Thursday, December 7, 2023

Slavery in the 21st Century. In 2023 Sudan and other Nations. The Most Vulnerable, women, children.


‘They called me a slave’: Witness testimony exposes alleged RSF-led campaign to enslave men and women in Sudan

By Nima Elbagir, Barbara Arvanitidis, Alex Platt, Tamara Qiblawi and Pallabi Munsi, CNN
'We will not leave any black skin here': Refugee describes alleged ethnic cleansing in El Geneina

Adre, ChadCNN — 

Mahdi, 16, was blindfolded when a strange man felt for his biceps. He was looking for a “strong” boy to use as a farmhand.

The size of his muscles helped the man determine Mahdi’s price as he bought him from a militiaman who had captured him in the West Darfur capital of El Geneina.

“They hit me and called me a slave. And they kept hitting me,” Mahdi said of his captors and other unknown men. “I’d crouch down and they’d smack me in the neck.”

His harrowing testimony was among dozens – including accounts from women who alleged sexual enslavement – collected as part of an exclusive documentary by CNN about the humanitarian toll exacted by the ongoing fight between Sudan’s ruling military and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The documentary, which will air this Sunday on “The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper,” exposes an RSF-led campaign to enslave men and women in El Geneina, the largest city controlled by the paramilitary group in Sudan’s Darfur region.

A CNN team in the Chadian refugee camp of Adre, across the border from El Geneina, spoke to over a dozen witnesses who described the abduction of people en masse, with women forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for food and water and both men and women being traded by their captors. Their accounts shed further light on the violence in the genocide-scarred western Sudanese region over the past five months.

To protect the witnesses and survivors, CNN is not identifying them by their real names.

The apparent atrocities peaked after the RSF — which a CNN investigation has shown is backed by Russian mercenary group Wagner — captured El Geneina in mid-June. In the days that followed, a man named Khalid said he saw RSF-uniformed fighters escorting over a dozen shackled women into the El Geneina Industrial School, where he worked as a teacher.

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“They flogged them with whips that they use on animals while the girls were screaming,” said Khalid, who told CNN he watched the scene unfold from his hiding place behind a pile of chopped wood in the school compound.

He only came out of hiding when night fell. Throughout the day, he said, he saw the fighters forcing women into classrooms at gunpoint, after which he said he heard sounds that indicated torture and rape.

Many of the women, Khalid said, appeared to have been trafficked from further north in Sudan — where women’s style of dress can display relative affluence, and where the tribal and racial mix is typified by generally lighter complexions.

Several Sudan-based rights groups, including the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) and the government’s Combating Violence Against Women Unit, have told CNN that they believe the RSF abducted dozens of women from the capital, Khartoum, trafficking them to the paramilitary group’s strongholds in Darfur.

Rights group activists say they have spoken to scores of local sources who said the women appeared to have been sexually exploited by the RSF. In Adre, CNN spoke to four other witnesses, in addition to Khalid, who said they saw evidence of RSF trafficking women from northern Sudan.

One former abductee from Darfur— who CNN is not naming — said she saw a 4x4 vehicle roll up into an Arab neighborhood in El Geneina, carrying four women who appeared to be northern Sudanese women in the back.

She said she saw an RSF fighter approach the driver and ask how much he was willing to “sell” the women for.

She recalled hearing the driver boast that he had “handpicked the women” and that “no amount of cash” would make him release them to the RSF fighter.

‘To us you are all slaves’  

The trafficking of women from Arab-majority areas in the north of the country has become a widely discussed practice in Sudan, with widespread reports of RSF fighters demanding ransoms for their release.

In Darfur, captured women from non-Arab tribes appear to have been treated differently — the apparent sexual exploitation of women tends to involve shorter periods of captivity, and their abuse is reported by dozens of witnesses, survivors and activists to be racially fuelled.

The RSF, a largely Arab fighting force that has been accused of ethnically cleansing non-Arab tribes in Darfur, is widely named as the culprit of wide-scale sexual exploitation there.

The RSF has not responded to CNN’s request for comment about allegations of sexual enslavement.

The paramilitary group has previously denied allegations of conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign and committing sexual violence, in Darfur.

According to a Human Rights Watch report published in August, the RSF raped “several dozen women and girls” in El Geneina between late April and late June.

“The assailants appear to have targeted people because of their Masalit ethnicity and, in some cases, because they were known activists,” the report said.

Several former Darfuri abductees told CNN that fighters from the RSF and their Arab militia allies hurled racist abuse at them during their captivity. One 22-year-old woman named Raghm said she was kidnapped by an RSF-uniformed fighter from her home and detained in a brothel.

She said she heard her captor receiving money in exchange for her enslavement in the brothel — up to 7,000 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of $10.

“He said to me: ‘To us you all are slaves. To us you are not free,’” said Raghm, who belongs to the Masalit tribe, the main target of the RSF’s revived apparent ethnic cleansing campaign.

Between beatings, she said she recalled him saying: “You are dirt. You are a disgrace.”

In Arabic, the word for ‘slave’ is a racial slur equivalent to the n-word.

‘They flogged us with whips’

Another woman told CNN she and the female members of her family were raped in captivity for four days.

“They locked my mother, myself, and my sisters up for four days and they raped us,” said 20-year-old Hawa. “On the fifth day, we fled. We saw some of (the Arab militia) on the street and they flogged us with whips. They told us to run for our lives, and cursed us, calling us donkeys and goats.

“The children were exhausted, barely walking a few steps before they collapsed,” she said.

CNN also found evidence of the enslavement of males as part of the attack on El Geneina.

Mahdi, the 16-year-old boy, told CNN he was kidnapped by the RSF with his brother and that he heard RSF fighters negotiating his “price” to work as a farmhand. He listened to the back-and-forth between his captors and other men while he was blindfolded, his hand and feet bound by rope.

They felt his biceps because they said they “wanted a strong one,” he told CNN.

He said he spent 10 days in the house that he was sold to before escaping and making it to the relative safety of Chad. The brother who was taken at the same time as him was killed by the RSF, he said.

The documentary to be aired Sunday is the latest in a series of CNN investigations into atrocities committed by the RSF in Sudan.

In recent months, CNN has uncovered how the Russian mercenary group Wagner has backed the RSF throughout this war, as well as evidence of arbitrary executions, wholesale destruction of homes, and forced displacement of Sudanese civilians.

Editor’s Note: This report would not have been possible without the contributions of Sudanese journalists whom we are not naming for their safety.

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