The United Human Rights Council website reports Darfur is home to about 6 million people from 100 different tribes, with all of those people being Muslim. Sudan did not make worldwide headlines due to the Ebola virus, but due to past and present acts of genocide, or the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.
On a recent Sunday, my friend Stephanie and I had the opportunity to sit down with Mastora, an immigrant from Sudan who can never return to her home country because she has spoken out about what is going on in Sudan and, most especially, in the Darfur region. For speaking up, Mastora faces death if she ever steps foot in her native Sudan again. I admire her quiet tenacity and constant determination to better the lives of those still living in Sudan, especially women and children.
Mastora served Stephanie and I, who were two strangers when we arrived at her home just minutes earlier, hot green tea with extra sugar and fresh mint grown in her patio container garden. The tea was served in beautiful glassware with a pedestal bottom and a gold gild design. This was the first time I had been served hot tea on a tray, and I found this touch of hospitality very heartwarming.
As we sipped our tea, Mastora told us the political and cultural history of Darfur as she knows it from having grown up in Sudan. There are two groups of people in Darfur: African and Arab. Traditionally, the Africans are settlers while the Arabs are nomads. Visually, these two groups look alike physically. The only way to distinguish one group from the other is to listen to them speak Arabic as each group speaks the language differently, Mastora explained. An American example of this is English spoken by a native of New England sounds different from English spoken by a native of the Deep South. There are different pronunciations of the same words and different accent patterns between the two groups, but both groups are speaking the same language.
The relationships between Africans and Arabs are “normally very good,” said Mastora. Things changed when China began looking at Sudan as a source of wealth. Sudan is rich in oil reserves, explains Mastora, and this potential source of wealth brought about a radical change in government. Tribal leadership, which had been historically unbiased towards both Africans and Arabs when solving disputes between the two groups, were replaced with leadership backed by the wealth seekers of the new government.
“These new leaders are not fair like previous tribal leaders,” said Mastora. She told us this is when the genocide started.
In 1989, General Omar Bashir took control of Sudan using military force, which then allowed the National Islamic Front group to inflame regional tensions, according to the United Human Rights Council. Weapons began to pour into the Darfur region, increasing tensions and violence between Africans and Arabs in the region. In 2003, two Darfuri rebel movements fought against the Sudanese government. The government responded by unleashing Arab militias known as Janjaweed, or “devils on horseback.”
Mastora told us these “devils on horseback” are supported and sponsored by the new
Sudanese government and these Arabs started killing Africans in widespread acts of genocide. Raping of women became commonplace in a culture where rape was previously unheard of. Women who are raped in Darfur are not allowed by the government to report their rapes nor are they allowed to tell who raped them. Rape victims are shamed by society and are often rejected by their families and peers as a result. Children born as a result of a rape are rejected outright.
“If women report rape, those women are punished for reporting the rapes,” said Mastora. She told us that women are often sexually assaulted more than once throughout their lifetimes as well.
The genocide caused by the Janjaweed has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2.5 million people, according to the United Human Rights Council. More than five thousand people die in the region each month. The Sudanese government disputes these numbers and denies any association with the “devils on horseback.”
People who are driven from their homes by violence are considered displaced peoples. Those who are displaced from their homes and then cross a geographical border into another country are considered refugees. Mastora explained there are 35,000 to 40,000 people living in each camp of either displaced peoples or refugees in Darfur. Eighty percent of these camp dwellers are women and children.
According to United Nations estimates, 2.7 million Darfuris remain in displaced persons camps in the region and over 4.7 million Darfuris rely on humanitarian aid.
“How do we stop the rapes and the sexual violence?” I ignorantly asked Mastora.
She shook her head back and forth slightly and answered, “We don’t.” She explained that we cannot end the violence altogether, but we can reduce it by changing certain aspects of life in the camps.
The primary food source is labor intensive to produce, involving much stirring in a pot over an open flame. These open cooking fires require a vast amount of firewood to keep burning. As more and more people move into the camps, firewood sources closest to the camps are depleted and firewood must be gathered farther and farther away from the camps. Women must walk longer distances several times a day to gather firewood for their cooking fires.
Violence, sexual assault and rape of these women by the “devils on horseback” occur mainly when they are gathering firewood. Mastora explained that a cooking fire requiring less wood to maintain along with sources of firewood closer to the camp residents will greatly reduce the time women spend in the forests, which in turn reduces the opportunity for sexual predators to attack these women.
A safe stove is made from clay, uses less firewood than traditional open fires and creates less smoke than an open fire. The stove has two windows, a little one for air circulation and a bigger one for the insertion of pieces of firewood to feed the fire in the stove. Three rocks strategically placed inside the stove holds a pot safely in place, allowing for safe preparation of food.
Mastora’s goal is to provide each family in the camps a safe stove and to give them each three desert trees to plant to be used as future firewood sources. The trees will provide much-needed shade in the camps as well. She feels that the shaming of women who are raped can be stopped through educating the camp residents that rape is the fault of the attacker and not the fault of the victim.
Being born an American female, I have a right to freedom of speech and the right to communicate with authorities if I am ever threatened or attacked. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a woman living in a camp in Darfur, where I am sexually assaulted or raped and then not allowed to talk about it. I cannot imagine being a victim in a society where the attackers never face the consequences of their actions and are allowed to continue their brutal ways.
For more information on the history of Sudan and Darfur, visit United Humans Right Council. For more information on Mastora’s charity, Darfur Women Network and the ways this organization helps Darfuri women and children, please visit her website. Let’s unite to help Mastora reduce, and hopefully one day end, sexual violence against women in Darfur.