UN: Military attacks on Darfur violated international law

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Location of West Darfur within Sudan.

A United Nations report released Thursday states that recent attacks carried out on four villages in Darfur by the Sudanese military and armed miltias were a violation of international law.

The attacks, which involved aerial bombardment in two of the villages, left a total of 115 people dead and over 30,000 forcibly displaced, according to the report. Damage to civilian property was extensive; homes, schools, and shops were systematically destroyed, vandalized, or set ablaze, food reserves were burned, and livestock was looted. In addition, there were several reports of rape in one village.

The report, issued jointly by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN African Union Mission in Darfur, describes attacks on the West Darfur villages of Saraf Jidad, Sirba, Silea and Abu Suruj in January and February. The attacks were part of a Sudanese military campaign to regain control of West Darfur's northern corridor and drive out rebel insurgents from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

The damage to civilians was deemed to be a "deliberate and integral part" of the military strategy. In failing to "distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives", the UN accused the Sudanese military of violating international humanitarian law. The activities of the JEM were also denounced, as they were found to be in violation of the 2004 N'Djamena Ceasefire Agreement.

In Saraf Jidad, which was attacked three times in January, 26 civilians were killed, and almost the entire population was displaced. Witnesses described the attackers as Arab men called Janjaweed, who have had the assistance of the Sudanese government. The men were seen riding horses and camels, and some were in military vehicles. After exchanging fire with the JEM, they entered the town, where they started torching homes and shooting at civilians.

A Janjaweed mititiaman on horseback.
An Antonov flew into the area and dropped three bombs ... I saw many houses set ablaze by the bombing. People started running randomly in fear and confusion.

—Witness to the Silea attack

One of the victims from Saraf Jidad, who was around 80 years old, recalled the January 24 attack. "The attackers entered my house," he said. "They were four, in military uniforms. One of them hit my head with the butt of his gun. I fell down. He told me, ‘If you do not all move from here we will burn you alive.' At that, they set my house on fire. I was inside, but managed to escape though I had my arms injured by the fire."

In the other three villages, witnesses reported seeing Antonov planes and military helicopters along with the armed militiamen and Sudanese troops. In Silea, the ground offensive was preceded by three aerial bombardments in different areas of the town. Nearly the entire population of 10,600 was displaced, with some having to go across the border to Chad.

One witness of the Silea attack reported, "An Antonov flew into the area and dropped three bombs ... I saw many houses set ablaze by the bombing. People started running randomly in fear and confusion. I witnessed SAF and Janjaweed looting houses, shops and NGO offices. They would load the stolen goods in their cars and on their camels and horses and take them away."

The village of Abu Suruj was also bombed, but no casualties were reported from this bombing. However, over 75 percent of the town was burnt down by ground troops, and 30 people were killed.

In Sirba, the pattern of attack was similar to that of Abu Suruj. Half of the village was burned down and 45 people were killed. One victim described an encounter with an armed man: "I was holding tight my four-year-old brother; I was scared that the man was going to shoot him. Instead he left. After a few seconds the roof of the house was burning. He saw we were inside and he set the hut on fire to burn us alive. We escaped from the window and ran in different directions."

Witnesses reported acts of sexual violence being committed by the attackers in Sirba, and UN investigators believe at least 10 women were victims of rape. An eyewitness reported four girls being taken into a hut and raped at gunpoint by Sudanese soldiers.

There were also reports of air and ground attacks in Jebel Moon, where many victims had fled following the attacks, but the UN was denied access to the area.

On March 3, the UN met with a West Darfur security official to address their concerns. The official argued that the JEM had taken control of the villages and a deployment of troops was necessary to regain these areas. He also denied that the Sudanese military was involved in the Saraf Jidad attacks, stating they were done by Arab tribes who had nothing to do with the military campaign.