Speaking out on Darfur: courage that humbles us all
Tonight I have to do something which renders us all humble in the face of someone else’s acute personal suffering and courage on behalf of others. I shall be at London’s Frontline Club to present the Anna Politkovskaya award to Dr Halima Bashir from Darfur in Sudan.
This is a prize established to the memory of Anna who was murdered four years ago tonight outside her flat in Moscow. I had the honour to know Anna and to have seen her courage at first hand. She bore critical and dangerous testimony to the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russian soldiers in Chechnya and to the corruption of his regime closer to home. She died in the service of freedom and it is to the struggle for the cause of freedom that the prize established in her name is dedicated.
Dr Halima Bashir comes from the Zaghawa tribe of the western region of Sudan. In 2003, after her studies, she became the first person in her village ever to become a formal doctor.
In early 2004, as she treated the traumatized victims, Halima bore witness to the torture and rape of over 40 girls as young as eight, and their teachers, from a primary school in Darfur by the Janjaweed militia. The Sudanese secret police threatened her to keep silent or face the consequences. Halima refused to remain silent. She gave a detailed witness statement to the United Nations representatives about the rapes.
Several days later she was herself abducted by Sudanese soldiers, held hostage and gang-raped for three days, to punish her for speaking out. They told her they would let her live because “we know you’d prefer to die”. Knowing she would no longer be safe in Sudan, she fled the country, and sought asylum in the United Kingdom. Halima continues to advocate for justice for the women and girls in Sudan despite the danger to her own life. Despite the continuing threats to her life, she testified in 2009 against the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir who was indicted for crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.
We shall be announcing the award on Channel 4 News tonight, and hope to interview Halima about the current situation in her homeland.