V. Attacks on Civilians by Government and Militia, February 2008

On February 8, 2008, the Sudanese government launched massive attacks on three major towns in the northern corridor, displacing an estimated 40,000 civilians to Jebel Mun and across the border to Chad. Then, on February 18, 19, and 22 the government went on to attack rebel positions at Jebel Mun, displacing thousands more civilians to Chad.

The timing and sequence of these attacks suggest the government had a strategy to drive civilians away from the area before assaulting rebel positions in Jebel Mun. The government carried out the attacks on three populated northern-corridor towns when many JEM rebels were still in Chad helping to repel the coup attempt there.  According to various witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch, there were no rebel soldiers in these towns. The government used aerial and ground forces in ways that seem designed to terrorize the population.

The attacks were carried out in a similar pattern in all locations, using aerial and ground forces that included airplanes, helicopters, ground troops and large numbers of Janjaweed militia on horse and camels. Working in concert, these forces killed, assaulted, raped, and abducted civilians, destroyed their homes and villages, and looted and destroyed their property, including food and water stores. The government forces targeted civilians, particularly men, as they fled. In two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, attackers shot at fleeing women with babies on their backs, killing the babies. Humanitarian organizations, including clinics, were robbed and vandalized.

February 8, Abu Suruj

Abu Suruj, located about 30 kilometers northwest of Al Geneina, has a population of 18,000, a majority of whom are from the Erenga ethnic group. According to eyewitnesses, on the morning of February 8, 2008, government air forces, including an Antonov airplane painted in UN-designated white and at least two attack helicopters, flew over the town. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of armed men, whom eyewitnesses described as Janjaweed militia wearing green khaki uniforms and civilian clothes, arrived on horses and camels. A column of 30 to 45 green and gray military vehicles mounted with weapons followed them into the town.28

Witnesses said the soldiers and Janjaweed entered the town shooting in the air and directly at people, setting fire to houses, and looting livestock and property. The plane and helicopters circled overhead and bombed locations in and around the town, including hills where many civilians had fled for cover. About 30 civilians were killed, the majority of whom were shot while fleeing. Children, elderly and disabled people also perished, and some were burned to death in their huts. 29  

Mohamed, 60, told Human Rights Watch that he saw Janjaweed shooting at men while they were running north toward a mountain. “I saw seven people die while I was fleeing,” he said. “One man was shot and fell down right in front me. Thank God I got to the mountain and was not hit.”30

Many witnesses reported to Human Rights Watch that the attackers targeted the male population but allowed the female population to flee and take refuge in a wadi (small valley) on the east side of town. “They told us to take what we needed for the children and leave because they were going to burn down the house,” said Zeinab, a 22-year-old woman who fled with members of her family. While fleeing, she saw one attacker order her uncle to stop and then shot him dead.31

Abdullah, a 40-year-old man, told Human Rights Watch that he got on his horse to escape the attackers, but soldiers shot at him. “I fell down and hurt my arm,” he recalled. “I escaped into a house nearby. When I saw them coming, I went into the women’s side and covered myself in a taub [women’s garment] as a disguise to avoid being shot.”32 

The attackers looted and burned extensively. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that attackers set dwellings on fire using matches, but some houses were burned from rockets or other projectile explosives. According to a UN report, 75 percent of the village was burned.33 Residents who fled the attacks told Human Rights Watch that more than 70 shops were looted.

Zeinab, the 22-year old who fled with her family, described to Human Rights Watch how a group of five Janjaweed on horses came to her house and stole all of her family’s belongings before burning the house down. “They hit us with whips and sticks and said ‘You are rebels. We want your animals.’ Then they came inside and took our food and clothes, beds, mats, cups, pots and everything. They took the animals.” To assist in the pillage, the Janjaweed militia enlisted a group of girls to shepherd the residents’ cattle, goats and sheep to a location away from the village and guard them until the attacks were over.

Following the attack, government soldiers deployed in town. Janjaweed militia left at dusk and returned in the following days to continue looting and burning. According to family members of people who stayed, soldiers and militia prevented the remaining population from leaving and harassed those who returned for their possessions. While many fled to Chad initially, by early April 2008 most of the population had returned to rebuild their homes, in part drawn by assistance from humanitarian agencies.34 

February 8, Sirba

Shortly after the attack on Abu Suruj began, government forces attacked Sirba, a town of approximately 10,000 located 50 kilometers north of Al Geneina and about 15 kilometers east of Abu Suruj. The air forces, including an Antonov and attack helicopters, preceded hundreds of armed men riding horses and camels and wearing green khaki uniforms. They entered town from the southeast direction and were followed by a column of around 30 military vehicles mounted with weapons.

“The planes came. Then the Janjaweed came on horses and encircled the village and some came into the village. Then the cars came,” recalled Yahyia, a merchant who watched the attack from a hiding place. He said the attackers fired their weapons indiscriminately. “The attackers fired in the air and at people. If they saw people moving around, they shot at them.”35 

Yahyia also told Human Rights Watch that he saw gunship helicopters firing on houses and at people. According to civilians who buried the dead, at least 42 civilians were killed from bombs, rockets or gunshots.

“The cars had dushkas [automatic weapons] and they were shooting at everyone, whether a woman, man or child. They were shooting at us even when we were running away,” said Nada, another eyewitness.36 

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch the attackers accused the population of supporting the rebels. “They said they would kill us all because we follow JEM,” said Hamed, a merchant.37 Among those shot dead were the town’s fersha (traditional leader) and the head of the secondary school. The fersha was reportedly burned after he was shot. While most of the civilian casualties were men shot while trying to escape their attackers, elderly men and women and small children also died from shots or from burning.

Selwa, a 48-year-old woman, was with a group of women who discovered several corpses. She told Human Rights Watch, “We went to my house and I found the father of my son dead. Then we went to the neighbors and found the secondary school director and another man dead. I took a blanket and covered them.” She waited until dark before leaving for Chad, where she reunited with her children who fled separately.38

The soldiers and militia engaged in extensive looting and burning. “They looted all the animals and horses and opened all the shops and took what they could and burned the rest,” said Hamed. Half the village was burned down and an estimated 160 shops were looted and burned.

Witnesses also reported to Human Rights Watch that militia and soldiers committed sexual violence during and after the attacks. For example, one witness said that while in hiding, he heard two soldiers attack his neighbor’s daughter. “I saw two soldiers enter the house and then I heard her crying out,” he said. The UN reported that the attackers raped at least 10 women and girls.39

Following the attack, the Sudanese military and Central Reserve Police deployed in the town. After several days the military reportedly ordered the Janjaweed out. Residents said the military and Central Reserve Police prevented the remaining population from leaving or those returning from their hiding places from collecting their belongings. By early April 2008, most of the population had returned.40

February 8, Silea

Silea, located 65 kilometers north of Al Geneina, is an important hub for access to Jebel Mun. It had a population of approximately 10,000, mostly from Erenga and Messeriya Jebel ethnic groups. Government aircraft flew over the town mid-afternoon on February 8 and dropped at least three bombs, one of which killed at least nine civilians according to several eyewitnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch.41 

Around 4 p.m., soldiers arrived in a column of military vehicles mounted with weapons, along with hundreds of Janjaweed, wearing green khaki and civilian clothes, riding horses and camels. Over the course of several days, the soldiers and militia shot at civilians, looted and burned shops and homes, and stole livestock and vehicles. They killed at least 20 civilians.

“The afternoon prayers had just begun and a lot of us men were in the mosque on the north side of town,” recounted Adam, a 35-year-old man. “I heard the sound of the plane bombing and came out and saw military vehicles entering town. They were grey pickups mounted with doshkas. There were about 15 soldiers in each vehicle. We all scattered. I saw many dead bodies on the way out.”42

Many of the reported attacks took place during robberies by soldiers or militia. Mariam, 35, described to Human Rights Watch how a large group of Janjaweed militia came to her house on four pickup trucks. When she resisted them, one shot her. The bullet hit her and killed the baby on her back. “They told me to leave and not to take anything, and then one of the men on a Toyota shot me, and I fell down.” Her father found her bleeding and helped her to a safe place, then found a horse-cart to take her to the clinic at Birak, on the Chad border. “I was pregnant with twins and I lost them while we made the trip. I lost so much blood,” she said.43

Ibrahim, 38, was hiding in the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross when men wearing military uniforms arrived in three military vehicles and on horses. “They came and beat down the door. We were in the safe room with a group of staff and civilians. We were scared,” he recalled. While in the safe room, he and his colleagues listened to the assailants enter the premises, shoot one of their colleagues, and steal the contents of the storage room. “After a few hours some women came to the window and told us we could come out. We found our colleague dead. He was shot in the chest. We buried him and six other bodies near the hospital. Most of them were shot while fleeing. One was an 85-year-old man who was shot in the chest.”44

The majority of bombing victims were women and children. Aisha, an 11-year-old girl, was hit by shrapnel, which required her left leg to be amputated above the knee. She told Human Rights Watch how it happened:

Planes and vehicles and horses and camels came. They bombed our neighbors and one part of the bomb fell on our house. The bomb killed 10 people, four women and six children. Our house caught fire and burned to the ground. A piece of the bomb fell on my leg. People came to rescue us that night. When I came to the hospital, the doctors decided to amputate.45

Hawa, 30, told Human Rights Watch that when a bomb fell near her house, her 5-year-old daughter was injured from shrapnel:

We heard the sound of bombing and then a bomb fell on our house and a piece of [shrapnel] fell on my daughter’s hip. We were in the courtyard of our house. We all ran for cover but she was slower and fell down. She pulled herself into the house. Everyone fled in different directions. We came back for her two days later.46

Government soldiers deployed in town, while Janjaweed left nightly and returned each morning for several days and continued looting goods and supplies and burning shops and homes. They looted the offices of four nongovernmental organizations, dozens of vehicles, milling machines, generators, and even pried metal doors off their frames. They burned an estimated two-thirds of the town to the ground.

A significant military base in Silea has contributed to ongoing human rights violations.47 Several women who ventured back to Silea after the attack to collect their belongings confirmed that government soldiers tried to prevent them from returning to Chad. Two government soldiers allegedly raped an 11-year-old girl on March 14. One soldier shot and killed three women after JEM rebels ambushed a military convoy between Silea and Goz Minu on March 18. 

Most of Silea’s population fled to Jebel Mun or Chad on the day of the attack. As of early April 2008, only 20 percent of the population was believed to be in Silea.48

February 18, 19, and 22, Jebel Mun

Ten days after establishing a military presence in the northern corridor, Sudanese government forces launched attacks on rebel positions and civilian centers at Jebel Mun. A Sudanese military spokesman at the time said the attacks were part of an effort to open the road from Al Geneina to Kulbus, some 100 kilometers north on the Chad border.49

Government forces and Janjaweed militia clashed with rebels from JEM and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Abdel Wahid faction during the course of attacks.50 Bombing began on rebel positions near Aro Sharow internally displaced persons (IDP) camp and Korlungo on February 18, which killed four civilians including a woman and an infant.51 One civilian who fled to Chad that day told UNHCR staff that civilians counted 18 bombs, six of which fell on the IDP camp.52

At least 20 civilians were killed in the attacks. The main clashes occurred on February 19 and February 22, with most of the civilian casualties on February 19. The government used Antonov planes, other fixed-wing aircraft and three attack helicopters accompanied by approximately a hundred military vehicles carrying soldiers and at least a hundred Janjaweed militia wearing military uniforms, most riding horses. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that rebel forces held positions near civilian settlements, and had several vehicles and anti-aircraft artillery.

According to eyewitnesses, on the morning of February 19, an Antonov cargo plane flew surveillance over the area. Then at about 10 a.m. a convoy of government military vehicles stopped on the south side of the mountain and soldiers proceeded on foot with Janjaweed militia, while a smaller convoy drove into the mountain from the north entrance.

The aircraft included Antonovs, attack helicopters and jets. They bombed numerous villages in and around Jebel Mun. Area residents with whom Human Rights Watch spoke could not specify the locations of all bombings but consistently reported that Goz Minu, Sewani, Kendera, Koma, Nertiti, Saraf, Goz, Bot, Nurania, and smaller villages around the mountain were targeted by aircraft. Halima, a 40-year-old woman from Aro Sharow, saw her neighbor’s house hit by a bomb. “We found seven people were killed, and we buried them. They were mostly old people and children,” she told Human Rights Watch.53

Witnesses described ground forces arriving in the villages in cars and on horses and shooting indiscriminately and looting property, including livestock and food supplies in several villages.

“They came like flies, swarming here and there. They killed, beat and stole. They took all of our animals,” said Fatna, 30, from the village of Gerda. She described the attackers as soldiers and militia from Arab and Gimir tribes. “We recognized them, we used to live near them,” she said.

Mohamed, a 40-year-old farmer from Aro Sharow, told Human Rights Watch that the attackers shot people and burned houses:

They came and started to burn the village. Everyone fled, but the disabled could not leave. I saw them shoot at an old man and some children. I returned to the town the next day to bury the bodies. I found lots of burned bodies. I don’t know how many. They were in the burned houses.54 

The attackers shot civilians even as they were fleeing to safety. Kalthuma, 30, from Nokuna, a village of 200 households, told Human Rights Watch that while she and her family were fleeing, Janjaweed killed her baby and her father:

I had a small child on my back. [The attackers] followed us on their horses and shot at us as we fled to the trees. The bullet killed my baby boy. Some men took the baby off my back and buried it. Then we went under the trees and the Janjaweed shot at us again and killed my father.

Kalthuma said her uncle helped transport her to Birak, on the Chad side of the border.55

During the attack, government forces arrested 20 men from Aro Sharow, Goz Minu and other locations in the mountain and accused them of being rebels. One of those detained described to Human Rights Watch how authorities intercepted him as he was fleeing from Aro Sharow to Jebel Mun:

They took us back to Silea and we were beaten up badly. On our way, a Janjaweed recognized me and shouted, ‘Are you a Torabora [derogatory term meaning “rebel”] now?’ then shot at me.

He said security officials took the group to Al Geneina and El Fasher, interrogated them and accused them of being rebels. Authorities released the detainees after one month without charging them.56

Several villagers reported to Human Rights Watch that rebels had warned them of an impending attack. “On the morning of the attack, we heard the sound of helicopters and saw cars and Janjaweed coming. We fled thinking something was going to happen because the night before the SLA warned there would be an attack,” said Yahyia, a 30-year-old man from Goz Minu village.57

Many witnesses and victims of the attack described to Human Rights Watch how they hid in mountain caves and behind boulders for several days without food before making their way to Chad after the fighting on February 22. Some said the attackers came looking for them in the caves.

UNHCR estimated 3,000 civilians crossed into Chad in the days following the attack on Jebel Mun.58 As of this writing, only a few hundred civilians are believed to be living in the mountain. Some people who had escaped to Chad told Human Rights Watch they would not move to refugee camps further inside Chad because they planned to return to their villages for short periods to tend their crops.

Continuing insecurity in the border area

Most of the refugees who fled from the northern corridor and Jebel Mun settled in over a dozen sites over a 30-kilometer stretch of borderland in the Wadi Fira region of eastern Chad. Many refugees are situated in the town of Birak, located about 10 kilometers west of Jebel Mun, which has attracted armed rebels from Sudan and Chad who travel through the area and frequent Birak’s market. The entire eastern portion of Wadi Fira is a “no man’s land” with no Chadian government authority to uphold law and order.

As of mid-April 2008, the UNHCR had transferred more than 5,400 refugees to camps inside Chad, but an estimated 8,000 remained scattered along the border.59 Many told Human Rights Watch and other agencies that they had decided to remain at the border in hopes of accessing their fields for cultivation.

Humanitarian agencies working along the border fear the mere presence of rebels from both Sudan and Chad could invite aerial bombings by either government, as they have done in the past year. Clashes between the government of Sudan and the JEM forces in West Darfur pose additional threats to refugees in Chad living close to the border.60 There are indications the parties will continue to engage in hostilities, and with little regard for the safety of civilians. On March 19, JEM ambushed Sudanese army forces 65 kilometers north of Al Geneina, killing 19 soldiers.61 On April 12 and 13, JEM and government clashed at Kishkish, northwest of Silea, injuring dozens of civilians and prompting humanitarian agencies to evacuate staff to Al Geneina.62

28 The UN reported the government used 130 vehicles. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch were not able to confirm that number. UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur,” S/2008/196, March 25, 2008, (accessed April 24, 2008).

29 There are discrepancies in casualty figures reported by UN sources. The numbers cited here and throughout represent Human Rights Watch’s best estimation based on a range of published and non-published sources.

30 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 17, 2008.

31 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 18, 2008.

32 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 18, 2008.

33 OHCHR, “Ninth Periodic Report,” March 20, 2008, p. 5

34 US Agency for International Development (USAID), “Sudan Complex Emergency,” USAID Situation Report #5, April 4, 2008, (accessed May 5, 2008).

35 Human Rights Watch interview, Guereda area, Chad, March 19, 2008.

36 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 17, 2008.

37 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 18, 2008.

38 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 17, 2008.

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

40 USAID, “Sudan Complex Emergency,” April 4, 2008.

41 Witnesses said another bomb resulted in 10 deaths, but Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the number of casualties caused by each bombing. Residents of Silea who fled to Chad provided Human Rights Watch the estimate of the total number of civilian casualties from the attack.

42 Human Rights Watch interview, Guereda area, Chad, March 15, 2008.

43 Human Rights Watch interview, Guereda area, Chad, March 15, 2008.

44 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 18, 2008.

45 Human Rights Watch interview, Guereda, Chad, March 16, 2008.

46 Human Rights Watch interview, Guereda area, Chad, March 15, 2008.

47 UN Security Council, “Report of Secretary-General on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur,” March 25, 2008, para.7.

48 USAID, “Sudan Complex Emergency,” April 4, 2008.

49 “Rebels claim downing Sudanese helicopters in Darfur attacks,” Sudan Tribune, February 20, 2008, (accessed May 5, 2008).

50 Both JEM and the SLA faction led by Abdel Wahid were present and had vehicles and weapons including anti-aircraft weapons.

51 “Four killed during Sudan air strike in Darfur’s Jebel Moun,” Sudan Tribune, February 19, 2008, (accessed May 9, 2008); UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur,” March 25, 2008, para. 5.

52 Annette Rehrl, “UNHCR recalls staff from Chad border after air strikes in Darfur,” February 19, 2008, (accessed May 5, 2008).

53 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak area, eastern Chad, March 17, 2008.

54 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak area, eastern Chad, March 18, 2008.

55 Human Rights Watch interview, Guereda, Chad, March 16, 2008.

56 Human Rights Watch telephone interview (name withheld), April, 2008.

57 Human Rights Watch interview, Birak, eastern Chad, March 18, 2008.

58 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Chad: Arrivals from West Darfur continue,” UNHCR Briefing Notes, February 29, 2008, (accessed April 24, 2008).

59 UNHCR, “Chad/Darfur: Continuing Insecurity,” UNHCR Briefing Notes, April 18, 2008, (accessed April 24, 2008). 

60 At Sineit, a small settlement on the Chad side of the border just a few kilometers from Jebel Mun, the sounds of ongoing fighting prompt refugees to remove reflective cookware from the roofs of their shelters to avoid being mistaken for combatants and targeted by aircraft that residents said regularly patrolled the area.  Human Rights Watch visit, Sineit, Chad, March 17, 2008.

61 UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur,” April 14, 2008, para. 3.

62 Opheera McDoom, “Clashes in Darfur, protests mark five years of war,” Reuters, April 13, 2008, (accessed April 24, 2008); “UNAMID condemns fighting in West Darfur,” Sudan Tribune, April 13, 2008, (access April 24, 2008).