When 200 women and girls in the town of Tabit, north Darfur, were raped, local people knew there would be little chance of justice. The attacks, which took place over three nights, had been perpetrated by locally garrisoned government soldiers, who act with impunity under Sudanese law. The joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force, Unamid, which operates across Darfur, was known to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.
But still they spoke to those who would listen. A year ago this week, Human Rights Watch began collecting testimony from townspeople, which the group believes could amount to crimes against humanity.
Among the victims were Khatera, a woman in her forties, and her three young daughters – all under the age of 11.
“Immediately after [the soldiers] entered the room they said: ‘You killed our man. We are going to show you true hell,’” she told Human Rights Watch. “Then they started beating us. They took my husband away while beating him. They raped my three daughters and me. Some of them were holding the girl down while another one was raping her. They did it one by one.”
Their testimony followed a similar pattern: men in military garb going from home to home, beating the men and raping women and girls. In the days after reports began circulating, authorities set up checkpoints around the town, making sure no aid workers or non-residents could gain access. Locals were forced to swear an oath to a newly appointed garrison commander that they would no longer speak to outsiders about their experiences. One resident described the situation as an “open prison”.
A year later, little has changed in Tabit, say aid workers in the region. Checkpoints erected as a direct result of residents speaking out about the violence are still in place. “Anybody who is even suspected of working as an activist or for an NGO will be denied access,” one aid worker told The Independent on Sunday on condition of anonymity.
Nobody has ever been held accountable for the attack. The joint Unamid mission, which has a base less than 30 miles from Tabit, said it found no evidence of mass rapes, after being allowed into the town under the supervision of local government forces.
In the past year, a further 49 rapes have taken place in the Tabit area, according to Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based station that reports on the conflict in Darfur using sources on the ground.
“Tabit was one of the worst incidents we had heard of, and certainly one of the worst that we had this detail about,” said Hildebrand Bijleveld, the director of Radio Dabanga, which first received the reports of the mass rape in Tabit. “After the incident, the whole garrison was replaced, the soldiers taken away in trucks, 10 or 15 at a time. For a while, the new forces were good, but lately they have once again begun again to stop women as they leave and rape them.” No Unamid forces have been back into the village since.
Tabit underscores the impunity with which sexual violence is used in Darfur – by all sides in the conflict. A new report out this week from the UK-based NGO, “Waging Peace”, estimates that less than a quarter of incidents are reported, and then usually only when the women or girls become pregnant as a result. The group documented 77 cases of rape from across Darfur, many of them occurring when women and girls briefly had to leave the relative safety of the Unamid refugee camps.
Fatima (not her real name) was in her early teens when she and her family were forced to flee their home in east Darfur because of fighting between the government and the rebel Sudan Liberation Army. They found refuge just outside a Unamid base, but even here were attacked one night by men in military uniforms who demanded to be told the locations of rebel fighters.
“When we replied that we do not know, they ordered us to give them our cellphones and our money. They confiscated all our possessions and then beat us hard with very thick sticks,” she said. “After that, they took me and my sister away from my mother and brothers.
“My elder brother tried to stop them, but he was beaten very hard until he was unable to stand. They led us away to a dark forest where they separated us. Two of them remained with me and the other three took my sister. One of the men raped me, cursing, calling me a prostitute. After he finished, the other man came over and also raped me.”
When the joint United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur was set up in 2007 it was the world’s largest peacekeeping force, with high hopes of protecting civilians and aid workers caught in the crossfire of a civil war that had already claimed the lives of 200,000 people in four years. But underfunding has limited its impact, and the lofty mission ideals have fallen prey to competing claims from the African Union and the UN over its mandate, as well as the Sudanese government’s lack of co-operation with it.
In 2013, Aicha Elbasri, a former spokeswoman from the joint mission, blew the whistle on what she considered to be mission’s failure to protect civilians, and the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding abuses, which she said went as high up as Ban Ki-moon.
“Nothing has changed,” she said. “Unamid is still hiding the scope and nature of the war and crimes committed by the government and the rebels.” When she blew the whistle in 2013, she said she hoped the joint mission “would improve its protection of civilians and its reporting”. But that hasn’t happened, she said. “This is where I’m most disappointed. It is still covering up critical evidence of war crimes.” The result is that victims in Darfur have been left with almost nowhere to turn.
“Waging Peace” has submitted its collected testimonies to the International Criminal Court, in the hope they may be considered as part of its continuing investigation into Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and war crimes in Darfur. But the court is notoriously hamstrung by its reliance on other countries to arrest suspects. Last December, its chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she was shelving the case against President Bashir, saying the UN Security Council had failed to do enough to apprehend him. The rape in Tabit, she said at the time, “should shock this council into action”. So far, it has barely batted an eyelid.
“There is still a lack of political will to investigate and address the issue of rape in Darfur, and the main reason is that the government has repeatedly said there is no rape in Darfur,” Ms Elbasri said. “So the UN has internally adopted this position.
“And yes, we know the ICC doesn’t have the power to arrest, but it does have the power to investigate. What I’m hoping is that it does make the best use of this power, because I don’t see any other hope.”
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