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Another Genocide in Darfur

Targeted killings of civilians in western Sudan increasingly resemble the horrors of 20 years ago, survivors say

By Hafiz Haroun and Rick Noack

July 18, 2023

Sudanese girls who fled the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region look at makeshift shelters near the border between Sudan and Chad, while taking refuge in Borota, Chad. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

ADRE REFUGEE CAMP, Chad — Twenty years after the Darfur genocide began, the children of those who survived are fleeing a new wave of violence that increasingly resembles the 2003 mass slaughter.

Like their parents two decades ago, they’re escaping towns in Sudan’s western Darfur region that are being burned to the ground in what appear to be coordinated attacks, leaving behind their family members who have been killed. Once again, they say they’re being targeted by Arab paramilitary groups for their non-Arab background. Some men and boys have been shot on the spot if they admit to belonging to the Masalit ethnic group, according to survivors, and those who escape may never be able to return.

At the cramped Adre refugee camp in neighboring Chad, 11-year-old Essam Muhammad was holding his 13-month-old sister. Twenty years ago, Muhammad’s mother, Fatima, lost her parents in the genocide, and now Muhammad too has lost his mother.

In tears, he recalled the moment his mother’s life slipped away last month. Shot by a sniper in the stomach in western Darfur, just a few miles from the border, her last whispered words to Muhammad were: “From now on, you’re responsible for your little sister.”

A covered body across from a military armored vehicle on a street in the West Darfur state capital El Geneina, amid ongoing fighting in Sudan. (AFP/Getty Images)

In interviews, more than two-dozen survivors in this and other refugee camps shared similar accounts, adding to a mounting body of evidence that suggests Darfur faces a new wave of genocide. The region has seen a surge in targeted killings and forced displacement since 2019 that was attributed to Sudan’s Arab paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Masalit leaders, in turn, have at times been accused by Arabs of provoking violence.

But the bloodletting escalated dramatically after fighting broke out in April around the country between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals who have been vying for power in the capital, Khartoum. Within days, fighters linked to the RSF — a group widely seen to have roots in the Janjaweed militias accused by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) of crimes against humanity in Darfur two decades ago — went on new killing sprees in predominantly Masalit neighborhoods in western Darfur, survivors say.

A man walks while smoke rises above buildings after aerial bombardment, during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

Over 300,000 Sudanese people in Darfur and elsewhere have died in the violence. More than 2.2 million people have been displaced within the country, while about 700,000 have fled abroad, many to Chad, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“The fighters told us that there is no place for us here,” recalled Randa Abdullah, 18, a Masalit whose parents raised her in a refugee camp in Geneina, the regional capital of the West Darfur state, after they were targeted in the 2003 mass killings, which were declared a genocide by Western leaders, the International Criminal Court, Genocide Watch, and human rights groups.

In April, Abdullah watched through a door slit as her father died after being shot by a sniper just outside their home. “We saw him take his last breaths,” she said, “but we couldn’t help him.”

“All around us, people were being killed,” she said.

She said she fled Geneina with about 100 other refugees, traveling on roads where “corpses were lying everywhere.” Snipers killed two dozen of the refugees in her group, she recalled.

Hawa Adam, a Sudanese refugee woman, who fled the violence in Sudan's Darfur region, rides a donkey with her children as she heads to water point near the border between Sudan and Chad in Goungour, Chad. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the humanitarian research lab at the Yale School of Public Health, which contributes research to the State Department’s Sudan Conflict Observatory program, said it is increasingly clear that the attacks committed by the RSF in Sudan constitute crimes against humanity — and that “no one is stopping them.”

“Very few people are making it out at this point” who can share their accounts of the violence with the world, Raymond said. But he added that satellite imagery shows that entire urban neighborhoods and villages have been burned to the ground in recent weeks in what appear to be efforts to permanently displace their populations.

Last week, the U.N. human rights office said in a statement that it had “credible information” that 87 people — mostly Masalits — were buried in mass graves outside Geneina in mid-June on orders of the RSF. Among the victims were women and children, the United Nations said. The RSF, as usual, has denied responsibility for these killings and similar incidents. RSF officials did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

In another incident, fires destroyed an area equivalent to the size of 280 soccer fields in the town of Murnei three weeks ago, according to the Sudan Conflict Observatory.

The “velocity and scale” of arson attacks attributed to the RSF and aligned militias appears to still be on the rise, Raymond said.

The Darfur genocide that began in 2003 was carried out during the dictatorial rule of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was later implicated by the International Criminal Court in ordering the mass killings. His ouster in 2019 amid large popular protests led to the formation of a hybrid military-civilian government, which in turn was overthrown by the two generals who are now fiercely battling for domination: Sudan’s military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF leader Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti.

Ibrahim Abkar, 75, saw his sister and grandson killed in front of him in Geneina. (Hafiz Haroun for The Washington Post)

When their fragile power-sharing deal collapsed in April, fighting erupted in Khartoum and quickly spread to Darfur.

Many of the attacks have involved systematic targeting of civilian infrastructure and local populations. In interviews, more than a dozen survivors from Geneina described targeted killings of unarmed neighbors and relatives in predominantly Masalit neighborhoods. Their testimony matches similar accounts from various towns in Darfur collected by human rights researchers in recent weeks. Doctors have reported seeing an influx of women who have been raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence.

Survivors say that RSF forces and their allies have used artillery to strike civilian buildings, including many refugee shelters. Suspected RSF fighters shot residents in the streets or went door to door, executing all men they encountered, according to survivors, who recognized some of the attackers as neighbors known to be RSF fighters or spotted cars and uniforms typically associated with the RSF.

While survivors said the atrocities in Darfur have been primarily committed by the RSF and its allies, they also blamed the Sudanese army for shelling their districts during clashes with the RSF, resulting in civilian injuries and deaths. Ten survivors also described being turned away when they sought refuge at the regional headquarters of the central reserve police, which is aligned with the military.

“They refused to let us into their compound and told us to leave,” said Juma Dawood Musa, 42.

Seeing no other options, Musa’s family decided to risk the perilous, 20-mile journey into Chad, repeatedly passing checkpoints of RSF troops or aligned militias.

His wife did not make it, he recounted. At one of the checkpoints, as militia fighters beat him with sticks, his wife intervened but became herself the target and was hit in the neck. Musa managed to drag her away, but she soon began to lose consciousness. To save himself, Musa said he had to leave her corpse beside the road.

At refugee camps in and around the small Chadian town of Adre, hundreds of thousands of refugees are estimated by the Chadian government to have arrived in recent weeks, straining an international relief response that humanitarian groups say lacks money and resolve. As the peak of the rainy season is approaching, mosquito and waterborne diseases are proliferating rapidly.

Eleven-year-old Muhammad does not have a tent to keep him dry. And on a recent day, humanitarian workers, running low on supplies, had only given him and his little sister a small portion of rice. Muhammad tried to honor his late mother’s last request and fed all of it to his 13-month-old sister.

“I can bear the hunger,” he said. “All I care about is that my sister has enough.”

Humanitarian workers say they’re stunned that the echoes of the 2003 genocide have so far not resulted in more international funding for aid groups or stronger sanctions. “The response from the international community is far below what we should expect on this scale of violence,” said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The organization called on the ICC Prosecutor, who has announced an inquiry into recent incidents, to probe attacks on civilians in West Darfur after an HRW investigation found evidence that RSF fighters and aligned militia shot more than two dozen people who had been hiding in schools in the town of Misterei in May.

Zainab Abdullah, 35, a refugee from Geneina, said she and her family unsuccessfully hoped that justice would be administered in the wake of the 2003 genocide that displaced them. “But the criminals became rulers,” she said.

This time, she doesn’t want to harbor false hopes. “We won’t return to Sudan,” she said.

Noack reported from Paris.

Rick Noack is a Paris-based correspondent covering France for The Washington Post. Previously, he was a foreign affairs reporter for The Post based in Berlin. He also worked for The Post from Washington, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Twitter

Copyright 2023 The Washington Post


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