Graca Machel was now asking the women what their lives were like in a town that was not their home. Without hesitation, they poured out their frustrations, anger and pain. Even before an interpreter arrived to help with the translation from Arabic to English, it was clear from the women’s gestures toward their most private parts and the staccato-like rising and falling of their fists towards their bodies that they were describing the rapes and the beatings they had endured in and around Kebkabiya.
When I sidled up to Machel and asked her a question, she was unable to speak. Her lips were quivering, her eyes glaring into a place I could not see.
“What were you telling her?” I asked the women.
“About the rapes,” the male interpreter told me. The women, who seemed to trust him, nodded their approval. “They also say the beatings. Every day. Here in the village, the people they work for also beat them.”
What is your biggest concern? I asked, looking directly into their animated sea of faces, but waiting for the man to translate.
A cacophony of voices responded, and he told me, “It’s security. They are worried that there is no one to protect them.”
Graca Machel told me later that she had asked why not have their men—husbands and fathers—escort them to gather firewood. They told her, “Our men will be killed because these men are not armed. We’d rather be raped than have our men killed.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: So you took that back to President Al- Bashir. What did you say?
Graca Machel: I said, “Mr. President, I’m going to talk to you as a mother, as a wife, and as a sister. I plead with you to strongly and openly denounce rape. Because you are the head of state, your army will listen, even the rebel groups will listen to you as the head of state. Even if it’s not everybody, most of them will listen. And then you have the power to instruct the armed forces of this country to protect women.” At the end, he said to me, “You know, Mrs. Machel, I’d like you to come back and go to Darfur; we will organize for you to go. You will see that there’s no problem in Darfur. There’s security. Rape? Oh, those women have been instructed by Western people to tell these stories. They tell everybody who goes to the camp, but it’s not true.” You know, I felt so insulted.
Hunter-Gault: When you came to the press conference after that, you sounded off, big time.
Machel: My major frustration is that I didn’t succeed to touch him as a human being. When you get to that point, where you take off all the position of power and all that stuff, but you don’t manage to communicate with people in their humanity, then there’s nothing else you can do. I don’t think they understand. It’s not that they don’t know, but they don’t understand the harm and the pain that is being inflicted on their own people. If you are talking to people who are completely detached with that, they can go home and feel happy to have a good meal. I mean, you don’t know what to do next.
Hunter-Gault: Do African-American women have a special role to play? Darfur has captured the attention of some in America, but not generally the Black community.
Machel: I think every woman, everywhere, should feel that her dignity is being affronted when another woman is subjected to what is happening in Darfur. It's part of yourself that is being reduced to nothing. So I think they should be in solidarity with other African women, in this part of the continent. Sometimes it can be money; sometimes it's not only the money. They can send a message, just so the women know they are not alone.