Sudanese women allege rape by armed fighters during ethnic attacks

STORY: A 19-year-old abducted and raped by four men over three days.

A 28-year-old women's rights activist seized from her doorstep and raped while being held for hours in an abandoned house.

A 24-year-old raped by armed men in her home just a few feet from her mother.

"They said 'we will kill her if you don't give yourself to us.' I sacrificed myself and said ‘whatever you want to do, do to me, instead of killing my mother.’”

These are among 11 young women interviewed by Reuters who say they were sexually assaulted amid a war in Sudan, by members of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and allied Arab militiamen.

They are all from the non-Arab Masalit ethnic group which has been targeted in Sudan's West Darfur by the Arab-dominated RSF and its allies.

At a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad, this 27-year-old medical assistant said she had been sheltering at a displacement camp in the West Darfur city El Geneina when men in RSF uniforms arrived and shot several Masalit men.

They recognized her as the wife of a Masalit community activist and asked his whereabouts.

She told them she didn't know.

“One beat me while I was lying on the floor. They assaulted me and I kept screaming. While I was screaming, they stuffed a scarf in my mouth so I couldn’t scream. After that, one held my arms. They were about five of them. Some were beating me, three were assaulting me. After the three, I lost consciousness. I didn't know where I was and I couldn't see or hear."

El Geneina was at the center of a surge in ethnically-targeted violence from late April - when Sudan's conflict began - to mid June.

Survivors described civilians being slaughtered - picked off by snipers, mowed down by automatic weapons and burned alive in their homes.

In early November, the RSF and its allies waged another wave of attacks in the city.

The women in this report were interviewed in the Chadian border town Adre in July and August.

Reuters was unable to independently corroborate all the details of their accounts.

But in many instances, family members and friends confirmed elements of their stories.

All 11 said the men who attacked them wore either RSF military uniforms, or the robes and turbans commonly worn by Arab militiamen.

“He threatened me with a weapon and told me, ‘are you going to take off your clothes or not?’"

This 25-year-old says she told her assailants that she would rather die.

Instead they said they would kill her brothers.

"At that point, I surrendered."

Nearly all of the women interviewed said they were raped by multiple men, and all said it was at gunpoint.

Six said their attackers mentioned their Masalit identity or used ethnic slurs for the Masalit and other darker-skinned non-Arabs.

Emir Massar Aseel, a tribal leader in El Geneina has dismissed the rape allegations as "empty lies".

He leads one of the largest Arab tribes in West Darfur - a group from which many RSF leaders hail.

Arab tribal traditions prohibit sexual assault and bar marrying Masalit.

In a phone interview, Aseel said if he couldn't bring himself to marry a Masalit woman "why would I take her by force?". He also blamed the Masalit for starting the conflict.

The RSF didn’t respond to detailed questions for this report.

It has said of the broader conflict in Sudan that it opposes any abuses against civilians. Speaking about the Darfur region, the paramilitary group's deputy head, Abdelrahim Dagalo, said this in November.

“"The RSF will not provide support to perpetrators but will respond swiftly and resolutely. We assure our firm readiness to collaborate with the investigations committee to present any individuals involved in violations to fair and just sentences".

The sexual assault reports come amid war in Sudan between the army and the RSF.

More than 10,000 people have been killed and six million displaced.

The United Nations has said that across Sudan it has received credible reports of conflict-linked sexual violence involving more than 100 victims.

In July the International Criminal Court said it is investigating the hostilities in Darfur including killings, rape and crimes against children.

But at the camp on Chad's border, survivors are having to live with the physical and emotional scars of their ordeal.

This woman says she was taken to a room and raped by two men.

She tries to be patient, she says, and not show her emotions so people won't look at her as a victim and judge her behind her back.

But under the surface, she says, she is "very depressed".

"Sometimes", she adds, "I feel like my life has ended".