Sudanese activists are struggling to document reports of mass rapes during a June 3 paramilitary crackdown on a Khartoum protest camp. But security fears coupled with Internet cuts are making it an uphill task.
On the morning of June 3, Nahid Jabrallah was at a sprawling sit-in outside Sudan’s army headquarters in Khartoum when paramilitary troops descended on the protesters, marking the start of what has since been dubbed the “Ramadan massacre”.
More than two weeks after the crackdown – which occurred in the final hours of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – Jabrallah is desperately trying to soldier on, battling anguish, guilt, blocked Internet and phone services while coping with a fractured foot.
The veteran women’s rights activist was with a group of protesters when members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group born out of the Darfur conflict, stormed the sit-in, triggering a panicked rush of fleeing protesters.
“They separated us into groups of men and women and they threatened to rape us. They said, ‘We will f**k you’ and things like that in a very, very bad way in the local language,” she recalled in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Khartoum.
“They were whipping and kicking us. I have bruises on my body, I have a crack in my foot. But they released our group because the massacre did not happen in our area. They kicked us out one-by-one and asked us to run. I managed to run for a long distance and went to a hospital where I was treated for hypertension and got painkillers. I have a crack in my foot, I have to take care, but I’m fine…may be I’m traumatised, but I’m continuing,” she insisted.
The physical pain and emotional trauma will not stop the seasoned human rights defender from doing her job because Jabrallah – like many of her fellow activists – have a new, harrowing mission: to demand an independent international investigation into numerous reports of mass rapes during and after the June 3 crackdown.
“There are many testimonies and eye witnesses of sexual violence, including gang rapes,” said Jabrallah. “But it’s very difficult to reach people, victims feel insecure and traumatised. We need help from the international community.”
The founder of the Sima Centre for Women and Children’s Studies has faced arrests and imprisonment since her student days and is not one to back down under pressure. But it’s been very hard to continue with her work since the Ramadan massacre.
Armed soldiers are out in numbers on the streets of Khartoum, according to several activists who spoke to FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity. Communication is difficult with the Internet cut or blocked for extended periods. A number of well-known opposition figures say their international phone calls are abruptly cut, which further fuel a climate of fear.
Reports of mass rapes started circulating shortly after the RSF crackdown on the Khartoum sit-in, which killed more than 100 people, according to opposition leaders. A number of bodies were dumped in the Nile, according to witnesses. Sudan’s health ministry has put the June 3 death toll nationwide at 61.
Activists and journalists on the ground have been receiving witness accounts of mass rapes of women and men by RSF troops. An image of militias displaying a pole strung with underwear of presumed rape victims circulated on social media sites although its authenticity could not be verified. Another unverified image showed a room full of women’s clothing, presumably of rape victims.
“We have heard cases of sexual harassment in detention to ‘break the girls’ since this revolution began [in December 2018] although the reports have multiplied since June 3. They [RSF troops] were asking girls to take out their underwear as a humiliation, it shows the extent of the toxic criminality here,” said an activist who wished to be identified only as “Huma”.
Huma is part of a group of Sudanese women’s rights activists who are “trying to document cases of rape and sexual harassment” on and after June 3. But given the restrictions on communications and security fears, it’s been an uphill task. “Unfortunately many of the cases we’ve heard of are not able to reach us or are not able to talk. We have managed some interviews, we are trying to at least confirm the numbers and start reaching out to survivors so we can provide medical and psycho-social support,” she revealed in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Khartoum.
Estimates of the number of rapes by Sudanese security forces are hard to establish. Doctors from the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which is part of the umbrella Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), told reporters that 70 rape cases were recorded by Khartoum hospitals in the immediate aftermath of the June 3 crackdown.
The actual figure is likely to be higher. RSF troops arrested doctors in at least one Khartoum hospital and ordered the staff to evacuate wounded protesters shortly after the clear-up operation. Many cases are also likely to go unreported due to the social stigma, especially among male victims of sexual violence who do not have access to NGOs and specialised services catering to women.
‘A raped woman is never a hero’
Sexual violence cases are difficult to document and prosecute in the best of times and they can be particularly hard to collate during conflicts or political crises.
“It’s important to differentiate sexual violence from other crimes – not because they are more important, but because sexual violence needs special expertise,” said Celine Bardet, an international criminal lawyer and founder of the NGO, We Are Not Weapons of War. “Survivors often don’t come out and talk about it, so we need to be more proactive to give them a path to expression, particularly in countries where women are not used to talking due to societal organisation.”
Sudan was a repressive place for women during former president Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year-old Islamist reign. Women bore the brunt of the regime’s violations, ranging from vaguely defined public morality laws that limited their movement without male guardians to corporal punishment such as lashings for “honour” violations.
The abuse was particularly severe in the troubled hinterlands such Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where human rights groups accused Bashir’s forces of using sexual violence, including rape, as a weapon of war to intimidate communities.
“The symbolism behind the rape of women is very substantial, it’s aimed at breaking society. You rape 80 women, you rape the whole village,” said Dalia El Roubi, an activist and member of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party who worked with Darfuris displaced by the conflict. “It also breaks the men. A mass rape is basically telling them you can’t protect your own. In a way, it has more of an impact than death: a killing can make icons or heroes. A raped woman is never a hero.”
Janjaweed methods in Khartoum
While Bashir was ousted on April 11, the country’s ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) – backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt – has so far refused to hand over power to a civilian-led transitional body.
Power has instead shifted from Bashir to one of the former president’s most reviled henchman, who is the deputy head of the TMC.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – widely known by his nickname, “Hemedti” – was a commander of the Janjaweed militias accused of committing war crimes in Darfur before he was appointed head of the RSF when the force was formed in 2013 in a bid to unify militia groups.
The RSF’s break-up of the Khartoum protest camp bear the hallmarks of the Janjaweed’s scorch-and-burn pacification measures once reserved for the country’s hinterlands. The brutality of the crackdown in the heart of the capital has led many Sudanese elites to note that “Darfur has come to the streets of Khartoum”.
“On June 3, they had a glimpse of what’s been happening in Darfur,” said Roubi. “Can you imagine what happened to that society? It literally broke so many communities there. I’m sure the RSF thought this is the way to go, this is how we respond to trouble.”
‘Kandakas’ turn victims
When the latest round of anti-regime demonstrations broke out in December 2018, the protest movement was marked by an exceptional mobilisation of women, who were at the forefront of Sudan’s campaign for democratic rights.
Video clips of an architect student leading a protest song at the Khartoum sit-in dressed in a traditional taub – or Sudanese robe -- and sneakers went viral. “Kandaka power” -- a slogan paying homage to Nubian queens who ruled the region centuries ago – became a catchphrase adopted by Sudanese of different ages, particularly the youth.
“Young women have shown so much resilience and courage, mobilising and campaigning,” said Roubi in an April interview with FRANCE 24. “Our voices now are louder and we’re being heard.”
Barely two months later, Roubi worries that the mass rape reports will affect women’s participation in the anti-junta protests.
Since the June 3 massacre, opposition supporters have been taking to the streets at night in cities such as Khartoum and Omdurman since protesters fear violent crackdowns during daylight hours.
ICC charges fail to prevent a repeat
Meanwhile the chief prosecutor on the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Wednesday urged the TMC to hand over or prosecute Bashir and four other Sudanese officials who were indicted in 2009 for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
"Continued impunity is not an option," said ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. "The victims of the Darfur situation deserve to finally have their day in court."
But a decade after the ICC indictment, Bashir has still not had his day at The Hague, and that, activists say, has already sent a message of impunity to his henchmen who continue to hold the reins of power.
“It was a great step to have Bashir indicted, but look what happened. The ICC didn’t create anything that could prevent it from happening again,” said Bardet. “I hope Sudan will move forward because after so many decades, so many crimes committed, there has to be a process, in whatever way, may be a transitional justice, or else it will just feed the next round of violence.”
Rape as a weapon of war
It’s too early to say if the alleged mass rapes during and after the June 3 massacre could constitute a use of rape as a weapon of war.
“Sexual violence becomes a tool of war if it is systematic, targeted and has a specific objective,” explained Bardet. “The conflict need not be just a military war, it also applies to political crises. In Sudan, this could be the case. We’re getting information of a fair amount of sexual violence which is an element that can be used, along with others, to constitute an international crime.”
Last week, the UN's top official on sexual violence, Pramila Patten, said a UN human rights monitoring team should be quickly sent to Sudan to "examine the situation on the ground, including alleged cases of sexual violence."
But there has been no public response from the TMC. A FRANCE 24 follow-up email to Patten’s office went unanswered.
Collecting testimonies of sexual violence that can be admissible in national or international courts is an extremely sensitive job that requires special training, according to experts.
Volunteers may document cases in good faith, but if they are not properly trained, they may omit tiny, but important details needed in a court of law. “When victims have to repeat their testimonies, it re-traumatises them and can create polluted testimonies not because they are lying, but sometimes they say what they think is expected of them or will get them help,” noted Bardet.
Testimonies should not only be collected by professionals, they need to be given as soon as possible before traumatic events are forgotten as a coping mechanism.
For the activists in Sudan struggling against the odds to document cases of the latest horrific crimes, attracting and maintaining international attention is of vital importance.
“I’ve been at the sit-in since it was set up on April 6 until the massacre. During almost two months I felt I was their mother and that this was my family. I feel this loss personally, like I couldn’t help them,” said Jabrallah, breaking down into sobs over a fading phone connection from Khartoum.
“They’re trying to block us. Please focus on us, please don’t forget us.”