Women who fled a war across the border in Sudan's Blue Nile state sit in a queue outside a clinic in Doro refugee camp on March 9, 2012 in South Sudan.

(Nairobi) – Sudanese government forces and allied militias are unlawfully killing and otherwise abusing civilians in government-held areas in Sudan’s Blue Nile state. Dozens of civilians who fled the government held areas and sought refuge in South Sudan described killings, rapes, and beatings to Human Rights Watch.

Accounts by refugees from Blue Nile who arrived recently in South Sudan and were interviewed by Human Rights Watch provide a rare glimpse into conditions of life under government control and point to clear patterns of abuse, including sexual violence.

“Entire communities are trapped in camp-like conditions behind government lines, terrorized by government forces,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In addition to indiscriminate bombing, Sudanese government forces are getting away with abusive and illegal tactics under a guise of counterinsurgency, including rape, arbitrary detentions, and killings.”

Among the refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed, five said they were raped by members of government security forces or armed militia, and twelve said relatives had been raped. Some women said security forces detained them, then took them away and raped them. Refugees also reported being detained and subjected to ill-treatment and torture. Most of the reported incidents took place within the past year.

Since conflict erupted in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states in 2011, civilians living in the rebel-held areas of both states have borne the brunt of Sudan’s indiscriminate aerial bombardments and ground attacks that have killed and maimed civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. But there has been little information about conditions in government-held areas in both states as Sudan has not allowed human rights investigators access.

During a five-day research trip in November 2014, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 42 refugees in South Sudan’s Maban County, and six internally displaced people inside Blue Nile state. The refugees, including 17 women and girls, had recently fled abusive treatment in government towns or villages.

The vast majority were Ingessana, the ethnic group of Malik Agar, the commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-North), the main rebel group fighting the Sudanese government. The Ingessana appear to have been targeted because of their perceived support for the rebels. They had fled their homes during the night – in some cases leaving some children and family members behind – and walked more than 150 kilometers with little food or water to reach South Sudan, arriving in late October or early November.

Almost half of the refugees said they had experienced sexual violence themselves, have an immediate family member or neighbor who had, or had witnessed sexual assaults. Sexual violence occurred during home raids or house-to-house searches by security forces.

“They raped me one after the other and they beat me,” said Hawa, 20, who was raped by soldiers following her arrest at a market in the small town of Musfa earlier in 2014. “I tried to resist and they pulled me to the ground and [when they were finished] they left me.” She lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital in the state capital, Damazin, where she remained for 10 days, she said.

Several relatives of rape survivors said they were beaten up, threatened, or turned away when they tried to report the rapes to local authorities, police, or army officials.

“The number of rapes reported to us, often in harrowing detail, suggests that sexual violence is part of the government’s counterinsurgency strategy,” Bekele said. “The scale of reported abuses points to the urgent need for an international investigation in both rebel- and government-controlled areas.”

Given the scope and persistent nature of the human rights and humanitarian law violations by government forces across Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan since 2011, the United Nations Security Council should immediately establish an international commission of inquiry and impose an arms embargo against the Sudanese government and individual sanctions against human rights violators from all parties. The African Union should support these steps or establish an inquiry of its own, Human Rights Watch said.

Many refugees said they or their relatives were beaten or detained, including when they tried to leave the government-controlled towns or villages. Some of the men who had been detained said that government authorities tried to force them to join the Sudanese army; several described severe beatings and torture by security forces. One 21-year-old farmer who was detained with 13 other men said two of them died from beatings in custody.

The refugees attributed most of the abuses to Sudanese forces, including its Rapid Support Force (RSF), a new security force under the command of Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services. The RSF has carried out attacks on civilians in Darfur and Southern Kordofan over the last year. Many of the refugees also described rapes, killings, harassment, and cattle theft by a militia drawn from the Fellata – a nomadic ethnic group whose members the Sudanese government has recruited into auxiliary forces since conflict erupted in Blue Nile.

“Under Russian and Chinese pressure, the UN Security Council hasn’t delivered on its threat of sanctions, and has left persecuted civilians across Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan to fend for themselves,” said Philippe Bolopion, United Nations director at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council should wake up to the tragedy unfolding in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, verify the facts, and impose both an arms embargo on the government and targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for the abuses.”

The Conflict in Blue Nile
Conflict between the Sudanese government and rebel SPLA-North – a spin-off of the rebel movement that fought for independence for South Sudan – spread to Blue Nile in September 2011, five months after it started in Southern Kordofan following disputed state elections.

Since then, government attacks on civilians and persistent indiscriminate bombing in the rebel areas of both states have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee. Sudan’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid into rebel-held areas, in violation of international law, has deprived communities of food and basic services. The bombing and deprivation of aid has forced more than 170,000 people to flee to refugee camps in South Sudan and Ethiopia, and others to cross into government-controlled areas in search of food and essential services.

During a trip into a rebel-held part of Blue Nile state, Human Rights Watch found many villages empty, with fields fallow or overgrown. Remaining civilians, many of them displaced from their own villages by bombing or fighting, said they lacked food, medical care, education, and other basic necessities. 

The resumption of bombing by Sudanese forces in mid-November has made the journey to South Sudan even more dangerous for refugees. Sudan bombed several locations in Blue Nile state and along the border with South Sudan, killing a 35-year-old mother of seven on November 12, 2014.

Fleeing Abuse
Dozens of refugees in South Sudan told Human Rights Watch they had fled abusive treatment in several government-held towns or villages along the road connecting Damazin, the state capital, and the town of Kormuk on the Ethiopian border. The abuses – often during house-to-house searches for rebels – included rapes, beatings, and theft.

Most described the government-held areas they left as camp-like settings in which they were forced to live in close proximity to government military barracks. They said that soldiers or government-aligned militia used force to impose curfews and restrictions on movement and food purchases. The soldiers routinely accused them of links to the rebel SPLA-North, and carried out various abuses including stealing their crops or livestock. Some reported attempts by soldiers to recruit children under 15 into the army, although none of those interviewed said the recruitment attempts had affected their immediate families. 

Refugees said that they fled at night to avoid detection and took routes to circumvent Sudanese forces. They travelled in small groups and joined others along the way. Some said rebel forces guided them, but others said they made the journey without assistance. Many left their smallest children behind, bringing only those who could walk, a few belongings, and small amounts of food and water for the journey, which lasted from one week to 10 days in most cases.

“We walked at night and rested during the day,” said one 19-year-old woman who fled Mediam with her husband and child, walking for 10 days. “We didn’t eat. We just had water and leaves. We dug roots.”

Sexual Violence
Seventeen of the refugees interviewed reported specific incidents of rape or sexual violence at the hands of soldiers or militia. Some provided names of young women in their towns who had been forced into marriages with members of the military or militia.

Ramadan, a 27-year-old veterinarian from Musfa, said soldiers and Fellata militia raped his aunt, beat his uncle, and stole money and a phone while raiding their family compound on August 25. He said he took his aunt to the hospital. “The soldiers took turns raping her, one after the other,” he said. “We went to the police station to report, but instead of taking the information they wanted to beat us. They said that if we tried to come back and continued saying this, they would beat us.”

Hawa, 20, from Musfa, said that during Ramadan in June and July, a group of soldiers arrested her in the market and took her to an isolated place, where they raped her. “They raped me one after the other and they beat me,” she said. “I tried to resist and they pulled me to the ground and then they left me.” She lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital in Damazin, where she remained for 10 days, she said.

Ibrahim, a 26-year-old man from Musfa, said that he witnessed a group of armed Fellata militia men attack and rape two women around the same time:

They were taking turns raping the women.… The women were crying and saying please, come help us. Nobody came. I was hiding in the grass, maybe 100 meters away. I knew them very well. They came to the village every day.… I was supposed to help them but the Fellata would have shot me.

Mohammed, a farmer and father of six living in Khor Maganza, a town where refugees were forced to live near a military barracks in a camp-like setting, said that in mid-2014 the RSF had raped his wife in their home:

I was sitting with my wife and six kids. They came and threatened me with a gun. They were eight men in uniforms and they were all RSF. They said ‘go away’ and pointed the guns at me. I ran far away. When I came back an hour later, my wife was in the house and she was crying. She said that these people slept with her and did bad things to her. Two of the soldiers raped her.

Amira, a 14-year-old girl who had lived with her family in Khor Maganza, told researchers that in September soldiers arrested her, her sister, and her mother, and took all three of them to a military barracks, then raped them in separate locations before bringing them home. “We were raped by different soldiers and taken to different places,” she said. “Four soldiers raped me.”

Intisar, 18, who also had been living in Khor Maganza, said that during an incident last year she heard soldiers raping her neighbor, a 14-year-old girl, as government soldiers took turns guarding the house. “It lasted more than an hour,” Intisar said. “I could hear her from my house. She was crying and calling for help, but nobody would come.”

Aziza, a 19-year-old from another town, Sinjanabuk, said that during Ramadan soldiers from a nearby barracks attacked and raped her during a house-to-house search:

There were five men, wearing khaki and holding weapons. They came into my house. I was alone with my mother-in-law.… The men were looking for my husband. They said he is anyanya [rebel] and told me I have to tell the truth where he is. They sent my mother-in-law outside and two of them raped me in the bedroom and the other three stood outside.

Raids, House-to-House Searches
The majority of refugees interviewed said soldiers carried out raids and house-to-house searches, ostensibly in search of rebels, during which they also beat, sexually abused, and arbitrarily detained civilians and stole their personal property.

Many of those who fled Khor Maganza said the soldiers were joined by damseri, meaning the RSF. The RSF carried out massive ground attacks on dozens of villages in south and north Darfur earlier in 2014, burning and looting homes and shops and killing and robbing civilians, targeting areas where they accused the population of sympathizing with the rebels.

Abdelrahman, 30, said the forces periodically “would come to your house and they would beat people. They would ask many questions like: ‘Do you have brothers? Are they with SPLA-North?’ They came in trucks and were wearing uniforms, searching the houses. They took telephones.”

Mohammed, a 49-year-old man from Khor Maganza said the RSF raided his home four times:

The last time they arrived in pick-up trucks with machine guns, surrounded the camp [town], came in, and started beating people for no reason.… They said my brother was with the rebels. Four soldiers beat me. They asked me to lie down on the ground and beat me with sticks and their feet. I was in pain for many days.

Jalila, a 19-year-old from Kumreek, also lived in Khor Maganza and recalled a similar raid, during which her brother was arrested:

They were going to many houses and arresting the men. They were accusing us of feeding the SPLA-North.… I saw the soldiers come. They were many in groups of three or four. They entered houses and asked for phones and numbers and looked through our belongings.

Refugees from other neighboring villages described similar raids, during which they or family members were beaten, raped, or detained by RSF and Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

“They first arrived in August but they would come and go,” said Issa, a 28-year-old father of five who had lived in the small town of Musfa. “They took everything from us, even the property of the kids, a bag, clothes, and a donkey to carry the stolen property.”

A 30-year-old man from Khor Adar, near Musfa, said: “One day in August they came at night and said the rebels lived here. They collected [many people] and started beating us with sticks. Some arrived in August but most arrived in September and everything got much worse.”

Idris, an 18-year-old boy from nearby Bulang, said the RSF had come four times during 2014 to conduct roundups: “The damseri [RSF] came and burned huts of civilians…. They suspect there are rebels inside. They took a motorcycle one time.”

Arbitrary Detentions, Ill-Treatment, Torture
At least 12 people said that they were detained or that close family members had been detained at various times since the conflict started. Former detainees described harsh conditions and beatings by security forces. 

Rahama, a 21-year-old man from Bulang, said that in March soldiers arrested him and 13 other men in the middle of the night during a roundup: “I was sleeping and they came and asked for the men…. They tied my hands and asked who I belong to. I said I am just a farmer. Then they beat me and tied my feet and put me in a truck.”

The group was detained in an underground cell in Deirang for several hours, then transferred to a prison in Roseris, where they were held without charge for three months. The prison officers beat the detainees so severely that two of them died, he said. Human Rights Watch could not verify the deaths.

Amna, a 26-year-old woman from Bagis, near Damazin, said that about a year ago government soldiers came to her house and beat her and arrested her for giving food to rebels, which she said she admitted doing. They detained her in a military prison in Damazin for more than a month:

There were some other women outside the cells but I was alone inside. They would give me food sometimes once every two days. Every day they beat me … they would tell me to have sex with them but when I refused they would beat me. They slapped me in the face and beat me with a plastic rod.

Jalila, a 19-year-old woman from Kumreek, also displaced to Khor Maganza, said her brother Bashir was arrested in August during a roundup. “They were going to many houses and arrested many men,” she said. He was taken to Deirang and Roseris prison, where he was held for a week. “He had wounds on [his] back from the beatings with sticks.”

Hawa, a 20-year-old from Musfa, said soldiers arrested her brother at their home earlier in 2014, detained him for about a month in Bulang and Roseris prison, and beat and tortured him:

He said he was tortured with pliers. Some skin is still scarred. When he came back he was weak and his body was wounded. He was sick with skin disease. He could not move and is still not able to work…. When I tried to greet him he could not raise his hand. 

Human Rights Watch documented arbitrary detentions and abuse of detainees in Damazin and Roseris shortly after conflict erupted in 2011. Several of the refugees newly arrived to South Sudan in 2014 reported similar experiences from the same period.

Sidiq, 25, from Fadamiya said at the beginning of the war in 2011 that he was arrested and detained for two months in a military prison in Damazin with 50 others, and frequently beaten on his back with a pipe or stick:

The situation was not good, there was not enough food, only one [piece of] bread in the morning and one in the evening. I was very hungry. I lost some weight and was feeling weak. One of my brothers is in SAF and came to get me out. He asked them why they had taken me [since] I was a civilian.

Ahmed, 32, from Kumreek, said he was detained in 2011 because he refused to join the army. Soldiers took him to the Roseris prison together with others who refused to join the army: “It was 5 a.m. when they took me. They tied my hands in the back and took me to their commanders. They said I was anyanya [rebel].… They told me to go a SAF training camp but I refused.” He was detained for three months. In prison, he said conditions were harsh, without enough food or soap, and he saw many of the other inmates being beaten badly. “They make people lie on their stomach, tie their legs with chains, and then whip them,” he said.  

Abusive and Discriminatory Enforcement of Movement and Food Restrictions
Many of the refugees said that after conflict started in 2011, soldiers forced them to move from their villages or fields to camp-like settings with others displaced by the conflict near government military barracks. 

Although curfews, certain restrictions on movement, or food rationing may be justified on security grounds in times of armed conflict, international law prohibits excessive use of force, beatings, rapes, arbitrary confiscation of property, theft, and other violations that the refugees described as routine in these government-controlled areas.

“Many people tried to leave but were not allowed,” said Idris, an 18-year-old boy from Bulang. He said soldiers curtailed movement at night, sometimes by shooting people.

“We were not allowed to walk far from the camp. If they found you, they would beat you,” said Intisar, an 18-year-old woman from Khor Maganza.

Many refugees from several locations specified that armed Fellata militias, rather than soldiers, were abusive in enforcing restrictions on civilians. 

Hanan, mother of five from Musfa, said: “Since the conflict started, we had a hard time because of the Fellata. This year we could not cultivate because of the harassment. There was no way to reach the fields.”

An 18-year-old youth from Sinjanabuk said: “There is no freedom of movement because of the Fellata – they will beat you. They say to civilians ‘you are rebels’ and when they see you walking on the road they say you belong to Malik Agar [the commander of the SPLA-North].”

Several people said that soldiers confiscated food that aid groups had distributed, allowing the civilians to take only small quantities at a time ostensibly to prevent them from giving it to rebels.

Siham, a 16-year-old girl from Bulang, said that soldiers routinely harassed the women for grinding too much millet, and confiscated food after a distribution by a humanitarian organization: “There was a food distribution and SAF came to search for it after the NGO left. The soldiers took half of what we got.”