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.”
His harrowing testimony was among dozens – including accounts from women who alleged sexual enslavement – collected as part of an exclusive documentary by CNN about the humanitarian toll exacted by the ongoing fight between Sudan’s ruling military and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
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.
A CNN team in the Chadian refugee camp of Adre, across the border from El Geneina, spoke to over a dozen witnesses who described the abduction of people en masse, with women forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for food and water and both men and women being traded by their captors. Their accounts shed further light on the violence in the genocide-scarred western Sudanese region over the past five months.
To protect the witnesses and survivors, CNN is not identifying them by their real names.
The apparent atrocities peaked after the RSF — which a CNN investigation has shown is backed by Russian mercenary group Wagner — captured El Geneina in mid-June. In the days that followed, a man named Khalid said he saw RSF-uniformed fighters escorting over a dozen shackled women into the El Geneina Industrial School, where he worked as a teacher.
“They flogged them with whips that they use on animals while the girls were screaming,” said Khalid, who told CNN he watched the scene unfold from his hiding place behind a pile of chopped wood in the school compound.
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.
Several Sudan-based rights groups, including the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) and the government’s Combating Violence Against Women Unit, have told CNN that they believe the RSF abducted dozens of women from the capital, Khartoum, trafficking them to the paramilitary group’s strongholds in Darfur.
Rights group activists say they have spoken to scores of local sources who said the women appeared to have been sexually exploited by the RSF. In Adre, CNN spoke to four other witnesses, in addition to Khalid, who said they saw evidence of RSF trafficking women from northern Sudan.
One former abductee from Darfur— who CNN is not naming — said she saw a 4x4 vehicle roll up into an Arab neighborhood in El Geneina, carrying four women who appeared to be northern Sudanese women in the back.
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 RSF has not responded to CNN’s request for comment about allegations of sexual enslavement.
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.