MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Continuing now with our international briefing, Liberia's leaders are working hard to move the country forward from its troubled history, as we just heard. But now we turn to a nation still plagued by civil conflict and violence, Sudan.
Since fighting began more than five years ago in the Sudanese region of Darfur, more than two and a half million people have been forced from their homes. We've heard a very great deal from those involved in the fighting or justifying the fighting, even from those who are caring for the victims of the fighting, but we've heard very little from those most affected by it until now.
Halima Bashir is from Darfur. She was a practicing doctor until she began to speak out about the violence directed against women and girls there by Janjaweed militia she believes were supported by the Sudanese government. She has paid a terrible price for her outspokenness but she has refused to be silenced. She lives in London now, and she's written what may be the first memoir by a survivor of the ongoing violence in Darfur. It's called, "Tears Of The Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur." Halima Bashir is with me now in our Washington studio. Welcome.
Ms. HALIMA BASHIR (Author, "Tears Of The Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur"): Thank you.
MARTIN: You begin the book with a story of your family and growing up in Darfur. Can you just tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up there?
Ms. BASHIR: Growing up in Darfur is like living like one family with all neighbors, with all cousins. We have got our own farms and we share everything. We dancing together, we loving together, we share the bad and the happy and sad things, and it's just like typical village life.
MARTIN: Did you have a sense of safety growing up? Did you ever have concerns about your safety?
Ms. BASHIR: No. No. Nothing threatened our life or nothing bad is happening to us.
MARTIN: How is it that you were able to go to medical school?
Ms. BASHIR: This is because of my father, and he sent me away to the other different parts of Sudan to get my education until I became a doctor.
MARTIN: Why did you want to be a doctor?
Ms. BASHIR: This is for many reasons. This is one of my father's dreams because there is a one day, the whole(ph) saved his life when he have been attacked by one of our camels, and he went into deep coma for two weeks. And there is a traditional medicine woman in our village who saved his life, and even he gave me her name after they gave news of me.
Ms. BASHIR: Yeah.
MARTIN: And this happened before you were born, yes?
Ms. BASHIR: Yeah.
MARTIN: But the story, in the retelling, made you want to be a healer such as this?
Ms. BASHIR: Yes, yes.
MARTIN: It wasn't so easy, as I read from the book, being a village girl, going to a big university, and especially there were a lot of people who were from the city there. And can you just tell a little bit about what that was like?
Ms. BASHIR: You know, I have been sent since I am six years old to the nearby city to get education, and I didn't spent a lot of time with my family. All my time I'm traveling from days to another, and during all these days I realized that we have been discriminated (unintelligible) and...
MARTIN: Based on what?
Ms. BASHIR: And we have been marginalized.
MARTIN: Based on what?
Ms. BASHIR: It's just based on blood, skin, because we are black African and because the Arabs, who are minority in the country, but they are governing the country and they have the power and everything. That's why they didn't give us our equal rights.
MARTIN: Did you feel this when you were in school? In medical school, did you feel this sense of discrimination or distance from your schoolmates who were Arabs?
Ms. BASHIR: Yeah. I feel it all the time. There is clear discrimination between Arabs and African, and because they have got everything - and even if an Arab gives, did something wrong, nobody will punish her. But if we did, we have to do anything, but for them, no. And when the Arabs they look to us, they - you find that they feel angry why we are coming and getting education. They see them, I see - it's clear discrimination in Sudan, you know.
MARTIN: Do the girls mix when they're not in classroom? Did you - did the African girls or the black girls mix with the Arab girls outside of school? Did you do things together, socialize together?
Ms. BASHIR: Yes, yes. We live together, we think together, we taking them as a colleague, you know. But there is something inside, you know? When I made a friendship with black African, I felt that as if I am on the right direction, and I felt more safety and more friendly. But with the Arabs, we don't.
MARTIN: In 2003, as I understand it, there was an attack on a girls' school near your clinic. What happened there when you talked to the UN about the attack?
Ms. BASHIR: The government gave the Janjaweed militias of Malaysia - they support them. They gave them the weapons and everything to fight the black African because they don't want us to be alive - to use many different ways of war. And at that time, they use rape and sexual violence against women as a weapon of war. And they attack a small primary school of girls. They rape more than 40 girls with their teachers. I was nearby helping the clinic.
MARTIN: You were treating the girls, some of the girls who were attacked?
Ms. BASHIR: Yes, we treat them. They were...
MARTIN: And teachers, as well.
Ms. BASHIR: Yes, and...
MARTIN: Who were attacked.
Ms. BASHIR: They were in a miserable condition, you know, and they were physically and psychologically shocked about what is happening, and I couldn't forget that - their questions when they asked us because they were just children. They didn't know exactly what is happening, what was going around. The asked us why those people do - did this like for us and questions we couldn't answer them.
MARTIN: And then what happened to you?
Ms. BASHIR: After that, I report this incident to the UN people, and after that they came to me and they took me and they tell me that in wars like this, you are talking about the war, about rape, about everything, but you've got to know exactly what rape was and we are going to teach you a lesson. And after that, they raped me and they let me to go and they said, now go and talk about rape if you can.
MARTIN: So the government soldiers or officials found out that you had been talking to the United Nations and then they arrested you after that?
Ms. BASHIR: Yes. Yes. They arrest me and then they said that you shouldn't talk, you shouldn't tell anything. You are just - what do you think you are? You are a doctor and you are - have a long tongue. You speak out and you are just black talk and slave.
MARTIN: And a slave.
Ms. BASHIR: Yes.
MARTIN: How long did they keep you in detention?
Ms. BASHIR: They keep me around three days.
MARTIN: And did many people attack you in this time?
Ms. BASHIR: Yes. Yes.
MARTIN: I'm very sorry this happened to you. What happened after you left? You were released. What did they do? Did they let you go?
Ms. BASHIR: They let me go, and then after that I'm - I went back home to my village, and then, unfortunately, after three or four months, we have been attacked and our village have been burned and destroyed completely. So many people have been killed, including my father. And after that, life just turned upside down.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break. I'm speaking with author Halima Bashir about her new book, "Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur." We're going to continue our conversation in just a moment. Please stay with us on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, if you are stressed about the bad economic news, the campaign, whatever, we have some ideas for lightening your mood: reggae yoga, bollywood dancing, cultural workouts. It might be the next big thing, and that's in just a few minutes.
But first, we are going to continue our conversation with doctor and author Halima Bashir. Before the break she was telling us about the plight of women and girls in Darfur. When she spoke out about that, she herself was gang-raped in retaliation. But instead of being silenced, she decided to share her story and those of others suffering the effects of ongoing civil war in Sudan in her book, "Tears Of The Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur." And I should mention that Halima Bashir is a pseudonym that she uses to protect her safety and that of her family after what happened.
Halima Bashir, we talked before the break about how soldiers attacked you for speaking out about the attack on a small girls' school in Darfur, and later soldiers attacked your village. If you would tell us what happened to your family after this.
Ms. BASHIR: My brothers, after the attack, after the death of my father, they went and they said that it's time to carry the guns, and they went and joined the rebel groups to fight. And my mom and sister just they went joining the other people in the refugee camp.
MARTIN: How did you recover from this or do you think that you have?
Ms. BASHIR: I haven't recovered, you know. It's something I can't - I can't forget it. You know, if somebody experience like this, I wish I will die. It's better for me to die than to live with feelings - painful feelings like that.
MARTIN: How were you able to leave the country? It's my understanding that you live in London now with your husband and children. Have you been granted asylum there?
Ms. BASHIR: Yes. Yes.
MARTIN: Do you still wish that you would die?
Ms. BASHIR: No. At that time I wish I will die but now I have a job, important job to do, and it is the only way for me is to help my people because I have nothing on my hand to help them. But that's why I chose to speak out and to tell the world and to write a book and just - as if I am doing by doing this, as if I'm telling the stories of hundreds or thousands of people who suffered a lot in Darfur and still they are suffering.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, how did you decide to write this book? Because there is a stigma to having been a victim of rape, even though this was clearly not anything that you caused to happen, but there are those who look down on women. Is that - would that be a fair thing to say, who have been raped? What made you decide to tell your story anyway?
Ms. BASHIR: When I came to Europe and I find that my - I am in a safe place with nice people who understand exactly what I'm talking about and they are ready for help. I find that people who did this for me, they want to destroy us completely. They want me to be somebody who is mad or you cannot do anything. But what you did for me is just instead made the reverse, made me stronger, and I'm talking about it now.
MARTIN: This year the International Court filed charges of war crimes against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. This has been controversial in human rights circles. Some feel that this is the right thing to do, to call attention to the government's complicity in these attacks on civilians. Others feel that it just hardens the resolve of his government to resist any outside involvement. Do you have an opinion about this? Do you think this was the right thing to do?
Ms. BASHIR: Yes, absolutely. It's the right thing, you know? What's happening in Darfur is a typical genocide, and it happened for other communities like Rwanda and like the others in Bosnia and other areas, you know. And everybody who commit crimes, regardless of his position - if he's a president or any or a normal civilian - regardless of that, he should be punished if he commit a crimes.
MARTIN: Are you able to talk with any of your family in Darfur now?
Ms. BASHIR: No. Not at the moment. But there is no - no communication, nothing.
MARTIN: That must be very difficult.
Ms. BASHIR: It's very difficult because now people just not thinking about communication or talking together, just people saying about safety. How is that going to be safe?
MARTIN: Is there anything that you would - now that you have the world's attention, for however long that you have it, what would you most like people to know and to think about as they think about what's going on there?
Ms. BASHIR: I know everybody, so many people in the world they heard about genocide in Darfur, about what is happening in Darfur exactly. But what have been done is very little, as if we are talking to these people who are not listening to us. And what I need exactly, to touch people's personality and their common humanity. And once just everybody tried to put himself in our position and if this happens to himself or his family, will he accept it? We need the help. We need support from everybody.
MARTIN: Do you have hope?
Ms. BASHIR: There's - I hope one day of this war in Darfur to stop and all my people to return back home and live in safety. I think if we were caught and we find the good support from the people and from the international community from the world and even the people in charge, I think we will achieve our goal.
MARTIN: Halima Bashir is the author of "Tears of the Desert," a memoir of survival in Darfur. The book is available in most major bookstores now. Halima was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studio. Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you and your family.
Ms. BASHIR: Thank you, Michel. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Tears of the Desert is the first memoir written by a woman caught in the war in Darfur. The author, Halima Bashir, was born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudanese desert. She went on to become her village's first formal doctor. But that did not protect her from violence in Darfur.
Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur is the first memoir written by a woman caught in the war in Darfur.
The author, Halima Bashir, was born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudanese desert.
She received a good education away from her rural surroundings. Halima excelled in her studies and exams, surpassing even the privileged Arab girls. With her love of learning and support of her father, a cattle herder, Halima went on to study medicine, and at 24 became her village's first formal doctor.
Yet, that, nor anything else, was enough to protect her from the encroaching conflict that would consume her land. Janjaweed Arab militias started savagely assaulting the Zaghawa, often with the backing of the Sudanese military. Then, four years ago, the Janjaweed attacked Bashir's village and surrounding areas, raping 42 schoolgirls and their teachers.
After treating the traumatized victims — some as young as 8 years old — Bashir spoke out, igniting a horrifying turn of events.