Another thing that struck me about Condoleeza Rice's visit was the emphasis that she put onto the issue of rape - or, more importantly, the effect this seemed to have on the Sudanese government.
In Darfur, rape continues to be one of the most highly charged topics of all and the government is doing its best to bully the international community (be they UN or NGOs) to stay the hell out of it.
We would, of course, except that it continues to take place at a daily rate. Anyone who claims that rape is not being used as a weapon of war here in Darfur is either lying through their teeth or just plain nuts. It is rare that I come back from a camp visit without having met a woman who has been raped recently - and every situation report, security briefing or protection document that comes out of Darfur confirms this to the rest of the world (well, those who are listening at least).
Unfortunately, the government's silencing campaign has partially worked: earlier this week I ask another sheik whether he is reporting his community's rape cases to the (government-controlled) police force. He politely tells me that he would probably be killed if he did - beaten at a minimum, he adds as an afterthought, so no, he doesn’t report them anymore.
Not only that: women have also stopped seeking medical treatment after a rape, avoiding even NGO clinics. Clearly, the government's intimidation campaign has had some impact here: after seeing the government arrest foreign aid workers for publicising the huge number of rape incidences, women are simply too afraid that they will be beaten (or raped again) by security agents who suspect them of reporting cases. The fear is not unfounded: almost all of us in the field know that there are informants among the national NGO staff, even among the doctors and nurses at international aid agencies.
There is little that the average aid worker can do or say about all this if they don't want to be manhandled like this week's pesky US journalists. We are all acutely aware of the threat of being kicked out of the country, or worse, targeted in a "convenient" security incident.
Thankfully, these rules don't exactly apply to people like Condoleeza Rice, who did speak out on the issue of rape both prior to and during her visit. And lo and behold, the subject suddenly seemed a whole lot more serious coming from the lips of a senior US government official. Yes, the Sudanese government will address rapes in Darfur! And prosecute the offenders! And sign up to an international convention on the protection of women! Yes, something is going to be done!
While those on the ground are much too cynical too assume that anyone will actually follow through on these promises, there is a sense of relief simply in reasising that some things and some people obviously do still make the Sudanese government jump. Now if only they would make them jump a little higher...
Tags: Sudan, Darfur, aid worker, Condoleeza Rice, rape, police, protection, security, US government