Darfur may not be in the public eye as it was when every liberal arts student donned a “Save Darfur” shirt, when world powers issued public condemnations, and “Rock for Darfur” performers raised tens of thousands in donations annually (there were 22 concerts in 2006 alone).
But the western part of Sudan, about the size of France, is still a household name—and though recognition hadn’t followed as the conflict sputtered along, the situation in Darfur has now escalated to a level unseen since the genocide that began in 2003 killed at least 300,000.
On Wednesday a shocking report of this boiling violence snapped attention back to the long-embattled section of Sudan: According to an investigation released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Sudanese military raped at least 221 women and girls in Darfur over a 36-hour period in late October.
This reign of terror inflicted by the Sudanese army is just the latest outrage in nearly 12 years of conflict that has turned the region into a bastion of human rights abuses cloaked in secrecy.
“Darfur over the past year has seen the highest levels of violence and displacement since the start of the genocide a decade ago,” said Daniel Sullivan, director of policy for United to End Genocide, a group that grew out of the first Darfur war. And while sexual violence has been a tragically common feature of this war, he says mass rapes of this scale have either not happened recently or not been reported. “I haven’t seen reports on this level since the height of the genocide,” Sullivan said.
For its report, HRW interviewed two army defectors, who claimed that officers ordered the rapes. In the report, one woman who was raped along with her three daughters described the soldiers’ arrival. “We are going to show you true hell,” she said they told her.
In the immediate aftermath, the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) was barred from accessing the town of Tabit. Two weeks later, the peacekeepers were allowed in, but, according to a senior U.N. official speaking to The Daily Beast, there was a heavy Sudanese armed forces presence, and they were unable to conduct an investigation. Villagers also told HRW’s sources they were intimidated into not speaking about the attack, and threatened with prison or death by government officials if they did.