Background Briefing

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Government Abuses

The Sudanese government has conducted its campaign against rebel forces in Darfur by marshalling Arab nomadic ethnic militias to forcibly displace the rural population assumed to be supporting the rebel insurgency. For many of the nomadic groups involved in the militias—many of whom are smaller landless tribes—responding to the government’s call has provided an opportunity to obtain access to land, loot and livestock.

Looting on a massive scale and rape are continued problems for those who have been displaced and those who are not yet forced from their villages—including in rebel-held areas where the government/Janjaweed forces make periodic forays to loot the remaining or sequestered livestock. The Janjaweed may have conducted the majority of the looting and rape but the government, through its police and judiciary does not punish or prevent either crime when committed against civilians who come from the same ethnic group as the rebels, or who live in or come from the same areas as the rebels.  

The fear of rape continues to stalk the displaced women of Darfur yet they have no protection against the roving militias emboldened by impunity enjoyed by the government-sponsored forces. When they brutalize displaced women and women of the same ethnicity as the rebels, they often excoriate them for being “women of Tora Bora,” the slang term for the rebels,48  making it clear that this is another form of attack on these communities as a whole.

Attacks by government forces, some backeds by helicopter gunships and Antonovs, have continued long after the April 8 humanitarian ceasefire agreement signed by the government and the two Darfurian rebel groups, the SLA and the JEM, and mediated by the African Union. The parties agreed to A.U. monitoring of the ceasefire and the Sudanese government agreed to “neutralize” the Janjaweed.49

Continuing attacks and displacement

In South Darfur in particular, attacks on villages continued to displace thousands of civilians as recently as October 2004. Over the past six months, the areas north and southeast of the state capital, Nyala, have become the latest zone for displacement  as government-backed militias, acting in tandem with government forces as well as independently of government troops, continued to target civilians and force people from their homes. The expansion of the conflict to South Darfur has also drawn more ethnic groups into the conflict, on both sides.

Northeast of Nyala, in Shariya province, where there is an SLA presence, civilians have suffered violent attacks by joint forces of government troops and militias. Displaced people from Fasha, a Dajo village twenty-eight kilometers from Nyala, told Human Rights Watch that Fasha had been attacked three times over the last year, but that in the third attack, in early October, 2004, “they came with so many cars and they surrounded the village with cars. They were far from us and just started shooting so we couldn’t see faces, we just saw they were army.” 

According to witnesses, fifteen civilians were killed in the attack on Fasha.  It was one of about fourteen villages, all within the same region, that had been attacked in the previous weeks.

The deaths in Fasha included a seventeen-year-old boy named Mohammed Daoud who was first shot in the leg and then shot in the chest at close range after he fell to the ground.  An eyewitness said, “Mohammed fell on his back and they shot him point blank in the chest. I was maybe two hundred meters away.  The man who shot him was wearing military khaki and a cap. We went back the day after and buried him.”50

The Yassin area, located, east and southeast of Nyala, along the railroad, was particularly hard-hit by attacks beginning in June 2004. The ethnic composition of the area is diverse, with Gimr, Bergit, Bergou, Dajo and Dinka51 African tribes represented among the settled farming population, and Arab pastoral tribes, including the Beni Hussein and Misseriya, also present.  Witnesses said that rebel forces attacked the police station, and  and other government offices in Yassin town in January 2004, looting money and supplies and temporarily detaining policemen.52

Following the attack, the government withdrew the twenty-one police stationed in Yassin.  Residents of Yassin expected that the government would send troops to protect the area after the rebel attack, but none arrived.

We just stayed in our places and thought the government would bring more reinforcements, but they didn’t come. The community leaders talked to the government and asked for troops but the government said the area was peaceful and that we didn’t need them.53

Until July, the situation remained relatively quiet, but then, “the Janjaweed came into the area and began to shoot people and burn the villages.”54

Residents of nearby Heglig finally fled their homes in early October 2004 just before the harvest, after a succession of attacks on Heglig and other villages. A witness told Human Rights Watch, “The Janjaweed are around us now, we have no security but the Janjaweed are free and comfortable in our places. A local leader who returned to the village saw and heard the Janjaweed in the village. They are using our fields as grazing for their cattle.” 55

The Heglig villagers said that many of their attackers were members of the Shattiya Rizeigat, a sub-clan of the Riziegat, one of the larger tribes of Arab pastoralists in South Darfur.  The Rizeigat, headed by Said Madibo, refused to provide recruits for the government sponsored militia to use in the Darfur conflict.56 The Rizeigat had participated in government militia in the southern conflict, where they were armed to attack the communities of their southern neighbors, the Dinka, considered the mainstay of the southern rebel SPLM/A. But although they benefited from the looted cattle of the Dinka, they received a bad reputation internationally for taking Dinka women and children to use as forced labor, or slaves.57 They later participated in reconciliation meetings with the Dinka, and were said to be unhappy that the government had used them while leaving their area completely undeveloped.58

Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that motives for the participation of the Shattiya Rizeigat in the conflict are two-fold. Several of the usual migration routes from South Darfur northwards have been obstructed by the rebel presence in areas northeast of Nyala and nomadic groups are seeking alternate grazing land for their livestock.  In addition, Musa Kasha, a government minister from the sub-clan, is from a leading Rizeigat family rival to the Madibo family. By arming this sub-clan, further pressure is put on the head of the Rizeigat to join the government forces.59

In other areas of South Darfur, some attacks also appear to be partly motivated by the prevailing impunity of the nomadic groups who feel empowered by the collapse of law and order and the opportunity to graze animals on farmers’ lands.  A sixty-seven-year-old Dajo farmer, who fled his home in early October, lost his harvest after armed camel nomads brought all their animals onto his land. “I tried to chase them but the owners told me, ‘If you chase them we will kill you.’ So I went to the police but they didn’t come. So I held up my hands, what could I do? All my grain was eaten, all my fields.”60

Attacks with Air Support

Use of airpower in attacks is occurring despite promises by the Sudanese government to E.U. countries, including a promise to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his visit to Khartoum in early October and others, to limit such use in Darfur.   Following are two examples of recent gunship attacks in which the civilian population and civilian objects were directly or indiscriminately attacked in violation of international humanitarian law (the laws of war).

Labanti village, South Darfur, bombed by helicopter gunship, October 7, 2004

On October 7, 2004, government forces conducted a helicopter gunship attack on Labanti, an inhabited village approximately two kilometers west of the Nyala-Fashir road, near the village of Douma,61 South Darfur.  According to eyewitnesses, Labanti had been attacked earlier that day, at 6:00 a.m. by an unknown number of armed Janjaweed, who wore khaki/green military uniforms and military caps.62    The Janjaweed stole some fifty cows and looted other property, and killed one person and wounded three others.  The area had no police or military protection at the time of the attack.  The police were withdrawn in July and the military forces left following a September 27 rebel attack on their camp in Douma.

When men and boys from Labanti and surrounding villages gathered to track and retrieve the stolen cattle, apparently armed only with spears and sticks, they encountered a Sudanese government military convoy on the main road.  The government troops lashed and detained eleven men and boys from the group. One person was released after “confessing.”63

Shortly after, two green helicopter gunships appeared, circled twice, low over Labanti. On the third flyover, one dropped three bombs at the southern edge of the village, apparently targeting a lone man in civilian clothes (jellabiya, a white robe) on a horse. According to villagers in Douma, a soldier telephoned in a report that the convoy had captured some SLA members immediately after they were taken into custody.

There was SLA presence further east of the road and also northwest of Douma, but, according to an eyewitness, other villagers and the omda (village head) of Douma, SLA members were not in or around Labanti or adjacent villages on October 7.

Residents reported the capture and bombing incident to the African Union ceasefire observers the same day. The AU observers immediately investigated and filed a report.

A high-level military intelligence officer in Nyala denied to Human Rights Watch on October 12 that gunships had participated in the October 7 attack.  The officer noted that helicopter gunships routinely accompany or are in the vicinity of military convoys; they help the troops and are called in when there is trouble, but only to secure the troops. He stated that a military convoy traveling to Malam on the main road had been ambushed by the SLA, with five soldiers shot.64

Air attack on Abu Dileig, North Darfur, September 7, 2004

Abu Dileig is a mostly Zaghawa and Berti town of 1,200 residents south of Nyala.65 On September 7, 2004, before sunset, government forces, which had withdrawn without a fight from Abu Dileig months earlier when the SLA entered, returned in September with more than one hundred soldiers in three small trucks and one large truck carrying Janjaweed. These forces looted the town and withdrew, and an hour later two attack helicopters appeared and fired into the town. This was the first time any helicopters or aircraft were used to strike inside the town. Four people were killed and eleven wounded during the attack. One elderly man was burned inside his house when the helicopter set fire to it; the others reportedly killed were two children and one woman.

Villagers fled when the military vehicles arrived, so they were scattered in the plains outside by the time the helicopters arrived an hour later. The helicopters appeared to target Zaghawa houses and shops. Ninety houses with thatched roofs were burned, most by rockets fired from the helicopters, although the soldiers shot at the houses also. Helicopter fire also burned three classrooms in the school and the school offices, the water tank, the bore hole engine, and the pump.

It appeared to the local population that the houses were targeted for ethnic reasons.  A local leader told Human Rights Watch:

It was as if the government had a map. They concentrated on certain parts of town, deliberately, as if they had information. They were aiming at Zaghawa houses because the Zaghawa are accused of being Tora Bora [rebels]. All ninety houses destroyed were Zaghawa.66

The SLA was not present at the time of the attack, according to the local leader. After an hour of looting, the soldiers and Janjaweed left in their vehicles, together.

[48] Those interviewed said that the name was used for the Darfurian rebels because they hid in caves in Jebel Marra, reminiscent of the Islamist mujahedeen of Afghanistan and al Qaeda who hid in caves—made famous by continued U.S. airstrikes—in the region of Afghanistan called Tora Bora. There is no suggestion that the rebels in Darfur have any connection with al Qaeda.

[49] See Article 6 of the Agreement on Humanitarian Ceasefire on the Conflict in Darfur, April 8, 2004.

[50] Human Rights Watch interviews, IDP camp, South Darfur, October 2, 2004.

[51] Many of the Dinka have been living in South Darfur for more than a decade, following their flight from the war in southern Sudan. Some of their displaced camps and settlements in South Darfur were also attacked in 2004.

[52] Human Rights Watch interviews, Kalma camp, Nyala, October 4, 2004.   Under international humanitarian law, it is unlawful to attack civilian objects such as police stations and government offices (that are presumed to be civilians objects under international humanitarian law) unless they are being used for military purposes, such as if the police present were engaged in “direct participation in the hostilities” or were stockpiling military weapons and materiel.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview, Kalma camp, South Darfur, October 4, 2004.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview, Kalma camp, October 4, 2004

[55] Human Rights Watch interview, Nyala, October 2004.

[56] Despite the efforts of the Riziegat leader, Said Madibo, to keep the Riziegat from entering the conflict, it appears that the Shattiya sub-clan led by Musa Kasha, a minister in the central government, has been participating in these attacks. Human Rights Watch interviews, Nyala, October 2004, and see also Sudarsan Raghavan, “Tribal leaders’s actions underscore complexity of Sudanese conflict,” Knight-Ridder, November 2004.

[57] See Human Rights Watch, Famine in Sudan, 1998: The Human Rights Causes (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999).

[58] Human Rights Watch interviews, North Darfur, October 2004.

[59] Human Rights Watch interviews, Nyala, South Darfur, October 2004.

[60] Human Rights Watch interview, Otash camp, Nyala, October 6, 2004.

[61] Douma is on the main tarmac road running north from Nyala to Fashir, forty kilometers north of Nyala. 

[62] Labanti is one of twenty villages on both sides of and close to this tarmacked Nyala-Fashir road that have been attacked, with resulting displacement.  These villages are ethnically mixed, with Bergid, Dajo and Fur residents. 

[63] Four of the ten detainees were between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Six more were released and as of October 12, four were still in police custody in Nyala, two of whom were underage. Hamid Abdullah Majid Ateem, fifteen; Mohammed Mahmoud Abdalla, twelve; Musa Mohammed Hamis, thirty; and Yacoub Abdullah (Yacoub) Adem, twenty.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview, military intelligence official, Nyala, South Darfur, October 12, 2004.

[65] Zaghawa and Berti are two African groups which both have dars (or homelands) in Darfur. Zaghawa men are prominent among rebel fighters and Berti men also joined.

[66] Human Rights Watch interview, IDP camp, North Darfur, October 1, 2004.

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