By Halima Bashir and Damien Lewis
Halima Bashir was born into the remote western deserts of Sudan, to the fiercely independent Zaghawa tribe. The Zaghawa are one of the few black African peoples never to have been conquered by the British, and their culture has remained unchanged for centuries. Halima’s family were farmers who put huge value on their herds of camel and cattle. The villagers prided themselves on their prowess as warriors of the desert.
Halima grew up in a wonderfully rich and close-knit childhood community, where the rhythm of the seasons and the tribe’s accompanying rituals marked the passing of the years. Halima’s father named her after the traditional medicine woman of the village – not knowing that one day she would become a medical doctor. Halima’s father was a wealthy man by the tribe’s standards, and he purchased the village’s first ever vehicle, an ancient Land Rover. He decided he could afford to send Halima to school, where she excelled, and she went on to study medicine at University.
At age twenty-four she returned to her tribe and began practising as their first ever doctor. But shortly thereafter a dark cloud descended upon Halima and her people. Janjaweed Arab militias began attacking the Zaghawa, invariably with the backing of the Sudan army and air force. At first, Halima tried not to get involved. But in January 2004 the Janjaweed attacked the village where she was working, gang-raping dozens of schoolgirls, some of whom were as young as eight years old. Sickened and appalled by what she had seen as she treated the girls, Halima decided to speak out to a United Nations charity. Shortly thereafter the secret police came for her.
Halima was imprisoned and interrogated, and subjected to horrific torture and gang-rape. Taking her life in her hands she escaped, and fled to her home village. But the nightmare just seemed to follow her, as Janjaweed raiders backed by helicopter gunships attacked her home. Halima’s much-loved father was gunned down before her eyes, her village turned into a smoking ruin, a vision of hell. Finally, she discovered that the security forces were trying to find her. Taking what little money her mother could spare, Halima set out on an epic journey to escape the hell of Darfur and those who were pursuing her. With little idea how she might get there, she chose to head for England, where a long-lost childhood sweetheart was waiting to marry her. So began her epic flight – one that might end in a dream come true, or a living nightmare.