IV. Background to February Attacks

Jebel Mun, a mountainous area about 80 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital Al Geneina, has been a stronghold for Darfur’s rebels since early in the conflict.1 The summit, which covers an area about 10 square kilometers, is considered militarily strategic because of its rocky terrain that deters attackers and provides hiding places, and because of its proximity to the Chad border. 

The “northern corridor”—from Al Geneina to Jebel Mun—is populated primarily by Messeriya Jebel and Erenga communities. The government and Janjaweed militia2 have repeatedly attacked civilians and rebels living in and around the mountain and in the northern corridor.3 Militia attacks spiked from April to July 2007, resulting in increased incidents of harassment, beatings, sexual violence, and extortion.4 Government forces either allowed the attacks, attributing them to “inter-tribal tensions” or directly participated in them.5 As a result of insecurity, starting from mid-2006, several communities established armed local defense forces.6

In December 2007 and January 2008, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group launched a major military offensive in the northern corridor, and claimed to have surrounded the capital Al Geneina.7 The government had a sparse presence in the area and put up little resistance. On January 7, 2008, JEM forces attacked the police station in Saraf Jidad, a town of about 15,000, prompting the police’s withdrawal from town.8 Reported laws of war violations by rebel forces during the offensive included the killing of three civilians near Silea and the assault and detention of local officials in the town to gain control.9 JEM’s occupation of Saraf Jidad and Silea was brief.10

In January 2008, the Sudanese government built up its military forces in Al Geneina in preparation for a counter-attack on JEM. Sudan Minister of Defense Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein visited Al Geneina and held meetings with the local security authorities and Arab community representatives. According to United Nations (UN) sources, he allegedly gave clear instructions he wanted the northern corridor cleared of armed groups. At a meeting with UN officials on January 31, 2008, the deputy governor of West Darfur stated that the government was determined to recapture areas under JEM control.11

Members of the Erenga community told Human Rights Watch that they, too, met with government security officials two weeks before the attacks and told them that there were no rebels in their areas.12 They said the authorities assured them that the military would move through their areas en route to attack rebel positions at Jebel Mun and that local defense forces should “welcome” government forces as they passed through.13

During this period in which the government was preparing to launch attacks on the areas that JEM had taken, government-supported Janjaweed militia attacked Saraf Jidad three times, most seriously on January 24. In that attack, Janjaweed exchanged fire with JEM rebels in nearby hills before entering the town and torching houses and shooting at civilians. The attack resulted in 24 civilian deaths, including the umda (traditional leader), elderly people, women and children. The attackers burned about half the town and forced thousands of civilians to flee to Abu Suruj, Tandelti and other villages.14

Meanwhile, the government closed off the northern corridor to humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies from mid-December 2007 to early February, leaving an estimated 160,000 civilians without humanitarian assistance.15 An April 2008 report from the UN secretary-general on UNAMID deployment concluded that lack of humanitarian access during the first 40 days of the year “was particularly damaging to humanitarian operations and had an extremely negative impact on civilians in the area.”16 Once the government reoccupied the northern corridor in February, humanitarian access was again allowed, but except for brief visits in early March and mid-April 2008, the agencies have yet to access Jebel Mun.

In early February, an attempted coup in Chad further exacerbated the situation between the Sudanese government and JEM. Sudan and Chad have long accused one another of fomenting rebellion through support to each others’ insurgents.17 The Sudanese government supported Chadian rebels in an attempted coup in the Chadian capital N’Djamena on February 2-3, 2008, while Sudanese JEM rebels, many with family and ethnic ties to Chad, helped the Chadian government to repel it.

Chadian rebels based in West Darfur have attacked Chadian government positions in eastern Chad, most recently on April 1, 2008.18 The Chadian government has in turn used aircraft to bomb Chadian rebels in Sudan in January and April.19 Chadian government forces also fortified JEM rebels inside West Darfur, notably during the period leading up to the February attacks.20 JEM’s links to the Chadian government provided another compelling incentive for Sudan to remove JEM from West Darfur. The group’s engagement in N’Djamena provided a window of opportunity for the attack.21

In the wake of the failed coup attempt, the Sudanese government launched a large-scale military campaign to re-take the northern corridor and Jebel Mun on February 8, 18, 19, and 22.  Its attacks on Abu Suruj, Sirba, Silea and in Jebel Mun are reminiscent of the “scorched earth” tactics the government used on civilian populations living in rebel areas from 2003 to 2005, both in terms of targeting civilians and of the scale of destruction and pillaging of civilian property.22 

The February 2008 attacks appear to be part of a continuing pattern of attacks on civilian populations living in areas where rebel groups operate, particularly groups that did not sign the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, known as the “non-signatory” rebels.23 The UN Panel of Experts tasked with monitoring Sudan’s compliance with the arms embargo imposed in 2005 catalogued several such attacks in 2006 and 2007. For example, in November 2006, government forces carried out aerial and ground attacks on Hilef, a town in eastern North Darfur where rebels operated, killing 27 civilians.24 In April and May 2007, the government bombed civilian sites, including a school and market, and killed at least two civilians in Um Rai, North Darfur, a known gathering point for non-signatory factions.25

The government’s bombing campaign has continued in 2008.  In April 2008, the government bombed a small village near Madu, killing one child, destroying homes, and causing the displacement of thousands of villagers.26 In late April and early May 2008, the government bombed additional sites in rebel areas of North Darfur. On May 4, 2008, the government bombed a school and market, killing at least 13 people, including seven children.27

1 The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) faction led by Abdel Wahid Mohamed el-Nur both have forces in Jebel Mun.  

2 For the purposes of this report, “Janjaweed” and “government-supported militia” both refer to civilians who were armed by the government and continue to fight with government support either informally or formally as members of auxiliary units  (such as the Border Intelligence unit or the Popular Defense Forces) within the Sudanese military. These terms do not refer to regular security services such as police, Sudanese Armed Forces or the National Intelligence and Security Service.

3 Armed militia attacked Aro Sharrow internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, located southwest of the mountain, in September 2005, killing about 27 civilians. Militia with support from government forces again attacked Jebel Mun in October 2006, leading to about 50 civilian deaths. See Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Sixth Periodic Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Sudan: Attack on Villages around the Jebel Moon Area,” Geneva, November 3, 2006, (accessed May 9, 2008).

In November 2006, government forces attacked Sirba, destroying property and killing 11 civilians. The Panel of Experts report describes this and several other examples of attacks on civilians in 2006 to 2007. United Nations (UN) Panel of Experts, “Report of the Panel of Experts,” S/2007/584, October 3, 2007, (accessed May 9, 2008). Smaller scale attacks have also occurred on Silea, Sirba and Abu Suruj. See OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan: Attacks on civilians in Saraf Jidad, Sirba, Silea and Abu Suruj in January and February 2008,” March 20, 2008, (accessed April 22, 2008), p. 3.

4 Human Rights Watch, DarfurChaos by Design: Peacekeeping Challenges for AMIS and UNAMID, vol. 19, no. 15(A), September 2007,, p. 46.

5 See, e.g., the Panel of Experts description of the 2006 attack on Hilef, North Darfur. UN Panel of Experts, “Report of the Panel of Experts,” October 3, 2007, para. 279.

6 OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report,” March 20, 2008, p. 3.

7 “Rebel JEM leader threatens to attack Darfur capital,” Sudan Tribune, December 27, 2007, (accessed May 9, 2008). For the sequence of events, see JEM’s press releases claiming military victory over several towns at

8 OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report,” March 20, 2008, p. 3.

9 Human Rights Watch interview (name withheld), Guereda area, Chad, March 15, 2008; OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report,” March 20, 2008, p. 3 (describing an attack resulting in death and injuries to members of security forces and civilians).

10 Residents of Saraf Jidad told the UN that JEM never maintained a presence inside the village. OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report,” March 20, 2008, p. 3. Refugees in Chad who fled from Silea told Human Rights Watch that JEM came to Silea in 13 camouflage cars and left after about a week. Human Rights Watch interviews (names withheld), Kounoungu refugee camp and Guereda, Chad, March 15-16, 2008.

11 OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report,” March 20, 2008, p. 3

12 Human Rights Watch interview with community leaders (names withheld), March 25, 2008.

13 Human Rights Watch interview with community leaders (names withheld), March 25, 2008.

14 OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report,” March 20, 2008, pp. 4-5.

15 Agencies accessed Saraf Jidad on February 3 and Sirba, Abu Suruj and Silea on February 11, 12, and 14, respectively. Ibid. pp. 3-4.  UN agencies visited the northern corridor town of Sirba on February 21, 2008. “Interview with UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan, Ameerah Haq, during her visit to Sirba,” UN News, February 22, 2008, (accessed May 9, 2008).

16 UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur,” S/2008/249, April 14, 2008, (accessed May 9, 2008), para. 14.

17 For background on the Chad-Sudan proxy war, see Jérôme Tubiana,“The Chad-Sudan Proxy War and the ‘Darfurization’ of Chad: Myths and Reality,” Small Arms Survey, HSBA Working Paper 12, April 2008.

18“Chad says Sudan broke peace pact, Khartoum denies,” Reuters, April 1, 2008, (accessed May 5, 2008).

19 UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur,” S/2008/98, February 14, 2008,  (accessed May 4, 2008) para. 3-4; “Sudan accuses Chad of three territory violations,” Reuters, April 2, 2008, (accessed May 4, 2008).

20 UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General,” February 14, 2008, para. 3.

21 Jérôme Tubiana,“The Chad-Sudan Proxy War and the ‘Darfurization’ of Chad,” Small Arms Survey, April 2008, p. 12.

22 Human Rights Watch documented many of these earlier attacks in previous reports. See, e.g., Entrenching Impunity: Government Responsibility for International Crimes in Darfur, vol. 17, no. 17(A), December 2005,; Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur, January 21, 2005,; “If We Return We Will Be Killed”: Consolidation of Ethnic Cleansing in Darfur, Sudan, November 2004,; Empty Promises?: Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,” August 11, 2004,; Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan, vol. 16, no. 6(A), May 2004,; Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, vol. 16, no. 5(A), April 2004,

23The non-signatory factions include JEM and the SLA factions headed by Abdel Wahid Mohamed el-Nur.

24 UN Panel of Experts, “Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1591 (2005) concerning the Sudan prepared in accordance with paragraph 2 of resolution 1713 (2006),” S/2007/584, October 3, 2007, (accessed May 5, 2008), para.  281-286.

25 Ibid., para.  318-323.

26 “Sudanese army bombs Darfur rebels’ areas: SLA-Unity,” Sudan Tribune, April 1, 2008, (accessed May 2, 2008). Human Rights Watch verified the report in an interview with an UNAMID source (name withheld), April 10, 2008.

27 “Sudan bombs Darfur school and market, 13 killed,” Reuters, May 5, 2008, (accessed May 5, 2008).