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‘They called me a slave’: Witness testimony exposes alleged RSF-led campaign to enslave men and women in Sudan

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Mahdi, 16, was blindfolded when a strange man felt for his biceps. He was looking for a “strong” boy to use as a farmhand.

The size of his muscles helped the man determine Mahdi’s price as he bought him from a militiaman who had captured him in the West Darfur capital of El Geneina.

“They hit me and called me a slave. And they kept hitting me,” Mahdi said of his captors and other unknown men. “I’d crouch down and they’d smack me in the neck.”

The documentary, which will air this Sunday on “The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper,” exposes an RSF-led campaign to enslave men and women in El Geneina, the largest city controlled by the paramilitary group in Sudan’s Darfur region.

He only came out of hiding when night fell. Throughout the day, he said, he saw the fighters forcing women into classrooms at gunpoint, after which he said he heard sounds that indicated torture and rape.

Many of the women, Khalid said, appeared to have been trafficked from further north in Sudan — where women’s style of dress can display relative affluence, and where the tribal and racial mix is typified by generally lighter complexions.

She said she saw an RSF fighter approach the driver and ask how much he was willing to “sell” the women for.

She recalled hearing the driver boast that he had “handpicked the women” and that “no amount of cash” would make him release them to the RSF fighter.

‘To us you are all slaves’  

The trafficking of women from Arab-majority areas in the north of the country has become a widely discussed practice in Sudan, with widespread reports of RSF fighters demanding ransoms for their release.

In Darfur, captured women from non-Arab tribes appear to have been treated differently — the apparent sexual exploitation of women tends to involve shorter periods of captivity, and their abuse is reported by dozens of witnesses, survivors and activists to be racially fuelled.

The RSF, a largely Arab fighting force that has been accused of ethnically cleansing non-Arab tribes in Darfur, is widely named as the culprit of wide-scale sexual exploitation there.

The paramilitary group has previously denied allegations of conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign and committing sexual violence, in Darfur.

According to a Human Rights Watch report published in August, the RSF raped “several dozen women and girls” in El Geneina between late April and late June.

“The assailants appear to have targeted people because of their Masalit ethnicity and, in some cases, because they were known activists,” the report said.

She said she heard her captor receiving money in exchange for her enslavement in the brothel — up to 7,000 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of $10.

“He said to me: ‘To us you all are slaves. To us you are not free,’” said Raghm, who belongs to the Masalit tribe, the main target of the RSF’s revived apparent ethnic cleansing campaign.

Between beatings, she said she recalled him saying: “You are dirt. You are a disgrace.”

In Arabic, the word for ‘slave’ is a racial slur equivalent to the n-word.

‘They flogged us with whips’

“They locked my mother, myself, and my sisters up for four days and they raped us,” said 20-year-old Hawa. “On the fifth day, we fled. We saw some of (the Arab militia) on the street and they flogged us with whips. They told us to run for our lives, and cursed us, calling us donkeys and goats.

“The children were exhausted, barely walking a few steps before they collapsed,” she said.

He said he spent 10 days in the house that he was sold to before escaping and making it to the relative safety of Chad. The brother who was taken at the same time as him was killed by the RSF, he said.

Editor’s Note: This report would not have been possible without the contributions of Sudanese journalists whom we are not naming for their safety.

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