'Don’t let the other soldiers watch': Rape as weapon in Sudan war

[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing. 

It started as a trickle, but the whispers about rapes soon became a flood. Fear took hold across Sudan, in the grip of heavy fighting since April 15.

On one side are militiamen of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary with a deeply violent history that gained power in the last few decades. On the other side are the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), formerly allied with the RSF but now locked in an existential fight with them.

Trapped between them are millions of Sudanese - in particular, the women.

He kept calling me sister: ‘You’re my sister, you’re an Arab girl, you’re safe.’

But then he’d flip and call me a liar, say that I wasn’t from the area, and who was I, really?

The survivors of sexual violence and their families are trapped in more ways than one, between their trauma and the ruined infrastructure the fighting leaves behind.

The RSF has bases in urban neighbourhoods and has taken control of more areas, sending residents fleeing, according to Mohamed Salah, one of the Emergency Lawyers, a group that used to provide pro bono representation to activists and protesters and documents abuses and coordinates help for victims.

There are still some people in their homes, Salah says because they do not want to or cannot leave.

How much trauma is enough?

[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Like many residents of the capital, Khartoum, architect Husna* stayed in her Khartoum North neighbourhood until it became too dangerous. On the day she tried to leave, RSF fighters moved into the neighbourhood.

“I’d only been married for a few months when the war broke out,” she says. Most of her family members had already fled Khartoum, but Husna’s husband was in Omdurman, a sister city to the capital, so she stayed behind, waiting for him.

The RSF fighters were dressed as civilians, she explained, but she guessed they were RSF from how they spoke and behaved.

“They’d caught some South Sudanese girls who lived in another building but the head of the troops kept me separate from them. He kept calling me sister: ‘You’re my sister, you’re an Arab girl, you’re safe’.”

“But then he’d flip and call me a liar, say that I wasn’t from the area, and who was I, really? He warned the other soldiers to stay away from me, that I was one of them.”

The soldiers took Husna and the other women to another building, where Husna’s sister lived. The South Sudanese women were directed into one apartment. The RSF team’s leader ordered Husna to show him where her sister lived.

“I have one request,” he then said. “If you say yes, great; if you don't, that's not a problem either.” Then he pointed his assault rifle at Husna. “I want to sleep with you. I asked you and now you’re going to do it. Where’s the bedroom?”

Husna says she begged him to let her go. “Didn’t you say I was your sister? Would you do that to a sister,” she asked.

A green truck of RSF soldiers whooping and cheering
The sound of the RSF entering neighbourhoods would strike fear into the hearts of many [File: Rapid Support Forces via AFP]

Then a soldier came into the apartment and said the South Sudanese girls were all screaming and they didn’t know what to do. “Shut them up and get out,” the leader said. “No one comes here.”

Husna knew then she at least wouldn’t be gang-raped, that only he intended to rape her. “I started to pray. I had my prayer beads with me and I just kept praying.”

Once the RSF soldiers left, Husna ran to the home of a friend who lived nearby.

“I couldn’t stop wailing and crying. I told her what happened and she quickly took me to the bathroom, bathed me with salt water, wrapped my soiled clothes in a plastic bag, gave me Panadol, and then bathed me again.” Another friend helped get a rape kit, and the Sudanese government’s Unit for Combating Violence against Women (CVAW) helped her get a morning-after pill.

“I keep replaying the whole thing in my head. I can’t stand to be alone. I constantly need someone with me just to feel OK, to feel safe,” Husna says. “My husband has been a rock. I told him everything ... it took him a week to be able to reach me by phone. He consoles me, telling me: ‘None of this is your fault, you will come out stronger, we will come out stronger.'"

The earliest whispered rape reports were about “foreign” women. One foreign woman was raped in her apartment in an upscale neighbourhood, people told each other.

Stories circulated of RSF fighters going into a house, sparing the Sudanese women and saying there were “Habashiyat” upstairs instead. Habashiyat (Habash for the masculine) is a derogatory term used in Sudan for Ethiopians and Eritreans.

This odd distinction was soon abandoned and accounts of Sudanese women and girls being raped began, with many activists agreeing that the number of reported cases is likely the tip of a very large iceberg.

To date, more than 50 cases of rape have been recorded throughout the country, including minors, women refugees from Ethiopia and South Sudan, women above the age of 50, pregnant women and female internally displaced people (IDPs) escaping Khartoum to other cities.

Sexual violence as a weapon of war

[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

The United Nations Security Council calls rape “war’s oldest, most silenced and least-condemned crime”, not contained to a place or ethnicity, whether ordered by the upper echelons of the military or encouraged within a frenzied group of soldiers.

UN data shows alarming levels of rape during conflict and its aftermath while underlining how inexact reporting is. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1996, according to the data, which has no precise numbers.

'If you’re going to rape me, then close the door, don’t let the other soldiers watch.' She was trying to avoid being gang-raped.

That pattern of weaponising sexual violence is now playing out in Sudan too, according to activists and specialists who spoke to Al Jazeera.

“[B]y the very structure and nature of military engagement ... I don’t think a military is ethical,” Hilina Berhanu Degefa, an Ethiopian women's rights and gender equality expert, says.

According to Degefa, among the reasons men rape in war are pride in the unfettered power to inflict violence, troops egging each other on to rape, and the attackers’ perception that this humiliates and emasculates the enemy's men.

Z*, a human rights researcher on Sudan who helps rape victims and spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, recounts speaking to a Sudanese rape survivor in the Haj Yousif neighbourhood in Sharg El Nil (East Khartoum), who “had to listen to the screams of women and girls in her building being raped as the RSF made their way upstairs”.

The divorced single mother in her 30s lived with her children, Z says. “From the third floor, she could hear the two young women who lived downstairs with their family screaming: ‘Don’t touch us!’

"She locked her apartment, hoping they would think it was empty. But the fighters split into smaller groups, with each group taking a floor, and they entered her house. She tried to lock her bedroom door, but they broke it down and she began begging them, pleading with them to not rape her, to spare her."

When it became obvious she wouldn’t be spared, Z said, the woman begged one RSF fighter: "‘If you’re going to rape me, then close the door, don’t let the other soldiers watch.’ She was trying to avoid being gang-raped.

"These were the only details she was willing to share ... It happened in the first week of the conflict but when exactly even she couldn’t say.”

Salah of the Emergency Lawyers says most rapes and sexual violence have been perpetrated by the RSF, “using their weapons to intimidate, and always as a group”. He cites a video his group received of soldiers firing in the air, some standing guard while others raped women.

Yet there have also been fewer reports of rapes by the SAF. “Rape is being used as a weapon by both sides. The reports we’re getting now are just the tip of the iceberg,” Z says. “Army soldiers have also raped, it’s not just the RSF. Especially army personnel who’ve been brought in recently ... from Damazin [Blue Nile state] to Omdurman … areas [that] have seen a spike in rape reports.”

The Kandaka’s body as battlefield

[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Sudanese women are referred to as Kandakas, after the Kandakes (or Candaces) of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. The second of these eight great queens, the Kandake Amanirenas, led a military campaign around 26BC to thwart a Roman occupation of Kush.

When Sudanese women joined the front lines of protests against the rule of strongman President Omar al-Bashir in 2018, their fierceness led to them being revered as Kandakas fighting for their people.

More than half of Sudanese households are headed by a Kandaka, a strong female figure, as spouses go overseas to work or are killed or disappear in conflict. At the same time, Sudanese women are expected to conform to traditional roles of chastity and conservatism, which the family’s men are to safeguard.

Z says women’s bodies have “become part of the battlefield”, adding that social stigma “prevents many victims from reaching out for help… causing psychological trauma for victims and their families”.

“You're dealing with a conservative Muslim community, where women's bodies are a symbol of honour, of purity ... the symbolism is very complicated,” she explained.

Degefa says a woman’s sexual worth is associated with “how ‘pure’, how ‘clean’ you are ... Military men use sexual violence as a weapon to reinforce ingrained gender hierarchies, which places women - of all ethnic, religious identities - at the lowest rung of society.”

Mohammed Abubaker, a doctor and founder of the Fill-A-Heart charity, feels that sexual violence has been built into the RSF's strategy since the paramilitary force gained notoriety in Darfur two decades ago.

“This is a strategy the RSF has used since it was founded ... to break the will of the people [and force their acceptance],” he says, adding that the RSF failed to achieve this in its clashes with the SAF.

Hiba Sharief, a leader on the Global Task Force team at the Sudan Crisis Program says rape “is simply what they [RSF fighters] are ‘taught’ to do”.

She described RSF fighters as “paid mercenaries with instructions to wreak havoc and destroy the foundation of the country”, adding that many are believed to be from the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali and Niger.

The social and familial stigma of rape is a common thread in conversations with medical practitioners but it may be shifting, Z says. Some survivors, like two women who were raped in Umbada, western Khartoum, refuse to go to hospitals for fear of the stigma but at least are reaching out for help and medication.

Z adds that neighbourhood social media chats have seen some men speaking out about sexual assaults on their female relatives, messaging to ask what can they do to help their wives and sisters in light of the inaccessibility of care.

The absence of medical facilities

[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

By the time the war in Sudan’s Darfur ended in 2020, a number of international and local aid organisations had set up in the country to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by 17 years of conflict.

When fighting broke out this year, international organisations evacuated their staff as existing medical facilities were routinely destroyed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)-Sudan unit, nearly 80 percent of Sudan’s hospitals were out of service by July.

The resulting vacuum in support services for survivors of sexual assault is being filled in brave and creative ways by grassroots civilian networks. Amira*, who is in her early 20s and works in a bank in Nyala, Darfur, told Al Jazeera reports of rape are shared via mobile phones, along with information on pharmacies and clinics that can help.

“We rely on WhatsApp groups [for] the info. With very poor mobile and internet connectivity, it’s hard to know exactly what is happening, but kidnappings and rape are rampant. This isn’t new to us here in Darfur, we’ve been through this before.”

Ma’ab Salah Labib, a psychologist who volunteers with local and international organisations providing psychological help online over the phone or video calls, says her group received rape cases from the capital’s sister cities, Khartoum North and Omdurman, starting four days into the war.

“Many rapes occurred in front of the girls’ families ... as well as cases of the rape of children/minors. There are so many cases, so many ..."

By early May, three weeks into the conflict, Labib had already received 13 cases. The violence makes it hard for medical volunteers to reach victims, Labib says, with face-to-face therapy impossible in areas where the RSF is present.

“There were specialists at some hospitals we would transfer rape cases to, but now hospitals aren’t working - all we can do is advise them what to do, where to go, which meds to get.”

The neighbourhood legan (Arabic for emergency and resistance committees) have stepped in. These grassroots civilian groups who rose to prominence during the 2019 revolution as democratic advocates are now documenting rights violations and providing medical, food, and logistical aid to victims of violence and others in a country where many basic services have broken down.

A picture taken on May 1, 2023 shows an abandoned hospital in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, as deadly fighting continues in Sudan between rival generals' forces. - Sudan's already troubled health sector faces the risk of
Many of the country's hospitals have been abandoned in the fighting [File: AFP]

“It’s the legan that are a major force, they’re risking their lives to get help to those who need it, especially rape victims,” Z says. To many inside and outside Sudan, the local groups are the main source of reliable information, especially on the rising number of rapes.

Sharief at the Sudan Crisis Program says their task force connects sexual assault survivors with organisations like the Sudanese American Physicians Organization, which can provide virtual consultations.

But most survivors are not receiving treatment within a crucial 72-hour window, Sulaima Ishaq el-Khalifa of CVAW said over the phone. Victims of sexual violence need treatment to “prevent pregnancy, any transmission of STIs, and then if we could, and if we have accessibility, then we have antiretroviral medication that prevents HIV and Hepatitis”, she explains.

Sudan sexual violence

Z adds that if survivors refuse to be seen by a hospital doctor before meds and rape kits are dispensed, as most do, they are referred to private pharmacies and medics to ensure they get follow-up care. This piecemeal approach means some survivors who “require surgical intervention” as well as psychological trauma support may not get them, with the associated physical and psychological risks that can lead to “possible suicide”, according to Z.

Rape kits are not easily found either; even though there are crucial medicines in the country, according to Sharief, they are inaccessible. Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) had enough rape kits and medication for at least 200 cases, but their warehouse in Khartoum was looted.

“We’re focusing on getting some hospitals back on track to at least alleviate some of the pressure. Especially in areas like Omdurman that have no access at all to any health facilities,” Abubaker of the Fill-A-Heart charity said.

But healthcare is not spared the ravages of war as doctors find themselves on the receiving end of threats and smear campaigns from either side, making it harder for them to treat people in a neutral manner and forcing many into hiding.

Documentation, stigma and trauma

[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
[Sarah Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

“Initially we were all in a state of shock, so it took us a while to get going and start trying to assess and determine the violations,” says Salah of the Emergency Lawyers.

Social stigma and the paralysis brought on by trauma complicate documentation and reporting, as do the lack of access to proper medical and psychological care. Some medical practitioners have taken to social media to offer guidelines or share contacts for those who can help.

Honey*, a fifth-year medical student, spoke of huddling at home with her mother, sister and grandmother, all sleeping in one room for comfort. After five days of fighting, one night they heard the screams. With no electricity since the start of the war, the sound carried more clearly.

“Then we’d hear gunfire ... to shut them up. They would go quiet for seconds, and then the screams would start all over again. Then gunfire. The screams didn’t stop, and there was nothing we could do. We were praying it was an armed robbery, but we knew,” she says. “My mother read the Quran. My sister couldn’t stop crying; she had trouble breathing. [It] was the longest and scariest night of my life.”

In the morning, Honey went to the corner shop and asked the owner about the previous night. She hoped he would say it was just looting. “But he said, ‘The daughters of so-and-so were raped.’ I keep thinking: Should I have gone to help them? Could I have helped?”

Degefa believes rape as a weapon of war is not an issue prioritised by the international community and will “not be part of the national healing agenda”.

Just as with the war in Ethiopia, this will play into stereotypes of Black women, specifically African women, as “victims of no agency”, she fears. In addition, she says, there is an international direction that this form of violence should be dealt with at a national level - rather than by international watchdogs - a concept she compares, saying marital rape is a private affair between husband and wife.

“Most of the things happening now, there is no police, no evidence, you don’t have names, you don’t have any information,” says el-Khalifa of CVAW.

She cites examples of sexual violence during the war in Darfur or reports in 2019 of RSF soldiers raping dozens of women after they tore apart a peaceful sit-in camp in Khartoum, both of which “never saw the majority of perpetrators brought to justice”.

Accountability “will never happen”, she says.

As for Husna, she says: “I got my period four days after the rape and I have never been happier to get it than that day. It was the biggest relief I’ve ever felt.”

She’s still waiting for her husband to join her and then they’ll make their way to another city in Sudan and try to build their life again.

“I’m fine, I’m OK, having my husband's support and him standing by me has helped a lot. It’s lessened the whole ordeal. Once he’s able to leave Khartoum I’ll join him.”

* Names changed to protect the individuals

Source: Al Jazeera