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INTERVIEW-Sudanese author welcomes Bashir genocide charges

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 15 Jul 2008 09:00 GMT
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Sudanese author Halima Bashir welcomed the genocide charges against Sudan's president on Monday, saying she hoped he felt some of the fear she did in Darfur when she was gang raped by the military.

Halima Bashir, an exile in London, witnessed a militia attack on a school in Darfur, where she said girls as young as eight were beaten and raped while Sudanese soldiers stood guard.

She told aid workers about the attack by the Janjaweed militia. The military came after her. She was cut with knives, burned with cigarettes and gang-raped repeatedly.

They let her live, taunting her with the words: "Now you can go and tell the world about rape."

She has done so in her memoir. "Tears of the Desert" is touted by publishers as the first memoir by a Darfuri woman.

"I really can't explain how happy I am," Halima Bashir said of the ruling by the International Criminal Court's prosecutor to charge Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with masterminding a campaign of genocide in Darfur, killing 35,000 people and persecuting 2.5 million refugees.

"We want him to feel horrified, to feel the same fear that they've made us feel," she told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

Darfuri rebels rose up against the government in 2003 against what they said was government discrimination against non-Arab farmers in favour of Arab tribes.

Arab militias, some known as the Janjaweed which are a pro-government group, have driven farmers from their land in a campaign rights groups say amounts of ethnic cleansing.

"HELL"

Halima Bashir was a young doctor working at a remote clinic in northern Darfur and treated victims from both sides of the conflict. But nothing had prepared her for the "long vision of hell" on the day Arab militia targeted the local school.

"I couldn't understand how a true human being could do something like this to children," Halima Bashir said. "And I couldn't explain to them why this had happened. They were just young children."

Halima Bashir gave evidence to U.N. aid workers investigating rumours of the attack but word got back to the authorities.

After the beatings and gang-rapes, she managed to flee to her home village in western Darfur. But the war soon followed, and her village was razed by Janjaweed fighters backed by Sudanese army helicopter gunships.

Separated from her surviving relatives, Halima Bashir made the long journey to Britain as a refugee.

Defying traditional taboos around rape, she has since spoken out about her suffering to try to encourage other Darfuri women to deal with their trauma.

"Just to know that this is not something shameful that has happened," she said. "They are victims. They are not criminals. They had no hand in doing this. They are innocent people."

"Women are not talking very much -- or not talking at all -- about what is happening to them," she said. "Even now we are here and we are smiling but you don't know what's in our hearts."

Rights groups have accused forces allied with Sudan's government of mass abduction and rape of women and girls in Darfur, acts they say could constitute war crimes.

ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said on Monday 2.5 million Darfuris were subject to a campaign of "rape, hunger and fear" in refugee camps, where he said genocide continued "under our eyes".

International experts estimate that at least 200,000 people have died since war erupted in 2003. Khartoum puts the figure at around 10,000.

Halima Bashir said she hoped her memoir would help spur international action to stop the suffering.

"Darfur is part of the world," she said. "Taking the world as one body, Darfur is like a big wound still bleeding. You have to stop this bleeding."

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