Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Rebel Abuses

The rebel groups in Darfur consist of two main groups, one new faction emerging in 2004. The SLA rebels, drawing mainly from the Zaghawa, Fur, Masalit and several smaller Darfurian tribes, are the largest single rebel group and control the largest territory, including the northern band of North Darfur and areas in South and West Darfur.67 The JEM, formed in 2002, has the stronger diplomatic presence and smaller army, drawing mostly on the Zaghawa group; many of its leaders were originally members of the Islamist political party, the Popular Congress.68  The National Movement for Reform and Development (NMRD) is a splinter group of the JEM, formed in 2004 of non-Islamists.  Unless specifically cited, most of the abuses decribed below are the responsibility of the SLA.

Attacks on civilians

The rebel movements have been responsible for direct attacks on civilian objects in violation of international humanitarian law, and for causing deaths and injuries to civilians. Malam, located on the eastern side of Jebel Marra,69 was a town of many ethnic groups, with both Fur and Beni Mansour pastoralists living there prior to the conflict.70 SLA forces attacked the town of on Saturday, October 2, 2004, a market day, at around 5:30 p.m., apparently to loot.

At least three civilians were killed and five others, including at least one woman, were injured after being shot by rebel fighters. Several eyewitnesses said the attackers entered the northern part of the town and moved from house to house before retreating east into the Jebel Marra mountains.71  A sixty-year-old Beni Mansour man injured in the attack told Human Rights Watch:

I was in the market when I heard some gunfire. The women and children were in the houses and there was a panic of people running back to their homes. I was running towards my home when I was shot in the leg. I saw the attackers: they wore green trousers, shirts and sweaters. Some had their heads covered. They were running from house to house and shooting people. I tried to run into the mosque and that’s when they shot me.72

An eighteen-year-old woman who was injured in the attack also described it to Human Rights Watch:

There were a lot of women and children in the house, maybe twenty in total. The attackers opened the door [of my house] and started shooting towards us as soon as they entered. There were a lot of them, I can’t say the number, but they were about fifteen meters away. . . . . One of my neighbors was killed, a twelve-year-old girl named Nima.73

Human Rights Watch received credible allegations of other, earlier SLA attacks in the Malam area, including on a nomadic settlement on April 21, 2004, in which ten civilians were reportedly killed, and an attack on Um Dashur on June 6, 2004, in which six civilians were reportedly killed. 

Additional serious allegations were made which Human Rights Watch was not able to verify, including an incident on June 15, 2004 in which eight unmarried Beni Mansour women were allegedly raped by SLA fighters near Malam.74

In a separate incident, SLA forces are alleged to have fired within Buram hospital in March 2004, injuring at least one child in the building.75

Abduction of civilians

Rebel abduction of civilians in violation of international humanitarian law has occurred in different parts of Darfur.  Some of the targets of these abductions have been people of wealth, such as businessmen, but other individuals, including aid workers, have also been targeted. Others seem to have been targeted on account of their ethnic origin, i.e., membership in groups from which the Janjaweed draw their forces, including leaders considered to be responsible for Janjaweed abuses. In addition, some young boys are alleged to have been abducted while trying to protect their cattle, camels and other livestock from looting by the rebel groups. Others have been abducted when they encountered SLA forces by chance in rural areas. 

While some people—particularly aid workers who the rebels hold to emphasize their control of an area—have been released following their abductions and intervention from international agencies, the fate of many abductees is unknown.

A serious incident of multiple abductions and possible summary executions, allegedly by SLA forces, took place along the Nyertite-Thur road, on the southern side of Jebel Marra, in West Darfur.  Eighteen passengers, including University of Nyala students of nomadic Arab origin, were removed from the bus and taken away by an SLA commander. According to credible reports, some of those detained were killed while under his authority.76 This incident has provoked clashes between SLA and nomadic militias in the Jebel Marra area and the withdrawal of aid workers from towns such as Nyertite in early November 2004.

In another case, a member of the Aulad Mansour Arab nomadic tribe told Human Rights Watch that one of his relatives, a man named Toreen, was abducted from a commercial truck in June 2004.  He believed the abduction was a case of mistaken identity and that the SLA thought Toreen was in fact the omda of the Aulad Mansour.77  The whereabouts of Toreen remain unknown. Human Rights Watch received a list of thirty-nine people, including two children, rebel forces allegedly abducted in the Malam area between August 2, 2003 and July 10, 2004. Their whereabouts also remain unknown.78 

Killings of civilians

Human Rights Watch received a report of what appears to have been a summary execution of a civilian by rebel forces.  In early October 2004, people who identified themselves as SLA took Hussein into custody in the middle of the night from his residence in Labado, an SLA-controlled town in Shariya locality, South Darfur. The SLA apparently held him in the Labado police station that night. Hussein was found dead the next day near the railroad tracks, near Labado town. One of his relatives said,

People came in the middle of the night to arrest Hussein. They said they were SLA, and it wasn’t the first time he had been arrested. The next morning one of his wives brought tea to the police cell. Then she found out that he was not there. A search started. They found Hussein dead, with hands tied, and showing a gunshot wound and several knife injuries.79

SLA authorities do not appear to have investigated this case.

Looting of Animals and Attacks on Civilian Objects

Rebels have been involved in the looting of substantial numbers of cattle, other livestock, and commercial goods from trucks and vehicles in Darfur.  These attacks on civilian property are a violation of international humanitarian law. Given the importance of livestock as the primary family asset, looting of cattle and camels can render the owners destitute. This is particularly true for nomads who depend almost entirely on livestock for their income.

Human Rights Watch received reports of armed attacks on convoys of camels that were being taken across traditional trade routes in North Darfur that appear to have been the responsibility of the SLA. One nomadic leader in South Darfur complained that since 2003 rebel forces stole more than 2,500 camels belonging to the Mahariya tribe; most were stolen while moving towards Wadi Hower in North Darfur en route to the livestock markets of Libya.80

In late May 2004, a convoy of forty men taking 1,100 camels north of Atrum, North Darfur was attacked by a group of armed SLA fighters in Land Cruisers.  Of the forty men, two escaped and returned to Nyala. The whereabouts of the others, and of the camels, remains unknown, but all are believed to be under the authority of the SLA.81 

The rebels have prevented Arab nomads from using some routes, including through Dar Zaghawa in North Darfur, for several years on the grounds that the nomads/Janjaweed of the same tribes have attacked and looted civilians living there.82 

Members of the nomadic Aulad Zeid tribe told Human Rights Watch that the rebels had stolen 4,000 female camels (nagah) from their tribe in 2003, from different locations. Some of them belonged to an eyewitness who said that the SLA attacked early on three consecutive mornings during October 2003 when he and others were with their camel herds in the Abu Gamra area, North Darfur. The rebels arrived in trucks; the witness saw the rebels shooting Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and machineguns. They also had weapons mounted in the flatbed of the trucks, and he said that the rebels used cars, mostly Land Cruisers.83 They took 150 female camels from him, leaving him with only forty-five. The attack lasted four hours on the first day, with the herders defending their animals. Many of the herders were killed defending their animals, including two relatives named by the witness.

Another man from the same group of nomadic herders said that the rebels took many looted camels to their position at Jebel Mun in West Darfur, where they sometimes slaughter them for food. The rebels also use the camels to carry goods.

The rebel groups have also attacked government offices and some private commercial locations in Darfur, generally seeking weapons and ammunition stocks, money and other supplies. In Yassin, South Darfur, rebel forces attacked the police station, zakat (Islamic charity) and other government offices in Yassin town in January 2004, looting money and supplies from the offices, according to witnesses. The rebels temporarily detained three policemen who were later released unharmed.84

Attacks on civilian objects, including civilian administrative and private business offices, are violations of international humanitarian law. However, such objects become valid targets under international law when they serve a military purpose, such as being used to store weapons or ammunition.  The civilians in such offices who do not take an active part in the hostilities may not be attacked.  Incidental injuries such civilians suffer are not violations of international rules of war unless the attackers used indiscriminate or disproportionate force.   With some exceptions, the rebel forces appear to have targeted objects such as buildings and weapons stockpiles, and not civilians in these attacks. 

Rebels have attacked many police stations and posts in Darfur.  Police stations and posts being used for military purposes, as well as police taking an active part in the hostilities, are valid military targets under international humanitarian law and may be attacked (though armed rebel attacks remain violations of Sudanese law).  Police forces include not only the regular police but sometimes also the Popular Police and newly constituted units such as the Nomadic Police.85 Even the regular police have been militarized in Darfur, often are armed with military weapons, and have participated under army command in joint operations with the army. In mid-2004, the deployment of newly recruited police forces in with military functions in many parts of Darfur further blurs their status as to whether they are subject to attack as military targets. 

Human Rights Watch researchers traveling in Darfur in September and October 2004 noted that units of the Sudanese armed forces and police were often not clearly identifiable through their uniforms or insignia, and that Sudanese police and army forces were often mingled, sometimes even traveling together in military convoys and individual vehicles along the roads of Darfur.  It is the responsibility of the Sudanese government to distinguish clearly between the police and the army in Darfur.

Recruitment and use of children as soldiers86

Since early 2004, eyewitnesses have observed boys apparently under the age of eighteen among both the SLA and JEM rebel movements.87 While it does not appear that the rebel movements are forcibly recruiting children, it is clear that some children who “voluntarily” join the rebel movements have been given arms.  It is unlawful for state armed forces or rebel groups to deploy children as combatants, whether or not they were forcibly recruited or joined on their own accord.

Human Rights Watch researchers traveling in North Darfur observed and photographed child soldiers with the SLA in July and August 2004. Human Rights Watch researchers often saw SLA rebels at checkpoints who appeared to be under the age of eighteen.  The youngest child soldier observed with the SLA was approximately twelve.  No female child soldiers were observed.

Human Rights Watch discussed the child soldiers issue with several SLA leaders, and urged that they release the boys. SLA leaders responded that the minimum age of recruitment for the SLA was eighteen years. They said that many of the child soldiers were youngsters who were members of local defense units organized not by the SLA but by the communities affected by government/Janjaweed violence, and that they were used for sentry duty.

One SLA spokesperson, however, said that the SLA had taken responsibility in 2003 for many children whose parents and other family members had been killed or were missing in the conflict. The girls were taken in by informal foster families, at SLA urging. Some eighty Fur boys, however, could not be so accommodated. The SLA sent these boys to the refugee camp in Bahai, Chad, just over the border from North Darfur, in January 2004. Many of the boys returned to the SLA, however, claiming that there was no provision for them in the camp. A few of these boys were pointed out to Human Rights Watch by the spokesperson. They were been armed.88

Other children in this group taken by the SLA to Chad apparently found a way to become attached to refugee families and qualify for rations, even though they were technically unaccompanied children. Later in 2004, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that it had taken note of several unaccompanied children in refugee camps in Chad.89            

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes eighteen as the minimum age for any conscription or forced recruitment. It further calls on armed groups distinct from state forces not to recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of eighteen and on other state parties to assist with rehabilitation where possible. On September 11, 2004, the government of Sudan ratified this optional protocol.90 

[67] The SLA began low-level activities in 2001, but emerged as a movement demanding power-sharing and an end to the perceived political, economic and social marginalization of Darfur in early 2003

[68] The Popular Congress  was formed after their leader, Dr. Hassan al Turabi, was expelled from government by the ruling party, the National Congress.

[69] Malam is approximately one hundred kilometers north of Nyala, South Darfur.

[70] Much of the Fur population fled to displaced persons camps east of Malam earlier in 2004.

[71] Human Rights Watch interviews, Nyala, October 7-8, 2004.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview, Nyala, South Darfur, October 8, 2004.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview, Nyala, South Darfur, October 8, 2004.

[74] Human Rights Watch received a list of sixty names of Beni Mansour women and girls who have allegedly been raped and/or assaulted by members of rebel movements in the Malam area between February 10, 2004 - July 7, 2004, and another list of thirty-three names of individuals who had been injured in attacks between April 21, 2004 – October 2, 2004, but was not in a position to verify these allegations. Lists on file with Human Rights Watch.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview, Nyala, South Darfur, October 19, 2004.

[76] Human Rights Watch email exchange with an investigator, Nairobi, November 4, 2004. This source received a report that the Janjaweed attacked a rebel column in the process of returning the abductees to government territory, and some of the abductees died as a result.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview, Nyala, South Darfur, October 4, 2004.

[78] The list was compiled by a Beni Mansour tribal leader. List on file with Human Rights Watch.

[79] Confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, October 14, 2004.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview, Nyala, South Darfur, October 4, 2004.  A camel’s value can vary between U.S. $500 - $1000.

[81] Human Rights Watch interviews, Mahariya, Saada, Habbaniya and Auled Mansour nomadic leaders, Nyala, South Darfur, October 4, 2004.

[82] Human Rights Watch interviews, North Darfur, July 2004.  Under international humanitarian law, a violation by one side never justifies a violation committed by the other side.

[83] It is unlikely the rebels had so many vehicles, in 2003 or at any time to date.

[84] 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.

[85] Another new unit, the Border Intelligence Guards, is believed to be one of the units into which many Janjaweed militia have been incorporated. According to an identity card of one of the members of the Border Intelligence Guards obtained by Human Rights Watch, this unit is organized under the army. 

[86] Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. These standards reflect a growing international awareness that children under the age of eighteen should not participate in armed conflict. Human Rights Watch takes the position that no child under the age of eighteen should be recruited—either voluntarily or forcibly—into any armed forces or groups or participate in hostilities.

[87] See Human Rights Watch report, Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No.5 (A), April 2004, p.39.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview, SLA spokesperson, North Darfur, July 27, 2004.

[89] ICRC, “Sudan Bulletin No. 17,” October 29, 2004,

[90] UNICEF, “Sudan ratifies two protocols for the protection of children’s rights,” Press Release, Khartoum/Geneva/New York, October 31, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>November 2004