Silence, Militants At Root Of Rapes In Somalia

Reports point to a dramatic rise in rapes of women and girls in Somalia, where severe drought and famine have killed tens of thousands of people and forced countless more, especially females, into refugee camps. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. (Advisory: This segment covers material that may not be suitable for all audiences.)

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, if your New Year's resolution is to get your budget in order, you might be wondering how to get started. Natalie McNeal calls herself The Frugalista and she'll share some of her tips for 2012. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at a disturbing story from abroad. In Somalia, severe drought and famine have killed tens of thousands of people and forced countless more into refugee camps. That story, while tragic, is at least on the international radar.

But less well known is the extent to which lawlessness is allowing more and more Somali women to become targets of vicious sexual assault. While it's difficult to confirm the number of attacks, reports suggest that there has been a dramatic increase in the rapes of women and girls in Somalia.

Beyond the physical injuries, as you might imagine, the social and psychological consequences for victims can be devastating. To learn more, we've called Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa Bureau Chief of the New York Times. He recently reported on this and he's with us by phone from Nairobi, Kenya.

Jeffrey, it's nice to have you back once again. Happy New Year to you.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Happy New Year to you.

MARTIN: And before we begin, of course, we need to remind everyone that this is a story about sexual violence against women, so it's very disturbing and the conversation may not be suitable for everyone.

Jeffrey, to that end, we were talking earlier. I'm imagining it's difficult to shock you at this point after many years overseas, but you were telling us that you've found this disturbing, that you were surprised, in fact, by the extent of this issue.

GETTLEMAN: Yeah. And I was also very frustrated that there wasn't a lot being done about it. I have written about human rights abuses and atrocities across this part of Africa, in Sudan and Congo and Kenya and Somalia, but usually, there's a response. What was really disturbing and frustrating about Somalia is that there are thousands of women who seem to have been victimized recently and in horrible ways. You know, I wrote about girls who are buried up to their neck in sand and then stoned to death. You know, girls that were gang raped in front of younger family members.

And this stuff is happening, you know, across southern Somalia and there's almost nobody working on it and helping these women recover from this abuse.

MARTIN: What do we know about the people who are - or what do we think we know about the people who are attacking these women? What's motivating this increase in these really disturbing, sadistic attacks?

GETTLEMAN: Well, it's a few things. The first thing is the famine. The famine has caused massive displacement in Somalia. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people who have trekked out of their villages because there's no food and sought help, either in Kenya, Ethiopia or a camp inside Somalia.

And, often, the displaced people are disproportionately women and children. The men sometimes stay behind to guard what little possessions the family still has or they get caught up in a conflict and that's what we've seen in Somalia. So the majority of people coming into these refugee camps are women, single women, often young women. And that has created an opportunity for anybody with a weapon to abuse them and so we've seen that.

Then, on top of that, this phenomenon that's happening with the Shabaab Islamic group. The Shabaab control large parts of southern Somalia. They say that they're trying to push forward a puritanical, you know, strict form of Wahhabi Islam. They have rejected western music, western dress. They've even given women problems about wearing bras. And they have started this thing called temporary marriages where they demand that families give them young girls to be their wives for their fighters and their commanders, but it really is just rape. Often, the women are treated horribly for a couple weeks and then discarded.

And the people I was talking to were saying that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of this going on right now.

MARTIN: When you recently traveled to Somalia's capitol, Mogadishu, you talked with a girl whose friend had resisted one of these forced marriages to an Al-Shabaab commander. Do you mind sharing this story? And I do want to emphasize, once again, that this is a very difficult thing to hear.

GETTLEMAN: Yeah. It was a horrible story. There was a 17 year old girl who I met and she had grown up outside of Mogadishu and had a friend of hers, another teenage girl, who - it sounded like they spent a lot of time together. They'd talk about how they wanted to leave Somalia, how they wanted to marry a wealth businessman. They - you know, they shared their dreams and it seemed like they were very close.

And one morning, the girl I was talking to said she stepped out of her hut and there was a big crowd that had gathered and her friend, this other teenage girl, was buried up to her neck in sand and the Shabaab militants were saying that she had either committed adultery or had done some crime, which didn't seem to be true at all, and they stoned her to death with softball size rocks, one after another, into her head and killed her.

And it ends up that what this girl had done to provoke this punishment was simply refusing to be handed over to a Shabaab commander and for that, they killed her by stoning her to death.

MARTIN: And then they retaliated against the friend.

GETTLEMAN: And then they told the friend, you're next, and several months later, five men came back to her and they took turns raping her in her hut with a number of kids around, other people, you know, that could hear her screaming. But the problem is the Shabaab have really imposed a reign of terror in the areas they control and people are terrified to resist them.

MARTIN: We're talking with Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times East Africa bureau chief, about recent reporting on the alarming increase in rapes and sexual assaults against women and girls in Somalia.

You mentioned earlier in the beginning of our conversation that one of the things that you found so frustrating about this is that there just seems to be no acknowledgement that this is happening. When you interviewed what exists of the Somali government, what is their response to this?

GETTLEMAN: The Somali government seems to be in denial. There are complaints that their soldiers are raping women, too. Again, it goes back to this kind of opportunistic situation where all these single women are coming into these, you know, crowded, lawless refugee camps and, you know, there are government militias. There are freelance militias. There are Shabaab militias. And everybody, from what I've been told, is guilty of this.

What I found more surprising was many UN officials with information about this problem did not want to speak to me on the record and they said that it was such a sensitive topic and they were so worried about further antagonizing the Shabaab or giving the Shabaab a reason to not work with UN agencies that they didn't want to talk about it.

And I finally found a couple UN officials to speak to me, you know, for attribution about it and they knew plenty of information. You know, they had heard the same reports I had. It's not a secret.

MARTIN: I hate to put you in the position of predicting, but I do want to ask. What do you foresee in the coming months, now that this situation is being brought to light by yourself? What do you foresee in the coming months? And is there anything that the international community could do to improve this situation?

GETTLEMAN: Definitely. I think that's a really good question. Already, I got a number of emails from people that work at the UN that want to get more involved in this issue, so I do think there's going to be more engagement.

There are a few small aid organizations that are helping women. One of them is called Sister Somalia and their website is SisterSomalia.org. They're providing some money to a partner organization in Mogadishu that is helping women with counseling, with medical services, and they're trying to set up a safe house where women can go and seek shelter and be safe. And I think, as time goes on and more people begin to talk about this and the silence, hopefully, is broken, there will be more help.

But, that said, Somalia is still a very dangerous place to work and, for any aid operation, whether it's food or health care or education, it's very restricted.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. He recently reported on this situation involving vicious sexual assaults against Somali women and girls. And he was kind enough to join us by phone from Nairobi, Kenya.

Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us. We do hope you'll keep us posted on this important story.

GETTLEMAN: Glad to help.

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