For Dr. Halima Bashir, life in Sudan was very good. She had a loving family, a rare university education, and the trust of her Zaghawa tribe as her village's first doctor. Then the Janjaweed came and took it all away. Now she has made it her mission to make people aware of the horrors that have befallen the people of Darfur.
Bashir, now 29, was working at a clinic in a remote African village when the government-backed Janjaweed – Arabic for "devil on horseback"– surrounded a girl's school and systematically raped dozens of students as young as eight, as well as their teachers.
The injured were brought to the clinic for care, and Bashir treated their horrible wounds. “These were innocent people,” she told Beliefnet, describing the young girls who were cut, torn, and traumatized by their rapists. “They did not deserve this.”
But the powers that be in Darfur punished her for actions, she says. Soldiers came for her and took her away. "The three of them took turns raping me," she writes in Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur, co-written with Damien Lewis, and published this fall. "And while doing so they burned me with their cigarettes, and cut me with their blades. They raped me until I lost consciousness. When I came to . . . I wished I were dead. There was nothing more that anyone could do to me. My life was over."
But Bashir escaped, and now she speaks out about the violence in Sudan, especially the terror directed at women and children. She is nominated as Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of the Year for her refusal to be intimidated and for her courage in standing up to the widespread brutality in her homeland.
"I remember the people I left behind and I just could not draw back," Bashir said."I felt that this is my job – to send a message to the world and tell my story as if I am telling it for the hundreds of thousands of women just like me."
It is a savage story. After escaping the soldiers, Bashir – still bleeding from her wounds -- made a cross-country journey by camel back to her home village. Her father, who had always nurtured Bashir's intelligence and abilities, refused to attach any shame or blame to her for her rape, a common practice in village culture. Instead, he embraced his daughter and arranged a marriage for her with a sympathetic cousin who was also a rebel fighter.
Within a few months, the Janjaweed attacked the village, destroying every trace of the life she had known. Her father died in the fight. In the chaos, Bashir was separated from her mother, sisters, and brother and made a desperate flight to England. She still does not know where they are, or even if they are alive.
This May, after a prolonged legal battle, she was granted asylum by the United Kingdom, where she now lives with her husband and children. But she no longer practices medicine. Instead, she travels the world, speaking about Darfur and the horrors perpetrated there against women and children.
It is, she says, a legacy for her father. "When I am doing this and I find that people moving and responding, I am happy," she said. "I feel as if my father, now he is sitting there and proud of me and what I am doing for the people."