When Rapists Walk Free
March 5, 2005
One of the gutsiest people on earth is Mukhtaran Bibi. And after this week, she'll need that courage just to survive.
Mukhtaran, a tall, slim young woman who never attended school as a child, lives in a poor and remote village in the Punjab area of Pakistan. As part of a village dispute in 2002, a tribal council decided to punish her family by sentencing her to be gang-raped. She begged and cried, but four of her neighbors immediately stripped her and carried out the sentence. Then her tormenters made her walk home naked while her father tried to shield her from the eyes of 300 villagers.
Mukhtaran was meant to be so shamed that she would commit suicide. But in a society where women are supposed to be soft and helpless, she proved indescribably tough, and she found the courage to live. She demanded the prosecution of her attackers, and six were sent to death row.
She received $8,300 in compensation and used it to start two schools in the village, one for boys and one for girls, because she feels that education is the best way to change attitudes like those that led to the attack on her. Illiterate herself, she then enrolled in her own elementary school.
I visited Mukhtaran in her village in September and wrote a column about her. Readers responded with an avalanche of mail, including 1,300 donations for Mukhtaran totaling $133,000.
The money arrived just in time, for Mukhtaran's schools had run out of funds. She had sold her family's cow to keep them open because she believes so passionately in the redemptive power of education.
Now that cash from readers has put the schools on a sound financial footing again. And Mercy Corps, a first-rate American aid group already active in Pakistan, has agreed to assist Mukhtaran in spending the money wisely. The next step will be to start an ambulance service for the area so sick or injured villagers can get to a hospital.
Down the road, Mukhtaran says, she will try to start her own aid group to battle honor killings. And even though she lives in a remote village without electricity, she has galvanized her supporters to launch a Web site: www.mukhtarmai.com. (Although her legal name is Mukhtaran Bibi, she is known in the Pakistani press by a variant, Mukhtar Mai).
Until two days ago, she was thriving. Then — disaster.
A Pakistani court overturned the death sentences of all six men convicted in the attack on her and ordered five of them freed. They are her neighbors and will be living alongside her. Mukhtaran was in the courthouse and collapsed in tears, fearful of the risk this brings to her family.
"Yes, there is danger," she said by telephone afterward. "We are afraid for our lives, but we will face whatever fate brings for us."
Mukhtaran, not the kind of woman to squander money on herself by flying, even when she has access to $133,000, took an exhausting 12-hour bus ride to Islamabad yesterday to appeal to the Supreme Court. Mercy Corps will help keep her in a safe location, and those donations from readers may keep her alive for the time being. But for the long term, Mukhtaran has always said she wants to stay in her village, whatever the risk, because that's where she can make the most difference.
I had planned to be in Pakistan this week to write a follow-up column about Mukhtaran. But after a month's wait, the Pakistani government has refused to give me a visa, presumably out of fear that I would write more about Pakistani nuclear peddling. (Hmm, a good idea.)
Mukhtaran's life illuminates what will be the central moral challenge of this century, the brutality that is the lot of so many women and girls in poor countries. For starters, because of inattention to maternal health, a woman dies in childbirth in the developing world every minute.
In Pakistan, if a woman reports a rape, four Muslim men must generally act as witnesses before she can prove her case. Otherwise, she risks being charged with fornication or adultery — and suffering a public whipping and long imprisonment.
Mukhtaran is a hero. She suffered what in her society was the most extreme shame imaginable — and emerged as a symbol of virtue. She has taken a sordid story of perennial poverty, gang rape and judicial brutality and inspired us with her faith in the power of education — and her hope.
A Policy Of Rape
June 5, 2005
All countries have rapes, of course. But here in the refugee shantytowns of Darfur, the horrific stories that young women whisper are not of random criminality but of a systematic campaign of rape to terrorize civilians and drive them from 'Arab lands' — a policy of rape.
One measure of the international community's hypocrisy is that the world is barely bothering to protest. More than two years after the genocide in Darfur began, the women of Kalma Camp — a teeming squatter's camp of 110,000 people driven from their burned villages — still face the risk of gang rape every single day as they go out looking for firewood.
Nemat, a 21-year-old, told me that she left the camp with three friends to get firewood to cook with. In the early afternoon a group of men in uniforms caught and gang-raped her.
"They said, 'You are black people. We want to wipe you out,'" Nemat recalled. After the attack, Nemat was too injured to walk, but her relatives found her and carried her back to camp on a donkey.
A neighbor, Toma, 34, said she heard similar comments from seven men in police uniforms who raped her. "They said, 'We want to finish you people off,' " she recalled.
Sometimes the women simply vanish. A young mother named Asha cried as she told how she and her four sisters were chased down by a Janjaweed militia; she escaped but all her sisters were caught.
"To this day, I don't know if they are alive or dead," she sobbed. Then she acknowledged that she had another reason for grief: a Janjaweed militia had also murdered her husband 23 days earlier.
Gang rape is terrifying anywhere, but particularly so here. Women who are raped here are often ostracized for life, even forced to build their own huts and live by themselves. In addition, most girls in Darfur undergo an extreme form of genital cutting called infibulation that often ends with a midwife stitching the vagina shut with a thread made of wild thorns. This stitching and the scar tissue make sexual assault a particularly violent act, and the resulting injuries increase the risk of H.I.V. transmission.
Sudan has refused to allow aid groups to bring into Darfur more rape kits that include medication that reduces the risk of infection from H.I.V.
The government has also imprisoned rape victims who became pregnant, for adultery. Even those who simply seek medical help are harassed and humiliated.
On March 26, a 17-year-old student named Hawa went to a French-run clinic in Kalma and reported that she had been raped. A French midwife examined her and confirmed that she was bleeding and had been raped.
But an informer in the clinic alerted the police, who barged in and — over the determined protests of two Frenchwomen — carried Hawa off to a police hospital, where she was chained to a cot by one leg and one arm. A doctor there declared that she had not been raped after all, and Hawa was then imprisoned for a couple of days. The authorities are now proposing that she be charged with submitting false information.
The attacks are sometimes purely about humiliation. Some women are raped with sticks that tear apart their insides, leaving them constantly trickling urine. One Sudanese woman working for a European aid organization was raped with a bayonet.
Doctors Without Borders issued an excellent report in March noting that it alone treated almost 500 rapes in a four-and-a-half-month period. Sudan finally reacted to the report a few days ago — by arresting an Englishman and a Dutchman working for Doctors Without Borders.
Those women who spoke to me risked arrest and lifelong shame by telling their stories. Their courage should be an inspiration to us — and above all, to President Bush — to speak out. Mr. Bush finally let the word Darfur pass his lips on Wednesday, after 142 days of silence, but only during a photo op. Such silence amounts to acquiescence, for this policy of rape flourishes only because it is ignored.
I'm still chilled by the matter-of-fact explanation I received as to why it is women who collect firewood, even though they're the ones who are raped. The reason is an indication of how utterly we are failing the people of Darfur, two years into the first genocide of the 21st century.
"It's simple," one woman here explained. "When the men go out, they're killed. The women are only raped."
Mr. Bush, This Is Pro-Life?
October 23, 2005
When I walked into the maternity hospital here, I wished that President Bush were with me.
A 37-year-old woman was lying on a stretcher, groaning from labor pains and wracked by convulsions. She was losing her eyesight and seemed about to slip into a coma from eclampsia, a complication of pregnancy that kills 50,000 women a year in the developing world. Beneath her, cockroaches skittered across the floor.
"We're just calling for her husband," said Dr. Obende Kayode, an obstetrician. "When he provides the drugs and surgical materials, we can do the operation," a Caesarean section.
Dr. Kayode explained that before any surgery can begin, the patient or family members must pay $42 for a surgical kit with bandages, surgical thread and antibiotics.
In this case, the woman — a mother of six named Ramatou Issoufou — was lucky. Her husband was able to round up the sum quickly, without having to sell any goats. Moreover, this maternity hospital had been equipped by the U.N. Population Fund — and that's why I wished Mr. Bush were with me. Last month, Mr. Bush again withheld all U.S. funds from the U.N. Population Fund.
The Population Fund promotes modern contraception, which is practiced by only 4 percent of women in Niger, and safe childbirth. But it has the money to assist only a few areas of Niger, and Mrs. Issoufou was blessed to live in one of them.
Nurses wheeled her into the operating theater, scrubbed her belly and administered a spinal anesthetic. Then Dr. Kayode cut open her abdomen and reached inside to pull out a healthy 6-pound, 6-ounce boy. (A video of the operation can be seen at www.nytimes.com/kristof.)
After removing the placenta, Dr. Kayode stitched up Mrs. Issoufou. Her convulsions passed, and it was clear that she and the baby would survive. For all the criticism heaped on the U.N., these were two more lives saved by the U.N. Population Fund — no thanks to the Bush administration.
Even when they don't die, mothers often suffer horrific childbirth injuries. In the town of Goure, a 20-year-old woman named Fathi Ali was lying listlessly on a cot, leaking urine. After she was in labor for three days, her mother and her aunt had put her on a camel and led her 40 miles across the desert to a clinic — but midway in the journey the baby was stillborn and she suffered a fistula, an internal injury that leaves her incontinent.
Village women are the least powerful people on earth. That's why more than 500,000 women die every year worldwide in pregnancy — and why we in the West should focus more aid on preventing such deaths in poor countries.
Mr. Bush and other conservatives have blocked funds for the U.N. Population Fund because they're concerned about its involvement in China. They're right to be appalled by forced sterilizations and abortions in China, and they have the best of intentions. But they're wrong to blame the Population Fund, which has been pushing China to ease the coercion — and in any case the solution isn't to let African women die. (Two American women have started a wonderful grass-roots organization that seeks to make up for the Bush cuts with private donations; its website is www.34millionfriends.org.)
After watching Dr. Kayode save the life of Mrs. Issoufou and her baby, I was ready to drop out of journalism and sign up for medical school. But places like Niger need not just doctors, but resources.
Pregnant women die constantly here because they can't afford treatment costing just a few dollars. Sometimes the doctors and nurses reach into their own pockets to help a patient, but they can't do so every time.
"It depends on the mood," Dr. Kayode said. "If the [staff] feel they can't pay out again, then you just wait and watch. And sometimes she dies."
A few days earlier, a pregnant woman had arrived with a dangerously high blood pressure of 250 over 130; it was her 12th pregnancy. Dr. Kayode prescribed a medicine called Clonidine for the hypertension, but she did not have the $13 to buy it. Nor could she afford $42 for a Caesarean that she needed.
During childbirth, right here in this hospital, she hemorrhaged and bled to death.
Somewhere in the world, a pregnant woman dies like that about once a minute, often leaving a handful of orphans behind. Call me naive, but I think that if Mr. Bush came here and saw women dying as a consequence of his confused policy, he would relent. This can't be what he wants — or what America stands for.
Never Again, Again?
November 20, 2005
So who killed 2-year-old Zahra Abdullah for belonging to the Fur tribe?
At one level, the answer is simple: The murderers were members of the janjaweed militia that stormed into this mud-brick village in the South Darfur region at dawn four weeks ago on horses, camels and trucks. Zahra's mother, Fatima Omar Adam, woke to gunfire and smoke and knew at once what was happening.
She jumped up from her sleeping mat and put Zahra on her back, then grabbed the hands of her two older children and raced out of her thatch-roof hut with her husband.
Some of the marauders were right outside. They yanked Zahra from Ms. Fatima's back and began bludgeoning her on the ground in front of her shrieking mother and sister. Then the men began beating Ms. Fatima and the other two children, so she grabbed them and fled — and the men returned to beating the life out of Zahra.
At another level, responsibility belongs to the Sudanese government, which armed the janjaweed and gave them license to slaughter and rape members of several African tribes, including the Fur.
Then some responsibility attaches to the rebels in Darfur. They claim to be representing the tribes being ethnically cleansed, but they have been fighting each other instead of negotiating a peace with the government that would end the bloodbath.
And finally, responsibility belongs to the international community — to you and me — for acquiescing in yet another genocide.
Tama is just the latest of many hundreds of villages that have been methodically destroyed in the killing fields of Darfur over the last two years. Ms. Fatima sat on the ground and told me her story — which was confirmed by other eyewitnesses — in a dull, choked monotone, as she described her guilt at leaving her child to die.
"Zahra was on the ground, and they were beating her with sticks, but I ran away," she said. Her 4-year-old son, Adam, was also beaten badly but survived. A 9-year-old daughter, Khadija, has only minor injuries but she told me that she had constant nightmares about the janjaweed.
At least Ms. Fatima knows what happened to her daughter. A neighbor, Aisha Yagoub Abdurahman, is beside herself because she says she saw her 10-year-old son Adil carried off by the janjaweed. He is still missing, and everyone knows that the janjaweed regularly enslave children like him, using them as servants or sexual playthings. In all, 37 people were killed in Tama, and another 12 are missing.
The survivors fled five miles to another village that had been abandoned after being attacked by the janjaweed a year earlier. Now the survivors are terrified, and they surrounded me to ask for advice about how to stay alive.
None of them dared accompany me back to Tama, which is an eerie ghost town, doors hanging off hinges and pots and sandals strewn about. The only inhabitants I saw in Tama were camels, which are now using the village as a pasture — and which the villagers say belong to the janjaweed. On the road back, I saw a group of six janjaweed, one displaying his rifle.
Darfur is just the latest chapter in a sorry history of repeated inaction in the face of genocide, from that of Armenians, through the Holocaust, to the slaughter of Cambodians, Bosnians and Rwandans. If we had acted more resolutely last year, then Zahra would probably still be alive.
Attacks on villages like Tama occur regularly. Over the last week, one tribe called the Falata, backed and armed by the Sudanese government, has burned villages belonging to the Masalit tribe south of here. Dozens of bodies are said to be lying unclaimed on the ground.
President Bush, where are you? You emphasize your willingness to speak bluntly about evil, but you barely let the word Darfur pass your lips. The central lesson of the history of genocide is that the essential starting point of any response is to bellow moral outrage — but instead, Mr. President, you're whispering.
In a later column, I'll talk more specifically about actions we should take, and it's true that this is a complex mess without easy solutions. But for starters we need a dose of moral clarity. For all the myriad complexities of Darfur, what history will remember is that this is where little girls were bashed to death in front of their parents because of their tribe — and because the world couldn't be bothered to notice.
What's to Be Done About Darfur? Plenty
November 29, 2005
In 1915, Woodrow Wilson turned a blind eye to the Armenian genocide. In the 1940's, Franklin Roosevelt refused to bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. In 1994, Bill Clinton turned away from the slaughter in Rwanda. And in 2005, President Bush is acquiescing in the first genocide of the 21st century, in Darfur.
Mr. Bush is paralyzed for the same reasons as his predecessors. There is no great public outcry, there are no neat solutions, we already have our hands full, and it all seems rather distant and hopeless.
But Darfur is not hopeless. Here's what we should do.
First, we must pony up for the African Union security force. The single most disgraceful action the U.S. has taken was Congress's decision, with the complicity of the Bush administration, to cut out all $50 million in the current budget to help pay for the African peacekeepers in Darfur. Shame on Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona — and the White House — for facilitating genocide.
Mr. Bush needs to find $50 million fast and get it to the peacekeepers.
Second, the U.S. needs to push for an expanded security force in Darfur. The African Union force is a good start, but it lacks sufficient troops and weaponry. The most practical solution is to "blue hat" the force, making it a U.N. peacekeeping force built around the African Union core. It needs more resources and a more robust mandate, plus contributions from NATO or at least from major countries like Canada, Germany and Japan.
Third, we should impose a no-fly zone. The U.S. should warn Sudan that if it bombs civilians, then afterward we will destroy the airplanes involved.
Fourth, the House should pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act. This legislation, which would apply targeted sanctions and pressure Sudan to stop the killing, passed the Senate unanimously but now faces an uphill struggle in the House.
Fifth, Mr. Bush should use the bully pulpit. He should talk about Darfur in his speeches and invite survivors to the Oval Office. He should wear a green "Save Darfur" bracelet — or how about getting a Darfur lawn sign for the White House? (Both are available, along with ideas for action, from www.savedarfur.org.) He can call Hosni Mubarak and other Arab and African leaders and ask them to visit Darfur. He can call on China to stop underwriting this genocide.
Sixth, President Bush and Kofi Annan should jointly appoint a special envoy to negotiate with tribal sheiks. Colin Powell or James Baker III would be ideal in working with the sheiks and other parties to hammer out a peace deal. The envoy would choose a Sudanese chief of staff like Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, a leading Sudanese human rights activist who has been pushing just such a plan with the help of Human Rights First.
So far, peace negotiations have failed because they center on two groups that are partly composed of recalcitrant thugs: the government and the increasingly splintered rebels. But Darfur has a traditional system of conflict resolution based on tribal sheiks, and it's crucial to bring those sheiks into the process.
Ordinary readers can push for all these moves. Before he died, Senator Paul Simon said that if only 100 people in each Congressional district had demanded a stop to the Rwandan genocide, that effort would have generated a determination to stop it. But Americans didn't write such letters to their members of Congress then, and they're not writing them now.
Finding the right policy tools to confront genocide is an excruciating challenge, but it's not the biggest problem. The hardest thing to find is the political will.
For all my criticisms of Mr. Bush, he has sent tons of humanitarian aid, and his deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, has traveled to Darfur four times this year. But far more needs to be done.
As Simon Deng, a Sudanese activist living in the U.S., puts it: "Tell me why we have Milosevic and Saddam Hussein on trial for their crimes, but we do nothing in Sudan. Why not just let all the war criminals go. When it comes to black people being slaughtered, do we look the other way?"
Put aside for a moment the question of whether Mr. Bush misled the nation on W.M.D. in Iraq. It's just as important to ask whether he was truthful when he declared in his second inaugural address, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors."
Mr. Bush, so far that has been a ringing falsehood — but, please, make it true.
Winners of the 2006 ASNE Awards