Nearly a month after reports first emerged detailing mass rapes carried out by Sudanese security forces in a Darfuri village, the region's joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) has yet to release information about the incident, with the operation now facing pressure from the Sudanese government to leave the country entirely.
Local media outlet Radio Dabanga initially put the number of alleged rape victims in the town of Tabit at around 200. The reported violence was ostensibly tied to a soldier who was having a relationship with a female in the village.
Though an accurate toll may be never known, VICE News has confirmed that rapes and beatings took place over a period of several days around Friday, October 31 — a confirmation that the UN has yet to make public.
"The abuses included a large number of rapes over two days, and a wider pattern of sexual violence against women and girls, round-ups and beatings of men, and detentions," a human rights official with knowledge of the incidents in Tabit told VICE News, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Despite the local reports, UNAMID did not attempt to travel to the town — located a mere 25 miles from its headquarters in al Fasher — until November 4, at which time they said Sudanese authorities turned them away at a roadblock. A UN patrol finally reached Tabit on November 9.
The mission released a statement the following day saying that "none of those interviewed confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Tabit." A spokesperson for UNAMID later told VICE News that despite reports to the contrary, there had been no threatening presence of Sudanese forces in the town during the several hours UN officials spent there.
The statement went on to describe a cordial relationship between security forces and the local population. That account, however, was contradicted almost immediately by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence in Conflict during a testimony in front of the Security Council, and, more damningly, in an internal UNAMID report — a copy of which VICE News obtained.
"SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] were present in sizeable numbers — in uniform and civil clothing — in Tabit," the internal report states, adding that "the behavior and responses of interviewees indicated an environment of fear and intimidation."
At several points, members of the UN team reported "the interviews being captured on recording devices (mobile phone) by the SAF members."
Only days later did the UN admit publicly that the investigation had been compromised. Since November 9, UNAMID has not returned to Tabit, where it says the Sudanese government has permanently denied them access. Though the mission has in the past been attacked by the government and government-aligned militias, its status-of-forces agreement with Khartoum does not require it to notify the Sudanese government of its movements.
'The treatment of the mass rapes is really symptomatic of a deeper structural problem with UNAMID. At best, it's only ever been partially able to protect civilians. At worst, it's been absent or come afterwards to collect the corpses.'
The Security Council, which authorizes UNAMID, has provided wavering support of the mission. Russia, an ally of Sudan, has attempted to water down press statements and pushed to completely remove language referencing the presence of armed forces on November 9.
Though not alone in its lack of human rights reporting, the mission has a longstanding status as one of the UN's most opaque and troubled operations. Tasked with policing a hard to track conflict between government forces and Darfuri rebels, which has claimed the lives of as many as 300,000 people since 2003, their job was never clearly delineated by the Security Council. By UN standards, the deployment has also been particularly deadly. Since its inception in 2007, more than 60 peacekeepers have been killed.
In April, former UNAMID spokesperson Aicha Elbasri leaked reams of internal documents and communications to Foreign Policy magazine. The leak portrayed the mission as chronically failing to investigate or report human rights abuses and even attacks on its own personnel.
Despite initially balking at an inquiry, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon eventually appointed a team headed by a former UN peacekeeping official to investigate Elbasri's allegations. On October 29 — just days before the Tabit rapes — the review team reported that on several occasions "the Mission did not provide UN Headquarters with full reports on the circumstances surrounding these incidents, which involve possible wrongdoing by government or pro-government forces."
Elbasri told VICE News that the investigation, which only looked at incidents discussed internally during her eight-month tenure and denied there had been a cover-up, was itself another cover-up.
Given the dangerous environment in Darfur, tenuous relations with Khartoum, and a lack of support from UN member states, observers are sympathetic to the mission — to a point.
"I have nothing but admiration and respect for the peacekeepers who have risked their lives, but the mission was flawed from the start," Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, told VICE News. "It's been a band-aid over a weeping sore — and what we see at the moment is a result of that."
"The treatment of the mass rapes is really symptomatic of a deeper structural problem with UNAMID," added Adams. "At best, it's only ever been partially able to protect civilians. At worst, it's been absent or come afterwards to collect the corpses."
Amid UNAMID's contradictory statements and silence on the rapes, officials close to the secretary-general are privately exasperated with the mission.
"They've grown frustrated with the way it's being handled," one UN official familiar with the discussions told VICE News.
"Because UNAMID is not doing their jobs correctly, it's making it hard for them — it's a public relations crisis," the UN official added. "Until UNAMID starts taking the right actions and communication, we're going to have this hot potato."
Since the UN's visit to Tabit on November 9, Sudanese forces have only tightened their grip on the town. Nearby villages have been bombed in recent days and military convoys reportedly have been seen in the area.
"There is a constant government presence in the town," the human rights official said. "During the past three weeks government soldiers beat, arrested, and detained civilians, confiscated phones, and instructed them not to speak to UNAMID or anyone investigating the incident."
"Even if UNAMID was able to access the town, the level of fear and intimidation is such that they likely wouldn't get the population to speak with them honestly," the human rights official added. "The ability to conduct anonymous interviews in a safe environment is essential for a real investigation. This is simply not possible right now."
Since November 10, UNAMID has not issued further public statements on events in Tabit. The Sudanese government, meanwhile, has stepped up pressure on the besieged mission, officially requesting it both close its human rights office in Khartoum and draw up plans to leave the country entirely.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for UNAMID confirmed that the two requests had been made. The mission also indicated that it was already in the middle of a "down-sizing."
"Considerable thought is being devoted on the issue because of the hundreds of jobs that would be abolished for Sudanese and international staff of the Mission," the spokesperson said. "UNAMID wishes to reassure that the downsizing exercise would, as much as possible, be undertaken and implemented in a very humane and considerate manner."
Given the lack of reporting on the rapes themselves, UNAMID's public concern over the financial wellbeing of its employees struck some of the human rights observers VICE News spoke with as tone deaf.
In 2013, Secretary-General Ban introduced the UN's "Rights Up Front" initiative, which cited "the need for early action and the crucial role of responding early to human rights violations." The response to incidents like what transpired in Tabit are seen as tests of the policy.
"Why do we have human rights monitors attached to missions there?" asked Adams. "Their whole purpose is to warn, report, and alert."
"Especially in this 'Rights Up Front' era, this is exactly what these people should be doing," he added.
A dedicated human rights team was not included in the UN patrol that went to Tabit on November 9.
A US official told VICE News that the timing of the request, "coming after the government's repeated obstruction of UNAMID's investigation into allegations of mass rapes in Darfur, only deepens our concern about the government's established pattern of hindering investigations of human rights violations."
The official pointed to language in UNAMID's mandate that calls for the secretary-general to analyze and recommend possible outcomes for the mission, including the "configuration and exit strategy of UNAMID." Ban Ki-moon is expected to hand the recommendations to the Security Council in February.
Whatever Ban's report entails, the Security Council will have to confront its differences over Darfur by the time UNAMID's mandate expires in June of next year.
"The Security Council disagrees about most things to do with Sudan," Adams said. "It disagrees about responsibility for atrocities, accountability, and what should be done — and that's been the problem since day one."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford