Thursday, November 30, 2023

CHAD-SUDAN BORDER: Sudanese women gang-raped in ethnically targeted attacks by Arab forces




Filed: November 30, 2023, 11 a.m. GMT - here is a copy in full:


Sudanese women describe being gang-raped in ethnically targeted attacks by Arab forces

Rape is widespread amid the war in Sudan. Young women from the ethnic-African Masalit tribe say they were sexually assaulted at gunpoint by RSF paramilitary and Arab militia forces during attacks on the city of El Geneina in West Darfur. ‘For three days, they were raping me,’ one teenager said.

A 24-year-old raped by armed men in her home just feet from her mother. A 19-year-old abducted and raped by four men over three days. A 28-year-old women’s rights activist, seized by men on the doorstep of her home and then raped while being held for hours in an abandoned house.

They are among 11 young Masalit women interviewed by Reuters who said they were sexually assaulted amid the war in Sudan by members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an Arab-dominated paramilitary group, and allied Arab militiamen. The assaults, they said, took place during weeks of attacks earlier this year in El Geneina, capital of Sudan’s West Darfur region.

Nine of the women described being raped by multiple men. All 11 said they were assaulted at gunpoint. Another three people said they witnessed women being raped.

Reuters earlier detailed the carnage that erupted in El Geneina from late April to mid-June, when the RSF and its allies targeted the Masalit, a darker-skinned ethnic-African tribe that comprised a majority of the city before they were largely driven out. Survivors described civilians slaughtered at home, in the streets and in a river valley – picked off by snipers, mowed down with automatic weapons, hacked with swords, burned alive in their houses. In early November, the RSF and Arab militia fighters waged another wave of ethnically targeted attacks in the city, Reuters recently reported.

Among the survivors of the earlier attacks: a 15-year-old girl who described seeing her parents killed and enduring an hours-long ordeal in which five RSF fighters raped her and a friend – then shot the friend dead.

Map shows the location of Sudan, its capital Khartoum, city of Geneina in West Darfur region and city of Adre in neighbouring Chad.

This report details the accounts of other Masalit women who say they were raped. Taken together with reports of rape cited by international organizations, their allegations point to the specific targeting of Masalit women for sexual assault by the RSF and allied Arab forces in El Geneina.

All 11 women interviewed for this story said the men who attacked them wore either RSF military uniforms, or robes and turbans commonly worn by Arab militiamen.

The women – all in their teens or twenties – were interviewed in the Chadian town of Adre, near the Sudan border, in July and August. All spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the stigma attached to rape or fear of reprisals.

Reuters was unable to independently corroborate all the details of their accounts. But in many instances, relatives and friends confirmed elements of their stories.

The women who said they were raped in El Geneina are among the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled this year from West Darfur to Adre, on the Chad border with Sudan, to escape an ethnically targeted campaign. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 

A 15-year-old girl described an hours-long ordeal in El Geneina during which five men in RSF uniforms raped her and a friend – and then shot the friend dead. The teenager is seen outside a makeshift shelter in a camp in Adre in August. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 

Common patterns emerged from their descriptions. Nearly all said they were raped by multiple men.

Eight of the women said their ethnicity was specifically invoked by their assailants. The men mentioned their Masalit identity, they said, or used ethnic slurs for the Masalit and other darker-skinned non-Arabs.

Some believed they were singled out because of their work advocating for the rights of Darfur people. Three told Reuters they were human rights activists. A fourth said she is married to an advocate for displaced people.

Survivors of the renewed attacks on the Masalit in El Geneina in early November also recounted incidents of sexual violence. Three said they witnessed sexual attacks by RSF or Arab militia forces.

Another woman, Hanan Idriss, 22, said that she and her sister narrowly escaped being raped on Nov. 2. They made up stories: Idriss said she was menstruating, while her sister told the militiamen she was HIV-positive.

“They wanted to rape us,” Idriss said, but the stories put them off. Instead, the attackers beat them and looted their house before leaving, Idriss said.

Hanan Idriss, 22, and her sister successfully warded off RSF and Arab militiamen who threatened to rape them by making up stories. Idriss told the militiamen that she was menstruating, while her sister said she was HIV positive. She is seen here in Adre with her daughter. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

Emir Massar Aseel, an Arab tribal leader in El Geneina, dismissed the rape allegations as “empty lies.” Aseel is a leader of the Rizeigat – one of the largest Arab tribes in West Darfur and the group from which many RSF leaders hail. Arab tribal traditions prohibit sexual assault and bar Arabs from marrying Masalit, Aseel said in a phone interview, and thus his people couldn’t have committed mass rape.

“If I can’t bring myself to marry” a Masalit woman, Aseel said, “why would I go and take her by force?”

Aseel said the Masalit started the conflict, forcing Arabs to respond.

The RSF didn’t respond to detailed questions for this report. The group has said the violence against civilians in Darfur arose from tribal disputes and blamed the Sudanese army for fuelling the fighting. Of the broader Sudan conflict that erupted in April, the RSF has said it opposes any abuses against civilians.

The sexual-assault reports come amid the war that broke out in April between the Sudanese army and the RSF in the capital of Khartoum. The fighting has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than 6 million, the United Nations estimates. It has also set off a surge of violence in Darfur, the western Sudan region where the RSF has its power base. The area has been plagued by decades of conflict, driven often by competition for land, water and other scarce resources.

Human Rights Watch has reported that several dozen women were raped during the El Geneina violence earlier this year and appear to have been targeted because of their Masalit ethnicity. The U.N. in November said that across Sudan it has received credible reports of conflict-linked sexual violence involving at least 105 victims. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague said in July it is investigating the hostilities in Darfur, including reports of killings, rapes and crimes against children.

The accounts of rape by the women Reuters spoke to could constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute that established the ICC, which prohibits sexual violence in conflict, said Noelle Quenivet, professor of international law at the Universtiy of the West of England in the UK. The sexual violence, as reported by Reuters and relief organizations, “looks like it is widespread,” Quenivet said. Under the Rome Statute, she said, widespread or systematic sexual violence could amount to crimes against humanity.

“I didn’t want this baby”

A 24-year-old single mother of a toddler was living at her parents’ home in Al Tadhamon, a mostly Masalit district of El Geneina. On June 8, some six weeks after Arab forces began attacking the Masalit community, RSF fighters and Arab militiamen stormed the neighborhood.

A contingent swept into their home and set it ablaze. She, her child and her mother managed to escape. But not her 60-year-old father: As he ran for safety, she said she later learned from her uncles, the gunmen shot him dead.

Three weeks later, on June 27, the 24-year-old and her mother decided to venture back to their torched house to salvage belongings. On the way they encountered a group of Arab militiamen, faces covered, and two followed them home, she said.

The two armed men – both wearing the traditional clothing and turbans worn by Arabs – interrogated the woman and her mother: Were they hiding Masalit fighters and weapons? The men then ordered them to sit on the floor, she said. The fighters said they were going to kill them: Recite the shahada, they said, referring to the Islamic declaration of faith, which is also recited when death seems imminent.

Instead, the men grabbed the young woman by the arm and pushed her into a room, threatening her at gunpoint when she resisted.

A 24-year-old mother of a toddler said she became pregnant after two gunmen assaulted her in El Geneina earlier this year. She said she was attacked after she returned to her burned home to salvage some belongings. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

The room had blackened walls and smelled like burnt wood, she said. The militiamen pulled up her dress. Standing at the open door, her mother screamed for her to resist. The militiamen turned their guns on the mother and threatened to shoot her.

The two men then proceeded to take turns raping the young woman. The assault continued until a third man entered the house and put a stop to it, ordering everyone out of the house. The two militiamen chased the young woman and her mother out, beating and whipping them.

The woman was one of three Masalit who described being assaulted upon returning to their damaged homes after attacks by Arab forces. She spoke in an interview outside her tent at the camp in Adre, her barefoot daughter playing nearby. She said she described the assault to a cousin shortly after the incident. 

Reuters also interviewed the cousin in Adre. She gave a matching account of the story, and said she herself was raped.

Days after the assault, the 24-year-old fled to Chad with her daughter. In July, she said she began suffering headaches, dizziness and nausea. She confided in her cousin that she feared she was pregnant.

After a test confirmed the pregnancy, she went to a camp medical center and got medication that she used to terminate the pregnancy. A woman who works with rape survivors at the camp confirmed seeing the 24-year-old receive the medication.

“I cried for three days” after learning of the pregnancy, the woman said. “I couldn’t eat or sleep. I didn’t want this baby.”

‘I sacrificed myself.’ The young woman, part of the Masalit tribe, recounts how she was raped at gunpoint after two militiamen threatened to kill her mother. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

“I was let go on the fourth day”

Her first brush with the RSF and Arab militias, a 19-year-old woman told Reuters, came in an earlier ethnic attack.

In 2016, RSF and militia fighters shot and wounded her father, an El Geneina merchant, in a camp for displaced people in the east of the city. She said she then witnessed the fighters place him in a bread oven and burn him to death.

On June 15 of this year, the young woman, her five younger siblings and their mother were among thousands of Masalit residents of El Geneina who tried to flee en masse to a Sudanese army base in the city’s north amid attacks by the RSF and Arab militias. They failed to make it after coming under heavy gunfire.

The teenager said she watched her mother fall dead in the street, hit by sniper fire. In the chaos, the teen became separated from her siblings.

The next morning, June 16, she said she was fleeing the city along the main road to Chad when armed men seized her and three other young women. The men covered her face with a head scarf, she said, and carried her and the other women to a landcruiser. They were driven to a crude hut made of tree branches, with mattresses spread on the ground.

She was taken to a room on her own. There, four armed men in RSF uniforms took turns raping her. The next day, two of the men raped her again. The third day, she was raped once more by one of the men.

“For three days, they were raping me,” she said in an interview in Adre in a tent made of sticks, cloth and plastic sheeting.

When she tried to resist, she said, the men beat and flogged her. She pushed up the sleeve of her black abaya, the loose-fitting long robe worn by some Muslim women, to show a deep dark scar from the beating on her arm.

“I was let go on the fourth day,” she said, breaking into tears.

The men tossed her out into the street, she said. An older woman persuaded a passing driver to take the teen to Adre.

The 19-year-old is among three women interviewed by Reuters who said they were assaulted while trying to escape El Geneina. Her 17-year-old sister, sitting beside her in the tent in a refugee camp, corroborated elements of her account from before and after the rape, including details of the deaths of their parents.

All six siblings managed to reach Adre. With both parents dead, the 19-year-old said she, as the eldest, is raising the other five. The youngest is 7.

They escaped with almost nothing. The 19-year-old said the only clothing she has left is the black robe she was wearing when she was raped.

Most of the women Reuters interviewed said they didn’t seek medical treatment after being sexually assaulted, largely because of the fear of social stigma. Having fled their homes, the women now live in refugee camps near the Chad border with Sudan. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

“I felt like I was suffocating”

It was around noon one day in early June when seven armed men, some in RSF uniforms and others in robes and turbans, bundled a 28-year-old human rights activist into a pickup truck as she was leaving her house.

Two men in RSF military uniforms restrained her, she said, while a third blindfolded her with her own scarf. They tied her hands before beating and groping her and pushing her head to the floor of the vehicle. “I felt like I was suffocating,” she said.

Her face was well-known in El Geneina: She said she had made broadcasts via social media in which she criticized the RSF and Arab militias for attacking the city’s civilians. She said the men knew her name – and she noticed that one had a photo of her on his phone.

They beat her and flogged her with a whip as they drove to a remote location. After stopping, they led her to an abandoned house. There, she said, she was raped by several men while being held blindfolded for hours.

The house was filled with the sound of the men’s laughter and the smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke, she said. She overheard one of the men boasting that he had killed nine people. Another said he had raped a virgin. A third bragged of raping more women than he could count.

The assailants repeatedly used racist language during the ordeal, the activist said. Having seized her, the men insulted the Masalit tribe with racial slurs, vowing to kill the men and assault the women, she recalled. Later, one of the attackers said “the nuba” will give birth to their children, a term used among the Arab tribes in West Darfur to refer to slaves.

The men drove her back to her house, depositing her outside on a corner late at night. In a state of shock, she remained there until dawn. Her father found her on his way to early morning prayers, she told Reuters.

“I endured very hard days,” said the tall woman, her light brown eyes welling up as she wiped her face with her red thobe, the traditional Sudanese head-to-toe garment.

She managed to get out of El Geneina on June 12 with the help of an Arab driver. The sexual assault followed several raids on her house by RSF and militia fighters in the multiethnic neighborhood of Al Shati, in eastern El Geneina, after fighting broke out in the city in late April. Dozens of her family members have died or gone missing, she said, including an uncle who was killed.

The stigma of rape prevented her seeking medical treatment or sharing her ordeal with family members, even her mother. She is one of at least eight women who told Reuters they didn’t seek medical assistance after being sexually assaulted, mostly due to fear of social stigma or difficulty accessing care.

“I feared speaking to anyone and word spreading about what happened,” she said. In Sudan, “there are social traditions that consider any such activity as a source of shame.”

Three of the women who said they were raped told Reuters they were human rights activists. In this video, one of the women, a 20-year-old activist and former nurse, describes how she fought with her assailants, but “there was no one to rescue me.” REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

“I remember screaming hard”

They were aspiring young women in the Masalit community: a trio with university ambitions, each 20 years old, who separately described being picked off by marauding fighters.

One of the students, pictured here, said she became separated from her family on June 15 during the failed mass attempt by the Masalit to reach a haven at the Sudanese army base. She spent hours walking through burning neighborhoods of El Geneina. Uniformed RSF fighters and Arab militiamen roamed the streets hunting for Masalit, she said, shouting “anbai,” a derogatory term used to mean slaves.

“There were massive fires, smoke, and destruction everywhere,” she said.

The student sought shelter inside an empty building in the western outskirts of the city with other women. She said she was captured there by a light-skinned armed fighter dressed in traditional Arab clothing, including a white turban. He ushered her into an empty room at gunpoint, repeatedly firing into the air.

She begged him not to harm her. “I am like your sister,” she remembers saying. He began groping her as he brandished a live bullet, threatening to kill her with it. The Arab fighter removed his trousers and proceeded to rape her, the woman said.

She remembers smelling his cologne; after he left, she started to vomit and cry hysterically. “I felt like the world was over and I lost everything,” she told Reuters in Adre, staring into space.

“I have a hard time falling asleep,” she said. “I remember screaming hard. I remember the dead bodies in the streets.”

Her account echoes that of a 20-year-old Masalit economics student. On April 28, soon after fighting began in the city, five men in RSF uniforms and Arab robes burst into her uncle’s house. The place had been torched days earlier, she said, and she was there to save what she could. The men’s first question: What tribe did she belong to?

She lied. They didn’t believe her when she denied she was a Masalit and called her “nuba,” the slur meaning slave. They forced her to the ground, she said, and two men in traditional Arab robes raped her.

A third 20-year-old Masalit woman provided a similar account. She had been a top high-school student and was planning to study medicine. She said she was seized by three men while trying to salvage belongings from her home on the morning of June 3.

They wore RSF uniforms: She said she recalls seeing the group’s signature badge that spells out Rapid Support Forces in Arabic. They grilled her: What tribe was she from? She lied, saying she was from another tribe. But when she was unable to speak that tribe’s language, she said, they guessed she was Masalit – and began debating whether to kill her or rape her.

The men bound her hands and legs with her scarves. The three of them then raped her until she lost consciousness.

When she came to, she was alone, bleeding and unable to walk. The men returned. One suggested killing her, but another said to return her to her “nawab” family, using another slur referring to slaves.

Afterwards, she felt pain all over her body. On the road to Chad on June 15, she said she encountered a group of RSF and Arab fighters who beat her up and took her belongings – her phone, money, clothes and her shoes. She walked barefoot to the refugee camp.

Now, living in a tent in Adre, she says she is broke and has trouble sleeping.

“I only wish death,” said the thin, hollow-cheeked woman. “My life is over.”

“Death is mercy to me”

A 25-year-old women’s rights advocate went into hiding after fighting erupted in El Geneina in late April. Like lawyers, doctors and other prominent Masalit interviewed by Reuters, she said she feared being targeted by the RSF and allied militias.

She had campaigned against violence inflicted on the Masalit during previous rounds of conflict, which she felt put her at heightened risk. Her fears proved correct.

The activist learned from her family that RSF fighters had attacked her home in the mostly Masalit district of Al Thawra with rocket-propelled grenades. A younger brother was killed, a sister severely wounded and their father injured.

The attackers also abducted another sister – telling the family they wouldn’t release the 15-year-old girl unless the rights advocate turned herself in.

Fearing for her sister’s safety, she said she went to an RSF checkpoint at a city market and identified herself. The fighters said they’d been waiting for her and took her to a filthy metal shipping container. There, two armed men in RSF uniforms took turns raping her for three hours. More than a dozen other RSF uniformed fighters were positioned nearby, she said, along with three pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

“I screamed: Kill me. Death is mercy to me,” said the activist, dressed in a dark thobe. She said she still experiences sudden bouts of uncontrolled crying.

Rape has been used as a weapon of war over the years in Sudan, human rights groups have said.

The activist works with a non-governmental organization, Roots for Human Rights and Monitoring Violations, that provides support to survivors of sexual violence and documents rights abuses by the warring parties in Sudan’s long-running conflicts. Before war broke out this year, she said, she was working with women who had been raped in recent years during attacks on camps for internally displaced people in and around El Geneina.

“What is happening now is similar to past years, but on a much larger scale,” she said.

“While I was screaming, they stuffed a scarf in my mouth.” A 27-year-old medical assistant said she was raped after men in RSF uniforms recognized her as the wife of a Masalit activist. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

A 27-year-old Masalit medical assistant said she was sexually assaulted by RSF and Arab fighters two years ago during an attack on a displacement camp in eastern El Geneina. She showed a gouge in her finger that she said was inflicted in that incident by a knife-wielding  attacker.

On June 15 this year, she said she was sheltering at another displacement camp in the city with her in-laws when men in RSF uniforms arrived and shot dead several Masalit men. The fighters recognized her as the wife of a Masalit community activist, put a knife to her throat and demanded to know where her husband was.

When the medical assistant denied knowing his whereabouts, she said, four men in RSF uniforms surrounded her and began beating her. One ripped off her head scarf and stuffed it in her mouth to stifle her screams. Others kicked her in the chest and pelvis.

Three men took turns raping her over a period of several hours, she said. She bled heavily. Searing pain engulfed her body.

“I was completely numb,” the medical assistant said, wearing torn clothes and old shoes given to her in Adre. “I could barely move. I was like a dead body with no life.”

Targeted for Rape

By Maggie Michael

Photography: Zohra Bensemra

Video: El Tayeb Siddig

Video editing: Ilan Rubens

Photo editing: Edgar Su

Graphics: Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa

Art Direction: Catherine Tai

Edited by Cassell Bryan-Low

Map Source: Natural Earth


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