Over 36 terrifying hours in October, 221 women and girls in Tabit town in North Darfur were raped by Sudanese army forces in their homes, in the streets and in front of their loved ones during a mass rape that could constitute crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
In a 48-page report, HRW revealed the stories of those who were attacked as scores of soldiers went from house to house, beating and whipping men, raping women and girls, and looting and destroying property.
“Immediately after they [the soldiers] entered the room, they said: ‘You killed our man. We are going to show you true hell,’” said one woman, who was attacked with her three daughters, two of whom were under the age of 11. “Then they started beating us. They raped my three daughters and me. Some of them were holding the girl down while another one was raping her. They did it one by one.”
HRW said the UN and African Union (AU) should take urgent steps to protect civilians in Tabit. Allegations of a mass rape began to emerge from the town just days after the attack, which began on 30 October, but verification had proven difficult.
Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the international court for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, has imposed tight controls on media, civil society and NGOs, especially in Darfur where fighting between rebels and government forces has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than 2 million people since 2003.
In the report, HRW said it had documented 27 incidents of rape, often by multiple perpetrators, and obtained credible information about an additional 194 cases. Two army defectors told the watchdog that officers had ordered them to rape women.
During November and December, HRW spoke to more than 50 inhabitants and former residents of Tabit by telephone. It also interviewed local human rights monitors, government officials, and staff of the AU-UN mission in Darfur (Unamid), a peacekeeping force established in 2007.
Witnesses said the army carried out three distinct operations from 30 October to 1 November. Soldiers looted property, arrested men, beat residents, and raped women and girls.
The mass rape could amount to crimes against humanity, HRW said – the rape was on a large scale, and could thus be considered widespread, and it was carried out in multiple locations at the same time, indicating it was systematic.
One woman said soldiers beat her and dragged her from her house. When she returned, she found they had raped three of her daughters, all under 15. The soldiers “beat the young children and they raped my older daughters … They put clothes in [my daughters’] mouths so that you could not hear the screaming,” she said.
Tasnim, who is in her 40s and whose name has been changed to protect her identity, hid as soldiers entered her compound. She saw her uncle being beaten with a whip and chased out. Then she heard women screaming. She later learned that three women had been raped and a member of her family abducted by the soldiers and raped.
“The deliberate attack on Tabit and the mass rape of the town’s women and girls is a new low in the catalogue of atrocities in Darfur,” said Daniel Bekele, HRW’s Africa director. “The Sudanese government should stop the denials and immediately give peacekeepers and international investigators access to Tabit.”
Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based station, carried the first reports of mass rape on 2 November. Six days later, peacekeepers from Unamid were granted brief access to Tabit, but security forces prevented them from carrying out a credible investigation, HRW said.
HRW says Unamid forces in Darfur ‘have been hamstrung … in the implementation of its core mandate’.
HRW says Unamid in Darfur ‘has been hamstrung … in the implementation of its core mandate’. Photograph: Albert Gonzalez Farran/EPA
Most of the 7,000 people who live in the town belong to the Fur ethnic group, and the town has previously been controlled by rebel forces. However, HRW said it had found no evidence that rebel fighters were in or near Tabit at the time of the attacks.
Witnesses said some of the soldiers who carried out the attacks were stationed at a base on the outskirts of Tabit. Two soldiers, who later defected to a rebel group, said other soldiers came from El Fasher – the capital of North Darfur, and Khartoum.
Those who tried to speak out about the assaults told HRW they had been beaten and tortured. One man, who was overheard talking to a relative about the attack, was taken to a military intelligence prison. “They said if I talked about Tabit again that I was going to be finished … They kicked me, tied me and hanged me up. They beat me with whips and electric wires,” he told HRW. Another resident said people had been “living in an open prison” since the assault.
Darfur was once the focus of international condemnation of the government’s role in alleged abuses by its militia, including the notorious Janjaweed. But the focus has shifted to other conflicts, although the abuses continue: HRW said government attacks on civilians rose last year.
In January, UN experts said more than 3,000 villages had been burned in Darfur in 2014, while the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says almost 500,000 people were displaced by attacks last year, and another 70,000 in the first three weeks of this year.
HRW says sexual violence has been a prominent feature of attacks carried out by the Rapid Support Force, a new security force under the command of Sudanese national intelligence and security services.
“The Tabit atrocities demonstrate the continuing and urgent need for a professional and independent force that can help protect civilian populations in Darfur from attack,” HRW said. “It also underscores the reality that the current Unamid force has been hamstrung in its performance and in the implementation of its core mandate.”