Amid reports that the Islamist regime in Khartoum may finally be taking some action to curb a "scorched-earth" counterinsurgency campaign that has forced more than a million people from their homes in the western province of Darfur, Amnesty International has released a new report accusing government-backed Arab militias of using rape "as a weapon of war" against their female victims.
The report, which is based on the testimony of hundreds of victims and witnesses, said that girls as young as eight-years-old had been raped and used as sex slaves in what the United Nations has repeatedly called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and what some other observers, such as the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) and Africa Action, have called "genocide."
"Women and girls are being attacked, not only to dehumanize the women themselves but also to humiliate, punish, control, inflict fear and displace women and to persecute the community to which they belong," said the report, "Rape as a Weapon of War." "Rape has a devastating and ongoing impact on the health of women and girls and survivors now face a lifetime of stigma and marginalization from their own families and communities."
The report comes as peace talks mediated by the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa between Khartoum and two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), collapsed after the latter set a series of preconditions for negotiations to go forward. Conditions included the government’s disarmament of the Arab militias known as Janjaweed and the removal of militia members who have been absorbed into the police and army.
They also demanded an inquiry into allegations of genocide, the release of prisoners of war, and a "neutral" venue for future talks that did not include Ethiopia. The government rejected the demands as "unacceptable."
At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released government documents that it said it had obtained from civilian authorities in Darfur that show senior officials in Khartoum have directed recruitment, arming and other support to the Janjaweed.
"It’s absurd to distinguish between the Sudanese government forces and the militias they are one," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. "These documents show that militia activity has not just been condoned, it’s been specifically supported by Sudan government officials."
The government, which has been under increasing pressure from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Secretary of State Colin Powell , both of whom visited Darfur late last month, insisted Monday that it was taking action to bring the militias under control, both by sending into the region hundreds of soldiers and police and convening trials against selected militia members.
It said that 10 members of the Janjaweed had been sentenced to six years in prison and amputations of their left hands and right feet after their convictions for murder and robbery and said that more trials were scheduled to take place soon. The trials are based on the government’s interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia.
How serious the government is about curbing the militias, either through the deployment of forces or through making examples of some Janjaweed members, remains unclear. The Washington Post reported on Sunday, for example, that a top Janjaweed leader, Musa Hilal, was living openly in Khartoum, apparently unmolested by the government.
Indeed, one of the documents obtained by Human Rights Watch alluded directly to Hilal, calling on "all security units" in North Darfur not to intervene against militia controlled by him. The document "highlights the importance of non-interference so as not to question their authority" and authorizes security units in a North Darfur province to "overlook minor offenses by the fighters against civilians who are suspected members of the rebellion…."
The violence in Darfur has its roots in the competition for land and resources between Arab tribes that are mainly herders and the African population that consists mostly of peasants living in settled villages and towns. In 2002, the Arab Janjaweed stepped up raids on the African population. Angry that the government was not protecting them against such attacks, the two rebel groups retaliated against a government garrison, killing more than 70 soldiers.
At that point, Khartoum launched its counterinsurgency campaign, much of which was carried out on the ground by the newly supplied Janjaweed, who were also backed by government forces and warplanes. More than one million people were forced to flee their homes; about 200,000 of them crossed the border into neighboring Chad, while the rest were internally displaced. Most of the latter have now been herded into overcrowded and unsanitary camps that lack adequate medical care, food supplies, and even physical security.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) warned already in May that, even if humanitarian agencies are granted complete and unimpeded access to the camps and those who remain displaced, at least 300,000 people are almost certain to die by the end of the year. More than 30,000 people are believed to have been killed in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, and hundreds more are reported dying every week from malnutrition or disease.
While neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch (HRW) has yet labeled the situation in Darfur as a "genocide" a determination that would require signers of the Genocide Treaty, including the U.S., to intervene with force, if necessary both have agreed that war crimes and crimes against humanity are taking place there.
While the government has long insisted that it has no control over the Janjaweed, the Arab-language documents obtained by HRW would appear to contradict that assertion. Dating from February and March 2004, the documents include orders by senior officials for recruitment and military support, including "provisions and ammunition," to be delivered to known Janjaweed militia leaders, camps and "loyalist tribes."
One document calls for a plan for "resettlement operations of nomads in places from which the outlaws [rebels] withdrew." This, along with recent government statements that displaced persons will be settled in 18 "settlements" rather than in their original villages, raises concerns that the ethnic cleansing that has occurred will be consolidated and that people will be unable to return to their villages and lands, HRW said.
Meanwhile, the latest Amnesty report which described the nature and scale of the violence committed against African groups in Darfur as "horrific" and apparently designed as "a form of collective punishment of a population whose members have taken up arms against the central government."
"It may be interpreted as a warning to other groups and regions of what could happen to the local population if certain groups decided to rebel against Khartoum," according to Amnesty.
In many cases, women have been raped in public or in front of their family apparently to humiliate them and their community, according to the report. In other cases, girls and women were taken into captivity, gang-raped and used as sex slaves by the militias.
Many women who had undergone female genital mutilation were at greater risk of injury and infection as a result of rape, according to the report, which appealed for the international community to immediately send medical professionals to care for the survivors. "The international community needs to take the issue of rape far more seriously and strenuously," it said.
Girls and women living in camps in both Chad and Darfur also need more protection from rape and assault, according to Amnesty.
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