Darfur may not be in the public eye as it was when every liberal arts student donned a “Save Darfur” shirt, when world powers issued public condemnations, and "Rock for Darfur" performers raised tens of thousands in donations annually (there were 22 concerts in 2006 alone). But the western part of Sudan, about the size of France, is still a household name—and though recognition hadn’t followed as the conflict sputtered along, the situation in Darfur has now escalated to a level unseen since the genocide that began in 2003 killed at least 300,000.
On Wednesday a shocking report of this boiling violence snapped attention back to the long-embattled section of Sudan: According to an investigation released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Sudanese military raped at least 221 women and girls in Darfur over a 36-hour period in late October.
This reign of terror inflicted by the Sudanese army is just the latest outrage in nearly 12 years of conflict that has turned the region into a bastion of human rights abuses cloaked in secrecy.
“Darfur over the past year has seen the highest levels of violence and displacement since the start of the genocide a decade ago,” said Daniel Sullivan, director of policy for United to End Genocide, a group that grew out of the first Darfur war. And while sexual violence has been a tragically common feature of this war, he says mass rapes of this scale have either not happened recently or not been reported. “I haven’t seen reports on this level since the height of the genocide,” Sullivan said.
For its report, HRW interviewed two army defectors, who claimed that officers ordered the rapes. In the report, one woman who was raped along with her three daughters described the soldiers’ arrival. “We are going to show you true hell,” she said they told her.
In the immediate aftermath, the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) was barred from accessing the town of Tabit. Two weeks later, the peacekeepers were allowed in, but, according to a senior U.N. official speaking to The Daily Beast, there was a heavy Sudanese armed forces presence, and they were unable to conduct an investigation. Villagers also told HRW’s sources they were intimidated into not speaking about the attack, and threatened with prison or death by government officials if they did.
"As you know, despite numerous requests, the authorities have not allowed us to access the area and to conduct an independent investigation. As a result, the United Nations has not been able to verify these rape allegations,” the senior official said. “The seriousness of allegations contained in the HRW report makes further investigation all the more urgent. We reiterate that only a full investigation by UNAMID will help shed light over these allegations and we urge the Government of Sudan to grant UNAMID unfettered access."
The difficulty of getting any credible data from the country is unnerving. Across Sudan, and acutely in Darfur, access is almost completely cut off. There’s a drought of journalists, humanitarians, and international observers after many were evicted from the country or denied visas. (Though no one can stop George Clooney’s satellite monitoring program from watching.)
Even Human Rights Watch, known for smuggling investigators into Syria and other hot spots, couldn’t make it into Darfur to compile its report. Instead, it collected testimonies and evidence via telephone and intermediaries. Doctors Without Borders (or MSF, its French acronym), legendary as one of the most fearless response groups, recently suspended all operations in the country after its hospital was bombed by government forces, twice. “If MSF is pulling out you know it's bad,” said Sullivan.
Half a million people were displaced by fighting last year, and already in 2015 an unconfirmed 100,000 have fled their homes. According to Sullivan, the situation in Darfur is already at the level it was at the start of the genocide in 2003.
The long-running civil war was supposed to reach its conclusion in 2011, when Sudan was divided into two. But South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has experienced a disastrous separation since the end of 2013. The country has since broken seven ceasefires and recently its armed forces carried out a “month of rape” campaign, according to a statement last week from the U.N. Secretary-General for Human Rights. More than 100,000 civilians in South Sudan are trapped on United Nations bases, unable to leave under threat of death.
The violence bubbling down south has distracted the attention from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s brutal dictatorship in Sudan. His government also has at its disposal a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, which it often dispatches to attack villages. The RSF’s official job is to battle rebel groups, but it has been known to kill dozens of civilians at a time, even when insurgents surrender. It’s said to contain much of what was called during the genocide the Janjaweed: a bloodthirsty militia responsible for the brunt of the violence.
Adding to this state-sanctioned bloodshed are claims that the United Nations peacekeeping mission may have been downplaying the government’s involvement in atrocities in its reports. In April, the former mission spokeswoman leaked internal reports showing that the U.N. mission officials were passive observers of violence and, damningly, had been reluctant to point any fingers at the Sudanese government for crimes including bombing campaigns against civilians and attacks on peacekeepers. More than 60 U.N. peacekeepers have been killed in Sudan since 2008.
In December, the United Nations met with the Sudanese government to discuss Bashir’s demand that the world body withdraw the peacekeeping force entirely. The peacekeeping chief said the U.N. will prepare a report that includes an exit strategy, though there’s no hint of a timeline yet. Leaving the chaotic country without peacekeepers at all would be “disastrous,” said Sullivan. “They’re the last bit of defense for the civilians who are there.”
The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into Darfur’s crimes in 2005, and Bashir and three other leaders are wanted by the court to stand trial. With little possibility of his arrest warrant being fulfilled, Bashir shows every intention of running for office again this April. Recent bombardments and attacks such as what Darfur’s women and girls experienced in October may be a sign of pre-election threats and grandstanding, but there’s no doubt the despot will retain his office.
Without a resurgence of dormant anger over this brutalized region, no one bats an eye when the Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti attends the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., as he did last week. Even more incredible, Karti, a representative of a nation considered by the U.S. to be a sponsor of terrorism, spoke at the U.N. General Assembly’s opening in September, despite being accused of trying to expel senior U.N. officials from his country.
The wound of genocide never healed in Sudan, and it was easy to reopen. “Even though Darfur has this name recognition, it's been out of the headlines for a long time,” Sullivan said. “And unfortunately, for a while now, the world's been failing Darfur.”