I recently heard a voice from Darfur. She sat on a stage in front of me, not on the pages of the newspaper, and Darfur's resilient voice said, "The crisis has turned our lives upside down."
Between international justice experts and a movie star sat the most credentialed of the panelists gathered to spotlight rape as a war crime: the voice of Neimat, a Darfurian woman with painful memories but a face still softened with hope.
And then she told us that our voices can be heard in Darfur. The Save Darfur Coalition has set up a phone line (1-888-473-7885) where you can call and leave a message of hope and encouragement that will be broadcast over the radios to women in Darfurian refugee camps.
Why the women? The U.N. estimates that 300,000 civilians have died. At least 2.5 million have been scorched out of their villages and left homeless. And then there's the sometimes less acknowledged statistic, usually falling here, at the end of the paragraph: thousands of women raped.
Rape is a violence that goes further than ending a life; it lingers, fraying families and silencing souls. It is just as much a systematic warfare tactic as burning villages, looting homes, killing fathers, and kidnapping children, especially in cultures that highly value virginity. Rape has become a preferred tool of genocide, in Darfur and other war-torn regions, because of the specific ways it devastates the livelihood of communities.
A woman raped is a village raped, a family raped. Thousands of women raped, thousands of villages raped. "Women are the center of the family. Women are the center of society," Neimat told us. Therefore, an act of violence against one person is proliferated and felt throughout her community -- and the perpetrators of gender-based violence are well aware of their method. For centuries rape has been not simply a side effect of war, but a calculated weapon of mass destruction and intimidation.
Neimat left Sudan after several attempts on her life by the government because of her work to heal the wounds of rape. Cultural shame runs deep and prevents reintegration into society. As she explained, "It's really difficult for our community to go back to normal." Rape steals the marriage prospects of young girls. Women mourn not only the loss of their honor, but often the loss of their husbands who abandon them under accusations of adultery. Children are born as a result of rape, "half-janjaweed" and therefore unwanted. The women who were once the center of society are now traumatized and deeply ashamed, crippling their spheres of influence.
In the burned out villages and expansive displacement camps, women have gone from the most secure to the most vulnerable. Before the genocide started, "Women were well respected," Neimat told us. "Before a woman was always safe. It was compulsory for men to protect women. That is no longer the case." Life turned upside down.
But maybe the case is beginning to turn rightside up. Finally, after years of ghastly humanitarian transgression in Darfur, the mastermind of the systematic genocide and torture, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is being called to justice. So we hope. Earlier this month the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for al-Bashir's arrest, accusing him of the genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity he's perpetuated against the people of Sudan since 2003.
Will gender-based violence be one of the crimes against humanity Bashir is charged with? According to one of the evening's panelists, Senior Legal Officer Dr. Kelly Dawn Askin, only in the past 15 or so years has rape been considered more than just a by-product of war. But the jury is still out as to weather it's an official war crime, says John Heffernan, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Genocide Prevention Initiative.
Convinced that the night's event would be buried on page A8 or B2 of the next day's paper, one discouraged member of the audience rose and asked the question I think many of us feel underneath the layers of rage and empathy