The United Nations Security Council should impose targeted sanctions on Sudanese officials responsible for attacks against civilians in West Darfur in February 2008, said Human Rights Watch in a new report released today. Following an attack by Darfur rebels on Khartoum on May 10, 2008, Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about possible government reprisals against civilians in West Darfur.
The 35-page report, “‘They Shot at Us as We Fled’: Government Attacks on Civilians in West Darfur in February 2008,” documents how attacks on several towns in West Darfur’s “northern corridor” were a vicious reprise of Khartoum’s “scorched earth” counterinsurgency tactics. The report, based on interviews with more than 60 witnesses and victims of the attacks in West Darfur, shows how Sudanese armed forces and government-backed “Janjaweed” militia killed and injured hundreds of civilians and destroyed and looted property. The attacks occurred on February 8, 18, 19 and 22 in the towns of Abu Suruj, Sirba, Silea, and in the villages in and around Jebel Mun, a mountainous rebel-held area in northern West Darfur.
“The destruction of town after town in West Darfur shows that Khartoum has no qualms about committing the same atrocities that we saw earlier in the Darfur conflict,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “With no rebels to attack, army forces and ‘Janjaweed’ brutally targeted civilians and their property.”
Human Rights Watch said that Khartoum’s continuing violations of international law highlight the urgent need for the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) to be fully deployed, equipped and trained to effectively protect civilians where they are most at risk.
The report calls on the UN Security Council to impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for the attacks, enforce sanctions it has already imposed, and ensure that UNAMID has adequate resources to effectively protect civilians from attack. The report also calls on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute offenses in West Darfur that fall within its jurisdiction.
Human Rights Watch found that the government attacks carried out on four locations in February followed a similar pattern. Aircraft bombed civilian areas, followed by soldiers in military vehicles and hundreds of “Janjaweed” militia on horses and camels who raided and burned towns and villages. The attackers killed more than 120 civilians, set fire to hundreds of dwellings and looted civilian property, including clinics of nongovernmental organizations.
An eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that the attack on her town began with aerial bombing. “Our house caught on fire and burned to the ground. A piece of the bomb fell on my leg,” said an 11-year-old girl from Silea who later had to have her leg amputated above the knee.
After the bombing, soldiers and militia rode into the towns and villages firing indiscriminately and targeting civilians as they fled. “I saw seven people die while I was fleeing. One man was shot and fell down right in front of me. Thank God I got to the mountain and was not hit,” said an eyewitness from Abu Suruj.
“They hit us with whips and sticks and said, ‘You are rebels, we want your animals.’ Then they came inside and took our food, clothes, beds, mats, cups, pots and everything. They took the animals,” recalled a 22-year-old woman, also from Abu Suruj.
In three separate cases, women told Human Rights Watch that militia members shot at them as they fled to hiding places, killing babies they carried on their backs. One woman from Silea, who had her baby boy on her back and was pregnant, had a miscarriage when soldiers shot her before looting her house.
In the three months since the attacks, the international response has been appallingly muted, Human Rights Watch said. Aside from initial condemnations, the UN Security Council has taken no serious action to address the abuses. For its part, Sudan has not acknowledged any wrongdoing or taken any steps to investigate or punish the crimes. Instead, Khartoum has continued its campaign of indiscriminate bombing in North Darfur, reportedly killing at least 13 people, including seven children, in an attack on a school and a market on May 4, 2008.
An offensive by Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels on Omdurman, near Khartoum, on May 10, 2008 prompted more armed clashes between rebels and government forces, resulting in at least 60 civilian casualties. In the aftermath of the fighting, authorities arrested more than 100 people suspected of being rebels or opposition party members. Human Rights Watch called on the Sudanese government to ensure that those arrested are promptly charged or released, and tried in accordance with international fair trial standards.
The February attacks and continuing attacks on civilians demonstrate the current limitations of UNAMID and its capacity to effectively protect civilians. The peacekeeping forces based in the provincial capital Al Geneina and Kulbus, about 50 kilometers from the areas that were attacked, were unable to move quickly to the fleeing populations because they lacked sufficient troops and equipment. Human Rights Watch called on UN member states to provide UNAMID with the resources it needs to respond rapidly and robustly to protect civilians under attack and those who remain at risk of attack, and to urgently increase UNAMID’s presence in northern West Darfur where civilians remain unprotected.
The February attacks displaced an estimated 40,000 people, of whom 13,000 are refugees in eastern Chad. The majority of residents of Abu Suruj and Sirba, the two towns closest to Al Geneina, have returned, while Jebel Mun and surrounding areas are still largely abandoned. Some residents who returned have reported that government soldiers now based there are committing human rights abuses, including sexual violence against women and girls.
Human Rights Watch called on the Security Council to impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for the February attacks and to establish benchmarks for the parties to the conflict to monitor their compliance with obligations under international law and existing Security Council resolutions, and impose sanctions for noncompliance.
“Sudanese officials responsible for war crimes need to be prosecuted and victims need to be compensated,” said Gagnon. “The lack of consequences for past atrocities has emboldened Khartoum to continue to flout its international obligations, killing civilians in Darfur with total impunity.”