The Sudanese Army Is Blocking an investigation of Mass Rape
And there’s nothing U.N. peacekeepers can do about it
On Nov. 4, a patrol of peacekeepers with the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur—UNAMID—was on its way to the village of Tabit in North Darfur.
The peacekeepers were investigating reports that Sudanese troops from the local garrison had raped 200 women and girls during a search for a missing comrade on Oct. 31.
But as the blue helmets made their way to the village, Sudanese troops blocked their way. It was a sign of things to come. There’s little chance of justice for Tabit’s rape victims.
After a round of negotiations lasting several days, on Nov. 9 the Sudanese army finally let in a small team of UNAMID troops, police and civilians to investigate.
The investigators interviewed villagers and the Sudanese troops. Everyone denied anything had happened. But there’s a good chance the villagers were afraid to tell the truth. Sudanese security forces sat in on all the interviews.
The peacekeepers planned to return for a follow-up investigation and discussed boosting patrols in the area. They may have hoped to talk to civilians without Sudanese troops present.
But when peacekeepers came back to Tabit on Nov. 17, Sudanese troops once again turned them away. The Sudanese foreign ministry claimed that UNAMID’s rape allegations had “angered” the people of Tabit. Khartoum insisted it was just looking out for the peacekeepers’ safety.
That same day, U.N. secretary general Ban Ki Moon demanded “unfettered” access to the village.
But there’s not a lot peacekeepers can actually do about the situation. Khartoum has a long history of interfering with UNAMID’s operations.
Darfur is burning
Although it’s no longer a favorite cause of the rich and famous, the war in Darfur rages on. The U.N. estimates the fighting has displaced more than 390,000 people so far this year.
The fighting between Sudanese troops and Darfuri rebels intensified this fall. Opposition leaders claim government air raids have struck farmers, livestock and crops in North Darfur.
Security forces have also been targeting refugee camps, nabbing people seemingly at random and holding them for weeks. Protests rocked Central Darfur on Nov. 16, following a spate of abductions by pro-government militia, as well as the reported rape of a female abductee.
Sexual violence is a hallmark of this bloody war. All sides of the conflict—Darfuri rebels, Sudanese troops and militia and apolitical bandits—rape on a massive scale.
Rapists often prey on the women as they leave villages and refugee camps looking for food, firewood and water.
Even before UNAMID took over from the A.U. mission in Sudan, peacekeeping troops began organizing “firewood patrols” to watch over women and girls.
But it’s no easy task. The peacekeepers are themselves targets of violence and abduction.
A troubled force
Darfur is a dangerous place to be a peacekeeper. In October, “unidentified militants” killed three Ethiopian peacekeepers guarding a well in North Darfur.
212 UNAMID peacekeepers have died in Darfur. The previous A.U. mission lost 33 people. It’s one of the deadliest peacekeeping missions in U.N. history. And the most expensive to date.
U.N. press releases often describe the perpetrators of attacks on civilians and peacekeepers as “unknown assailants.”
In April, Foreign Policy magazine published a damning expose of the U.N. peacekeeping effort in Darfur. It was based on documents leaked by Aicha Elbasr, the mission’s former chief spokesperson. She’d resigned in 2013 out of frustration that the mission was constantly withholding key details from the press and, she felt, asking her to lie.
Elbasr’s documents include evidence of the U.N. of covering up Sudanese crimes—including alleged killings of peacekeepers by Khartoum’s troops. The documents also seem to indicate that outgunned peacekeepers have actually turned civilians over to Sudanese forces.
UNAMID has U.N. authorization to use force to protect civilians. It’s an easy call when the perpetrators are bandits or rebels. It’s much harder to stand up to the Sudanese military.
The peacekeepers are lightly-armed and ride around in pickup trucks. The Sudanese military has tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and bombers and is operating on its home turf.
When peacekeepers have shot at Sudanese troops, the return fire has been devastating. Sudanese officers demand compensation every time the U.N. kills one of Khartoum’s troops.
Ethiopia sent Hind gunships to reinforce UNAMID, but took them back when Sudanese authorities objected.
Which is another problem. UNAMID can only operate in Sudan with the blessing of Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir’s government, even though The Hague has indicted Al Bashir for his alleged role in crimes against humanity … in Darfur.
U.N. and A.U. officials are thus hesitant to hold Sudanese troops accountable, for fear that Al Bashir might just tell the peacekeepers to leave. Darfuris would go from getting insufficient aid and protection to getting practically no aid or protection at all.
For peacekeepers on the ground, it’s a deadly Catch-22. The blue helmets have to play nice with the very government troops and militias who kidnap and kill them.
A recent internal probe by the U.N.—prompted by Elbasr’s leaks—found that U.N. officials had indeed self-censored reports of Sudanese attacks. But the probe cited just five instances of self-censorship … and didn’t name any of the guilty parties.
Investigators “did not find any evidence to support the allegation that UNAMID intentionally sought to cover up crimes against civilians and peacekeepers,” Secretary-General Moon wrote.
Elbasr was furious at the findings. She called it “a cover-up of a cover-up.” She said the U.N. doesn’t want to admit that the most expensive peacekeeping mission in history has mostly failed.
As long the peacekeepers lack the equipment to protect themselves—let alone civilians—there’s little chance the Sudanese army will feel compelled to let blue helmets truly investigate what happened in Tabit.