Sudanese Militiamen Carry out Wave of Abductions, Seeking Slaves and Ransom

Hafiz Haroun for The Washington Post
Sudanese refugees wait for water in Maskar Abu Tanqi camp in Chad on Dec. 31. More than 10 million Sudanese have fled their homes, making the war-ravaged nation the world’s largest displacement crisis.

NAIROBI – Since civil war erupted in Sudan last spring, paramilitary fighters battling the country’s army have carried out a campaign of abductions, kidnapping civilians for ransom or pressing them into forced servitude, according to 10 victims who have since been released and other witnesses.

Elements within the Rapid Support Forces, which have captured most of the capital, Khartoum, and swept across most of the western region of Darfur, have made these abductions a lucrative source of revenue, victims, other witnesses and activists said.

Some of the victims said they have been enslaved and sold to work on the farms of RSF commanders, and others recounted being held while their families were forced to ransom them. Some victims said they were seized several times. Among those abducted, witnesses and activists said, have been girls and young women who were chained, bound and sold as sex slaves.

Fighting broke out in April after the collapse of a power-sharing arrangement between the Sudanese army, headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, headed by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, universally referred to as Hemedti. The rival forces overthrew a civilian-led government before turning their guns on each other. More than 10.7 million people have fled their homes, making Sudan the world’s largest displacement crisis.

While both sides have been implicated in violence against civilians, witnesses and activists say the RSF has been primarily responsible for the wave of kidnappings. The RSF is composed mostly of ethnic Arab militiamen, and the victims interviewed for this story are Masalit, an ethnic African tribe, though Sudanese of other backgrounds have also been abducted.

The RSF did not respond to requests for comment.

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Pressed into slavery

Hafiz Haroun for The Washington Post
Hammadi Ahmed Adam, 36, lives in a refugee camp in Chad. He said he was taken captive in a group of 21 men; four were taken to be enslaved, but the others were taken to a torture center. Most of the men were killed but Adam, only wounded, escaped by playing dead.

Muhammad Arbab Musa, 21, said he was hiding under a bed when fighters from the RSF stormed the military garrison in the suburb of Ardamata, just outside the Darfuri city of El Geneina, in early November. As many as 15,000 people were killed during that attack on El Geneina, according to an unreleased U.N. report reviewed by The Washington Post, but Musa, a civilian, and his friends managed to survive.

The fighters dragged them from their hiding places and berated them as “slaves,” a term that ethnic Arab fighters previously used to describe ethnic Africans during the previous Darfur war, which began in 2003 and lasted two decades. Atrocities by the military and its allies the Janjaweed – a mostly Arab militia that eventually morphed into the RSF – were so widespread that the International Criminal Court charged the Sudanese president at the time with genocide.

The RSF fighter “said, ‘Get out, you slaves, ’” recalled Musa, who was interviewed in a refugee camp in Chad like others cited in this story. “He killed one of my friends with an ax. … We were beaten with whips.”

Musa said he was taken to another house, where six corpses were sprawled outside, and ordered to work repairing cars. His captors told another RSF soldier that Musa’s group would be killed when they had finished.

But instead, his captors forced Musa hour later onto a motorbike at gunpoint and took him past El Geneina bridge, where he said hundreds of people were at that time being executed, before the RSF fighters were ordered by Hemedti’s brother, Abdul Rahim Dagalo, the group’s second-in-command, to take the men to the Ibn Sina School. There, Musa said, about 500 people were being held. Eventually, he said, he and a group of others were forced to work on local farms.

One evening, Musa recounted, he overheard a man on a motorbike say he had come to take ownership of them. Their captor told the man to return the next day after completing his payment. Before he did, Musa and a friend escaped, hiding in a nearby village for several days before walking into Chad at night.

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Held for ransom

Hafiz Haroun for The Washington Post
Sudanese mother Khamisa Zakaria Abdel Banat, 37, sits in a refugee camp in Chad after a fruitless search for her missing son. Many boys and men from the Masalit ethnic group were enslaved, and Banat found other Masalit boys who said they were forced to work as domestic servants — their “owner” said they would only be freed if ransoms were paid.

Adam Hamed, 24, who said he survived a mass execution in El Geneina, was also taken to the Ibn Sina School after RSF fighters had raided his home. They had initially seized his neighbor’s daughter, a 2-year-old, and threatened to kill her unless a ransom was paid. Five adults in the house turned over cash and were immediately seized, he said.

“One person was killed on the spot, and after that, our people were asked to pay an amount of 200,000 Sudanese pounds ($330), or we would all be killed,” he said. Their relatives collected the money within about 90 minutes and paid the ransom. The group was released. But an hour later, more fighters came and took them to come to the school. Hamed said the faded concrete classrooms of the school were full of terrified captives – men and women, soldiers and civilians.

Hemedti’s brother, Dagalo, arrived at the school and assured the captives of their safety, Hamed said. But guards would only release people for another $330 ransom, which his family eventually paid again. Arab militias took and enslaved his brother, but the family was eventually able to find and ransom him also, Hamed said.

Khamisa Zakaria Abdel Banat, 37, who had gone looking unsuccessfully for her missing son outside El Geneina, said she had instead come across two boys from the Masalit ethnic group working as servants for the local mayor’s sister. One, 15, said that he was among a group of 17 Masalit people divided up by ethnically Arab leaders and forced to work as domestic servants, two per household. He begged Banat to find his family in Chad so they could pay for his release.

Fatima Ishaq, 40, said RSF forces had killed her 17-year-old son when they stormed her house in Ardamata. Her youngest, 15, was seized as they tried to flee, she said. She paid about $80 for his freedom, but his captor handed him over to another fighter, who ordered her to pay again. Ultimately, she had to pay three times. An RSF fighter eventually told her he would keep her son enslaved to carry looted goods but that he would not kill him. He is still missing, she said.

“I feel so helpless,” Ishaq said. “I would die to help him.”

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Sexual slavery

Multiple witnesses and activists say they have also seen captive young women being sold in Darfur as sex slaves.

One resident of Kabkabiya in north Darfur, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said he overheard two RSF fighters in the market discussing selling two girls in October. He struck up a conversation, and the fighters took him to see two women, aged 18 and 22, locked in a house. The RSF soldiers demanded about $1,000 for both girls. The local resident said he bargained them down to half that amount and took them home. Moved by pity, he freed the women and sent them to seek their families.

Sulaima Ishaq, head of the unit for violence against women at Sudan’s Ministry of Social Development, said girls and young women are typically sold from the backs of cars.

Ishaq said her unit had tracked down girls kidnapped in several areas, including Darfur, Khartoum and other places. “Eyewitnesses saw them chained in cars,” she said. “Families who paid ransom refused to talk to us.”

The markets for young women appeared at the beginning of the conflict, said the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa. Armed ethnic Arabs arrive at dawn in pickup trucks with bound women and girls in the back, according to the accounts of two commercial truckers at the scene.

One democracy activist in Shargenil in East Nile state, said that 13 women have been missing from their area since November. Two had returned with accounts of sexual violence. One said RSF fighters had kept her for five days and raped her. The other woman told the committee that she had been detained in Khartoum near the airport, with about 50 other women in an apartment building now used to hold women to be raped.

The Strategic Initiative said it had confirmed that three females were brought to the northern Darfur town of Al Fashir by RSF fighters. When civilians appealed for their freedom, RSF soldiers demanded a ransom of about $50,000 and provided phones to call their families, who eventually paid about two-thirds of that amount, SIHA said.

Another woman was freed after about $1,000 was paid, the group said.