(New York) - Intensified fighting between the Sudanese government and rebel forces in 2010 has caused many hundreds of deaths and mass displacements in Darfur and should prompt the United Nations to ensure that international peacekeepers strengthen protection for civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of the Darfur peacekeeping mission in late July 2010.
Fighting among rebel groups and between rival armed ethnic groups has also contributed to the rise in the violence. In May alone, 600 people in Darfur died as a result of these various conflicts, according to the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).
"While international attention has focused on the Sudanese elections and the referendum on Southern Sudan, Darfur remains in shambles," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The new fighting and rights abuses across Darfur show clearly that the war is far from over and that the UN needs to do more to protect civilians."
Fighting between government and rebel forces in Darfur intensified after the February peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) unraveled. Government soldiers and allied militias targeted civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law, during clashes with rebel groups in the Jebel Mun and Jebel Mara areas of Darfur, which continued through June in some locations.
Witnesses and victims of attacks reported to Human Rights Watch that government forces killed and raped civilians, destroyed homes, and bombed water supplies, forcing the displacement of thousands of civilians.
The attacks included government aerial bombing in and around Jebel Mun in late April and early May. Accounts from witnesses suggest the bombs were directed at places near water where civilians gathered. In one incident on April 29, bombs reportedly killed nine civilians in Girgigirgi, a village 15 kilometers east of Jebel Mun.
One man, whose daughter was killed by one of the bombs, said:
I saw smoke coming from the water point following the bombing. I knew that my daughters, Zainab, age 13, and Magbula, age 9, were at the pump to collect water for the day. I ran to the pump and saw Zeinab was bleeding from several places in her body and Magbula was already dead. I could not even look at her burned body. I sat on the ground trying to hold my tears.
Armed clashes in other parts of Darfur and inter-ethnic fighting in South and West Darfur also caused civilian casualties, destruction of homes, and mass displacements this year, according to UN and local sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch. The full impact of the fighting on civilians has not been fully documented because the government and rebels have repeatedly denied peacekeepers and humanitarian aid groups access to affected areas.
"Hundreds of civilians are dying, and peacekeepers in many cases aren't even able to reach the populations at risk," Peligal said. "The Sudanese government needs to end attacks on civilians and take immediate steps to improve the peacekeepers' access to affected areas. The peacekeepers should make access to these areas a top priority."
Since the deployment of the hybrid peacekeeping force in January 2008, both government and rebel forces have repeatedly prevented its missions from assessing conditions. Under the Status of Forces Agreement, the Sudanese government is required to give peacekeepers unfettered freedom of movement in Darfur. Banditry and attacks on the peacekeepers and on humanitarian groups have also limited their movement, with three peacekeepers killed and two international humanitarian workers kidnapped in June alone. Sudanese authorities have failed to prosecute those responsible for such attacks.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating and prosecuting crimes in Darfur and has issued arrest warrants for President Omar al-Bashir; Ahmed Haroun, the current governor of South Kordofan state; and Ali Kosheib, a "Janjaweed" militia leader whose real name is Ali Mohammed Ali. The Sudanese government has refused to cooperate with the ICC, and the suspects, who are wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, remain at large. An additional warrant for genocide was issued on July 12 for al-Bashir. Three Darfuri rebel leaders have appeared voluntarily at the ICC in response to a summons in connection with an attack on an African Union base in Haskanita, Darfur.
The government dramatically reduced the presence of humanitarian aid groups in March 2009, when it expelled 13 organizations following the ICC's arrest warrant for al-Bashir. Since then, joint UN-government needs assessments have not been independent or comprehensive or included human rights concerns. On July 15, three days after the warrant for genocide against al-Bashir was issued, the government ordered staff members of another international aid organization to leave the country.
The expulsions, combined with access restrictions, have created an information vacuum about the security and human rights situation in Darfur. Although Human Rights Watch has documented attacks that occurred months ago, the UN has yet to report publicly about them. The peacekeeping force's human rights section in particular should increase the frequency of its public reporting through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and evaluate government progress against the benchmarks established by the Human Rights Council's group of experts on Darfur in 2007.
Assistance to displaced people should be facilitated in a manner that maintains the neutrality of the peacekeeping mission and protects the right of displaced people to return voluntarily, and these efforts should not overshadow the peacekeepers' essential role of protecting civilians and providing security, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged the UNAMID peacekeeping mission to intensify its patrols around displaced persons' camps and settlements of other vulnerable populations, to press for access to all conflict-affected areas, and to interpret its mandate robustly.
"Given ongoing attacks and constraints on access, the peacekeeping mission's focus needs to be on ratcheting up its efforts to protect civilians," Peligal said. "It's not the time to shift its focus to reconstruction and returning people home."
Faltering Peace Process
In early February, Chad and Sudan each agreed to end support to rebel groups fighting in the other's territory and to patrol their common border jointly. As a result, JEM rebel forces, which had drawn support from Chad, left Chad and moved into Darfur. On February 23, JEM signed a framework agreement with the Sudanese government, which included a ceasefire and was to be followed by a more comprehensive agreement by March 15.
The ceasefire did not hold, as the parties did not complete the agreement, and JEM and government forces resumed fighting in Darfur in the weeks that followed. New skirmishes were reported in March. JEM officially pulled out of talks with the government in May.
The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebel faction, led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur, and other groups boycotted the process. A new umbrella group, the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), created largely as a result of international pressure on ethnic Fur commanders, is the only group currently negotiating with the Sudanese government.
Clashes and Attacks on Civilians in Jebel Mara
Jebel Mara, a mountainous area straddling Darfur's three North, South, and West states, is home to more than 100,000 people, largely from the Fur ethnic group. The area has been a stronghold for SLA rebels since the beginning of the Darfur conflict.
In early 2010, fighting within rebel factions, as well as clashes between rebel groups and government military forces, killed up to 400 civilians, according to a March estimate by the peacekeeping mission. The renewed hostilities have also displaced tens of thousands of people and obstructed humanitarian assistance to the region. Very little information has emerged about the fighting, as neither the UN nor humanitarian agencies have been able to reach the affected areas. Humanitarian groups that had access to some parts of eastern Jebel Mara in May estimated that 50,000 people had been displaced from that area alone.
In January and February, divisions among SLA factions emerged, in large part over whether to participate in the ongoing Darfur peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar. These divisions led to armed clashes among SLA factions. Witnesses on the ground reported that fighting between Abdel Wahid's forces, with support from Arab militiamen from West Darfur, and other SLA factions destroyed 11 villages and displaced thousands of villagers to Nertiti and other settlements for displaced persons.
At the same time, the Sudanese government carried out a bombing campaign on various locations controlled by SLA forces. One international humanitarian organization based in eastern Jebel Mara reported 10 airstrikes in February alone. A community leader from eastern Jebel Mara reported that government planes dropped bombs on areas near Katur, a lowland town on the road leading into the mountains, killing eight civilians, destroying livestock, and damaging scores of homes.
On February 10, the government and allied militia forces began a series of ground attacks on several villages suspected of hosting SLA/Abdel Wahid fighters in eastern Jebel Mara. Accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch indicate that government forces violated laws-of-war prohibitions against indiscriminate attacks and targeting civilians and civilian objects.
A witness to the government attack on Kidingeer on the morning of February 10 said he saw government forces and allied militiamen arrive by vehicle and on foot and proceed to burn huts and loot the market. He said they fired shots at civilians, forcing them to flee the town. Many fled to Feina, a neighboring town.
On February 17, government forces attacked Feina, again reportedly firing on civilians and looting the market, and also destroying water tanks, wells, and the clinic. A 13-year-old student from Feina reported that she saw militia members shoot at civilians, killing two in front of her and causing everyone to flee.
"They came in cars and some were walking on foot," she told Human Rights Watch." They were shooting at people, and one of them shot me in the left thigh. The bullet went through to my right thigh, and I fell down and there was blood pouring out of me."
Two days later, militias carried out an attack on the town of Deribat. A 16-year-old school girl from Deribat said that on February 19, she saw bombs fall on her neighbors' houses and witnessed militia firing on civilians, causing hundreds to flee the town. They sought refuge in mountain caves and under trees for several weeks, then walked to Nertiti and Nyala.
Fighting between government and SLA forces, and government aerial bombing in and around Deribat, the commercial center of eastern Jebel Mara, has continued. On June 10, bombing at Dida, near Katur, killed four civilians, including a three-year-old boy. On June 30, rebel forces under Abdel Shafi (a commander formerly aligned with Abdel Wahid) reported yet another clash with government forces near Deribat.
Sudanese soldiers based in Deribat have arrested scores of Fur men, accusing them of being SLA soldiers. One of the detainees, who denies any involvement with the rebel group and was released, told a local researcher that soldiers arrested and held him at a military detention center at Deribat, and when he refused to sign a confession, they subjected him to severe beatings.
"They threatened to kill me and feed my body to the wild eagles," he said.
Clashes and Attacks on Civilians in and around Jebel Mun
Jebel Mun, about 80 kilometers north of Al Geneina, has been a rebel stronghold during much of the Darfur conflict, with ongoing power struggles among rebel groups, as well as attacks by government and allied militia forces.
So far in 2010, clashes between government forces and JEM, between JEM and other rebel groups and local militias, and government aerial bombing have killed, wounded, and displaced civilians and destroyed civilian property. Much of the impact of this fighting on civilians remains undocumented because the UN and humanitarian agencies have not had access to the affected areas, despite numerous attempts.
Civilians living in the "northern corridor" towns between Al Geneina and Jebel Mun have reported assaults, beatings, and other abuses by both JEM and government soldiers controlling the area at different times to the peacekeeping mission's human rights staff.
Though some clashes between pro-government militias and JEM rebels were reported as early as February, the most serious attacks on civilian areas occurred in late April and early May, when Sudanese government forces and allied militias attacked several villages in and around Jebel Mun.
Eyewitnesses to an attack on Hilelat, a town on the western side of the mountain on the road to Kulbus, a government-controlled town on the Chad border, told Human Rights Watch that the militias arrived in the early morning on May 2, and began harassing and shooting at civilians.
One man said:
We saw six civilians shot at when they were running away from the attack. Four were killed and two severely injured. I do not know if they have survived, since we could not dare to turn our backs to see what happened after I and about 50 men, women, and children reached Silea after 10 hours running and walking.
Witnesses also reported to UN staff that soldiers and militia members had sexually assaulted women and girls in some villages near Kulbus, close to the Chad border, during the attacks. Government soldiers and allied militia members also rounded up more than 60 men from Girgigirgi, Silea, and Hilelat, including some Chadian civilians, accusing them of belonging to JEM. Some were released after a few days and others were transferred to Al Geneina, where they remain in detention without charge.
The attacks included the government aerial bombing in and around Jebel Mun in late April and early May that witnesses suggested were directed at places with water where civilians gathered.
Thousands of civilians reportedly fled the area because of the attacks and bombings; some went to camps near Al Geneina and others to areas across the Chad border.
In the following days and weeks, residents of the towns of Sirba, Silea, and Abu Suruj reported that government soldiers and militia seeking out JEM rebels committed abuses against civilians, including arbitrary arrests, abductions, rapes, and beatings. One witness reported to a local aid group that on May 31 in Abu Suruj, he saw soldiers and militia detain a group of women at a water source and drive them away. One of the women reported later that she had been held and raped for three days. Another Abu Suruj resident said soldiers arrested her 19-year-old son on May 12 and beat him before releasing him to the hospital for treatment.
On May 14, the government claimed it had seized control over Jebel Mun, killed 108 JEM rebels and taken 61 prisoners. JEM denied the report, claiming it had withdrawn days earlier. Human Rights Watch could not verify any of these claims.
Sudan government forces and JEM have continued to clash in various locations around Darfur, resulting in civilian death, injury, and displacement. In May, June, and July, new fighting was reported at various locations in South Darfur and North Darfur. On May 5, government forces bombed villages near Galap, in North Darfur, killing three civilians and destroying several homes. The full impact of these clashes on civilians remains unknown.
Fighting between Arab ethnic groups has surged in parts of West and South Darfur in 2010, killing 182 people in March alone, according to an estimate by the peacekeeping mission. The fighting intensified in April, interrupting elections around Kass, South Darfur, and causing civilian displacement. Reports from numerous sources suggest that border guards, an auxiliary unit of the Sudanese army, and police officers fought alongside rival ethnic groups. A peace deal, signed by the Rizzeigat and Misseriya ethnic groups in June, obliges them to pay compensation for 695 deaths and assist in an investigation of the role of government and rebels in the fighting.
Peacekeepers' Limited Access
The mandate for the UNAMID mission includes creating security conditions that facilitate full access for humanitarian groups to all of Darfur, and to help protect the civilian population from the "imminent threat of physical violence and [to] prevent attacks against civilians, within its capability and areas of deployment, without prejudice to the responsibility of the Government of Sudan."
The peacekeeping force and international donors have in recent months increased focus on early recovery activities - a strategy that appears to have contributed to the perception, particularly among displaced communities, that the peacekeeping mission is allied to the government and is not a neutral protection force.
The peacekeepers' ability to do this requires access to the areas most affected by violence, through frequent visits and short and long-range patrolling all over Darfur to improve security around displaced persons camps and in rural areas. According to its agreement with the government, UNAMID should have freedom of movement throughout Darfur. However, in practice, both the Sudanese government and rebel forces have prevented patrols, assessment missions, and flights from reaching affected areas.
For example, UN sources reported at the end of May on the failure of 18 out of 24 attempts to reach locations in Jebel Mara. A UNAMID and interagency team reached some displaced communities from Jebel Mun at Aro Shorou and Hijllija villages on May 20, but the Sudanese army prevented the team from visiting Kalgo, Falako, and Alona villages, stating that unexploded ordnance made the area unsafe to visit.
An increase in deliberate attacks on peacekeepers and humanitarian organizations has further hampered operations. On March 5, unidentified armed men ambushed a UNAMID patrol on route to Deribat and stole vehicles, weapons, and communications equipment. In June, armed men attacked another UNAMID patrol near Nertiti, West Darfur, killing three peacekeepers. This brought the total number of peacekeeper deaths to 27 since deployment in January 2008. In May and June, armed bandits kidnapped aid workers, including three international staff who remain hostages.