Darfur rape survivors gather together after ethnically targeted campaign

<span>Survivors of sexual violence who fled the conflict in Geneina get together outside their makeshift shelters in Adré last year.</span><span>Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters</span>
Survivors of sexual violence who fled the conflict in Geneina get together outside their makeshift shelters in Adré last year.Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Twice a week, a group of women gather together in a nondescript house in Ardamata, on the outskirts of Geneina in Sudan’s West Darfur state, to tell their stories to each other, cry, and drink coffee.

The women, who work or used to work in education, are all survivors of an ethnically targeted campaign of rape and sexual abuse carried out by fighters from Arab militias backed by the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group on 5 November, after the fall of the army garrison in Ardamata.

Most of the rape campaign’s victims were from the Masalit community, a darker-skinned ethnic African tribe that made up a majority in Geneina before they were largely driven out during fighting that began in April last year.

The survivors’ group was founded by Mariam Abdulkarim (not her real name), an Arab former high school teacher, without any funding or professional training. She said she was gang-raped on 5 November by men who saw her carrying her three-year-old son, who has dark skin on account of her estranged husband.

“They told me ‘you gave yourself to that nawab [slave]. We will take our turn too or we will kill your son’,” Abdulkarim said in an interview in her kitchen, while she cooked rice with dried meat over coals.

“I begged them to leave my son but one of them told me ‘either you or your son’, and I just gave him myself,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “I tried to kill myself and I had sleepless nights. Now, when I cry, I feel better.”

Abdulkarim said that on the morning after the gang-rape, the men responsible came back to her house and threatened to kidnap her children. “When I begged them to leave my children, they forced me to pack all my belongings into their cars,” she said, gesturing to the empty room around her.

The Guardian has interviewed dozens of women and some men from the Ardamata area who said they were raped, subjected to unwanted touching, or otherwise sexually harassed in some way in November. The interviewees said the fighters who came to their houses in the aftermath of the fall of the garrison could be divided into three categories: men who came solely to rape, men who came to shoot and kill, and men who came – sometimes with their wives – to loot. Traditional Arab leaders in the area denied the rape allegations.

The men who came to kill were looking for what Abdulkarim called “comrades” – a local description for members of armed Masalit self-defence groups. Members of the groups had themselves carried out rapes against dozens of students in a university dorm in Geneina in April last year. The groups’ leaders were not available for comment.

Sudan plunged into chaos in April when long-simmering tensions between its military, led by Gen Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the RSF, commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, broke out into street battles in the capital, Khartoum.

Fighting spread to other parts of the country, but in Sudan’s Darfur region it took on a different form: brutal attacks by the RSF on African civilians, especially the ethnic Masalit. The paramilitary force is the descendant of the Janjaweed militia, which began a scorched earth campaign in the Darfur area more than two decades ago.

UN experts said in a report obtained by the Associated Press on 1 March that sexual violence by the RSF and its allied militia was widespread. The expert panel said that in one incident women and girls were raped by RSF elements in a UN World Food Programme storage facility that the force controlled.

Zahra Adam, the head of a women’s centre in a refugee camp in Adré, across the border in Chad, told the Guardian the victims had entered the facility in search of food. “They were hungry and they got into the place to get food, but all were raped,” she said.

A 27-year-old woman who fled to Adré said she was raped by men from an Arab militia who lived in her neighbourhood in Geneina in June. “I lost a lot of blood during the attack and the attackers thought I had died,” she said. “That’s why the rest of them didn’t rape me.”

An Arab woman said she was raped in her home when her attackers noticed from her wedding photo that she had a dark-skinned, African husband. “I asked them ‘why are you doing this, I am your cousin, if I were attacked by others I would come to you to protect me’,” the woman said. “They told me ‘you go to the comrades, you’re the wife of a comrade’.”

Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights on Sudan, said this month that sexual violence as a weapon of war, including rape, had been “a defining – and despicable – characteristic of this crisis since the beginning” of the conflict.

He said that since the war began his team had documented 60 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence involving at least 120 victims across the country – figures he described as “a vast under-representation of the reality”.

“Men in RSF uniform and armed men affiliated with the RSF were reported to be responsible for 81% of the documented incidents,” Türk said.

A spokesperson for the UN Population Fund said the social stigma around gender-based violence (GBV) meant the actual numbers of rape victims would be much higher than those officially documented. “GBV survivors are suffering from significant and long-lasting impacts on their physical and mental health – including injury, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and in some cases death,” the spokesperson said.

Abdulkarim said she offered her home as a shelter for her neighbours in the days after the garrison fell, thinking that her Arab ethnicity might offer them some protection.

One man was killed in her house despite her attempt to hide him under her bed, but she managed to prevent some women from getting raped.

“When some young women fled to my house, I took some babies from some other women who were sheltering here and told the younger women to breast-feed them,” Abdulkarim said. “When the attackers got to my house they assumed the women were married, so left them alone.”