Sudanese army soldiers raped more than 200 women and girls in a methodical attack in Darfur last October, Human Right Watch has charged in a report released Wednesday.
Jonathan Loeb, author of the organization’s 48-page report, said its investigation found that at least 221 women and girls were raped during a 36-hour attack in the north Darfur town of Tabit.
The attack “included looting of property, beating of men and women, and the mass rape of dozens, if not hundreds, of women and girls,” Loeb said.
Human Rights Watch, headquartered in New York, said on its website that the mass rapes could be considered crimes against humanity if it were determined the attacks on civilians were widespread and systematic.
Sudan has denied the attack.
First reported in November
Allegations of the attack first emerged in early November with a report by Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based station.
The African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur, or UNAMID, initially was restricted from entering the town, but was allowed brief access to Tabit November 9. The mission said no one interviewed had confirmed any incident of rape in Tabit.
However, the U.N. envoy on sexual violence, Zainab Hawa Bengura, later said the heavy military presence during the U.N.’s visit raised concerns it had created a "wall of silence.”
Analysts say violence in war-torn Darfur is escalating, and the international community needs to renew efforts to end the conflict.
Loeb urged the U.N. to protect civilians, who are still living in fear. The U.N. mission, based about 50 kilometers outside of the town, should establish a permanent operating base inside Tabit, he said.
While some civilians have fled to neighboring villages and camps for the displaced, “most of them are still there in their homes and they don't have anywhere to go and they are still completely vulnerable,” Loeb said. “There is a constant military presence in this town and the civilians have no defense against that.”
Questions about control
Jeremy Taylor, a Darfur expert at the University of London, said the alleged attack could be a result of weak command and control. Some armed groups might operate on their own initiatives, he said.
But historically, he said, there has been evidence of similar attacks directed by the Sudanese government.
"Generally speaking, the history of Darfur – and certainly the evidence secured by the International Criminal Court, for example – is clear that these kinds of atrocities are recognized and most likely ordered by high-level political and intelligence figures in Khartoum," Taylor said.
Leader charged with war crimes
The International Criminal Court has charged President Omar al-Bashir with war crimes and genocide for allegedly masterminding large-scale attacks on Darfur civilians.
In January, the U.N. Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that over 3,000 villages were burned in Darfur last year, predominantly in government-led attacks.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported almost 500,000 Darfur residents were displaced by attacks in 2014 and another 70,000 in the first three weeks of 2015.
“In terms of the bigger picture, it's part of a long-term problem and a culture of violations that have been going on for years now – for over a decade,” Taylor said.