CAIRO: Zeinab was fleeing war-torn Sudan’s capital to seek safety when she found herself pinned to the ground, a rifle to her chest, as a paramilitary fighter raped her. “I was sure we were about to die,” she told AFP, recounting how she, her younger sister and two other women, one with an infant daughter, were all sexually violated. Dozens of women have reported similar attacks—in their homes, by the roadside and in commandeered hotels—since the war erupted in mid-April between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. A month into the war, said Zeinab, the women were fleeing Khartoum when their minibus was stopped at an RSF checkpoint.

Terrified, they were marched into a warehouse where a man “in civilian clothes who seemed to be their commander” ordered Zeinab to the ground, she said. “I was pinned down by one man while the other raped me,” she told AFP. “When he was done, they switched. “They wanted to keep my sister with them. I begged them on my hands and knees to let her go.” The women were eventually allowed to leave and escaped to Madani, 200 kilometres (120 miles) away, where they reported the attack to police and went to a hospital.

When Zeinab later recounted their ordeal, she had found refuge in another country. “We’re not the first people this has happened to, or the last,” she said. Sudan’s war has claimed at least 1,800 lives and displaced over 1.5 million people. The horrors of the conflict have been compounded by a wave of sexual violence, say survivors, medics and activists who spoke to AFP. Most have requested anonymity or, like Zeinab, used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals against them and others. Both Sudan’s army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, have accused their enemies of such attacks.

And human rights lawyer Jehanne Henry said that indeed both sides have committed “notorious acts of sexual violence” in the past. The governmental Combating Violence Against Women and Children Unit has documented 49 assaults in the first two weeks of the war. In all but six cases, survivors identified perpetrators “in RSF uniform”, said unit chief Sulaima Ishaq al-Khalifa, adding that there are “new reports night and day”. “There is not a single woman in Khartoum now who feels safe, not even in her own home.” ‘Tip of the iceberg’ The worst fighting has raged in Khartoum and the Darfur region, where former dictator Omar al-Bashir once unleashed the notorious Janjaweed militia from which the RSF emerged.

In their scorched-earth campaign since 2003, they committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, according to the International Criminal Court. Now “mass rapes” are again being reported in Darfur, said Adjaratou Ndiaye, the UN Women representative in Sudan. In one case, 12 women were stopped by gunmen in late April and ordered to join in looting a warehouse, said Amna, a local human rights defender. Once they were inside, they heard the doors lock. “They were all raped,” said Amna. “They had men with them, whom fighters in RSF uniforms forced to rape the women.” Amna said she and other defenders have recorded more cases in Darfur, with the youngest victim aged 14.

“Women and girls are being abducted to a hotel the RSF has commandeered, where they’re kept for two or three days, raped repeatedly.” Documented cases, like wider casualty counts, are likely “the tip of the iceberg”, said a Sudanese Women Rights Action (SUWRA) group researcher. Medics say many victims receive no care as hospitals have been ransacked or destroyed. Many cases have been reported by civil society groups known as resistance committees, which long campaigned for democracy. In one attack in May, reported by one group and corroborated by multiple sources, RSF fighters raped a 15-year-old girl on a northern Khartoum street.

In another case, a woman in her 30s in eastern Khartoum “was at home alone with her kids when she heard her downstairs neighbours screaming,” said the SUWRA researcher. Three women there were gang-raped before the fighters made their way upstairs, the survivor told SUWRA. “Four armed men broke the door down, and then one of them locked himself in a room with her.” ‘Screaming for hours’ Most survivors say they were assaulted by fighters of the RSF, who are embedded in residential neighbourhoods. Khalifa said the unit had also received news “of assaults by perpetrators in army uniform” but had “not yet been able to confirm” these.

A resistance committee member said in another attack last month three army soldiers stormed a northern Khartoum home, “beat the son and raped both mother and daughter”. “Their neighbours heard them screaming for hours.” A lawyer who has long documented sexual assaults by security forces, said the scourge now impacts “every segment of Sudanese society”. “We have seen the rape of young girls and old women, mothers with their children,” she said, adding that to the perpetrators “it doesn’t matter”.

Amid dire shortages, health workers have struggled to provide HIV medication or emergency contraceptives. “The situation is catastrophic,” said a member of the Central Committee of Sudanese Pharmacists. Activists and medics are trying to document every attack. The aim, said the lawyer, is “to ensure there is no impunity”. But the task is dangerous. “Every time you walk down the street, you could be stopped and accused of being an informant for either side,” said one activist.

After several colleagues were violently interrogated, Amna said that “they know what we’re doing, and now the activists themselves are in danger.” Zeinab hopes the rapists will one day face justice, but voices resignation. “I shared my testimony to try and stop this happening to others, to tell them the road isn’t safe,” she said. “But even when I filed the police report, I knew nothing would come of it. They’re never going to get the men who did this.” – AFP