The United Nations and international observers have identified rape as a tool used by Arab Janjaweed militias to terrorize women and girls in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. The African Union force charged with monitoring Darfur has tried to combat the threat of rape in the most unsettled areas. Noel King reports for VOA from Otash camp in south Darfur.
African Union civilian police and military observers drive deep into the bush outside of Otash camp in Nyala, South Darfur.
Their mission is to patrol the remote area north of Otash, where thousands of Darfuri women and girls trek several times each week to collect firewood.
In order to cook the food rations the women are given by humanitarian agencies, they must leave the relative safety of the camp to collect firewood. Once outside, they face the threat of rape by armed militias known as Janjaweed.
In Sudan, as in many other societies, rape is a source of shame, and though it is rampant, many women fear reporting rape to Sudanese authorities.
AU civilian police chief inspector Henry Tanor explained to VOA why the firewood patrols were deemed necessary.
"When they go to the bush, the people try to rape them. So, all the time they come and report that when they went for firewood they have been raped and they have been attacked by Janjaweed," he said. "So they fear going to the bush. But they are compelled to go. Most of them live on this firewood."
Five kilometers from the camp, the patrol came upon two women wearing tattered robes and carrying heavy axes, used to cut the wood.
At first, they shied away as the AU police officers got out of their cars, but when they saw AU Captain Debbie Omoruan the woman looked relieved. Omoruan explained to VOA that it is important to have women police officers accompany the patrols.
"They are clamoring for us to come to the bush with them," she said. "That's why I have my women here. When the women are also here they feel very safe. Because [when] they see women the fear relaxes."
Later that same day, things went slightly awry.
Two young women collecting wood on a hillside heard the AU patrol approach and, believing they were in danger, began scrambling over the hills to get away.
AU civilian police and military observers, along with a young Sudanese police officer who was with the patrol, chased after them shouting greetings. In time, the mistake was made clear.
One of the women, Hawa Adam Abdel Nour, told VOA they were running, because they were afraid.
"This is the place where the Arabs used to attack us," she said. "When we saw you we thought you were here to attack. The attackers wore the uniform of the Sudanese police. We used to think they were here to protect us but they would take the young women away and beat the older ones,".
Observers often wonder why women leave the camp at all, instead of the men.
Another Sudanese woman interviewed for this story, Khadija Sebit, explains.
"They will just kill the men," she said. "One day 10 men from my village were killed by Janjaweed,".
Sudan is charged with arming and supporting the Arab Janjaweed following a 2003 rebellion by members of predominantly African tribes. In retaliation, the Janjaweed conducted a savage scorched-earth campaign targeting African civilian villages.
Experts estimate that at least 200,000 people have died during the conflict. More than 2 million others fled to camps for the displaced where they live in peril and squalor.
Critics have called the African Union force incompetent, because of its inability to stem violence in the region. But on firewood patrols their mission is often a success.
As the AU police and observers prepared to leave, the women hurriedly lifted bundles of firewood to their heads and followed the African Union patrol back to the camp.