History repeats itself in Sudan

By — November 12, 2012

Nadia Teia Kafi is 14. Earlier this year, her village, Ates, in the southern Sudanese province of South Kordofan, was attacked by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). When the village’s inhabitants ran for shelter in the mountain caves, the SAF reportedly bombed them with gas to drive them out into the open. They abducted dozens of women and children, including Teia Kafi. Village residents who managed to escape across the border to South Sudan recounted to Ru’ya Association, a local NGO from South Kordofan, that Teia Kafi was one of three teenage girls who were taken to a military camp and raped brutally and repeatedly by five or six soldiers at a time.

Jalila Khamis Koko, 43, is an elementary school teacher from South Kordofan. When the war broke out, she turned her home in Khartoum into an unofficial refuge for internally displaced persons. According to activists in Khartoum, about two-dozen people had sought shelter in the house Khamis Koko shares with her husband and family. In June 2011, when the conflict in South Kordofan had initially re-erupted—following the calm from Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement—Khamis Koko posted a video on YouTube criticizing the brutal methods used by Sudanese President Omar-Al Bashir against the Nuba people of South Kordofan. In March 2012, the notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested her. Sentenced to death on charges of treason, she remains on death row. The sentence could be carried out at any time.

Jalila Khamis Koko and Nadia Teia Kafi are just two of the thousands of victims of Sudan’s war against the people of South Kordofan, which has seen starvation used as a method of warfare, the bombing of civilian targets, and the employment of rape as a weapon. Especially startling is how sexualized violence in South Kordofan mirrors the destruction we’ve already seen in Darfur.

Women in South Kordofan face brutal sexualized violence. (Rita Willaert)

The Nuba people of South Kordofan identify more closely, ethnically and culturally, with South Sudan than with Sudan. The area is home to many who supported the movement for the south to secede in July 2011. Promises to hold a referendum on the proposed secession of South Kordofan have, six years later, still not been met, and the area’s people have decided to fight to be allowed to secede and join South Sudan. Sudan, however, is refusing to let the mineral-rich province slip from its grasp.

Sudan has barred all humanitarian and journalistic access to the province. Sketchy reports of conditions in the region—and testimonies like those from the women above—are available because of a few brave humanitarian workers and journalists who have entered illegally. The majority of information we have comes from refugees who have fled across the border to South Sudan. Ru’ya Association surveyed residents of the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan—to which people are fleeing from the fighting in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan—and reported the wide-scale use of sexualized violence by the SAF.

The tactics employed in South Kordofan are brutal. A report by the Enough Project referred to what is happening as “starvation warfare.” Nearly 170,000 refugees have fled into neighboring South Sudan and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that by June 2012 665,000 people were internally displaced. Outside the embattled province, conditions for refugees are so bad that, in August of this year, Médecins Sans Frontières released a statement calling the situation in the Yida refugee camp “appalling,” with at least five children dying of starvation every day.

As shocking as the violence in South Kordofan may be, rape and other forms of sexualized violence have been used as weapons of war and genocide in Sudan for years. When the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in 2002 on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur, rape was explicitly defined as a genocidal tool in the indictment summary: “Rape is an integral part of the pattern of destruction that the Government of the Sudan is inflicting upon the target groups in Darfur,” it read.

What’s happening in South Kordofan echoes the horrific example of Darfur. Earlier this year, the International Rescue Committee described how refugees fleeing the region were reporting “alarming levels of sexual violence.” The study by Ru’ya also found that members of the SAF and other militias had subjected women to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

Certainly, the available reports do not match the scale of the mass rapes reported during the conflict in Darfur. But collecting such stories in South Kordofan has been hard. With the continued violence and mass migration of peoples, gathering testimony and verifying reports of sexualized violence in South Kordofan is extremely problematic. The main difficulty lies in gaining access to the region to collect accurate data and evidence.

Regardless, Sudan’s rampant use of sexualized violence—during conflict in Darfur and times of civil unrest in Khartoum—signals that reports of such violence in South Kordofan are likely not exaggerated. This is a regime that has a nauseatingly consistent record of rape and sexualized violence against women in times of war and unrest.

Why do Bashir and his security apparatus continue to use sexualized violence as a method of warfare and to quell internal dissent? Because it is effective in multiple ways. WMC’s Women Under Siege has identified at least four reasons why it has been employed in Darfur; a 2004 Amnesty International investigation into the use of sexualized violence in Darfur found that it is used to humiliate women, their families, and their communities.

To this end, rapes perpetrated by government-sponsored militias are often carried out in public. The effects are devastating. In much of Sudanese society, rape is still a taboo. Any sexual contact outside of marriage, consensual or otherwise, is treated the same under Sudanese law: as zina. Thus, a woman who is raped is often considered to have brought great shame upon her family. Rape can destroy the social fabric of a community, weakening its ability to resist attacking militia such as the SAF.

A recent African Union–sponsored peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudan was lauded by many but failed completely to address the issue of South Kordofan. The high-level panel tasked with leading the negotiations has not pushed the issue of humanitarian access to the area to the front of the agenda, despite the fact that the African Union has the capacity to put pressure on Khartoum to live up to its promise to allow humanitarian access. The safety, security, and lives of the region’s women depend on it.