Surviving Darfur: An African Doctor's Memoir

Too often, atrocities blur into abstractions. The burned-out villages; the camps for the desperate displaced; the brutalized women—for all that we've seen, read and heard about Darfur, for all the celebrities who've adopted it as their own cause célèbre, it's still hard for us to get a real sense of the hideousness that has taken place there. Halima Bashir might be the person who finally pulls us through that barrier.

Bashir was 24 when the Sudanese soldiers came for her. By then, of course, she was already sadly familiar with her country's political tensions. As a village child sent to school in the city, she had been taunted by members of Sudan's Arab elite for being African. As a medical student, her studies were repeatedly disrupted when the authorities closed down her campus and tried to force students to fight in what she called the "plastic jihad" against non-Muslim Sudanese in the south. But it was when she first saw the bleeding bodies of the 8-year-old girls from the school in the remote Darfuri village of Mazkhabad that she realized "someone had let the devil in" to her country.

Bashir was the lone doctor at the village clinic as teachers and parents carried the girls in. The Arab militia known as the Janjaweed had held some 40 of the children hostage for two hours, forcing them to watch as their friends were raped, beating them in the head with sticks or rifle butts if they tried to resist and yelling at them that Sudan was for Arabs, not black dogs and slaves. Bashir wept as she sutured, trying to comfort the girls and console herself that at least they were too young to become pregnant. "I eased little Aisha's legs open, to reveal a red, bloodied rawness," Bashir writes in her newly-released memoir "Tears of the Desert." "When that first Arab had forced himself into her, he had ripped her apart… It was exactly as I had expected, exactly what I had been fearing. I would have to clean the wound and sew her up again, and I knew that I had no anesthetic with which to do so."

It was a week later that the three men in dirty soldiers' uniforms dragged her off. Furious that she had given U.N. officials details about the attack on the village school, they beat her and left her tied and gagged in a hut at a nearby military camp. That night, three more men arrived, slashing at her with a razor before forcing themselves on her. "The three of them took turns raping me, one after the other," she writes. "Once the third had finished, they started over again. And while doing so they burned me with their cigarettes and cut me with their blades." The assaults continued for two days. On the third, the men let her go, telling her they'd let her live so she could go and tell the world what rape was.

Bashir managed to flee back to her own tribal village. Five months later, the war came for her again. One December day, she recalls, five helicopters banked low over the settlement, the lead one spewing bright flashes and puffs of smoke. "An instant later, the huts beneath it exploded, mud and thatch and branches and bodies being thrown into the air," she writes. "In the distance beneath the helicopters a massed rank of horsemen swept forward, firing their guns and screaming as they smashed into the village." Those who were able fled into the forest. Shortly before sunset, they crept back to their burning homes. Those too old or too young to run were shot, burned or stabbed to death; at least one newborn baby was thrown into a fire. The men who stayed to defend the village—among them Bashir's father—were a pile of corpses in the marketplace.

Bashir's memoir is appearing at a pivotal time for Darfur. Three months ago, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on charges of ten counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC's three-judge Pre-Trial Chamber has yet to rule on whether to issue the warrant, but the issue has generated a heated controversy among Darfur activists who fear that the arrest of an incumbent president will further destabilize Sudan and exacerbate the danger facing displaced Darfuris and aid groups working in the area. For the feisty Moreno-Ocampo, the young doctor's account undercuts the argument that justice will have to wait until there is peace in Sudan. "That's why Halima's book is so good," he told NEWSWEEK in an interview. "It shows how rape is used as a silent weapon to destroy the Africans, to force them to have Arab children."

Bashir herself (no relation to the Sudanese president) supports the indictment too. But "Tears in the Desert" is far more than a litany of her pain. Indeed, much of its relevance lies in her account of her life before Darfur became a byword for genocide. Written together with veteran BBC journalist Damien Lewis, the book paints a vivid picture of a traditional lifestyle under siege, a portrait of the people of Darfur before they became victims. Bashir is Zaghawa, a member of a proud semi-nomadic tribe that can trace its roots back to the 7th century and that, together with other non-Arab Muslim tribes in Darfur, has been at the center of the conflict with the Janjaweed. Now 29, she grew up in a typical desert village. Home was a compound consisting of four circular mud huts surrounded by a fence made of tree branches. A chicken coop housed hens and pigeons, whose droppings were often mixed with oil to make a paste for injuries. Her days were spent playing with friends and helping a demanding grandmother with chores like collecting firewood or catching locusts for the frying pan. Traditional customs had to be observed: young children were cut on the face with a razor blade to form the distinctive scar patterning of the Zaghawa. Later, the girls marked their transition to womanhood through the searing pain of circumcision. Bashir had run away before her grandmother could scar her cheeks, but she couldn't escape the mutilation of the genital cutting—and her anger about it afterward.

That life is over now. Bashir's village is destroyed, its inhabitants either dead or in camps. Bashir herself managed to sell the family's hidden gold to buy herself passage to Britain. There she managed to find her husband, win political asylum and—in spite of the injuries sustained during the rape—give birth to two sons. By Darfur standards, she's enormously fortunate, but her tale is hardly a happy one. Her husband, also a Zaghawa who fled Darfur, still faces the threat of deportation from England. Her mother and sister, who fled the village ahead of her, face an uncertain future in a Chad refugee camp. She doesn't know the fate of her brothers.

Meanwhile, the fear of retaliation by the Sudanese government for telling her story forces her to protect her face and her identity. The name Halima Bashir is a pseudonym, she says, and she is afraid to be photographed with her face unveiled. The stigma her society attaches to rape also lingers; some of her remaining family is angry that she has told the world about it. Nonetheless, Bashir believes the risk and pain of publicity was necessary. "I'm writing my story for the people who can't write it for themselves," she told NEWSWEEK during a recent visit to New York. "We need to move past the political and focus on the personal." In the end, that may be the only way to fully grasp the ghastliness of Darfur.