Since 15 April 2013, Sudanese women and girls have seen a sudden deterioration in their personal safety. When the Rapid Support paramilitary group and Sudan Armed Forces turned upon each other the conflict in Sudan was confined to bombing and airstrikes between the two forces in the capital and around military installations. Our worst fears are now being played out.
Ethnically targeted mass atrocities against civilians in Khartoum in North and South Kordofan, El Olbeid and the Darfur regions are escalating, with over 1.6 million people forcibly displaced in just 6 weeks. Conflict-related sexual violence is targeting women in this new and intense conflict. Despite numerous attempts at ceasefires, it seems we are heading for a protracted all-out war.
Mass Atrocities that may amount to acts of Genocide?
In June 2023, the capital of West Darfur, El Geneina, has been under seige and attack, with atrocities reported as potential genocide. Since 2019 West Darfur has been the hot spot of excessive ethnic violence, but the outbreak of war on 15 April and ensuing choas has emboldened the RSF and Arab militias in their fight against Masalit and other African ethnic tribes - echoing ethnic cleansing patterns of the Darfur Genocide in 2003-4.
On 13 June, El Geinina’s main market was raised to the ground, with attacks on health facilities, killings, looting and the burning of homes. Thousands have fled the fighting to other cities in the region, or to Chad across the border. Due to communication outages, exact numbers of mass rapes and other forms of sexual violence have not yet come out, though partners on the ground refer to ethnically targeted sexual violence by RSF and Arab militias. There are reports of at least 14 known human rights defenders killed and numerous community leaders based on their ethnicity in El Geneina alone.
Many were trapped and could not escape El Geneina due to roadblocks on all exit routes. A similar pattern is now unfolding in Al Faisher in North Darfur and other cities across Sudan. Numerous videos on social media show RSF and armed Arab militiamen forcing people to cross the borders into Chad by beating and torturing them, searching their bodies for money or mobile phones, and stealing the little they managed to take from the ashes. Significant numbers of people are being killed on their journey to Chad by the RSF and Arab militia. Fears for a repeat pattern of ethnic cleansing across Darfur are stark.
Challenges in reporting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Sudan
Shocking reports of mass rapes and other forms of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) are now emerging. On 9 June 2023, the UN reported 12 incidents of sexual violence related to the conflict, against at least 37 women. In at least three incidents, the victims were young girls. In one single incident, 18 to 20 women were reportedly raped. However, local human rights defenders talk of much higher numbers going undocumented as survivors are trapped in fighting areas where medical services are no longer functioning, or mobile network outages mean information is not coming out.
Sulaima Ishaq, Head of the Social Welfare Ministry’s Unit on Combating Violence Against Women, confirmed that the reported figures are just a small fraction. Her Unit was able to confirm 49 rape cases in just the first two weeks of the conflict, including 24 cases in Khartoum and 25 cases in Darfur affecting women and girls aged between 14-56 years. The Khartoum figure has now risen to 36 separate incidents, while there are few updates from Darfur. She added that the more recent cases include girls under the age of puberty, and that the perpetrators, in most cases, were "forces wearing Rapid Support uniforms, according to the survivors' testimonies". She explained that most cases are not able to be processed due to unavailability of medical services and trained personnel able to undertake documentation.
Other challenges to reporting include shame, stigma and fear of reprisals. But the key issue is lack of access to health facilities, including inability to access to first sexual violence response kits (emergency contraception / post exposure Post-Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV/STDs ) due to the fighting.
Kidnapping, torture and threats against female journalists and rights defenders
On 23 May 2023 at around 9 am the female journalist Inaam Alnoor reported on her Facebook page that she had been kidnapped by armed men from in front of Al-Tadamoun Bakeshop in El Geneina in West Darfur. She was forced into a four-wheel drive and beaten on her head. She apparently fainted and later found herself in an abandoned area of the city, inside a locked room. That evening, eight masked men came in with her laptop and camera and questioned her about her reports on the violations during the war. She was tortured and they destroyed her laptop. On the night of 27 May she found herself dropped back in the same area where she had been kidnapped from. According to her statement, 11 of her relatives were assassinated, including her brother, and her family home was set on fire.
On 15 June 2023, at around 11am, another female journalist, Zamzam Khatir was kidnapped on her way to a meeting at the West Darfur Governor’s office. According to an eyewitness, an armed vehicle took her to an unknown destination. Her family made a brief statement that was widely circulated on social media.
While numerous women human rights defenders are receiving threats, the local Sudanese Missing Initiative has reported a number of disappeared women in Khartoum, in some cases later found dead in the streets.
Exploitation of Vulnerable Women in Khartoum
Khartoum has a large displaced persons population that includes particularly vulnerable women, who are being sexually exploited by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). They appear in number of videos posted and recorded by the RSF combatants that show vulnerable women commending the RSF wishing them victory, saying that the RSF are kind men treating them courteously. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, has expressed grave concerns about reports of sexual violence against vulnerable women and girls, including allegations of rape, committed by the parties to the conflict.
The UN Human Rights council should immediately establish an international investigation committee to investigate all the crimes committed by the warring parties.
The ICC prosecutor should investigate all the crimes committed in Darfur with special attention to the CRSV and related violations against women.
US and Saudi governments mediators should pressure the warring parties to put an end to the conflict and impose further sanctions.
United Nations Photo, Repatriation of IDPs in North Darfur, September 2011, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Ahmed Elfatih, Displaced Women in Shelter, 6 May 2023, IDPs shelter (School).
Ahmed Elfatih, Displaced woman in Shelter, 6 May 2023, in an IDPs shelter (School).