“Not only these women have been victimized but they also know their issues, they know their communities’ issues, they know what are the solutions. The only reason they have been forgotten is that there is no enabling environment for them to do it for themselves, and that is also why it is so important for us. ”
Niemat Ahmadi is an activist for victims' rights and women's rights regarding the 2003 genocide in Darfur, Sudan. She is herself from the region and had to flee because of the conflict, and has founded the Darfur Women's Action Group (DWAG) in the United States. The initiative comes from the idea that women are not simply victims; despite the magnitude of the crisis in Darfur, women have demonstrated extraordinary resilience and strength. They are aiming to utilize the power and strength of women and reinforce it with education and by sharing stories to maximize their effort in combating the genocide in Darfur. However, DWAG is not only for women victims, and Ms Ahmadi aims at empowering every victim from the conflict to build inclusive and sustainable grounds for reconstruction.
Interview by Tala Fadul (2022)
The interview was conducted in the spring of 2022 and has been edited for clarity
Can you tell me a bit more about the work you do with women victims? What kind of expectations and demands do they have, and what is their sentiment now, given the absence of political capacity and – more recently with the coup – political willingness?
Darfur Women Action Group came to exist at the peak of the Darfur genocide. When people were speaking about how many people were killed, and how many villages were destroyed, and how many people were forced to flee, there wasn’t specific statistics on women even though women have been the most impacted. And that’s why we made a commitment as an organization to prioritize women's leadership, participation and decision making - women having a voice in whatever we do. We also educate others who are working on Sudan to prioritize women's participation and especially women from the affected communities who have been victimized by genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. Not only these women have been victimized but they also know their issues, they know their communities’ issues, they know what are the solutions. The only reason they have been forgotten is that there is no enabling environment for them to do it for themselves, and that is also why it is so important for us.
We do provide a space for women to share their stories and plight but we also recognize their leadership, resilience, and courage. Looking at the Darfur situation, it has been twenty years since the genocide started and out of all these events, women make the overwhelming majority of those living in the internally displaced camps, and refugee camps whether in Chad or other neighboring countries like Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, and South Sudan.
Women have not only just become victims but they are also leaders and healers who take care of everyone in the community. They bring their own families together, they bring the families of their neighbours and their community, and children who lost their parents together. In Sudan we don’t have orphanages, so women take in people who nobody else in the society cares about. They have a huge burden on them, and that is why we prioritize them.
We have the empowering women centers that we came up with after Bashir threw out humanitarian organizations. Even though we are sitting in Washington – we didn’t have a presence on the ground at that moment – we work through organizations to be able to create the safest space for women to come together, to share their stories and plight, but also share their strategies and coping mechanisms so that they can develop survival strategies together. And that has been very successful. We also provide capacity building, leadership development, and we encourage support for women to participate in decision-making at all levels. We also organize conferences and bring women face-to-face with policy makers. We bring high level policy makers to listen to women’s stories – women survivors of sexual violence, from Darfur but also from other situations – and over the years, we organized about eight annual symposiums which are international conferences on women in genocide in the 21st century. You can see a lot about that on our website. We brought women from Darfur, and other crisis situations including Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq, the Congo, Rwanda, Burma, Nigeria – the young girls who have been abducted by Boko Haram who survived the abduction and became a voice for their community. So you see, all these women have a voice but the international community and those actors who are working on women issues don’t prioritize giving women a voice or recognizing their resilience and courage. So in that context, we have been very unique in terms of putting women on the front line and stressing the importance of women's participation at all levels of decision making whether it is in emergency relief response or development intervention, or conflict resolution, accountability, access to justice, peacebuilding. Women have to be at the table because they are 50% of the society but in these situations like in Darfur and the Darfur genocide, women make up the overwhelming majority which is about 80 to 85% of the camps dwellers. Those who have been forced to flee are women, children, and rape has been systematically used as a weapon of war. We address rape as a weapon of war and we place special attention on, and make a priority of, empowering women who are survivors of sexual and gender based violence so that they become leaders and reintegrate themselves into their society. So we do a lot of advocacy around the international community because you have to educate these policy makers as we have seen a lot of situations in which institutions make decisions for people that they never saw or have no idea about. So we brought women to the UN, we took women to speak at the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC, we took women to meet with the Prosecutor. We were stressing the fact that women have to participate as victims and witnesses and also as experts because women address issues from a very different perspective. They do know the ins and outs of the society’s issues.
We do also support women's education and take an institutional approach to women issues. We want to integrate women’s issues into all public institutions in Sudan because these institutions are sitting there and making completely off the point rules and policies that are not favorable to women. And because of the years of oppression under the Bashir regime, some laws passed that are oppressive to women, in many instances, they institutionalized violence against women like beating them, using rape as a weapon of war. It is like they are using it as a power struggle or a political game because women are so strong in Sudan – and particularly in Darfur – and historically in Darfur the society was a matriarchal one so women had more power and a better position of power; women have more abilities to participate in decision-making. So the only way for them to weaken the society is by attacking women, and demonizing by showing the male members of the society that they are not able to protect their family or women, thus breaking their dignity and will. That is why we take an institutional approach and we developed a strategic framework for women's empowerment, participation and inclusion in the Republic of Sudan, like a policy framework that empowers women and educate them and build their capacity so that they can mainstream their agenda into the public institutions and take the lead in terms of changing those institutions. We try to take a national approach because in most cases, at the national level in Sudan, people talk about women issues in a very different way; they don’t necessarily integrate the priorities of women from Darfur or crisis affected situations such as Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and even Eastern Sudan. So we wanted people at the national level to become aware and more inclusive of women’s issues coming from these areas.
What impact does it have on your work and the reception by the general public?
The first impression for the people when you tell them you’re the Darfur Women Action Group is that they think you only work with women. Then we tell them we work with everyone, but we want everyone to know that women come first, be it leadership, decision-making, participation, empowerment, we have to prioritize women. And that’s the only way we teach society to understand how to work with women and women in position of power, and how to ensure that they lead by example. And you can’t do that if you single out women.
For the reception, people are very receptive. I was in Sudan in 2021 in the summer and we organized a workshop in Khartoum. I had several workshops in Darfur, but the one in Khartoum was about women’s role in constitution making. I was stunned by the level of reception. We invited men who are lawyers, civil society leaders, journalists, and then women were the overwhelming majority of participants and actually when it comes to constitution making, our experts were all women, the speakers were all women. We had a professor from the US, but also a woman from Darfur Bar Association who presented a paper and she was very specialized in constitution making. Nobody knew that she had all this knowledge so someone immediately suggested that we organize this workshop for journalists so that they can write more about women issues but also more about the work she has done.
In Darfur, we created a lot of good relationships. It’s like an amazing and unique relationship; I can say from the top institutions to the lowest level. Many people are receptive and supportive, and we have a very good relationship with the ICC as an institution, we meet with them, they are very open with us and consult with us. We give them information, a contextual understanding of the situation. We have a very good relationship with the diplomatic community in the US as well, and a very good relationship with the diplomatic community around the UN Security Council. Sometimes people from various countries call us to advise them, we have this great position among organizations in the US working on Sudan, they come to us for advice, they come to us for partnerships, especially when the interim period opened up space for NGOs to go and work on the ground. So we have a lot of outreach for partnerships.
Addressing women issues puts you in a very unique position but our approach is also unconventional and innovative so people just like what we do and that can become like a breakthrough for us to be everywhere. Even when we went to Sudan, during the interim period, we developed a policy paper that was sent to the Prime Minister and several other institutions they were very receptive to it, even though the sovereign council did not like the accountability part – financial and criminal accountability. With traditional leaders, when I went home I organized a public symposium and people said that, for years, that was the first time they saw that number of people coming to a symposium and I did not even speak about women issues but rather on their role in the development of their home town, and then I spoke about the role of women within that context. And we made it importantly clear that women issues are not just women issues but society issues. Their efforts mean the efforts of the whole of society to come together to resolve. Because in your family if your mother is impacted in a way or another, everyone is impacted. We realized that in the past, the way people would talk about women issues would marginalize women. People talk about women empowerment within the context of small enterprise, income generation activities, handcraft making, etc. They don’t see women as policy makers, decision-makers, leaders, and things like that.
So there is a lot of receptivity, and sometimes I tell women that they have to stand up and walk into these spaces without waiting to be invited, and we want to develop that attitude for women – especially young women like yourself – because if you’re not at the table, then nobody is going to eat for you right? So that is the kind of attitude we teach women working with us, to feel confident that they are not taking anything from anyone but they are just taking their rightful place; their seat at the right place.
Do you think that existing judicial mechanisms are inclusive of victims? Are victims able to interact with the judiciary?
My answer would be no. Because there are a lot of barriers and obstacles to women’s effective participation. For example, in the early investigation, the ICC investigated and they met with people, but in most cases women were unable to move around to be more accessible because of their responsibilities. Women had to stay inside Darfur to take care of their families. Whereas for men it was easier to migrate, join opposition groups, or go out for education and jobs. So women had to stay in one place. Those places have made them live under siege by the government, the Janjaweed militias, and Rapid Support Forces. Also, women don’t have that access to information, for example most women don’t own a smartphone in Sudan. Right now, if you are not connected to the internet you are not connected to anything, you are just completely outside of the world. So that also makes it difficult. Again, the stigma in itself and the fear of retaliation especially for women survivors of sexual violence is another taboo that is not addressed. The institutions in Sudan and Sudanese laws do not define rape, or war crimes, or crimes against humanity, or genocide – we don’t have a definition of genocide in the Sudanese national laws – so that makes all the people working in the judiciary system ignorant and exclusive. So women have to struggle to be able to have access to justice, because of all the barriers and economic disenfranchisement, lack of access to communications, lack of access to mobility. For example, a women with five kids can’t travel easily, let alone get a passport for them or take them to the city, or even go to meetings. When people go to the village, a women would have to bring water for example, or firewood, etc. So sometimes they miss those meetings because of their domestic work. So the load is huge, and that’s why we recommend that special attention be given to development approaches that include women, to break all these barriers, to allow more women to participate, come forward and have access to justice.
Do you identify different goals among parties in the justice seeking process regarding victims of the genocide in Darfur?
The goals are very different. For instance, most international organizations advocate for peace, while we emphasize more on justice. Peace agreements are very superficial and it also targets a handful of individuals who may be those who committed the crimes, like the arrangements right now in Sudan. So it is a handful of individuals and leaders who benefit from it and it does not go down to those who are more impacted. Whereas justice would give recognition to the victims and that is what we are seeking. For instance, if people have been victimized, then the recognition activates moral and psychological processes that are more important than any type of compensation. By recognizing that and admitting that something happened and giving a space for the victims to tell their stories in a court of justice, we also recognize their plights and also their dignity. So our goal is dignity first and not about material considerations like giving compensation or reparation for what they lost, because the women and people of Darfur will never get back what they lost. A regular woman from the village does not want to go to Khartoum or have a power-sharing, but she does want to have the ability to go back to her own rightful land, she wants to have the right to restore her land of origin. They have the right to restore the services that they lost, they have the right to get individual capacity to be able to rebuild their life. There are three levels of compensation: monetary, individual and communal compensation like providing clean water, schools, clinics, rebuilding their homes – these are communal compensations. But then, giving them seed money with which they can go back and start rebuilding their life would be an individual and monetary compensation. People who became disabled and lost their hand, feet or sight, you have to help them receive advanced treatment so that they can rely on themselves again. These are some of the goals.
And then you also have admission of guilt at the national and international levels, recognize the harm that has been done and give the moral and psychological compensation like declaring a day for Darfur in Sudan, building a museum for the genocide victims and survivors in Sudan. These are things we are seeking, it is not just a punishment to the perpetuators but also recognizing the dignity of the victims and give them the right to restore their life. And of course also punish those who perpetuated the crimes, so that in the future we will not allow it to happen again.
What would be the critical differences between a justice by the Sudanese judicial system and the international system?
In order for the victims to receive justice, there are certain conditions that need to be met. The judiciary system has to be capable, competent and willing. So these elements do not exist in Sudan at the moment. The ICC only work within the context of complementarity in some countries. For instance, in Uganda, the DRC, or South Africa, the national system is willing to pursue justice and they have an independent judiciary system. In countries like Burundi, Sudan, the CAR or Chad, they don’t have a national independent system, there is no competence and no political will to pursue justice.
Then you come to the next level of victims participation. Your perpetuators are in Sudan and they have power. As a victims or witness, if you come forward and is identified as a witness, your life is in jeopardy. Is there a capacity in Sudan to provide victims with protection? No. So these are the conditions. I think justice can’t be pursued in one day, or one month, nor ten years, but for the time being, the ICC is the court of last resort, and the only option because of their capacity, neutrality, willingness and also their ability to protect the witnesses and the victims who come forward to participate. And then usually through the ICC not every victim would be compensated but at least they establish precedents so that in the future if there happens to be a Sudanese judiciary system, they can follow up on that trend. The ICC helps create awareness but also build capacity at the national level. If Sudan is to join the ICC today, we will have the member states helping us build that capacity, and judiciary infrastructures, train judges, lawyers, and all those involved. But if we are isolated and controlled by the military, we will have incompetent people sitting in power.
There’s also fear, nobody can pursue justice if they are under threat. For example a judge can’t sentence RSF leaders, tomorrow they will come to his home and shoot him. Who is protecting that judge? So that’s why not all people are corrupt, but judges can’t make those types of decisions unless the security apparatus approves of it. If they don’t approve of it then you are in jeopardy. And there is no civilian protection mechanism even right now in Khartoum. If someone harms you, it’s hard to seek justice. For example, for those who were attacked at the sit-in, the investigation went in vain, nobody cared, nobody recognized their plight and gave them the opportunity to seek justice. Tomorrow if anyone tries to do that, there will be retaliation. Because of that, there is no awareness among the Sudanese community about this.
The understanding and conscience on justice in Sudan has been very superficial, and even people who are educated don’t understand that they have a right to justice. If you have a situation, then even your family will tell you not to go, and people perceive others who go to court as bad people. For instance, if a girl is walking at night and some random police officer arrested you and abused you in any way, your family would be ashamed because you were walking at night alone. So the family will start covering that up and if you want to tell on the policeman but nobody would help you. We need to educate the society to come to that level where justice is pursued in a neutral way and people claim their right to justice. Even the most educated Sudanese political leaders were advocating that Bashir should be tried in Sudan. Do you think that Al-Burhan and Hemedti will be trying Bashir? They are denying victims their rights, Sudanese people are the ones not recognizing the rights of the people of Darfur because when the interim government came, some of the civil society groups especially those not from Darfur, and have not been through genocide, were for a Bashir trial in Sudan. And then they would say things that are not reasonable like he can be sentenced to death in Sudan but at the ICC he would be comfortable. No! He will be sitting in a place thousands of miles from Sudan, that is the best punishment. The good thing is that the ICC is treating both the victims and the perpetuators with dignity. We don’t want justice within the context of retaliation. We want justice in the context of establishing foundations for justice for everyone, it is a matter of right. It is not just retaliating or punishing, so that is why I think it is very important to have that understanding among the Sudanese community, and for the victims it is a very long way to go but Sudan is not a place for them to seek justice.
About the interviewer: Tala Fadul is a French-Sudanese woman working in health and security in Africa – more specifically East and West Africa. She recently graduated from PSIA - Sciences Po with a Masters in International Security, concentrating on Global Health and Africa, and in parallel is completing a Bachelor of Psychology.