Special Prosecutor for Crimes in Darfur Yasir Ahmed Mohamed (R) and his team talk to women during an investigation into allegations of mass rape in the village of Tabit, in North Darfur, November 20.

(New York) – Sudanese army forces raped more than 200 women and girls in an organized attack on the north Darfur town of Tabit in October 2014, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) should take urgent steps to protect civilians in the town from further abuses.

The 48-page report, “Mass Rape in Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks Against Civilians in Tabit,” documents Sudanese army attacks in which at least 221 women and girls were raped in Tabit over 36 hours beginning on October 30, 2014. The mass rapes would amount to crimes against humanity if found to be part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population.

“The deliberate attack on Tabit and the mass rape of the town’s women and girls is a new low in the catalog of atrocities in Darfur,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Sudanese government should stop the denials and immediately give peacekeepers and international investigators access to Tabit.”

Allegations of mass rape first surfaced in a November 2 report by Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based station. Sudan denied the report and refused peacekeepers access to the town. On November 9, it gave the peacekeepers brief access, but security forces prevented them from carrying out a credible investigation, Human Rights Watch said.

In November and December 2014, Human Rights Watch spoke to over 50 residents and former residents of Tabit by telephone due to access restrictions. Others interviewed included local human rights monitors, government officials, and staff of the AU-UN Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Despite the lack of access, Human Rights Watch was able to cross-reference and verify many individual cases and allegations.

Sudanese army forces carried out three distinct military operations during which soldiers went house-to-house and looted property, arrested men, beat residents, and raped women and girls inside their homes. Human Rights Watch documented 27 separate incidents of rape, and obtained credible information about an additional 194 cases. Two army defectors separately told Human Rights Watch that their superior officers had ordered them to “rape women.”

Tabit is largely ethnic Fur and has been under the control of rebel armed groups in recent years. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that rebel fighters were in or near Tabit at the time of the attacks.

A woman in her 40s described the attack on her and her three daughters, two of whom were under the age of 11. “Immediately after they entered the room they said: ‘You killed our man. We are going to show you true hell,’” she said. “Then they started beating us. They raped my three daughters and me. Some of them were holding the girl down while another one was raping her. They did it one by one.” 

Another woman said that soldiers beat her severely and dragged her out of her house. When she returned, she found that they had raped three of her daughters, all under 15. The soldiers “beat the young children and they raped my older daughters.… They put clothes in [my daughters’] mouths so that you could not hear the screaming,” she said. 

On two nights, witnesses said, soldiers forced large groups of men to the outskirts of Tabit, leaving the women and children vulnerable to attacks in their homes. The soldiers threatened and beat the men throughout the night. 

Since the attacks, the Sudanese government has blocked UN investigators from entering the town to try to prevent victims and witnesses from sharing information about the crimes. Multiple victims and witnesses reported that government officials threatened to imprison or kill anyone who spoke out about the attacks.

Authorities have also detained and tortured residents of Tabit for speaking about what took place. One man, who was overheard talking to a relative and taken to a military intelligence prison, told Human Rights Watch: “They said if I talked about Tabit again that I was going to be finished.… They kicked me. Tied me and hanged me up. They beat me with whips and electric wires.”

Authorities have also prevented free movement in and out of the town. One Tabit resident told Human Rights Watch that since the attacks, people have been “living in an open prison.”

The attacks on Tabit occurred in a wider context of a rise in government attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said. A newly created government force, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), consisting largely of former militias, led a spate of attacks on villages in 2014. In January 2015, the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that over 3,000 villages were burned in Darfur in 2014, predominantly in government-led attacks. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that almost half-a-million people were displaced by attacks in 2014, and 70,000 in the first three weeks of 2015. 

Sexual violence has featured prominently in recent attacks on civilians by Sudanese forces not only in Tabit but elsewhere in Sudan, Human Rights Watch said. In November 2014, Human Rights Watch documented widespread sexual violence, often by the RSF, against communities with perceived links to rebels in Blue Nile state. Human Rights Watch has also learned of many other accounts of sexual violence by the same forces in Darfur in 2014.

The UN and AU should both press Sudan to allow peacekeepers unfettered access to Tabit and to ensure that medical services are available to all those in need. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should create a team with expertise in sexual and gender-based violence to conduct an investigation into alleged abuses in Tabit, and the AU should support this effort by providing investigators with expertise in sexual and gender-based crimes. 

Human Rights Watch also urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the incident to the extent possible. The ICC has charges pending against five people, including President Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in connection with atrocities in Darfur, but Sudan has refused to cooperate with the ICC and has obstructed its work. The ICC prosecutor told the UN Security Council in December 2014 that she needed substantially more support from the council to address Sudan’s lack of cooperation with the court. The council referred Darfur to the ICC in 2005.

“Sudan has done everything possible to cover up the horrific crimes committed by its soldiers in Tabit, but the survivors have fearlessly chosen to speak out,” Bekele said. “The UN Security Council and the AU should demand that Sudan stop these attacks, urgently act to protect Tabit’s residents, and conduct a credible investigation.”