Some 12 years following the breakout of war in Sudan's western region of Darfur, which has involved the systematic destruction of non-Arab communities by government units, Sudanese special forces continue to commit grave human rights violations there, according to researchers at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Abuses include the gang-raping of women who were then burned alive, and sources suggest that the soldiers responsible might have received orders directly from the country's vice president.
An HRW report released Wednesday draws on interviews with 212 victims and witnesses to outline crimes allegedly committed by Sudan's Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The government established the RSF in 2013 to fight rebel groups in Darfur, and is overseen by the country's National Intelligence and Security Service.
The survey of these offenses focuses on two counterinsurgency campaigns in the region. The first, known as Operation Decisive Summer, was carried out in both south and north Darfur from February to May 2014. Operation Decisive Summer II, which began this past January and concluded in June with the arrival of the rainy season, was concentrated in the mountainous Jebel Marra region in central Darfur.
"The RSF committed a wide range of horrific abuses, including the forced displacement of entire communities; the destruction of wells, food stores and other infrastructure necessary for sustaining life in a harsh desert environment; and the plunder of the collective wealth of families, such as livestock," wrote investigators. "Among the most egregious abuses against civilians were torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rape."
Researchers found that the RSF killed many civilians who resisted being driven from their homes or attempted to prevent troops from raping them or their relatives.
Rebels in Darfur took up arms against the government in 2003. The conflict has claimed the lives of as many as 300,000 people since then, but international attention to it has waned with the emergence of crises in the Middle East and elsewhere. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed in Darfur, however, including genocide.
"The fact is this is going on without much effort from the international community beyond lip service," Jonathan Loeb, a researcher at HRW who worked on the report, said.
In an attack perpetrated in January of this year that HRW called "emblematic of the atrocities," RSF soldiers entered the town of Golo in Jebel Marra, where they proceeded to loot houses and beat, murder, and rape residents.
"They separated women and men," a woman who escaped the attack recounted to HRW. "They raped some women and they made the men carry stones from place to place as punishment…. Some [of the women] were raped in the hospital.… I saw seven raped with my own eyes."
Investigators were informed that many women in the town were gang-raped as their neighbors were made to watch. Others were killed for not submitting.
Following the assault on Golo, members of the RSF went on to rape "scores" of women and girls in the village, as well as in neighboring Bardani. According to the report, "the naked bodies of many dead women were later discovered in the streets; other women were burned alive."
The Sudanese government denies that its forces have committed any violations in Darfur, and insists that the rebellion in the region must be put down. Loeb said in all the incidents documented by HRW, "rebels were never present, or rebels had left weeks or days or on the day of the attack."
HRW investigators also spoke with five defectors from government forces, including the RSF, and found that all but one of them "asserted that commanding officers ordered their units to carry out atrocities against civilians."
"The commander told us that these are rebels or rebel supporters and the women are their harem," said one defector. "You go there and you rape them and kill them."
Two defectors claimed to have directly heard orders given by Sudan's vice president, Hassabo Mohammed Abdel Raham. A former border guard said that he witnessed Rahman "order a large number of regular soldiers, Border Guards, and RSF personnel at a military base north of Kutum in Guba, to kill everyone living in the rebel areas east of Jebel Marra mountain."
The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), a peacekeeping force established in 2007, has struggled to prevent atrocities committed against civilians, and has in the past been accused of willfully covering up incidents, including attacks on its own personnel.
Last year, Human Rights Watch documented the mass rape of more than 200 women and girls in the town of Tabit. UNAMID came under fire for its handling of the case; in initial interviews with VICE News, the mission described the relationship between local troops and civilians in the area as cordial, a wording that was quickly disproved by testimony from other UN officials and the subsequent report, which Loeb also contributed to.
"In brief, UNAMID failed," said Loeb. "This is still ongoing 12 years after the conflict started, and it is ongoing in the shadow of one of the largest peacekeeping missions in the world."
UNAMID officials concede that the mission should be doing a better job, but insist that its peacekeepers are hamstrung by Sudanese authorities who restrict their movement. Despite no clause in their agreement with Khartoum that would require UNAMID to notify them of their operations, the mission almost always does so.
Bashir, having briefly flirted with attending the United Nations General Assemblyin New York this month, is a pariah in much of the world and is scorned by Western leaders. But in recent years, even as fighting continues in Darfur and in other restive regions, the president has slowly but noticeably ushered himself into the good graces of certain prominent nations, including Saudi Arabia.
In March, Khartoum announced it would join the Saudi-led coalition aimed at driving Houthi rebels from Yemen. As many as 6,000 Sudanese soldiers could be en route to Yemen this week to partake in ground operations, though VICE News could not confirm reports suggesting this. The United States, which has long been an ardent critic of Bashir, provides logistical and targeting assistance to the coalition.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford