Global Policy Forum

A War Against Women


By Douglas Farah

Washington Post
April 11, 2000

Blama Camp - Sierra Leone - One 25-year-old woman said she had delivered a still-born baby the day before rebels of the Revolutionary United Front attacked her village in 1998. She was unable to flee with most of the other villagers, and five rebels took turns raping her, she said. When her husband tried to intervene, they killed him. "I thought at first I was dealing with human beings, so I said I was sad and confused because I had just delivered a dead baby; I was bloody and weak," she said between sobs. "But they were not human beings. After they left I gave up, and I wanted to die. I had no reason to live anymore."

Human rights workers say the woman, who was rescued by a patrol of government troops, is one of thousands who were raped by insurgent forces and other armed gangs during the nation's eight-year civil war. While statistics are not yet available, rights workers said the rebels' rape campaign was as widespread and systematic as similar assaults in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war but has received far less attention. Unlike at least some of the perpetrators in Bosnia, those responsible here likely will never be tried because of a blanket amnesty that was part of the accord that ended the conflict last July. Even more worrisome, U.N. officials and government officials say, is that the rebels may still hold thousands of women in remote strongholds despite the fact that the peace accord required them to free all captive civilians.

"The [rebels] perpetrated systematic, organized and widespread sexual violence against girls and women," the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a recent report. "The rebels planned and launched operations in which they rounded up girls and women, brought them to rebel command centers and then subjected them to individual and gang rape. Young girls under 17, and particularly those deemed to be virgins, were specifically targeted. While some were released or managed to escape, hundreds continue to be held in sexual slavery after being 'married' to rebel combatants."

Rose Luz, a physician with the International Rescue Committee, said that what is most shocking about the hundreds of rape cases she is documenting is the ages of the victims. Most were under 14 or over 45--many of whom were too slow or too infirm to flee. Luz said the youngest victim documented so far was 5; the oldest was 75. "It is the ones who could not get away," Luz said. "They raped whomever they stumbled across." With the consent of the women involved, Rescue Committee officials arranged for a reporter to be present during some interviews. It was agreed that no names would be used or photographs taken. The interviews were conducted at this camp--about 160 miles southeast of the capital, Freetown--which shelters 22,500 people who were driven from their homes in eastern Sierra Leone by insurgent forces.

If the rebels considered a woman attractive or physically fit enough to work, she would likely be taken along with them--not just to be a sex slave, but a domestic servant as well, Luz and other aid workers said. Often, they said, a captive woman would try to attach herself to one leader to avoid repeated gang rape. In a culture in which rape victims are often ostracized, such wholesale assaults were effective not only in spreading terror, but in breaking apart communities, social workers said. The first victims began telling their stories to the Rescue Committee when the aid group started reproductive health classes here several months ago, said counselor Dolly Williams. Last month, in an effort to refer the women for urgently needed medical attention and help them cope with their shame and humiliation, the Rescue Committee began documenting their stories. As word of the program spread, hundreds of women have come forward, waiting their turn patiently while Williams and Luz record the accounts of other victims.

"Child and women abductees and victims of gender violence are far too numerous, and we do not yet even have a clear picture as to how many there really are," said U.S. Ambassador Joseph H. Melrose Jr., who is trying to arrange for U.S. funds to help the victims. "What is clear is that these victims and their injuries, both physical and psychological, must not be ignored. If these injuries do not heal, they will have implications for future generations of Sierra Leoneans and the success of the peace process." Williams said the rate of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea among the women is extremely high, a reflection of the 92 percent infection rate found among demobilized rebels. Neither the combatants nor the women are tested for AIDS or HIV infection because the cost is too great and there are no resources to treat anyone who tests positive.

The first woman to arrive at the palm-thatched interview room one day last week was a 60-year-old who came to tell how she was grabbed in her village by a group of raiders because she was unable to outrun them. When they could not find any other women, she said, they raped her. "I begged them not to," she said. "I told them I was old, I could be their grandmother," but they did not listen; they just laughed at me. Afterward they let me go because I was old and useless. Now I have pain when I urinate. I have sores; I can't sleep." A 35-year-old woman said she had been abducted and raped by four rebels in 1997. When they had finished, she said, they took her to their commander, who decided to keep her. She finally escaped three years later, during a firefight between the rebel unit and government troops. "I can't have a man again," she told the interviewer. "I have lost my life."

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