How an Israeli NGO is combating rape in South Sudan

Chol Dar and her baby in a makeshift hospital in a UN protected camp in South Sudan. SAM MEDNICK PHOTO

“I’ll never leave [the camp] again. I’d rather die in here.” Chol Dar, the 34-year-old mother of five still wakes up at night screaming and crying, the memories of her brutal assault etched into her mind. It was the first time in three years that she’d left the United Nations protected camp, and it was the first time that she was raped.

When fighting broke out between government factions in the South Sudanese capital of Juba in July, Dar was living with her children in an internally displaced people’s camp on the edge of town. Famished and dehydrated, she was forced to leave in search of supplies. Armed in numbers, or so she thought, early one morning Dar, along with 30 other South Sudanese women and five men who accompanied them for protection, left the compound only to be ambushed and detained by government soldiers. The men were instantly killed, shot in the back, and while some of the women managed to escape, the majority were dragged into a ditch and raped.

“I only remember the first two (attackers). After that I went blank,” Dar says, her voice quivering.

After the attack, Dar didn’t tell anyone and sought no medical assistance. Due to the outbreak of violence, there were no doctors on hand, as everyone was in hiding. To date, she still hasn’t seen a medic, yet her bloated stomach protrudes outwards. She’s unable to breastfeed her youngest child, who cries and throws up every time she drinks her mother’s milk.

Dar, who walks with a limp from an injury sustained by a bomb when she was six years old, lost her husband in 2013 during the first bout of violence. Three years later she finds herself even more alone. With nowhere to turn, the young mother hangs her head in despair.

As the world’s youngest country hovers on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, millions of South Sudanese are fighting for their lives. They’ve recently joined the ranks of Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, which have each produced more than one million refugees. For the estimated 1.6 million internally displaced people, the situation grows direr by the day – particularly for women and children.

Atrocities like what happened to Dar are not unique to Ophelie Namiech, country director of IsraAID, an Israeli NGO that focuses on creating awareness and providing psychosocial support for victims of gender based violence. When violence escalates, sexual assaults increase.

Namiech says one of the biggest problems in combating rape is that, due to stigma, it usually goes unreported.   “It’s difficult to identify and find statistics as they’ll never truly reflect the reality,” she says. “People are scared, women are shamed and with boys, it’s even worse. (If you get raped) you keep it to yourself.”

A seasoned actor on the humanitarian stage, Namiech’s been spearheading IsraAID’s efforts in South Sudan for the past five years. Resting back in her chair, the French-Israeli native takes a break from recounting her impressive resume to catch her breath explaining that she was just diagnosed with malaria.

“Oh it’s fine,” she muses. “I’ve had it about six or seven times already.”

Having worked and lived all over the world, including two years with the UN as a political adviser on Middle East and African affairs, Namiech now splits her time between Juba and Tel Aviv. She’s committed to South Sudan and wants to bolster the role of Israel in international development and nation building, especially in Africa.

As one of the first NGOs to arrive on the scene shortly after South Sudan gained independence in 2011, IsraAID has been working with local communities across the country, empowering national service providers such as medical staff, psychosocial support, the police and the legal system to work together in order to deliver gender-based help to the most at-risk people.

What sets IsraAID apart from other organizations is its strong mandate to invest in local infrastructure and the community. They want to connect international donors directly with the beneficiaries on the ground, in order to remove themselves from the equation. By empowering, training and teaching communities how to work together to combat sexual violence, there’s the possibility of creating sustainable solutions. The only way to do this, however, is by building trust – trust within communities, trust amongst people and government entities and trust between IsraAID and local institutions.

Ophelie Namiech, country director of IsraAID. SAM MEDNICK PHOTO
Ophelie Namiech, country director of IsraAID. SAM MEDNICK PHOTO

To date, the organization has trained 172 social workers and other service providers across South Sudan including church and community leaders, medical personnel as well as teachers. Some communities that were at first reluctant to work together now have thriving programs where the police, social workers and the public have joined forces to help prevent assaults and to provide ease of access of services and information for survivors of rape.

Namiech says that one of the biggest reasons IsraAID has been so successful in establishing trust and fostering relationships is because of her Israeli passport.

Unbeknownst to many, Israel and South Sudan have a long-standing history. In 1960 when leaders of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army waged war on the north (today’s Sudan), they reached out to Israel for help, and in 2011 after gaining independence, Israel was one of the first countries to publicly recognize it. Israeli flags were waved in Juba with taxi drivers showcasing the blue and white Star of David in their windshields.

“This is the only country in the world, where you should tell people you’re Israeli and where it’s an asset. It opens all doors.”

Namiech smiles recounting time after time where showing her Israeli ID helped her bypass lines when meeting government officials, gain favour in meetings and generally be taken seriously.

“I usually tend to throw it in there that I’m Israeli. They start to smile and completely change.” She says as challenging as their work is, it’s been a lot easier to get things done because of the way IsraAID’s been received by authorities due to their nationality.

Yet as much as IsraAID’s origins have provided a leg up, it remains an uphill battle. As women across South Sudan continue to be raped, Namiech and her team remain on the ground, providing local communities with the skills they need to independently raise awareness and gain access to information and vital support. All in hope that women like Dar don’t have to suffer in silence.