A year later, Sudanese raped in crackdown wait for justice

SAMY MAGDY
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Sudan Rapes

In this Jan. 12, 2020 photo, the head of the Women Tea Vendors’ Union, Awadia Coco, second left, sits with other members of the union, which supports women’s rights, as they drink tea on a street in Khartoum, Sudan. Many tea vendors were sexually assaulted during the June 3, 2019 crackdown on a protest camp in Khartoum. The Associated Press spoke to six rape victims. They told similar stories of Rapid Support Forces fighters corralling up fleeing protesters, beating them, sexually molesting the women and gang-raping some. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Two or three times a week, Mayada goes to visit her baby daughter at the foster home. Sometimes, she breastfeeds her if she has milk, or she just sits and lulls the 3-month-old to sleep.

She left Marwa at the home because she’s too poor and ill to care for her, she said. Not because she doesn’t love her — not because the little girl is a legacy of a horrific day a year ago in the streets of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

“Sometimes I feel like I love her more than my other children,” said the 22-year-old. “She has no guilt. It’s me who feels guilty.”

Mayada was among dozens of women raped by Sudanese security forces over the course of a few hours on June 3, 2019. In a rampage that day, fighters from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and other troops tore apart a sit-in camp in Khartoum where protesters had been demanding for weeks that the military give up power. At least 87 people were killed, with activists putting the number at more than 120.

A military-backed prosecutor said no rapes or sexual assaults took place during the violence. But over the past year, activists have been documenting what they say was a campaign of rapes — ordered by the military’s leadership to crush the pro-democracy movement.

“It was an orchestrated scenario .... All was by order and systematic,” said Sulima Ishaq Sharif, who at the time headed a trauma center at Khartoum’s Ahfad University.

Her center documented at least 64 rape victims. The Sudan Doctors Union identified at least 60 rape victims, said Dr. Howida al-Hassan, a member of the union who counseled survivors.

Both experts say the real number is considerably higher, since many victims don’t speak for fear of reprisal or the stigma connected to rape. They said many more women were sexually assaulted and several men were among those raped.

Identifying and prosecuting those behind the violence is a major test of whether Sudan can shed its decades-long military rule.

The protest movement, which began in 2018, succeeded in ousting longtime military strongman, President Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019 and forcing the creation of a joint civilian-military ruling “sovereign council.”

But the civilians are struggling to assert authority in the face of the military’s power. Most notably, the council’s deputy head is the commander of the RSF, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who is considered the strongest man in the leadership and enjoys the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

An independent commission investigating the violence already missed one deadline in February for releasing its conclusions. It may also miss a new deadline, June 22, because work has halted amid the coronavirus pandemic, the commission’s head, Nabil Adib, told The Associated Press.

Still, Adib said the panel has taken testimony from some 3,000 witnesses. It “has found a number of crimes, including rape, that were committed during the dispersal, and also identified some suspects,” he said, refusing to give details.

Victims and activists have little faith the military will allow any findings that implicate top generals.

Dagalo and the military have said the troops that day had no orders to clear the camp, only to clamp down on part of it where drug-dealing and other crimes allegedly took place. Spokesmen for the military and the RSF did not respond to multiple AP requests for comment.

The AP spoke to six rape victims, whom it is identifying only by first names.

They told similar stories of RSF fighters corralling up men and women who fled the protest site, beating them, sexually molesting the women and gang-raping some. By their accounts, the rapes took place in specific locations — in a medical complex, a cemetery and the grounds of Khartoum University’s mosque.

The women’s ordeal embodies the terrible personal price paid by activists in crackdowns that have crushed pro-democracy movements around the Middle East in recent years.

For Samah, a 28-year-old teacher, the wounds of her gang-rape that day are reopened whenever she sees Dagalo on TV.

“Watching him sends chills through my body,” she said.

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“IT WAS A SHELTER”

Mayada had lived on her own the past three years, one of the many impoverished women who sell tea on the sidewalks of Khartoum. Married and divorced as a teen, her ex-husband took their two children. Her parents kicked her out after she refused to remarry.

When the sit-in camp arose in front of the main military headquarters in downtown Khartoum in April 2019 — the culmination of months of protests — she set up her tea stand in the square to sell to the protesters.

It was steady money, but she also found a community.

“It was a shelter,” she said. In her backpack, she had a journal where she wrote poems about love, her parents, relationships.

In protesters’ eyes, the camp was a place of freedom where the common cause healed Sudan’s many divisions. Women took a major role, often giving speeches to the crowds. They were celebrated with the nickname “kandaka” — a title of ancient Nubian queens that became a slogan and symbol of the protests.

After the protest forced al-Bashir's fall, the military took sole power — but the protesters refused to end their sit-in, demanding a civilian government.

“We were all Sudanese,” said Samah, the teacher. “At the sit-in, you would see the best of us.”

The RSF grew out of the Janjaweed militias, which al-Bashir mobilized to fight in the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s. They were notorious for killings and rapes of civilians there, according to rights groups.

In mid-May 2019, about 1,000 RSF fighters were brought from Darfur to a base in Omdurman, adjacent to Khartoum, three RSF officers told the AP on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press.

Around 3 a.m. on June 3, they descended on the sit-in. Around 1,300 protesters found themselves encircled as forces set on them with live ammunition, tear gas, whips and sticks.

Samah was asleep in a tent when gunfire erupted. She heard screaming and saw people running in panic as security forces fired. Some fell to the ground, bleeding.

She ran barefoot from the tent. Blocks away, outside the al-Bashir Medical Center, she was caught by RSF fighters rounding up whomever they could grab. Samah saw the fighters pull a woman away, shouting that they would rape her. She heard the woman screaming.

Other troops dragged Samah into a hallway in the medical center. One hit her with his rifle butt. “If you open your mouth, I’ll kill you, whore,” he shouted.

They groped her as they stripped her robe and shoved her to the ground. One pinned her hands to the floor while another fell on top of her, biting her breasts, as hands grabbed her everywhere.

“I was trying to scream but they shut my mouth,” Samah said.

Three of them raped her, she said. She felt each had a specific role in a specific mission.

“They did not do this for enjoyment,” she said. “They did so to break us down.”

They left her naked and bloody on the hall floor. She covered herself with what was left of her robe, then found some other protesters hiding in a nearby clinic.

“I didn’t tell them I’d been raped but I think they knew from my condition.” One woman gave her a scarf to cover her hair.

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THE MOSQUE

At the same time, dozens of protesters hid in the Khartoum University Mosque.

“We thought it would be safe there,” said Sayeda, a mother of three.

Soldiers broke in, beating people, several women said. In a mad rush, men and women inside fled, some running into a building under construction in the courtyard and piling out its windows.

The fighters shouted insults and threats of rape, said Sara Ali Abdulla, a doctor who managed to get out of the mosque compound. “We heard women screaming and crying” as they were raped, she said.

Sayeda was grabbed as she tried to flee out the mosque’s back door.

She pleaded with the soldiers to let her go home to her children. When they groped her, she slapped one, and they turned brutal, beating her. They pulled off her clothes and cut away her underwear. Four of them raped her, biting her breasts so hard they bled, she said.

After an hour, they left her half-conscious on the ground. She covered herself with her robe and sat there crying. “I was so tired I couldn’t walk,” she said.

Mayada, meanwhile, had managed to escape the dispersal.

But she returned several hours later, when security forces had clamped down with a citywide curfew. She headed to the Ophthalmology Hospital, near the square, where she kept her plastic chairs, tea pots and cups.

The whole walk there, four RSF soldiers harassed her. They entered the courtyard behind her and sprayed something in her face. She felt woozy. The four stripped and raped her, she said.

When she regained consciousness, she lay in agony.

“Everything hurt. I was like a grandmother who lost her power to even walk.”

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‘GOD WILL AVENGE ME’

In the following weeks, Dagalo, the RSF commander, expressed regret over the violence. He said whoever went beyond orders and plotted to break up the camp would be identified.

A military-backed prosecutor said eight RSF officers, including a major general, were charged with crimes against humanity. But there has been no word since of any being tried or detained.

Meanwhile, the military struck a compromise deal that August. The Sovereign Council was created to govern until the end of 2022, made up of military officers and civilians from the protest movement. Under the same deal, the independent investigation was created.

By that time, Mayada hadn’t gotten her period for months. Soon it was confirmed, she was carrying twins.

She wanted to end the pregnancy, but a pharmacist refused to sell her pills to cause an abortion. She hurt herself, lifting heavy objects and throwing herself off furniture, hoping for a miscarriage.

In March, she gave birth to Marwa. The other twin, a boy, was stillborn.

She doesn’t know the names of the men who raped her, much less which is the father. That means she can’t get Marwa a birth certificate. Since her pregnancy, she said she has been weak and faints often, so she sent Marwa to the foster home, hoping one day to take her back.

It was useless to talk to investigators, she said. “Those who ordered the break-up are very well known ... but they are untouchable.”

Most of the women never told their husbands or families what happened and wrestled with the trauma in secret.

“There has been this psychological pain that will never end, that can’t be described in words,” Samah said.

She wakes up terrified at night, because she sees her rapists' faces in her sleep. She never goes to downtown Khartoum. She avoids looking at her body.

“I feel ashamed of myself,” she said. “Sometimes my body trembles when my husband touches me.”

Sayeda spoke twice with a doctor. Fearing she would kill herself, the doctor tried to change the context of the trauma. She told her, “Look at the positive things we have achieved in the Revolution, like removing al-Bashir. All our sacrifices were not in vain.”

Sayeda found that little consolation. Only her children give her will to survive, she said. She expects nothing from the self-described “government of the Revolution.”

“It is God who will avenge me.”