Sudanese troops raped more than 200 women and girls — some as young as seven — in a Darfuri town over the course of a relentless three-day attack last fall, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday.
Researchers collected firsthand accounts from more than two dozen victims and eyewitnesses to construct a horrifying narrative of crimes perpetrated in the town of Tabit between October 30 and November 1 by soldiers stationed at a nearby garrison.
Since 2003, fighting between rebels and Sudan's security forces and associated militias has claimed the lives of some 300,000 people in Darfur. Last year, UNAMID, the joint African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in the region, faced serious whistle blower allegations charging that it had failed to investigate and properly report human rights abuses. A report on the accusations issued by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just days before the incidents in Tabit found that the mission had erred in not passing along to peacekeeping headquarters details of attacks on civilians and UN personnel.
The Human Rights Watch report heavily criticizes the Sudanese government for perpetrating the attack and blocking investigations into what transpired. It also calls into question UNAMID's initial response to the rapes, which sought to downplay the allegations. Despite a force of some 16,000 peacekeepers as well as dedicated human rights teams, UNAMID has released no findings on the events of the three days.
"The Sudanese military undertook at least 3 distinct attacks in the town," the report's author, Jonathan Loeb, told VICE News. "During each of these attacks there was looting, widespread beating of civilians, and a large number of rapes were carried out."
'When I cried they pushed a piece of cloth into my mouth. Then the other one raped me.'
Witnesses and victims told Loeb that the soldiers said they were searching for a missing comrade when more than 100 of them set upon Tabit on the evening of October 30. Men were dragged from their homes, taken to other areas for questioning, and pummeled. After their removal, soldiers carried out what one defector said were orders to "rape women." Witnesses positively identified some of their rapists as belonging to the government base.
"They took us outside the village. I don't know exactly where," remembered a woman in her early twenties named Rufeeda, who said that five soldiers captured her and a friend. "We were two and we were taken to the same place. Two of them raped me and my friend was raped by three.… They left us out there. [The next morning] my mother and my aunt found us."
Soldiers returned the following morning to continue their assault. Another woman in her early twenties named Asal recounted how soldiers had hung her brother from a tree before raping her.
"Three men came inside the hut. Two of them were holding me. The third was raping me," she said. "When I cried they pushed a piece of cloth into my mouth. Then the other one raped me."
A third and final period of rapes occurred through the night of October 31 and into the morning of November 1. Khatera, a woman in her early forties, reported to investigators that soldiers claiming that the town's residents had killed one of their own told her, "We are going to show you true hell."
"Then they started beating us. They took my husband away while beating him. They raped my three daughters and me," said Khatera. "Some of them were holding the girl down while another was raping her. They did it one by one. One helped beat and the other raped. Then they would go to the next girl. Two were holding the girl and one would rape."
Two of Khatera's daughters, according to the report, were under 11 years of age.
In all, Human Rights Watch compiled the names of 221 women and girls it says were raped.
Tabit has been under government control since 2009. Khartoum often uses purported rebel movements as justification for military intervention that lead to atrocities, but Human Rights Watch said that it has no reason to believe rebels were present in Tabit at the time of the attacks.
Word of the incidents first emerged on November 2 via Netherlands-based Radio Dabanga, which reports and broadcasts locally in Darfur. UNAMID, headquartered some 55 kilometers from Tabit in al Fasher, did not attempt to reach the town until November 4. Turned away by a government roadblock, UN personnel returned on November 9, at which point they were briefly allowed inside.
The following day, the mission released a perplexing statement, claiming that after having interviewed residents in the town, none of them "confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Tabit."
At the time, a UNAMID spokesperson told VICE News that the relationship between the town's residents and the stationed soldiers was "cordial" and called into question the veracity of Radio Dabanga's reporting.
The spokesperson also denied that there had been any presence of Security Forces in the town when they were allowed in on November 4. "I can't see how there was any sort of pressure exerted on the mission," said the spokesperson.
Yet an internal UNAMID document that was later leaked indicated Sudanese Armed Forces "were present in sizable numbers — in uniform and civil clothing."
"They should not have implied that their findings were in any way the result of a credible investigation," said Loeb. "It was totally compromised."
Loeb, who carried out his research remotely, wondered why the mission, which has been blocked from re-entering Tabit since November, did not undertake a similar investigation.
"I believe UNAMID does have the resources to do a much better job with its human rights investigation," said Loeb. "It's not easy to do this type of investigation, but there are definitely some people in the mission who are up to the task."
UNAMID did not respond to questions from VICE News regarding the HRW report. A spokesperson with the UN Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support told VICE News that they are "gravely concerned by the allegations of human rights violations" contained in the report.
"Despite numerous requests, the authorities have not allowed us to access the area and to conduct an independent investigation," he said. "As a result, the United Nations has not been able to verify these rape allegations. The seriousness of allegations contained in the HRW report makes further investigation all the more urgent. We reiterate that only a full investigation by UNAMID will help shed light over these allegations, and we urge the government of Sudan to grant UNAMID unfettered access."
The HRW report found that there has been a "constant military presence" in Tabit since November, and that residents have been warned against speaking with members of UNAMID.
As it continued to block UN personnel from revisiting the area, Sudan sent its own investigators to the town on November 20. In a report submitted to the Security Council in early December, the government of Sudan said that it was unable to "find a single victim or witness to the alleged events, or any piece of evidence, document, or anything else that proved or suggested that occurrence of rape."
Loeb says the Sudanese investigation, which published the full names of those it interviewed — putting their lives in danger — was in no way credible.
"This wasn't just rogue soldiers, this was a deliberate undertaking by the government of Sudan to rape all these women," he said.
Former UNAMID spokesperson Aicha Elbasri, whose leak of information regarding the mission's mishandling of prior allegations of human rights abuses led to the UN secretary-general's investigation, told VICE News that UNAMID often failed to investigate rape, which she characterized as a "red line" drawn by the government in Khartoum.
"UNAMID was never interested in investigating, because investigating rape meant they would have had to at some point confront the government," she said.
A 2012 incident involving the alleged rape of some 20 women in Shangil Tobaya, for instance, was never reported by the mission, according to Elbasri. "It was mentioned nowhere," she said.
Though an executive summary of the UN's investigation into UNAMID was released, the entirety of the report remains under wraps, reportedly kept from even certain members of the Security Council.
Russia, seen as Sudan's closest ally on the council, has supported Khartoum's version of events and sought to block efforts for stronger action from its members. UNAMID's November 10 press release, said Human Rights Watch, appeared to contribute to "ambivalence" on the Security Council at a December session that discussed the alleged rapes. At that meeting, International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that she would suspend her investigation into war crimes in Darfur due to a lack of support from the UN. The ICC has charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and three members of his government with war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities committed in Darfur.
The African Union and the UN are currently engaged in negotiations over the future of UNAMID, which has already begun to downsize itself. Advocates worry that the uncertainty will diminish the likelihood of justice in cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as the rapes in Tabit.
For Tabit's roughly 7,000 residents, the abuses are the latest and perhaps most gruesome chapter of suffering that has lasted more than a decade.
"Imagine that people are raping your wife in front of your eyes and you can't do anything," one male witness told Human Rights Watch. "What happened to us is unimaginable."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford