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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 October 2006, 16:57 GMT 17:57 UK
Rape risk spirals for Darfur women
By Karen Allen
BBC News, Kutum

Hawa was raped in broad daylight, the way it often happens here in northern Darfur.

Women sit in a makeshift camp in Seleah village, in Sudan's West Darfur province
Daily tasks, like collecting firewood, have become dangerous for women

Clutching a baby to her breast, she relived her ordeal from Kassab camp which is sanctuary to more than 20,000 people displaced by Darfur's bloody conflict.

"I left the camp with two other girls, to get grass for the donkeys," she remembers.

"Along the way we met more than four men with guns. One of them grabbed my arms and another one grabbed my legs. They said they would kill me if I didn't co-operate."

Because of the alarming reports of rapes, I came to the camp which is a few dusty miles outside Kutum, some 130km (80 miles) north of the regional administrative capital of El Fashir.

Inhabitants are packed close together in makeshift huts to ensure safety in numbers.

But the numbers of women raped are on the rise since African Union troops were forced to abandon "firewood patrols", which once escorted them to the periphery of the camp to collect wood for fuel.

No protection

I found 21 women and girls have been raped in the camp in the past two weeks.

It is a staggering figure that gives some insight into the vulnerability of areas where peacekeepers are absent.

Map showing location of Kutum, Darfur

Hawa blames the government-backed Arab militias or Janjaweed that linger outside.

But, in truth, the rebel groups also account for their fair share of crime.

There are similar stories of rapes across Darfur, the figure rising in areas that are now hard to reach.

This is the territory where the Janjaweed - the Arab militia - roam, and 5km (3 miles) north of Kutum is where a handful of militia groups are now fighting for territory.

It is a civil war that, since the signing of a peace deal back in May, has grown far more complex.

Fragmenting conflict

With fighting between a growing number of rival rebel groups, some of them very small, Darfur now resembles Somalia - with warlords recruiting private militias to extort money, wield power and terrorise the local population.

The worsening security situation means that for AU troops, sections of this region are now totally out of bounds.

AU soldier in Darfur
African Union troops are overstretched in Darfur

Kutum's is a desolate landscape, and that sense of desolation is shared by the troops posted here.

Iron-rich sand, a vivid shade of orange, is all that meets the eye for miles around.

The AU soldiers are sent to patrol the airstrip or ride in convoys through the market, in an effort to be a "presence" and give some reassurance to people who call this home.

But, within minutes of us arriving by helicopter, another vehicle had been stolen from AU forces.

Taken at gunpoint from one of their contractors, it is the fifth vehicle lost to rebels since July.

For militia groups starting out, it is important to have assets and AU forces, along with humanitarian organisations, have a ready supply.

Monitoring a flaky peace in this environment of impunity does little for the African troops' morale.

As one soldier confided, on condition I withheld his name: "It's like trying to monitor the peace with one hand tied behind your back."

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