CHAD — As the sun sets, through the haze the shadows of the women appear, coming back as they have for centuries from gathering firewood. This simple task has always been women's work, but now just collecting sticks and branches is dangerous. Women, young and old, risk being hunted down by the Janjaweed and raped.
The Janjaweed, the Arab militia aligned with the Sudanese government, have used rape as a weapon of war to ethnically cleanse Darfur and eastern Chad of blacks.
Last month, 17-year-old Aziza and six other women went in search of firewood in the bush. Suddenly, three armed men rode up on horseback and chased her down. One man caught her, then he bit her arm and neck to "mark" her as a rape victim.
She told us: "He tied my veil around my neck. He was wearing a Sudanese uniform. He was an Arab. He wanted to know what tribe I belonged to and if we had any land. He said, 'You are black. You have no place here. We will push you out of here. This land will remain for us.'"
Then, she says, he grabbed her tightly and raped her. Aziza would not look at his face.
Talking about rape is an act of courage here. Aziza has been shunned by her friends.
Other women understand too well Aziza's terror. In a land where people are admired for their stoicism, tears.
They sing a song about what the Janjaweed did to them.
"This is our land," begins one verse. "They rape us and they kill us. Who can we depend on to help us?"
Most of these women have been raped by Janjaweed soldiers, some by several men at a time.
Human Rights Watch estimates thousands of black women and girls have been systematically raped in the last three years.
"Often, women are scarred," says Eric Reeves, a Sudan analyst at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "They have tendons cut, so as to mark them as having been raped. And, thus, unsuitable as brides and compromised as mothers and wives."
Aziza doesn't know yet if she is pregnant. What she does know is that she may never get the chance to marry.
While her mothers, sisters and aunts stand by her, Aziza is still too terrified to go back into the bush, since the one moment when gathering firewood changed her life forever.
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