Less than two weeks after a report found the UN mission in Darfur chronically underreported crimes in the war-torn region, UNAMID is facing fresh allegations that it failed to properly investigate the rape of dozens, if not hundreds, of women and girls in a small town.
According to local media accounts, the alleged violence took place over a period of several days, beginning Friday, October 31, when soldiers from a local garrison arrived in the town of Tabit, ostensibly to search for a missing comrade. The troops allegedly proceeded to rape as many as 200 women.
Despite being only 25 miles from UNAMID's headquarters in Al-Fashir, UN staff didn't attempt to reach the town until the afternoon of Tuesday, November 3 — four days after the initial attack. According to a press release issued November 5, the UN staff members were stopped and turned away by Sudanese forces at a road block on the way to the town. They then travelled to a nearby camp for displaced persons, where they reported that they were unable to find anyone who fled the attack.
"For UNAMID to make it to Tabit on Tuesday is actually very quick," Aicha Elbasri, a former UNAMID spokesperson whose whistle-blowing spurred a UN investigation into the mission, told VICE News. "They should have gone out immediately and forced their way into town."
The mission said last week that investigators continued to attempt to access the town, and were finally allowed in on Sunday. A statement released Monday said the team that entered Tabit "neither found evidence nor received any information regarding" the rapes.
Reached by phone Monday, UNAMID spokesman Ashraf Eissa told VICE News that, despite denying the mission access to Tabit for a full week, Sudanese authorities were not exerting pressure on locals or attempting to intimidate them. But that account was contradicted almost simultaneously by the UN's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, who briefed the UN Security Council on Tabit.
Eissa, the UN spokesman, maintained that the Sudanese military did not attempt to tamper with the UN investigation.
"My understanding is that the Sudanese forces are outside the town, but they actually come into the town market and they buy their things from the market, and they socialize with the people in the village," he said, echoing similarly rosy language employed in the mission's statement Monday. "For many years now it has been a cordial relationship between them [in Tabit] and the local Sudanese forces in the area."
At a daily briefing with reporters Monday, UN spokesperson Farhan Haq repeated the mission's statements that none of the Tabit villagers interviewed by investigators could confirmed that "any incident of rape took place." The statement also said that village elders told the UN investigators that they "coexist peacefully with local military authorities in the area."
However, speaking to reporters following Bangura's briefing, Australian ambassador Gary Quinlan, the Security Council's president for November, said he was told that "there had been a heavy military presence during the team's visit."
"A number of members of the council expressed very strong concern over this," Quinlan said, referencing what Bangura called "a wall of silence," from the villagers.
The Security Council, Quinlan added, was worried that Sudanese military remained in the town in order to "create an environment of threat and intimidation and indeed a fear of reprisal."
"If residents are being intimidated in any way, then conditions would not be appropriate for a credible investigation," Jehanne Henry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told VICE News.
Other human rights officials with knowledge of the investigation told VICE News that residents of Tabit are living in a state of intense fear. The sources said the villagers believe Sudanese authorities will punish them for cooperating with UNAMID staff.
The rape allegations were first reported by Radio Dabanga, a radio station headquartered in the Netherlands with a team of local reporters in Darfur.
On Monday evening, Dabanga published an article alleging the commissioner of Tabit's locality had threatened residents prior to the arrival of UNAMID investigators.
The UN spokesman said he wasn't sure if the mission had contacted the radio station to gain access to testimony of the alleged rape victims recorded by reporters. Radio Dabanga published parts of the testimony Monday night.
Ahmed Hussain Adam, a former spokesperson for the Darfuri rebel group known as the Justice and Equality Movement who is currently a visiting fellow at Cornell University's Institute for African Development, told VICE News that he spoke with village elders in the days after the attack.
"They [soldiers] attacked from all corners, they came there and beat people, they threw men outside, they raped girls in front of their mothers and grandmothers," Adam said. "These are instruments of war, they want to defeat psychologically the people there and undermine and destroy their dignity — it is completely tactical."
Adam said one of the villagers he spoke with had eight family members of his family raped.
VICE News was not able to independently verify Adam's account of the attack.
Elbasri, the UNAMID whistleblower, said Radio Dabanga has often been dismissed as a mouthpiece for Sudanese rebels. Several other observers familiar with Darfur said that, while the radio station occasionally makes errors, its reporting is largely accurate and vital given the dearth of other media and human rights observers in the region.
Elbasri leaked documents to Foreign Policy in April that showed UNAMID systemically failed to investigate or report human rights abuses. She said she wasn't surprised by the mission's response to the rape allegations.
"This is a typical cover-up statement by UNAMID," Elbasri said. "It provides many facts, but leaves out the most important information, the kind of evidence that indicates government responsibility for crimes committed by its force. This is one of those lies by omission that the UN Headquarters is quick to convey to the world media."
On October 30, a review team appointed by the Secretary General to investigate Elbasri's allegations found that, in several instances "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." Investigators, led by a former peacekeeping official, did not look into the mission's activity outside of Elbasri's eight-month tenure — nor did it incorporate media reports.
Fighting between rebels and government forces in Darfur has killed as many as 300,000 people and displaced 2 million others since 2003. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is currently under indictment by the International Criminal court for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes — including systematic rape — perpetrated in the region.
Elbasri said the mission was wrong to contend that it required permission from the Sudanese government to investigate crimes like the alleged rapes in Tabit. Indeed, the mission's status of forces agreement with the government states that UNAMID "shall enjoy full and unrestricted freedom of movement without delay throughout Darfur and other areas of Sudan where UNAMID is operating in accordance with its mandate… without the need for travel permits or prior authorization or notification."
Human rights observers told VICE News that UNAMID's statement that "village community leaders reiterated to UNAMID that they coexist peacefully with local military authorities in the area" — the same military authorities that are accused of mass rape — was a window into the mission's mindset.
"I think that that sentence alone has really attracted a lot of scrutiny because of what people know about the heightened tensions between Sudan's military and the people of Darfur," Akshaya Kumar, a Sudan and South Sudan analyst at the Enough Project, told VICE News. "My assessment is there was a lot of pressure exerted on the mission to write the statement — it seems very forced."
Kumar added: "For that line to be included in the statement is a clear signal that it was crafted and influenced to maintain some sort of relationship with the government of Sudan."
Elbasri says during her time with UNAMID she found reporting on sexual violence was strained, and that the government in Khartoum made concerted efforts to silence its reporting.
"UNAMID in the first place is too afraid to talk about rape," Elbasri said. "Talking about rape means declaring war on the government."
"They can issue this kind of whitewash statement that clears the government from atrocities - this has gone on for many years," Elbasri said. "Nothing has changed or would ever change because so far no one has been held accountable for covering up such serious crimes."
UNAMID is one of the UN's largest missions, comprised of some 14,500 troops and 4,500 police, as well as human rights investigators and other political staff.
In its statement Monday, UNAMID said the team that travelled to Tabit was made up of "police, military and civilian components." A UN official in New York told VICE News that the mission was considering sending human rights teams to Tabit in the coming days — something it evidently had not yet done.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford