Soldiers from the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) arrived at the small village of Tabit in North Darfur on the evening of October 31st, about six miles from where they keep a small base.
What happened next is unclear.
Villagers claim the soldiers drove the men away with the butts of their rifles. Then, they raped 200 women and children in a mass attack that lasted until the morning.
The government entirely denies these accusations.
Despite a major UN presence in Darfur mandated to protect civilians in the war torn region, and the UNAMID headquarters in El-Fasher only 25 miles from the village, three weeks after the incident, the world still does not know whether there was a mass rape in Tabit.
According to UN whistleblower Aicha Elbasri, the Sudanese government enjoys near total impunity from the international community, and regularly leverages it to commit targeted acts of violence against its own citizens in Darfur and throughout the rest of the country.
The alleged attack in Darfur is only the latest example of an increase of violence against civilians over the last year. A deadly threshold was crossed in the Nuba Mountains on November 14 when the number of bombs dropped on civilian targets since April 2012 surpassed 2000. In early October more than twenty female Darfuri university students studying in the center of Khartoum were arrested, detained and tortured.
“It’s the same discrimination and human violation by [President Omar] al-Bashir’s regime, said Khalid Ibrahim Elwais a journalist for Al Arabiya TV. “In Darfur, Khartoum, Blue Nile, South Kordofan, it’s systematic and structural behavior.”
Sexual violence is a common tactic in the wars in Sudan, but what is so striking about the recent alleged mass rape in Tabit, and the illegal detention and torture of female students in Khartoum, is the brazen way these attacks took place. The enormity of the scale of the alleged rape in Darfur, and the highly visible assault on the university students in the capital city indicates the government anticipates little backlash from the international community for its abuses.
Once the story broke, it took UNAMID six days to visit the village to conduct an investigation into the charges. 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. Then, in a hastily organized press conference only hours after it was permitted entry into Tabit, UNAMID announced that no claims of rape had been made, but carefully added that it was not yet clear that no attacks had taken place.
Normally the UN takes much longer to investigate such incidents before making any kind of announcement.
Elbasri was not surprised that the mission fell in step with the government’s party line, saying that both the UN and the Khartoum government often deny the systematic rape in the region. “The UN hasn’t been challenging the government on many crimes, and rape is one of them.”
She noted, “The targeting of women, especially rape, has been happening for years since the beginning of this war. The government has been denying it. Anyone who is familiar with wars, and the Darfur war is no exception, will tell you that this has been happening and has been documented. Since the government of Sudan has been denying systematic rape in Darfur, the UN has been denying it as well. At least they haven’t been reporting about it openly.”
After leaving her post as UNAMID’s spokeswoman, Elbasri became a whistleblower, speaking out about negligence and corruption in UNAMID, saying the hybrid mission has little sway over the government’s forces and that their presence has done little to quell the rampant violence that has claimed more than 400,000 lives and displaced more than two million.
She attributes this to a combination of factors including a strategic coverup, saying that the many troop contributing countries are lead by African leaders who have a personal connection to Sudan’s government.
Elbasri also spoke of poor equipment and training, and lack of motivation on UNAMID’s part. “We are talking about the worst fighters,” she said, referring to the government forces, “and facing them you have these ill-trained soldiers who lack the capacity and motivation and the will to go after these criminals.” Ewais added that militias linked to the regime have captured UNAMID soldiers, and said he thought the captures were indirect messages of intimidation.
Once inside the village, government soldiers ushered the UNAMID troops around, drunk, taking photos and videos of the women being interviewed, and openly intimidating them. “It was very clear for the team that there are humiliations and human rights violations,” said Elwais, who has sources within UNAMID. His contacts told him a number of teachers left the village during the visit rather than be forced to lie to UNAMID.
Elwais explained that because the army camp is closer to Tabit than UNAMID, SAF was able to take control of the area. “They were forced to tell one story: everything is OK,” said Elwais.
Since the story of the mass rape broke, the government has kept a tight grip on the village. The army arrested 26 men on November 13 in an attempt discover who informed about the alleged mass rape.
The former UNAMID spokeswoman explained the mission drags its feet after allegations are leveled against the government troops. This gives the government time to gain control of the narrative. By the time UNAMID gets involved, it seldom veers from talking points the government has outlined. “Once the government has control of the town it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get people to talk,” she said.
Last year the government’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) committed countless rapes, terrorizing villages that were seen as supporting rebels. The RSF is a paramilitary group that answers only to Bashir. It is made up of former Janjaweed. Politicians and SAF leaders who shave spoken out against the new league have been fired or imprisoned.
The audacity on the part of the government serves as a stark warning of what may come as fighting season begins and elections approach next year. On November 15, Khartoum announced it had denied UNAMID’s request for a second round of access to Tabit to conduct further investigations.