At first, the women tried to hide. They headed to a lake and submerged themselves as the Sudanese army approached. But they couldn’t stay there forever. “We were chased, and all the women were caught, each raped by three to six men,” says Bokur Hamis, the pseudonym of a twenty-one-year-old woman from Jartage, a village in western Darfur. “One woman refused, and they split her head into many pieces with an ax in front of all of us.”
Hamis herself resisted. “They tried to take me into a truck, and I refused, so one of them hit me hard with a cane, broke my rib, then threw me in the truck,” she says. “They took forty-three of us in Land Cruisers and drove us two days without food or water.”
She presses her fingers into her hands and looks down a bit as she narrates, slowly.
“We reached a place in the middle of the night with lights, and they put us directly on a huge airplane,” she recalls. “I thought they’d kill me.”
The government soldiers were gloating. “They kept speaking as if they were proud of what they did,” she says.
Bleeding and with broken ribs, they sat on the plane in silence, having no idea where they were going or what awaited them.
“When we arrived at a base in Khartoum the soldiers saluted their commanders, and they were each given money,” she says. “They stood in parade and there was saluting.” Hamis says she saw all the soldiers bowing to a portly commander with gold on his shoulders inspecting the women. “Each woman was given to a soldier,” she says. “Now I don’t know where any of them are. I was given to an Arab soldier, taken to his house, and locked inside. They never let me out, and for two months I didn’t see outside.”
Baxit Zaruuk was abducted this summer from the village of Mokjar by Sudanese soldiers and members of the Janjaweed, the armed militias that have been marauding around the country. A fourteen-year-old girl, she hesitantly tells her story.
“The soldiers and Janjaweed came into the village and threatened to kill us if we didn’t go with them,” says Zaruuk, also a pseudonym. “The car didn’t stop, so we couldn’t run away.” Like Hamis, Zaruuk, too, was taken to the airport. “There were twenty-five girls from many different areas. They put us all on two planes, each with about a hundred soldiers. In Khartoum, we were all taken to a place along the Nile and raped at gunpoint.”
The discovery of the women’s cases is damning evidence against the government’s claim of noninvolvement in the organized violence against black Africans in Darfur.
“The army captured many children and women hiding in the bush outside burnt villages,” explains a senior politician in Khartoum. “They were transported by plane at night to Khartoum and divided up among soldiers as domestic workers and, in some cases, wives.”
Rape and mass murder by Janjaweed militias in Darfur has been well documented, but mass abduction is too complicated for a militia. “It takes quite a bit of coordination to kidnap forty women from rural Darfur and fly them all secretly to Khartoum for forced marriage, so this was clearly agreed upon by senior politicians,” says the defecting parliamentarian, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is solid proof of collusion between the government, army, and judiciary in the rape, abduction, and slavery of children and women.”
The troops from the African Union that are supposed to be guaranteeing a ceasefire— with the goal of stopping these human rights abuses—are at a loss to do so. I traveled along with a 120-strong force from Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, and Egypt.
“They’re not acting in good faith,” says Chief Military Observer Colonel Anthony Amedoh, referring to Sudanese officials. “There are so many clear ceasefire violations by the Sudanese government. But we can’t stop them; we can just report it. They deny it and don’t stop what they are doing.”
We take a plane ride to Nyala, where a Nigerian observer an-nounces, “We caught them fighting together red-handed,” referring to the Sudanese army working alongside the Janjaweed militias as they inflicted horrors at a large refugee camp. But the international troops were powerless to stop it.
“Aside from a small protection force, there are absolutely no arms here,” says William Molokwane, an intelligence officer. “If something happens now, what can we do?”
The international observers from the African Union cannot directly intervene in the conflict, and various governments and human rights groups have called for the mandate and size of the observer force to be expanded to protect civilians.
“In traditional peacekeeping, there is a line,” says South African commander Barry Steyn. “If either side crosses that line, the peacekeeper fights back. There are no lines and borders here, and we don’t directly intervene, so it’s a very difficult mission.”
Steyn’s forces confirmed more than fifty civilian deaths in one week alone. “You believe there’s an inherent goodness in people, but you see some of these villages, and it shakes that belief,” he says, as he describes the maggot-infested decomposing skulls he had found. “You look at this stuff, and it makes you turn dead white.”
Each observer team includes representatives of the Sudanese government and rebel movements. “We are all friends,” the Sudanese representative says with a sleazy smile during a helicopter ride. The rebel next to him stares down. The tension is overt.
“Everyone must sign each investigative report so we have to water down everything because we have warring parties on teams,” says Steyn.
Given the questionable results of the so-called ceasefire army of the African Union, there is growing resentment among the people of Darfur.
“People here hate the AU,” says Gamar, a local trader. “What can they do? The Sudanese government is lying all the time.”
Benjamin Joffe-Walt is a freelance writer based in South Africa.