Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA) is a non-partisan, civil society organisation that provides continental leadership in matters pertaining to the prevention of mass atrocities within Africa, our strategies and approaches are grounded in the realisation that atrocities can be prevented through various interventions, including, but not limited to, early warning mechanisms, diplomatic efforts, use of social media and new technologies, litigation, and advocacy campaigns.
This newsletter builds on our team’s continuous monitoring of the region that allows us to identify deteriorating situations where atrocities may be committed as well as track ongoing situations of ongoing atrocities to detect increasing tendencies or opportunities for improvement.
This month newsletter includes a special feature on Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in the continent and updates on:
- Burkina Faso
Special feature: Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) on the rise
Sexual and gender based violence including sexual slavery and gang rape are used as weapons of war, torture and terrorism, and women and girls are the most vulnerable, accounting for 94% of all cases of SGBV in conflict situations verified by the United Nations in 2022. These figures do not represent the full extent of the situation, as it is estimated that 10 to 20 cases go undocumented for each verified case.
Sexual violence is used as a tactic to destabilise already fragile contexts and the targeting of heath facilities can limit access to services by survivors. The UN Security Council annual open debate on women, peace and security in October, while focusing on the importance of women’s participation in maintaining and promoting peace and security also spotlighted the prevalence of SGBV in conflict-ridden regions and highlighted some of the ways in which women’s participation can help to address this.
Even as SGBV remains a serious problem globally, it is a particularly prevalent part of several conflicts in Africa, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC):
Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) has increased significantly since the start of Sudan’s latest conflict on 15 April. Approximately 4.2 million women and girls have been affected by the fighting and are at an increased risk of SGBV. “The gendered nature of the conflict became obvious mere hours after the fighting began” says Hala Al-Karib the Regional Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA). Sexual violence in Sudan has taken various forms, with civilians being targeted during attacks by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), while being held in detention facilities, and secondarily in displacement contexts, with one girl raped and two others kidnapped when they went to collect firewood outside of Michi refugee camp in eastern Chad, hosting mostly former residents of El Geneina in West Darfur, which is only about 20km from the Chadian border.
The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) reported an significant uprise in rape and gang rape over recent months, noting that the recurrence of assaults committed in the same way signals a deliberate pattern and normalisation of attacks.
On 24 September, the Director of the Anti-Violence against Women unit of the Sudanese government reported at least 136 cases of rape since the start of fighting, all but two were attributed to the RSF. In August, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) reported a total of 124 cases of sexual violence, Project HOPE, an international health and humanitarian organisation, expressed concern that the real number is much higher due to stigma, fear of retaliation, and insecurity and difficulties in accessing medical care.
There are also concerns that victims may have been targeted on the basis of their work. Insecurity Insight reported the 4 September rape of a journalist in Omdurman by RSF, and the 27 September rape of a female volunteer in an emergency room, while she conducted a survey on humanitarian needs of civilians trapped in Bahri, Khartoum.
Incidents of SGBV have also been perpetrated against men. The Emergency Lawyers Committee in Sudan reported that both men and women held in RSF custody in Sudan have reported being threatened with, or subjected to, sexual violence. One male detainee in an RSF detention centre in Shambat reported being ordered to take off his clothes and threatened repeatedly with rape.
- Central African Republic:
Sexual violence has also been a prominent feature of the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). Steps at accountability, however, have been taken. On 21 September 2023, CAR’s Special Criminal Court (SCC) indicted the anti-balaka leader Abrou Edmond Patrick for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape, between 6 – 13 December 2021 in the Boyo commune in the Ouaka prefecture of CAR. Muslim civilians in Boyo were targeted on their perceived affiliation to the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR, MINUSCA, documented the gang rapes of at least five Muslim women and girls. Anti-balaka victims were disappointed when the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s prosecutor withdrew charges against Maxime Mokom citing a lack of evidence and witnesses. Mr. Mokom had been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape, for attacks perpetrated by the anti-balaka in 2013 and 2014.
It is difficult to assess if and how the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement has impacted the cases of SGBV on year after signing. Rape and gang rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the conflict, and regional authorities claimed that at least 120,000 women were raped in Tigray during that time. Following the CoH agreement cases continued to be reported, including child sexual exploitation, particularly in IDP camps. Despite the protection of civlians and condemnation of these types of crimes having been mentioned in the agreement little action has been taken.
The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) in its final report documented rape and sexual violence by both the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) and Amhara forces since the signing of the CoH agreement, including the targeting of at least 100 underage Tigrayan girls.
In a study conducted by Physicians for Human Rights, the research team reviewed 305 randomly selected medical records from multiple health facilities in Tigray from November 2020 through June 2023, revealing that 304 records included reports of conflict-related sexual violence, with gang rape accounting for over 75% of registered cases and perpetrators mostly belonging to military and paramilitary groups. The perpetrators were identified as EDF in 143 reports, and 30% of perpetrators were identified as Amharic speakers. A report by Amnesty International details cases of SGBV in an EDF camp in Kokob Tsibah district in the period after the signing of the CoH agreement, the women had been detained on suspicion that their spouses, sons, or relatives were members of the Tigrayan forces. Amnesty determined that the violence “can be considered as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity”.
The reality of a precarious and dismantled health system in Tigray and neighbouring regions as well as stigma, including isolation and threats of divorce by their partners, raise serious concerns about undiagnosed and untreated mental and physical consequences of these crimes.
Despite the overwhelming numbers of reported cases of SGBV, the ICHREE reported that by September 2023 there were only 13 concluded and 16 pending Ethiopian military court cases addressing these crimes.
Disturbing cases of sexual violence have been reported in Amhara since the increase of violence in recent months. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) highlighted ongoing SGBV with over 200 cases of rape registered at health facilities since 2021, with victims including displaced women and health workers.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo:
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), sexual and gender-based violence has long been a key feature of the conflict, particularly affecting women and girls in displacement camps. With the resurgence of conflict in the east displacement levels have once again surged, subjecting many to dire living conditions and heightening vulnerability to sexual assault.
Eastern Congo has become one of the most dangerous places for woman and children. The resurgence of violence in October led to the displacement of at least 200,000 people in North Kivu alone, bringing the total of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to 6.7 million throughout the country. The poor living conditions in camps leave women and girls especially vulnerable, food and water in these places is limited and women are forced to leave the camps in order to meet their basic needs, but are at risk of being sexually assaulted when they do so. The International Rescue Committee reported cases of women being forced to have sex in exchange for a few potatoes, while others have been assaulted when searching for firewood or water.
In June 2023 the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported growing trends of rape and sexual exploitation of displaced girls and women, showing a 40% increase in the first half of 2023 compared to 2022 and children accounting for at least 3,377 cases. UNICEF reported that DRC had the highest levels of verified cases of sexual violence against children committed by armed forces and armed groups worldwide in 2021 and 2022. There were over 10,000 cases reported between June and July 2023 with over 60% of those constituting cases of rape and on average 70 women and girls visiting MSF facilities in Lushagala, Bulengo, Elohim, Shabindu, Rusayo, and Kanyaruchinya camps every day to report sexual assault.
Armed groups across Burkina Faso have been committing war crimes and human rights abuses according to a report released by Amnesty International that sheds light on ongoing abuses committed by belligerent parties against civilians living in besieged towns across the country between 2020 to June 2023. The report dives into crimes committed by both Ansaroul Islam, a local armed group affiliated with Al-Qaida, and the Islamic State in the Sahel (ISS). As of July 2023 at least 46 locations were under siege in some form, meaning that despite the presence of the Burkinabe armed forces and the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VPD), armed groups prohibit or restrict free access of people, goods and services through checkpoints and laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to limit traffic. Other forms of control include destroying civilian infrastructure, including water infrastructure, such as wells and pipes, occasionally attacks targeting civilians and supply convoys, so civilians are left to fend for themselves, sometimes having to resort to eating wild leaves to sustain themselves.
Amnesty reported cases of armed militants going door-to-door killing civilians, including children, and limiting their livelihoods by blocking their access to farmland or prohibiting grazing livestock, pillaging and forcibly taxing them. Women and girls are especially vulnerable, the siege and ongoing military operations sometimes create delays in supplies directly affecting civilian population, who are forced to leave their villages in search for firewood and food. In January 2023, Amnesty recorded the abduction of at least 60 women and girls – including babies – who had left their homes in search of supplies. The women were freed days later.
Delays and lack of supplies and access to basic commodities have also brought economic consequences including inflation and people having to travel to other towns to purchase supplies including water. Civilians trapped in these conditions have often been forced to flee in search of more accessible livelihoods and safer conditions.
The dire security situation led the Burkinabe government to declare a state of emergency in 2019. Some measures have had adverse effects on civilians. For example in November 2022 the security forces and VDP’s conducted an attack on the town of Holdé, under the control of Ansaroul, where at least 49 civilians -most of them women and children- were killed. The timely delivery of humanitarian aid became challenging when the government set up military escorts to prevent the theft of supplies, but leaving humanitarian actors at greater risk of being attacked. Other measures such as prohibiting cash transfers to beneficiaries have further complicated the work of humanitarian agencies. Things got worse when the transitional government declared the UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator persona non grata and expelled in December 2022.
Meanwhile, the country’s current de-facto leader, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, announced a coup attempt on 26 September and arrested the four officers suspected of itr. Burkina Faso underwent two coups in 2022, one in January and one in September, both groups citing security concerns and the growing Islamic insurgency as justifiction.
One year has gone by since the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the fighting and grave human rights violations persist. Eritrean forces continue to be present in Tigray and since the singing of the agreement they have carried out killings, acts of sexual violence and abductions, obstructed humanitarian assistance, and impeded the work of AU monitors in areas under their control, said Human Rights Watch. Western Tigray remains inaccessible for many humanitarian agencies and Amhara regional forces and Fano militias continue to expel Tigrayans and conduct ethnic cleansing campaigns in the region. Abiy’s government pledged to redouble efforts to fully implement the agreement but cited delays in the implementation of the peace deal from the TPLF.
The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) released its final report on 13 October 2023. Their findings established, among other pressing issues, that the ENDF, Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) and affiliated regional forces and militias perpetrated abuses in Tigray on a scale which amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Tigray fighters and their allied militias committed abuses against civilians in Amhara and Afar, also amounting to war crimes. Moreover the report stressed the importance that despite the CoH agreement, these abuses have continued. Lastly the commission noted that violence has spread to other regions including Oromia and Amhara.
Tensions have escalated and fighting has spread across the country. In Amhara, clashes between the Fano militia and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) have been ongoing since April when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced his intention to integrate the regional paramilitary force into the Ethiopian army. This wasn’t well received by the force who refused to demilitarise and was later accused by the government of trying to overthrow them. Since July, fighting between both groups has continued and the crisis in Amhara has become the most serious security crisis since the Tigray War.
During the first week of September, over 70 civilians – mostly male suspected Fano fighters or supporters – were killed in Majete, a rural town in Amhara by Ethiopian soldiers. The city of Gondar saw fighting at the end of September when Fano militants attacked two prisons and freed prisoners which resulted in the killing of at least 50 Fano fighters and some civilians. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has called the government out for the extrajudicial killings committed by security forces throughout the region, a report released by the body accused the ENDF of killing civilians, including religious students, in house-to-house searches, with at least 12 killed in the month of October, and scores more by drone strikes but the lack of internet has made it hard to grasp the full situation.
Widespread arbitrary arrests have taken place since the government declared a state of emergency in Amhara as it allows authorities to arrest suspects without a court order, impose curfews and ban public gatherings. The EHRC accused the government of carrying out these detentions not only in Amhara but also in neighbouring Oromia and the capital city, Addis Ababa. Those arrested were accused of supporting Amhara militias and/or hiding weapons, in some cases opposition politicians have been targeted.
The Amhara region has been under a state of emergency since August, but in October, the regional administration claimed security had improved and eased the curfews imposed after the conflict broke out. So far at least 3,000 people have been displaced. Fano and ENDF fought together during the Tigray war, but Fano did not participate in the peace talks.
The UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, brought attention to the ongoing risk of atrocity crimes and ethnically motivated violence. Life has not returned to normal in Tigray and the use of hateful rhetoric such as “…describing Tigrayans as ‘cancer,’ indicating a desire to kill men and children, or else to destroy women’s reproductive capacities…” continues.
The mandate of the ICHREE expired as no motion was submitted to the Human Rights Council to renew it, which is worrying in a context in which grave human rights violations are ongoing and justice and accountability remains elusive. Upon their termination, the Commission called for the continuation of international monitoring of the human rights situation in the country.
Now in its seventh month, the conflict that began on 15 April 2023, has continued to mutate and create new concerns. In the last week of October, Nyala, the second largest city in Sudan and the capital of South Darfur, fell to the RSF after weeks of fighting. The fighting reportedly displaced more than 670,000. The RSF’s success in Nyala was followed shortly thereafter by the fall of Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur, on 31 October 2023. Armed militias also invaded the Hasahisa IDP Camp in the city. Human rights activists documented dozens of deaths and 24 rape cases in the Hasahisa Camp during October. Many camp residents were displaced once again. With these advances, the last major holdout of government control was El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, where a previous, locally agreed truce had allowed for relative calm and for the city to become a haven for civilians from elsewhere in Darfur. Now, conflict has broken out in El Fasher, forcing thousands to flee and placing hundreds of thousands of previously displaced persons at extreme risk.
In West Darfur, RSF reportedly killed between 800 and 1,300 people in just a few days in Ardamata, targeting mostly Massalit, and raising fears of genocide in Darfur. UN Special Rapporteur on the prevention of genocide, Alice Nderitu, said that “current dynamics in the region could lead to further mass killings in an environment of complete lawlessness and impunity, The risks of genocide and related atrocity crimes in the region remain grimly high.”
Although the RSF has been strong in Darfur for some time, the prospect of the fall of El Fasher raises a host of concerns. One of these is the role of the Juba Peace Agreement signatories, which have a considerable presence in the city. The movements have so far proclaimed their neutrality in the current conflict, but say that they are increasingly experiencing tensions between their civilian protection responsibilities and the risk of attack by the belligerents. If they, or their constituent populations, come under sustained threat, will they abandon their policy of neutrality? How will that affect the balance of military power? Will it just make the conflict more confusing and more diffuse? In addition, reports of widespread atrocities committed by the RSF in other areas that they control has elevated concerns for the safety and welfare of those remaining in the city in the event that it too should fall. It also raises the specter of a de facto partition of Sudan between a RSF-controlled West and a SAF-controlled East. This is likely to only further complicate the already frustrated negotiations in Jeddah, reducing the chances of a settlement in the short term and increasing the risk for civilians.
The fighting in Darfur coincides with the relaunching of negotiations in Jeddah, both complicating and undermining the credibility of those talks. The United States, one of the facilitators of the talks, has, through Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in El Fasher. The EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell has expressed concern about reports of large civilian casualties in West Darfur, calling the violence part of an RSF campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Masalit.
Despite this international concern, there has been no serious discussion of civilian protection at the UN Security Council. The body will vote in November on the renewal of the peacekeeping force in Abyei (UNISFA) on the Sudan/South Sudan border. Negotiations have reportedly been smooth and the mandate of the mission appears likely to be renewed.