Abducted, abused, and sold: The tragic plight of Sudan's women one year into war

sudan women [getty]
10 min read

An investigation by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition, reveals that members of the Sudanese paramilitary organisation the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are abducting, sexually assaulting, exploiting and selling women and girls who have been kidnapped from a number of conflict hotspots in numerous regions.

Awareness of the horrifying reality faced by women and girls in Sudan is crystallising as the country marks one year of the smouldering tensions between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that erupted into a full-blown war on April 15, 2023.

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Thousands have been killed, over eight million displaced, and Sudan's fragile transition to civilian rule utterly derailed.

Beyond the myriad inherent dangers posed by conflict and displacement, women and girls have been exposed to terrifying levels of sexual violence, whether in conflict-ridden areas inside Sudan — especially the Darfur region and the capital Khartoum, the most notorious of which is "Khor Jahannam" ("Valley of Hell"), a village in north Darfur — or while on the move, or in neighbouring countries in which they have sought refuge. 

Sudanese tea vendor Muhasin Mahdi managed to escape from the house she was held captive in by RSF members in Jabra district, south Khartoum, after being kidnapped from her workplace in the Al-Salama market.

During her captivity, she says she was raped repeatedly.

Muhasin tried to escape after learning from the guard supervising her that her kidnapper had been killed in a battle in the Al-Shajara neighbourhood in south Khartoum. However, fleeing wasn't easy, as groups of RSF members would come to the house daily.

In one of her failed attempts, the guard caught her and told her that even if his fellow kidnapper who had forced her to serve him had been killed, she would remain "subject to the desires" of other leaders.

Muhasin eventually escaped and reached the Wad Madani city in central Sudan. However, she found out that she had become pregnant as a result of the repeated rapes.

She explained to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that she had been unable to flee Khartoum when the war erupted as her father had insisted on staying (she also didn't have the money or means to flee, she says). Then she was abducted, her captors also threatening to kill her father and force her little brother to serve them too, she said.

Mahdi is one of 29 cases of sexual slavery documented by the Unit for Combatting Violence against Women under Sudan's Ministry of Social Development in areas that have fallen under RSF control in Khartoum and Nyala, the capital of South Darfur State, between the start of the war and the end of January 2024, according to the unit's director, Salimi Ishaq.

Sexual slavery

The Unit for Combatting Violence against Women has documented dozens of cases in which RSF members have kidnapped girls, held them captive, and forced them into sexual slavery, says Ishaq.

 She confirmed that the kidnapping operations the unit had been alerted to had taken place in Sudan, however, according to informants, some of the girls were believed to have been taken outside the country.

She said there were eyewitness accounts of cars carrying handcuffed girls driving out of Khartoum, matching similar testimonies of incidents in parts of Darfur where the dire security situation had prompted the witnesses not to intervene for fear of their lives.

Sudan refugees
Over 8 million Sudanese civilians have been displaced since April 15, 2023 [Getty]

Stories vary regarding the manner of the kidnapping operations — some girls and women have been grabbed off public streets; and others taken from their homes.

Many are still missing, with the information received indicating that they are being held in RSF-controlled regions Ishaq says, confirming that 45 cases of missing girls have been recorded in Khartoum, especially in the Halfia neighbourhood.

The above is consistent with what was documented by a report entitled Sexual Slavery in Khor Jahannam published by the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies in Khartoum.

The report monitored violations including kidnap, forced disappearance, torture, rape, cruel and degrading treatment, and forced prostitution in the period between May and July 2023.

It documented via eyewitness testimonies that abductors were seen with girls in the village of Shangili Tobaya, south of Al-Fashir city in North Darfur and in Malam village in South Darfur State and other areas and they were being coerced into prostitution and were living in abject conditions.

Female workers had been targeted in public spaces and were being held captive in areas the RSF had military control of. The report quoted testimonies from civilians living in Kuim village, close to Al-Fashir city, saying they witnessed more than 70 Toyota pickup trucks being driven by people in RSF uniforms, laden with crates and other items.

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Ten of the cars were reportedly carrying girls who were in chains. One resident of the area said the first time anything like this had been seen was in May 2023, however, similar scenes had increased since then.

These practices fall within a series of grave sexual violations documented by the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Sudan which received more than 50 reports on sexual violence including individual rapes, gang rapes, and attempted rapes in the period between 15 April and 2 November 2023. These incidents affected 105 victims, among them 86 women, one man, and 18 children.

Likewise the Commissioner, in their written response to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, said they had received reports of women and girls being abducted and kept in "slave-like conditions" in regions under RSF control. And in a press statement published on November 3, 2023, it mentioned that "credible information from survivors, witnesses and other sources suggests more than 20 women and girls have been taken, but the number could be higher."

Enslaving an entire family

An entire family was enslaved according to the statement of human rights lawyer Ibrahim Mohieldin member of the Sudanese Group for Victims of Enforced Disappearance  (a human rights initiative).

"RSF members who are involved in abducting girls are reportedly involved in a range of criminal activities which include sexually abusing, raping and exchanging them among their fellow fighters; selling them at sex slave markets; or asking for a ransom from their relatives"

Among the cases documented was that of a family in Khartoum Bahri whose house was broken into by RSF members, who kept them trapped there to exploit them. They forced the men and boys to serve them and raped the female members of the household. The horrifying story was attested to by the victims, who managed to escape and receive medical treatment in Wad Madani.

In mid-July 2023, Maria Hassan was kidnapped from Dahyah al-Dorushat in northern Khartoum Bahri near the Arab market. She was knocked unconscious after she received a number of blows to the head, later waking up in a house with many other women and girls in Halfia neighbourhood.

Hassan spent six weeks in that house with 19 girls. She learned that the kidnappers were part of the RSF, and forced the girls to serve them — preparing food, and some of them tending to wounded RSF fighters.

"We were treated horrifically and at many times we couldn't even find water to drink," says Hassan, adding: "I tried to escape with another girl but RSF members managed to catch us and they beat us and deprived us of food for three days, and strengthened their supervision."

The situation continued like this until a large number of the paramilitary fighters went to take part in military operations and while they were absent, she managed to escape.

Slave markets in Sudan

RSF members who are involved in abducting girls are reportedly involved in a range of criminal activities which include sexually abusing, raping and exchanging them among their fellow fighters; selling them at sex slave markets; or asking for a ransom from their relatives in exchange for their return. In this way, some families have managed to retrieve their daughters for money, according to the Unit for Combatting Violence against Women.

Abdul Ghaffar Dawood, a member of The Darfur Bar Association (DBA)  (an organisation of Sudanese lawyers set up in 1996 and which in 2020 received the Democracy Award for its support of marginalized and vulnerable activists), reveals that staff at the DBA interviewed survivors in El Geneina city in West Darfur, where girls who had been kidnapped from Khartoum and Darfur were being sold at a market.

The market's location was in northwest Ardamata, a suburb of El Geneina. Dawood explained that girls were being sold in several areas outside cities, at mobile markets belonging to RSF-affiliated individuals.

"These [people] prefer to buy girls with pale skin to offer them to leaders whereas girls with dark skin are subjected to more sexual assaults and are passed from one soldier to another as a means of motivating militia members," he said. 

In addition to the above, 10 cases were documented since 25 June 2023 where women, including four female food and drink vendors, were abducted, held captive, sexually exploited and forced into prostitution at the hands of their kidnappers, at the Al-Daman Hotel in El Obeid, North Kordofan State, and the New Testament Building of the Coptic Church and the Stock Exchange in the city of Nyala, South Darfur State. These crimes were committed by individuals wearing RSF uniforms, according to the report on sexual slavery in Khor Jahannam.

Missing content item.

Khor Jahannam

"Umm Al-Naim, a Sudanese mother, who lives in Damarah Shurfa village, 60km southwest of Al-Fashir, expresses her sorrow at the involvement of two of her sons, who serve in the ranks of the RSF in the abduction of eight girls during the battles that took place in Khartoum in May 2023": This testimony is included in the Khor Jahannam report, which adds that the girls are now being used as sex workers in several villages including Qallab and Khor Mali.

The village of Khor Jahannam is witnessing an increase in cases of girls forced into prostitution and has turned into a market for sexual slavery, as a survivor whose story is documented in the report revealed. She said she and others were kidnapped from Khartoum on May 17, confirming that they were raped in the city of Kabkabiya in North Darfur multiple times before they were taken to be sold in sex markets in Khor Jahannam.

For its part, the RSF denies the accusations levelled at it regarding the abduction and sexual exploitation of girls in Khartoum and Darfur.

RSF legal adviser Mohamed Al-Mukhtar said: "We have no need for this kind of trade" and claimed that "those making these allegations are organisations working to criminalise us and accuse us, and we have not received any notification or anything to prove these actions have taken place, and we have small and large courts monitoring violations by RSF soldiers according to the RSF's rules, and we are capable of trying our members and we do not exclude anyone."

Despite the growth in the crimes day by day, the official spokesman for the Sudanese police spokesperson Brigadier General Fathelrahman El Tom stated that "the zones controlled by the RSF don't recognise the authority of the police so we cannot provide protection and investigate these incidents". He added that there were no reports recorded in police records regarding the kidnapping or sexual exploitation of girls by the RSF.

Meanwhile, the crimes being committed against civilians in Sudan continue to escalate, in particular those against women and girls.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: info@alaraby.co.uk