RIGHTS-SUDAN: Women Boost Darfur Talks

Joyce Mulama

ABUJA, Dec 22 2005 (IPS) - Mariam Abdalla Omar has earned a reputation as both a fighter and a peacemaker in the troubled western Sudanese region of Darfur.

Mariam Abdalla Omar has earned a reputation as both a fighter and a peacemaker in the troubled western Sudanese region of Darfur.

The stout 55-year-old woman walks with a noticeable limp. The disability is not inborn, but one caused by a bullet that pierced right through her right leg when she was fighting government-backed Arab militias. The militias, called janjaweed, or men on horseback, have attacked villages belonging to dark-skinned Africans like Omar’s.

Human rights groups have accused the militias of torching huts, destroying crops, raping women, stealing cattle and slaughtering those whose skin colour does not resemble theirs.

“I joined the rebel movement and learned how to shoot. I took up guns and shot at the enemy, hiding in the sprawling bush. It was not easy. I also got shot in the process,” Omar told IPS, pointing at her leg which bears deep bullet wounds.

Like most fighters in Darfur, Omar has a reason for joining the rebellion. “Anger drove me to become a rebel soldier. The army slashed my husband with knives all over his body before killing him. I was left a widow to take care of our five children and eight other children whose parents – all close relatives of mine – had been slaughtered by the army,” she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Omar, who was picked up by security agents several times, found herself walking out right through prison doors. “I was not going to give up so quickly. I could not let the thought of my husband’s death drift away so easily. So I kept on fighting and the more I fought, the more I risked being arrested,” she said, breaking into a war song.

A commander in the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), one of the two rebel movements, fighting the army and its janjaweed ally in Darfur, Omar is no longer talking war. She is campaigning for peace. “We are here for peace and we want real peace. We have come all the way to look for peace. Peace is better than war,” she told IPS in Abuja, Nigeria, last week.

The Darfur conflict erupted in 2003 when the SLM/A and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) took up arms to fight marginalisation by government. The war has displaced about two million people within Darfur and more than 200,000 others have fled to neighbouring Chad, according to the United Nations. No clear figures exist of the number of lives lost from the war, but according to informal statistics, about 300,000 people have died since 2003.

Omar is one of the four women selected by SLM/A to be part of its negotiation team at the talks, which kicked off Nov. 21. Now in their seventh round, the talks have been taking place in Abuja since last year. The negotiations, between the government of Sudan and the two rebel groups, are being facilitated by the African Union (AU).

The participation of women to the peace talks is historic. It has not happened during the previous rounds of talks. Their inclusion followed an appeal by Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU Special Envoy for the Peace Talks on Darfur, to have all sides include women as part of their delegations. Salim made the appeal during the sixth round of talks which took place in Abuja between Sept. 15 and Oct. 20.

The JEM brought five women and the Islamic regime in Khartoum picked two women as part of its delegation. “All parties have included women in this round of talks and it is a good sign. We hope that women’s rights issues will not be trampled upon and that they can be addressed in the final agreement which will be acceptable to all parties,” Sam Ibok, head of the AU mediation team, told IPS in Abuja.

Joining the women were 15 gender activists from Darfur who traveled to Abuja Dec. 9 to deliberate on issues affecting women that could be tackled at the talks. The women, who are not allied to any of the warring parties, were expected to present their recommendations to the talks this week. They were flown to Abuja by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

“This is to show the world that the women of Darfur are not victims, but part of the process upon which peace shall be built. It is a positive story of Darfur women seeking to find a lasting peace even though they have been deeply affected by the war,” Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, UNIFEM’s regional director for East and Horn of Africa, said.

At the current round of talks, delegates are discussing key issues such as wealth and power sharing, as well as security. Women delegates are particularly concerned about the insecurity in Darfur.

“We urgently need the two sides to sign a comprehensive ceasefire, which should be fully implemented to ensure that civilians, particularly women, are protected. Women are raped in and outside the camps as they go about collecting firewood or fetching water,” noted SLM/A’s Neimat Adam Ahmadi.

According to Ahmadi, who has been supporting survivors of rape in Darfur, at least ten counts of rape are reported each day. The figure rises with each attack by the warring parties, she said.

Darfur’s belligerents have continued to launch attacks against each other as well as on civilians despite a shaky ceasefire signed Nov. 2004.

There are also calls to include women in the AU protection force, which is charged with the mandate of monitoring rights violations. “We want women to be part of the protection community. Women would be keen to take note of any violations and this would minimise human rights abuses on the civilians, especially women.

Women have borne the brunt of the war in Darfur,” Halima Hasaballa, one of the women in the government delegation, asserted.

The AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS) has about 7,000 troops which, analysts say, is too small to monitor Darfur, a territory the size of France.

As hopes intensify for a sustainable peace in Darfur, it remains unclear when the killings would stop. “Peace talks are never short, they take time. If you fix peace quickly, it will break. It is better to take time and negotiate a sustainable piece,” Ibok noted.

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RIGHTS-SUDAN: Women Boost Darfur Talks

Joyce Mulama

ABUJA, Dec 22 2005 (IPS) - Mariam Abdalla Omar has earned a reputation as both a fighter and a peacemaker in the troubled western Sudanese region of Darfur.

Republish | | Print |

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