A weapon of war

July 23, 2004

FORTY-FOUR WOMEN. They introduced themselves as "the raped women" of Tawilah in Darfur. They have been assaulted by the Janjaweed, the Arab militias of horse and camel riders that are waging a war of extermination against black Muslim farmers in this corner of Sudan. In a culture that shuns rape victims, these 44 women stand out because they spoke out against their attackers in a signed letter. They shared their shame to publicize the crimes of their countrymen and the complicity of their government.

Their very public plea, delivered recently to two visiting U.S. congressmen, highlights the unseen trauma of a brutal campaign marked by murder, displacement and death by starvation. It underscores the extent of the violence and the need for the international community to remain focused on Darfur and the people under siege there. The conflict, spawned 16 months ago in a villagers' rebellion, has displaced 1.2 million people. At least a million more are suffering from hunger and illness because of the fighting and the threatened rains.

In a new report last week, Amnesty International identified the rape and sexual assault of Darfur women not as a consequence of this campaign of ethnic violence, but as a weapon of war. The distinction matters because it supports the mounting evidence that genocide is under way there. The tactic has been used in other ethnic conflicts -- the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda -- and prosecuted as a war crime.

In the Darfur conflict, women are targets. Mothers, daughters, widows, girls as young as 9 are raped in their villages as their homes burn. They are raped in the bush, at roadblocks and in displaced persons camps. Some are abducted and enslaved and violated repeatedly. There are reports of rapists branding their victims. A woman's limbs were broken to keep her from fleeing her captor.

Forty-four women told their stories in a letter that was hand-delivered to Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. But Amnesty International has the names of 250 more victims and leads on 250 others. Relief and U.N. workers have heard from more still. Many more.

The United States and the United Nations have pressed the Sudanese government to disarm the militias. But without a strict deadline, the Sudanese will have no incentive to act swiftly.

As diplomats face off with their Sudanese counterparts, the women of Darfur cannot be forgotten. The crime of rape is a war crime because it strips a woman of her humanity and threatens her existence. It polarizes a community and creates a class of "enemy children," a generation of sons and daughters ostracized, abandoned by virtue of the crime of their birth.

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