Darfur doctor: ‘I was raped and taunted as a black dog’

By Halima Bashir. Halima Bashir’s story is told in Tears of the Desert, written with Damien Lewis, and published by Hodder (THE TIMES, 14/07/08):

My name is Halima. I come from a warlike black African tribe, the Zaghawa, who inhabit the southern Darfur region of Sudan. But I live as a refugee in London, and it is the horrors of the war in Darfur that drove me from my homeland, scattering my family to the four corners of the Earth.

In the year of my birth, 1979, my father named me Halima, after the medicine woman of our village. It was a prophetic naming. My father was a rich man and determined that I be educated. He believed that it was the only way that we black African Sudanese would break free of the Arab domination of our country.

My fierce grandmother, Sumah, was a traditionalist. No good Muslim girl should be educated, she believed. But I became the star pupil at school and won a place at university in Khartoum. I was the first from my desert village to go to university, and the first in our sub-tribe, the Coube, to qualify as a medical doctor.

When I returned home everyone was proud to have a “real doctor” in the village. Only my grandma muttered darkly about “no good ever coming from reading books”. But the year I graduated, conflict exploded in Darfur. I was posted to a hospital in the nearest large town. Men women and children started arriving with the most horrific wounds. I worked in the accident and emergency ward, where I treated all people – regardless of race, colour or creed. There was a police unit there, and doctors were supposed to report anyone suspected of being involved in the war.

I knew we had rebel fighters coming for treatment; I also knew that we had men from the government-backed Janjawid Arab militias. I treated them all. And I spoke to the newspapers and aid agencies about the terrible cost of the war. One day I was at work when the Sudanese secret police came for me.

They drove me to a “ghost house” – a secret detention centre – and abused me. I was the Zaghawa doctor helping the rebels, they said. I had spoken to the papers. I was told to shut my mouth or face the consequences. I was transferred to a remote village clinic, a punishment posting, where I was the only doctor.

One day the Janjawid attacked. They surrounded the girls’ school, and, while government troops stood guard, they gang-raped the girls. I had to treat the victims, the youngest of whom was 8 years old. I was sickened and horrified beyond words.

Aid workers arrived and asked me to tell them what had happened: despite my fears, I did so. Days later the military and security men came for me again. This time I was beaten, tortured and taunted by gibes of “black dog” and “slave”. I was gang-raped repeatedly.

Eventually, I was told that they would let me live. I had been taught by “expert teachers”, so now I could really “go and tell the foreigners about rape”. I fled to my village. But one morning the Janjawid came in on horseback, with Sudanese army helicopter gunships in support, bombing and shooting up the village.

I ran with my mother, brothers and sisters, as my father stayed to fight. All he had was his dagger, yet he faced the Janjawid with their AK47s. My father was killed, and our village wiped off the face of the Earth.

Afterwards, as we survivors cowered in burnt huts and tried to comprehend how our lives had been so torn apart, the secret police came for me again. They were still after “the Zaghawa rebel doctor”. Luckily, I had warning and escaped. I walked through the deserts, alone, bereft and afraid.

I headed south for the Nuba area, where black Africans were known to be welcoming survivors from Darfur. Yet I was told that, even there, I would not be safe: if I stayed in Sudan, the secret police would find me. I gave a trafficker all my family’s wealth – including my grandma’s gold jewellery – to smuggle me out.

In 2005 I arrived in the UK, and was granted asylum. I still have no idea who of my family is still alive, or where they may be. All I do know is that I owe my life to fate, and the sanctuary provided by the UK.

And I also know that the war crimes in Darfur, including the use of rape as a weapon of war, have been sanctioned from the very top of the regime in Sudan. My life is testimony to that. Before the war in Darfur, the Arab tribes that make up the Janjawid were poor nomads, with no weapons but swords and knives. They were armed by the regime, and given orders to lay waste to our homeland. They were aided by the warplanes and soldiers of the Sudanese military.

Today the International Criminal Court in The Hague is expected to issue indictments for war crimes in Sudan that go right to the top of the regime, including the President, Omar al-Bashir. It means that justice may finally be about to be done for the genocidaires in Khartoum.