Tears of the Desert – A Memoir of Survival in Darfur (2008)
Halima Bashir [with Damien Lewis]
Halima Bashir’s text is set for the most part in one of our continent’s especially troubled areas – Darfur in western Sudan. Her text was written with the assistance of Damien Lewis, whose reporting on Sudan won the BBC One World Award (Lewis also co-authored the prize-winning text Slave), but the narrative voice appears artless and authentic throughout, thus creating a strong impression of straightforward candour and an account that is full of life and feeling. It must be acknowledged from the start that Bashir’s narrative is unashamedly partisan and that it contains political accusations that may be considered objectionable and racist by some; however, because the narrative demonstrates convincingly how these opinions are formed and on what bases they rest, most readers are likely to find Bashir’s very personal account not only persuasive, but indeed compelling. Bashir opens her text with an author’s note declaring it a “true story” beginning around the year of her birth (1979) and continuing to the “present day” of the book’s publication (2009).
Although the book’s title and all the sections (Parts One to Four) carry references to the desert, it is clear that the Darfur setting is not that of baking sands, but of a cultivated landscape with crops and fruit orchards on which herds of cattle, sheep and goats are kept. While water is not abundantly available, the village has a stable water source in its well. Bashir identifies her “tribe” early in the text as “the Zaghawa, a fierce, warlike black African people who are the most generous and open in welcoming strangers”. Acknowledging that to outsiders the very name Darfur is associated with “suffering and blood” she insists that, to her, “Darfur means something quite different: It was and is that irreplaceable, unfathomable joy that is home” (4). Indeed, the text is as memorable as it is because Bashir devotes the entire first half of it painting the warm, lively domestic and communal (and later on, school and university) environments that surrounded her as she was growing up and making us understand how precious this was to her, even though not without challenges, setbacks, injustices and cruelties that she was faced with along the way.
As a girl and young woman she loved her soft-hearted mother, but her strong and gentle father (as she makes clear in her very cherishing portrayal of him) was evidently the major figure of inspiration and devotion in her life. This father, Abdul, though a proud Zaghawa who celebrates their cultural heritage and political history, is also an enlightened and forward-looking personality who from the start inducts his daughter into a wider world of knowledge and encourages, promotes and funds her increasingly expensive studies. It is he who plants the seed of his dream for Halima in her heart: that of becoming a medical doctor, even though this entails many sacrifices on both their parts and is occasionally met with different forms of resistance. As she cradles her own tiny first-born son on her breast in a tiny London flat, it is her dearly loved father she recalls in particular, and how he had told her why her name, Halima, was chosen by him: it was to honour the village’s healer, who in his young adulthood had saved his life by her careful nursing.
Another family member who is very prominent in Halima’s memories is her maternal grandmother, Sumah, a fierce woman who had unhesitatingly abandoned her husband when he married a second wife (a union sanctioned by their Muslim beliefs), taking her sons with her and later going back to “steal back” her daughter, whom her husband’s relatives had initially prevented her from taking away from them. Sumah is very engaged with the children and keen to toughen them up, proclaiming that, despite the family’s present prosperity, things might change. She administers hard whacks with a piece of wood when she deems it necessary for a child’s correction, but her main instrument of family power is her tongue and the passionate, unbudging nature of her beliefs. Though she inspires a healthy degree of respect, not to say fear, in her daughter’s children, Grandma (as Halima usually refers to her) deeply loves them, though this love is, so to speak, “disguised” and devoid of gesture or sentimentality. She is given considerable authority as their family elder, particularly by their father. Because, on principle, he hardly ever opposes or criticises his mother-in-law, it carries great weight when he does do so, for example when she pours petrol into her daughter’s ear to cure an earache after sesame oil has failed to help – causing serious damage to Halima’s mother’s lungs and internal organs and costing her weeks in hospital. Mostly, though, she acts almost as expedition leader in several of the children’s adventures.
In due course, Halima acquires some siblings: first her gentle brother Mo, then the wild boy of the family, Omer, followed by a soft-hearted little sister, Asia. None of them has Halima’s strong thirst for knowledge, but they help create an interesting (and in Omer’s case, occasionally dangerous) home environment for her. The siblings are aroused to jealousy by her father’s delight in Halima’s school achievements, and on one occasion a five-year-old Omer, assisted by Mo, attacks her with a knife to cut out her supposed lucky white eyelash! Before Halima goes to school, however, Grandma decrees that she needs to be circumcised. Not knowing what is involved and delighted with the dressing up, pampering and preening that precedes the cutting, Halima goes along with it, but she describes with uncompromising indignation a process sanctioned by their culture, denouncing Grandma, her mother (who flees before the actual operation) and even her father (for giving his tacit approval, although he supported Halima when she had previously refused the ritual facial scarring process): “I was a terrified child with all the adults in the world that I trusted causing me unspeakable pain. The shock of betrayal was beyond imagining” (56), she writes. She adds, with discernible bitterness:
… I was sick at the way these people had brutalized and [temporarily] crippled me. […] We all knew of girls who had died during their cutting time. Sometimes, a vein was cut during the butchery, and no one could stop the bleeding. At other times, a girl’s wounds would become infected, and she would die a long, lingering death. Still more died years later, during childbirth, because they couldn’t give birth properly. The cutting left terrible scarring, and without surgery prior to childbirth it remained horribly risky. (59)
Since this is the voice of both a Zaghawa loyalist and a woman who as a doctor looks back on the experience and reconsiders it, her denunciation of the practice of genital cutting for African girls carries especial weight. Years later, at university, she would be made to realise that the cutting also deprives women of experiencing physical sexual pleasure, and that not all Sudanese girls are made to undergo it.
It is at school that Halima first becomes aware of the Arab/African racial hierarchy in Sudan, since the school is dominated by its Arab headmistress and majority Arab staffing and pupils, even though the town is in a Zaghawa region. The headmistress’s fierceness does not inspire respect and is of a different quality from that of Halima’s beloved and feared Grandma’s – it is not the fierceness of an indomitable spirit, but that of a narrowly authoritarian and racially prejudiced person. Halima first encounters it when she refuses to do an Arab classmate’s work (sweeping half of their classroom) for her, despite her teacher’s ordering her to take this on in addition to her own half. The teacher and headmistress refuse to recognise that Halima is objecting – correctly – to injustice. Halima thinks of the fact that her father’s fond nickname for her is Rathebe, to recall Dolly Rathebe, the famous South African singer, whom he admires for singing and speaking out against apartheid. As she goes home with her father at the end of the first term (having come top of the class, but with punishment for her “intransigence” still pending), Halima cries as she tells her father the story, but he comforts her and urges her to persist. Later during her holiday at home, he tells her that the historical context of their situation is that the British colonialists, when they withdrew from the Sudan, gave all the power to the Arab tribes. Earlier on, Halima had reported occasional raids for livestock on their flocks by nomadic Arab groups, but this had not seemed too serious a threat.
The girl whose work Halima had been ordered to do sits on the same bench in their class with Halima. Her mother is a teacher at the school and her father a government official and they are wealthy. Given this “backing”, the girl starts subtly harassing Halima. Knowing that this will increase and persist unless she does something to stop her, Halima challenges her unpleasant classmate to a fight under a tree after school. Her friends are there to back her silently and to act as witnesses. Halima cleverly manoeuvres the girl into attacking her first and retaliates with such fierceness that she all but strangles her! Of course this will be seen as a challenge to the school’s authority structure, and of course Halima’s position is now very risky. Anticipating the official response, Halima tells her class teacher the story from her side. Her teacher believes and trusts her and agrees to go with her when she is summoned by the principal and bombarded with accusations by the girl’s mother. The headmistress will not hear Halima’s side, but then her class teacher intervenes and comes to her defence. Nevertheless, the headmistress insists that Halima deserves to be “expelled” from the school for “unruliness” and is no longer considered a pupil “until further notice, or until [her] parents can explain [her] behaviour to [the headmistress]” (95). Her parents being out of reach, Halima confides in her uncle (her father’s brother, with whom she lodges while attending the town school). He sees her point immediately and confidently accompanies her to the school, where he accuses the headmistress (calmly!) of making a mountain out of the molehill of a mere children’s fight and of being unable to keep order in her school despite the hefty fees required. Completely floored and instantly defending her order-keeping powers, the headmistress falls into the trap set for her and Halima’s uncle leaves, saying he is leaving the appropriate punishment (of the Arab girl) and the fair treatment of his niece in the headmistress’s “capable hands” (97). Of course this is a major moral victory for Halima and her fellow African (ie non-Arab) pupils, and subsequently the girls become a bit reckless in “punishing” Arab contempt. But Halima’s father delightedly shows her a video of a raunchy Dolly Rathebe that comes up on TV, saying, “She sings about Nelson Mandela’s struggle, about the black man’s fight for freedom in South Africa. And what the white man is to South Africa, the Arabs are to Sudan” (105). At the end of her second year, Halima is the top student and the headmistress (probably grudgingly) is forced to praise her for this achievement.
In between school terms, holidays at home reimmerse Halima in Zaghawa community life. She does begin to feel a degree of alienation from the village as the only girl her age getting a high school education, but this is forgotten when there is a family outing, like the journey by truck to one of their neighbouring villages where a cousin is getting married. Halima relates:
I didn’t want to travel to the wedding on the truck’s rear, as we would ruin our nice clothes. Passengers would carry a wild assortment of luggage with them: cages of chickens; goats on a string; sacks of maize; old bicycles; even the odd cow. Whenever the truck hit a bump everything would fly into the air. More often than not you’d end up on your back with a goat on top of you and a cage of chickens on your head. It was impossible to arrive at your destination looking even remotely neat and respectable. (117)
At the wedding a beautiful song is sung: “All we are here,/ […]/We are Zaghawa,/ […]/ From the Coube clan,/ From the Towhir clan,/ From the Bidayat clan,/ We are Zaghawa.// We are the warriors,/ We are the people,/ Nobody can overreach us,/ No one can beat us,/ We have our tribe around us,/ Our family around us,/ Our children around us,/ Our lands around us,/ Our camels around us,/ Our cattle around us,/ We are Zaghawa./ We are Zaghawa” (120–1).
In the larger context of the disasters about to befall her people, Halima’s memory of such a moment of secure belonging must be especially poignant.
Shortly after this, Halima mentions her father’s increasing political involvement and his joy at the democratic election of the leader of his party as President of Sudan – but “his happiness was to be short-lived”, since the National Islamic Front soon after this seizes power, announcing that in ajihad they will “quadruple their efforts to defeat the black African ‘unbelievers’ in the south of the country” (123). Even though the Zaghawa are Muslims, Halima’s father knows that this take-over spells trouble for all black Sudanese. Halima also reports witnessing a horrible public incident in which the police side with an Arab who insulted and assaulted a black man; he is badly beaten and “taken away” by the police.
The first time that Halima witnesses her father openly rebuking her grandmother is when he scolds Grandma for allowing the children to witness scenes of the supposedjihad on their television, explaining to her in his fury that this is no heroic battle and that most of the victims are refugee women and children who have fled the violent attacks or are, indeed, fellow Muslims, though black African people. And even if “infidels”, they share colour and culture with the Zaghawa.
Halima does so well in her school-leaving exams that she is accepted into medical school at a very good, modern, co-educational Khartoum university. During her very first year, however, the campus is “invaded” by the military, who are there to recruit students (partly by intimidation and partly by offering the bait of pass marks without having to study) to join thejihad in the south. While most students are shocked and have no intention of joining up, their university and all other Sudanese universities are shut down “until further notice” (148). There is nothing to do but go home.
In conversation with her father after returning, Halima learns that her cousin Sharif (whom she had met when he drove them home – to the disdain of a ten-year-old Halima! – in a donkey-cart from the wedding to which they had gone by truck) is in danger of arrest by the authorities. He is a political activist who even secretly made contact with the rebel leader, Dr John Garang, when he travelled to the south to see for himself that the jihad was a front for a type of ethnic cleansing operation. Worrying that her university studies and hopes of qualifying as a doctor have come to an end, Halima is reassured by her father that the authorities will be compelled to reopen the universities; after all, they need suitably qualified people. He is soon proved right, and Halima returns to her studies. At the end of the year, when their marks are posted, she learns that she achieved only a middling pass, but that the students who are away because they joined the jihad have been given top marks! Angered by this, Halima still does not want to become “politically involved” and compromise her chances of graduating.
When there is a report of a success by Darfuri rebels against the government forces, this creates tension between Arab and African students at the university, where there had formerly been no such tension. Halima is extremely worried about her family, but is reassured that the fighting has not come near their village – yet. Still, she is forcibly reminded of her perilous political position as a Darfuri student when, after brilliantly passing in her written work, she is severely marked down in her viva voce exam by the external examiner in response to a lie by her tutor who, while aware that she had attended every single lecture, said that she had missed many classes. Naturally, she feels “cheated and betrayed” (165), angry and hurt at the injustice, but to her father, all that matters is that she is now a qualified MD. His delight comforts her.
Halima has to wait at home for a letter giving her a locum appointment. Her father warns her of the sinister political developments, saying that villages like theirs are increasingly coming under attack in terrible, violent raids. However, without weapons or the means to purchase them, there is little that they can do to defend themselves.
When no letter arrives for Halima, she enrols as a volunteer at the hospital in the nearby town where she went to school. While she treats both Arab and black African patients injured on both sides of the war, her sympathies are, of course, with those whose language and culture she shares. She becomes known as the doctor to whom wounded Darfuris – in danger of capture even at the hospital – can secretly come for help.
There is also an elderly orderly at the hospital who is Halima’s ally. She works incredibly hard, now, with the constant tension of war all around. But soon she is “visited” by the police, who take her away, not so much for questioning (they claim to “know all about” her and her activities), but to intimidate her. This is the time when “the dreaded Janjaweed [armed and ruthless equestrian Arab militias] [are] on the march, with the full backing of the military and the government” (179).
A reporter comes to the hospital to speak to the doctors about their impressions of the war and how local people are affected. Cautious at first, Halima makes a few mild and unsensational comments. But soon afterwards, there is another swoop on her by the police, who again scream at her, this time for having dared to speak to the press as “a Zaghawa doctor”. They force her to sign a statement that she will never again speak to the press. Not long afterwards, a letter arrives sending her to a village clinic in remote northern Darfur – long before her training has been completed, and despite the praise by the local staff for the quality of her medical work. Evidently, this is an intimidatory move.
In the northern village Halima takes up lodging with a distant relative, formerly unknown to her, but true to their tribe’s tradition of hospitality. The work is challenging, but again a trickle of Zaghawa guerrillas come to her (mostly in secrecy) for treating their wounds and ailments. This brings another police visit; it seems that here, too, she has been spied on and betrayed. She is instructed (despite quietly and persistently refusing to transgress her medical code by becoming an informant) to draw up a list of rebel patients whom the police want. They also tell her to be “very, very careful” (207). This Halima does try to do, but soon afterwards a particularly horrifying atrocity is perpetrated in the village when the Janjaweed make a “rape raid” on the local primary school for girls, also raping one of the teachers – so to speak under the “guardianship” of government soldiers, who formed a cordon around the school, allowing the perpetrators hours to do their horrific worst and preventing parents and other villagers from coming to the children’s aid. Halima’s descriptions of this event and of her own desperation, panic and horror as she has to cope with hardly any proper medical supplies and assist the victims, are terrible and profoundly moving. “The youngest of the girls was just seven years old, the oldest thirteen,” she writes (215). She records:
Forty-odd girls had been brought into the clinic, but I knew there were more rape victims than that. In some cases their parents were so ashamed that they had taken their daughters home, and would be treating them privately with traditional cures. In that way they hoped to keep the violation of their loved ones secret. It was a sad fact in our culture that rape victims were somehow seen as being damaged goods, their lives destroyed by the evil that had happened to them. (216)
The teacher tells her that the men “were laughing and yelping with joy […] as they passed the little girls around” and that they proclaimed: “Sudan is for the Arabs. It is not for black dogs and slaves” (218).
Not long afterwards, a UN delegation comes on a fact-finding mission and she must speak out, although she does so on condition of anonymity. But the terrible reprisal for this is not long in coming.
Chapter 20 of the book begins with the ominous words: “Barely a week after the attack on the village school they came for me” (222). Three men in “scruffy khaki uniforms” force her into their jeep, refusing in screams to tell her anything or answer her questions. Halima is convinced that they want to kill her. They take her to a lonely military camp, beat her up and yell at her that they know her to be “the Zaghawa doctor”, accusing her in vicious yells of telling “lies” to “the foreigners” (223–4). They warn her that she who has spoken of rape “knows nothing” of it; chillingly, one soldier offers to “teach” her, but to increase her terror, they first tie her up and throw her into a room to “consider her crimes” before they “punish” her (224). When three soldiers arrive, hours later, they take turns raping her until she loses consciousness, also slashing her with a knife and burning her with their cigarettes. The next day, two of the men come and rape her repeatedly until the assaults merge into a single, unending horror. On the third day, one of the soldiers comes and announces to her that, in order to intensify her punishment, they are not going to kill her, but will let her go. Torn and bleeding, Halima makes her way, without knowing how she got there, to the home of a couple who had become her best friends in the village after she had saved their son’s life. The wife, at home alone, warns her to stay in hiding with them for a day or two until she is strong enough to flee the village with the aid of her husband, a trader who knows all the secret paths through the desert and bush. At great risk to his own safety he manages to get her safely back to her family, riding on one of his camels, hiding under rock shelters along the way.
Although Halima’s body slowly, partially heals, her spirit is all but shattered by the gang rapes. She is also deprived of Grandma’s fiercely protective spirit, since this beloved relative had died just before her return.
Terribly disturbed by his daughter’s condition, Halima’s father figures out the one way to get her reimmersed in the life-world of their people. He comes to her, months after her ordeal, to announce that he has been negotiating with their relatives and that there is an offer of marriage from her educated, politically active cousin Sharif. Not only is this someone whom she knows (Sharif being the same person who as a thirteen-year-old boy took them back home in his donkey-cart after another two cousins’ wedding celebration, but he is university educated like her and (especially importantly) “understands suffering” because “he has seen so much” of it, “all across our country” (234). With the sensitivity with which his love of his daughter has endowed him, Halima’s father had deduced correctly that one big source of her post-rape woe had been her conviction that no man of her people would now want to marry her and that she could therefore forget about having a family of her own. The only complication is that the marriage would initially have to be a long-distance arrangement (allowed by Muslim custom), since Sharif has had to flee Sudan, being on the run from the government forces for the political risks he took and the stance of resistance he had adopted. He is in the UK, but his family will happily conduct the ceremonies appropriate to the union with Halima’s family. Halima’s decision to accept the arrangement greatly soothes her wounded spirit, and she is warmly accepted by Sharif’s family, though she remains, for the time being, with her people in their village home, always still on the alert for another “visit” by the state’s terrorists.
Five months after Halima’s return from Mazkhabad, on December 23, their village is attacked in a massive raid led by helicopters dropping incendiary bombs and followed up by fiercely screaming, automatic gun-wielding Janjaweedon horseback swooping down on mostly unarmed villagers. Their father calmly orders Halima and all her siblings to flee as fast as they can with their mother and to go and hide in the forest with other villagers who manage to get away. He and a handful of adult men make a brave, but of course doomed, stand against the attackers in order to win time for those who flee.
Running past the dead and dying, breathless and terrified, those fleeing go into hiding and wait for painful hours. When at last they venture back to the largely burnt-down village, the one thought screaming through Halima’s head is, “Where was my father? Where was my father? My father? My father! My father! Where was he? God let him be alive. Let him be injured, but let him have lived. Let him be alive! Let him be alive! Let him be alive!” (243). But of course, he is dead, along with all the other men who had tried to resist the onslaught.
Throughout “that dark, hellish night” (244) the remaining village men gather up the bodies of the dead for burial. There are women who lost their entire families; mothers who are left crazed at having had to abandon children to the raiders, who spared neither infants nor the elderly: burning them in their huts, shooting them, or tossing them into the fires.
Too wracked by grief at the loss of her beloved father, Halima is initially unable to help injured survivors, except for one woman, who in fact wants to die because she has only one little child left of her entire family. There are no medical supplies, and later on, when she has slightly recovered, Halima uses some of her grandmother’s old herbal remedies, though for many (particularly little children with massive burn wounds) there is little to nothing she can do. “When the children were sleeping we talked among ourselves,” Halima reports. She adds the gist of the conversation and their questions and conclusions, as follows:
The Arab tribes had always been poorer than us: they had no settled villages, no crops, and few animals. So where had they got the powerful weapons to attack us? We knew that there had to be the hand of the government in this. There had to be a driving force that had ordered them to do what they had done. If they had simply come to loot our homes, why destroy the village? It didn’t benefit them at all. They must have done this with orders from on high. As this realization set in even the simplest villager realized that this government of Arabs had decided to back their own and wipe us off the face of the earth. (249)
Later, three young Zaghawa men, members of the rebel army, the SLA or Sudan Liberation Army, turn up in the village to find out what had happened. Halima’s two brothers, Mo and Omer, youngsters on the cusp of manhood, decide immediately to join the rebels, and leave with them.
One old village woman who has lost every single member of her family, but has decided to stay and die in the village, refusing to leave, composes a lament that concludes on the words: “We have no home,/ It was cut down./ We have no crops,/ They were cut down./ We have no milk,/ It was cut down./ Now our children have gone to fight,/ They will be cut down” (251).
Halima and her mother and sister also debate leaving, but Halima decides they should first wait a while and help their remaining neighbours as much as they can before either going to Chad (the neighbouring country, where there is a sizeable Zaghawa population), south to Nubia, or to Halima’s uncle in the town.
Sometime later, on the morning they had decided to go, and with the meagre remaining possessions packed, Halima decides to make one last round of her many patients. She returns to their place to find her mother and sister gone, the neighbour informing her that they have left because soldiers arrived that very morning, wanting to find Halima, concerning whose whereabouts her mother denied any knowledge. Her mother left instructions to her to dig up the family treasure of gold to fund her escape and to make her way to safety abroad as soon as she could – Sudan is no longer safe for her. Her mother and sister have gone to her late father’s brother and his family, and should be safe there.
So Halima sets off, alone and on foot, away from roads, heading south. She finds the railway tracks and uses them to guide her way. Along the way she encounters other pedestrian travellers. One kindly woman tells her where she can board a truck for a reasonable ticket price. Fortunately the truck driver, though a total stranger, turns out to be a man she instinctively knows she can trust. He takes her to his family home in Khartoum, from where he puts her in communication with an “agent” who, for every last bit of her family’s gold, including treasured heirlooms, and all her money, gets her a passport and a flight booking to a safe country. Halima is not even allowed to know where she is going, but fortunately it turns out to be London, for as far as she knows, her husband Sharif is still somewhere in the UK.
After many difficulties with immigration authorities and both terribly discouraging and encouraging experiences, Halima at last finds Sharif and goes to live with him. They have many further problems, but they are well suited, and Halima (experiencing dangerous physical complications) gives birth to their little firstborn, a boy, and later another son. She begins to tell and record her experiences, for the sake of her people, and becomes an international spokesperson for the Darfuris, featured on many important public platforms and meeting heads of state of the UK and USA, among others, to plead for help and stern measures to end the crimes against humanity committed in her homeland.
This is a plainly told, but absorbing and quite profoundly affecting, narrative of sorrow, courage and spiritual strength. In Halima’s own words, “by summoning up the courage to share my tale, I was able to affect the lives of countless others” (319).
Tears of the Desert – A Memoir of Survival in Darfur by Halima Bashir with Damien Lewis is a work of testimony and an important addition to the African archive. It touches on and illuminates many fraught issues, and even though (as was acknowledged at the outset) an openly partisan record, as any work of advocacy is bound to be, its contribution to knowledge and its raising of concern about a devastated region are admirable and brave.
Bashir puts it as follows:
Darfur is not separate from the world; Sudan is not isolated from the world; but people are standing and watching this happen, those who have it in their power to stop such things. People shouldn’t look at this in a political way, because the victims are innocent people. They are dying through no fault of their own. What did they do? They did nothing to deserve this. (293)
Because she is not a politician, Bashir comments in a style of plain bluntness, as when she refers to “China’s cozy relationship with Khartoum” as “sinister”, insisting that “much of the petro-dollars that China pays to Sudan for oil is returned to China in arms purchases”, adding that “China has become the regime’s leading arms supplier – providing the tanks, artillery, and aircraft that have been used to wreak devastation in Darfur” (308).
More poignantly, the main text ends with the words: “As of the date of writing this book, I have not been able to find my family, or make contact with them. I will keep searching” (309).
A note to readers: The UN’s Security Council Report with the January 2014 Monthly Forecast pertaining to Darfur (Sudan) is accessible online.
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