Mogadishu, Somalia. The girl’s voice dropped to a hush as she remembered the bright, sunny afternoon when she stepped out of her hut and saw her best friend buried in the sand, up to her neck.
Her friend had made the mistake of refusing to marry an Al-Shabab commander. Now she was about to get her head bashed in, rock by rock.
“You’re next,” Al-Shabab warned the girl, a frail 17-year-old who was living with her brother in a squalid refugee camp.
Several months later, the men came back. Five militants burst into her hut, pinned her down and gang-raped her, she said. They claimed to be on a jihad, or holy war, and any resistance was considered a crime against Islam, punishable by death.
“I’ve had some very bad dreams about these men,” she said, having recently escaped the area they control. “I don’t know what religion they are.”
Somalia has been steadily worn down by decades of conflict and chaos, its cities in ruins and its people starving. Just this year, tens of thousands have died from famine, with countless others cut down in relentless combat.
Now Somalis face yet another widespread terror: an alarming increase in rapes and sexual abuse of women and girls.
The Al-Shabab militant group, which presents itself as a morally righteous force and the defender of pure Islam, is seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror in southern Somalia, according to victims, aid workers and UN officials.
Short of cash and losing ground, the militants are also forcing families to hand over girls for arranged marriages that often last no more than a few weeks and are essentially sexual slavery, a cheap way to boost their ranks’ flagging morale.
But it is not just Al-Shabab. In the past few months, aid workers and victims say there has been a free-for-all of armed men preying upon women and girls displaced by Somalia’s famine, who often trek hundreds of kilometers searching for food and end up in crowded, lawless refugee camps where Islamist militants, rogue militiamen and even government soldiers rape, rob and kill with impunity.
‘’The situation is intensifying,” said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict.
All the recent flight has created a surge in opportunistic rapes, she said, and “for the Shabab, forced marriage is another aspect they are using to control the population.”
In the past two months, from Mogadishu alone, the United Nations says it has received more than 2,500 reports of gender-based violence, an unusually large number here.
Somalia is a deeply traditional place, where 98 percent of girls are subject to genital mutilation, according to UN figures. Most girls are illiterate and relegated to their homes. When they venture out, it is usually to work, trudging through the rubble-strewn alleyways wrapped head to toe in thick black cloth, often lugging something on their back.
The famine and mass displacement, which began in the summer, have made women and girls more vulnerable. So many Somali communities have been disbanded, and with armed groups forcing men and boys into their militias, it is often single women, with children in tow, who set off on the dangerous odyssey to refugee camps.
At the same time, aid workers and UN officials say Al-Shabab, which is fighting Somalia’s transitional government and imposing a harsh version of Islam in the areas it controls, can no longer pay its several thousand fighters the way it used to. Much as it seizes crops and livestock, giving militants “temporary wives” is how Al-Shabab keeps many young men fighting for it.
These are hardly marriages, said Sheik Mohamed Farah Ali, a former Al-Shabab commander who defected to the government army. “There’s no cleric, no ceremony, nothing,” he said, adding that Al-Shabab fighters had paired up with thin little girls as young as 12, who are left torn and incontinent afterward. If a girl refuses, he said, “she’s killed by stones or bullets.”
The Elman Peace and Human Rights Center is one of the few Somali organizations helping rape victims. It is run by Fartuun Adan, a tall, outspoken woman whose husband, Elman, was gunned down by warlords years ago.
Adan says that since the famine began, she has met hundreds of women who have been raped and hundreds more who have escaped forced marriages.
“You have no idea how difficult it is for them to come forward,” she said. “There’s no justice here, no protection. People say ‘You’re junk’ if you’ve been raped.”
Adan wants to expand her medical services and counseling for rape victims and possibly open a safe house, but it is hard to do on a budget of $5,000 a month, provided by a small aid organization called Sister Somalia.
“These girls ask me, ‘How am I going to get married, what’s going to be my future, what’s going to happen to me?’ ” she said. “We can’t answer that.”
Some of the women in Adan’s office seem to have come from another time. They have made it here, with help from Elman’s network, from the deepest recesses of rural Somalia, where women are still treated like chattel.
One 18-year-old who went by Nur was married off at 10. She was a nomad and said she had never used a phone or seen a television. She spoke of being raped by two Al-Shabab fighters at a displaced-persons camp in October. She said the men did not say much when they entered her hut, only pointing their guns at her chest and uttering two words: Stay silent.
The New York Times