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Remembering the women of Darfur

ASHA'S VILLAGE was attacked before dawn. First the planes came with the bombs. Then armed men on horse- and camel-back rode in, shooting everyone in their path. As people screamed and gathered up their children the attackers quickly went hut to hut.

Five armed men burst into Asha's hut and grabbed her. Her 15-year-old son tried to protect her and was shot. Her 2-week-old baby girl fell as they threw Asha to the ground. Her other children escaped. Asha screamed and struggled. Two armed men whipped her viciously on her back, her legs and arms, her face. One man held a gun to her face and told her he would shoot her if she struggled more. While two armed men held her, three others raped her. The remaining men then took a turn. The baby lay beside her. They asked if her baby was a girl or a boy. If he were a boy, they would have shot him.

We heard variations of Asha's story over and over again.

Three women from Boston -- Liz Walker, Gloria White-Hammond, and myself -- just returned from a two-week journey to Sudan. We sat in huts in the middle of torrid camps in Darfur spending hours talking to 60 women in total. We played with their children. We saw how they lived. They easily opened their hearts to us. They trusted us and wanted us to know their pain and suffering.

After rebel groups attacked and overran government forces in Sudan two years ago, the government, supported by local "janjaweed" (evil horsemen) militia, have wreaked revenge -- attacking more than 400 villages in Darfur. What men and boys they find, they kill. The women and girls they beat and rape, even girls as young as 5 years old. Rape has become their instrument of war, and violence against women has become the centerpiece of the conflict in Darfur. Even in the camps, the women are not safe. As they venture out of the camps daily to collect firewood, they are at risk of being raped by armed attackers roving the perimeter.

The government needs to be brought to task to provide security for its people. Militias on all sides of the conflict have been involved in flagrant attacks against civilians and aid workers. This impunity must cease in order to stop the pattern of violence where women and children are the primary victims. Perpetrators from both sides need to be held accountable.

At the 10-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, many in the international community have looked at Darfur and asked whether it is happening again. There has been an outpouring of humanitarian aid and rhetorical concern over the allegations of ethnic cleansing and even genocide. The African Union has stepped forward with a cease-fire monitoring force. But there remain major shortfalls in the international response: The United Nations Security Council has so far been unable to pass a resolution authorizing a tribunal to put on trial those from all sides of the conflict who are responsible for crimes against humanity; with fewer than 2,000 troops deployed, the African Union force is too small to cover an area the size of France, and its mandate too limited to provide real protection to the women and children of Darfur.

The women in the camps desperately need more help recovering from their trauma. Rape victims need vastly greater medical services. Women need places to come together for support and to begin rebuilding their lives learning new skills for income-generating activities. They want and need to be productive. We must give them the means to get their lives going again.

Most important, the world cannot forget Darfur. Brutal violence is continuing every day. During the time we were there, seven more villages were attacked. The conflict in Darfur has resulted in 2 million displaced people, and tens of thousands (and recent reports say up to 300,000) dead.

The world said "never again" after Rwanda. Pressure and priority need to be placed on concluding the peace agreement with Darfur. Let us not forget Asha and the women of Darfur.

Linda Mason, chairman and founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, is on the board of Mercy Corps. 

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