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Massacres threaten to engulf Darfur, where revenge has substituted for justice

The Washington Post

Smoke rises from the Abu Zar camp near Geneina, Sudan, on April 6. Recent violence in Sudan’s Darfur region could quickly lead it back to where it was less than two decades ago, when cycles of revenge sparked one massacre after another. (Organization for the General Coordination of Camps for Displaced and Refugees/AP)

By Max Bearak April 20, 2021 at 1:00 a.m. PDT

GENEINA, Sudan — For almost all the 38 years Abdulwahab Mohamed Abdalla has been alive, scorched-earth ethnic warfare has kept him on the run.

His is one of the generations scarred by war here in Darfur, where blood feuds run deep. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. For decades, justice has remained elusive, and revenge has been the most common recourse. The past two years have seen a whirlwind of change in Sudan, where street protests led to the overthrow of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the dictator who presided over the wholesale burning and pillaging of Darfur in the 2000s, and ushered in a new government made up of former combatants that professed unity. But Abdalla knew the causes of the war here were deeper than any one man, the solutions more complicated than high-level peace processes. Now, Darfur is back on the precipice of full-blown conflict, and Abdalla is back on the run.

“Bashir or not, the same cycle of massacres are in full motion,” he said from a safe house in the western city of Geneina, just a few miles from the border with Chad.

His entire neighborhood of this city was destroyed in a major bout of violence in January, in which at least 160 people were killed in a hail of bullets and firebombs. In early April, soon after he spoke to The Washington Post, many of those displaced by the first round of attacks were targeted again, and at least 144 more were killed. Videos on social media and satellite imagery showed huge swaths of the city in flames between April 4 and 8.

Abdulwahab Mohamed Abdalla, 38, a banker in Geneina, stands outside his room at a safe house in March. He fled January’s attacks in Geneina’s Kerending neighborhood. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

He and half a dozen other witnesses said the perpetrators in both January and April were members of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that critics say is just a new name for the Janjaweed, a coalition of militias from the region’s pastoralist communities whose leaders stand accused alongside Bashir of war crimes in Darfur. The new government, however, has regularized the RSF and granted its members broad legal immunities enjoyed by the military.

Darfuris, human right activists and even Sudan’s attorney general said in interviews that continued impunity for the RSF, which compounds historic injustices, could quickly lead Darfur back to where it was less than two decades ago, when the militias ran rampant and cycles of revenge sparked one massacre after another. RSF leaders have repeatedly rejected allegations that they are tied to current or past massacres in Darfur. Idriss Hassan Ibrahim, their top official in Geneina, did not respond to a request for comment. “For seven days no one did anything to stop the killing, looting, burning, and then they just get to go back to their posts,” Abdalla said of the January attacks. He said RSF soldiers came looking for him at his house midway through the week of violence after a judge, under pressure from paramilitary soldiers, gave up names of a group of people that had tried to lodge a case against RSF soldiers they recognized.

“When they came to my house, I had been hiding in a nearby gutter, so I watched them set it on fire. But to this day there’s not one case open,” he said. “If that isn’t impunity, nothing is.”

The cost of peace

A view of Geneina from the Hay al-Jabal neighborhood in March. The neighborhood was largely burned down in a spate of attacks in early April. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

In other parts of the world where ethnic cleansings have been perpetrated, comprehensive justice has been a proven path to a more lasting peace. In Sudan, however, the domestic justice system is in shambles after 30 years of neglect under Bashir, and new vested interests in the new government have little desire to improve it when it could be turned against them. “In principle all crimes against humanity, war crimes, extrajudicial executions and other mass crimes will be investigated and prosecuted before a special tribunal for Darfur … no matter who the perpetrators are,” said Tag el-Sir el-Hibir, Sudan’s attorney general.

But he pointed to massive challenges: 80 percent of jobs, from clerks to prosecutors to judges, are unfilled; political interference blocks most access to records from the Bashir era; budgets are insufficient; and his office has no enforcement capability. He can file charges, but he has no officers to carry out the arrests. And then there’s the issue of immunity for the RSF.

“It is a real threat to social peace and justice,” he said. “Immunities send a negative message of impunity.” With Bashir’s ouster, millions of Sudanese who had taken to the streets hoped that a new government would be firmly under civilian control and aggressive about accountability. Instead, the military and powerful armed groups that engaged in decades of war commandeered the transitional government. Bashir was charged with an array of crimes and put in jail, but some of his top generals — and his arch nemeses, too — have become Sudan’s most powerful men. “The civilians in the government are forced to make uncomfortable compromises because they don’t actually have much power,” said Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation and a longtime researcher on Sudanese politics. “Getting Bashir behind bars was inescapable, but there’s no way the military can let that process go down the chain. Who is down the chain? Well, of course, they are.”

The government has opted instead to bring warring groups into its tent, hoping that spreading power around can function in some way like justice. One of Darfur’s rebel leaders, who fought against the Janjaweed, is now the finance minister, for instance.

A satellite image from Jan. 16 shows structures burning after a series of attacks in Geneina. (Planted Labs)

Another satellite image, from Jan. 20, shows the resulting burned structures. (Planet Labs)

Last month, a Janjaweed leader named Musa Hilal, who Human Rights Watch called a “linchpin” of the organization of mass crimes in Darfur, was released from prison. His supporters in Darfur are now clamoring for him to be included in the government, too. “You get peace by making everyone a minister seems to be the strategy,” de Waal said. “But I suspect we don’t ever get around to a real reckoning in an institutional way.”

Without a reckoning, Darfur’s underlying feuds, based in competition for land and water between pastoralists and farmers, and warped by personal vendettas and accumulated ethnic hatred, are heating up again. While the violence was worst in Geneina, reports of village burnings and killings in the rest of Darfur, a region roughly the size of Spain and home to 10 million people, are becoming more common.

Nearly 200,000 people were made homeless by the recent violence, which came during the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers who were installed in 2007 after the worst of the fighting in Darfur had subsided. Victims of the violence said the peacekeepers had been the only thing standing between RSF soldiers and the general population.

‘A siren of danger’

While the conflict in Darfur has often been framed as one driven by ethnic hatred, its roots lie in land disputes. British and Egyptian colonists in Darfur, coming from farming societies, imported land ownership laws that sided with local agriculturalists over nomadic herding communities. “As nomads, we have been written out of our rights for many generations, and even war has not corrected that injustice,” said Naima Khalil, an engineering student. Her family comes from a pastoralist Arab tribe, the Rizeigat, which the RSF draws on heavily for recruitment. Rizeigat residents of Geneina said in interviews that they deplored the use of violence, but that even if the Masalit seemed to be the main victims, in fact they were the ones orchestrating the flare-ups.

“When Arabs attack Masalit, the Masalit leaders then claim they deserve greater power and rights because they are the victims. So they provoke the fights,” said Ayman Isa Yahya, 33, a software engineer. “How can they always be the victims when the governor has always been Masalit, the jobs, the aid money, the top positions all go to the Masalit? All we have is the military.” Those claims echo arguments made in the past by Hilal, the recently released Arab militia leader. Hilal’s release has struck fear into many Masalit residents of Geneina, who lived through his well-documented atrocities, many of which took place in camps for displaced Masalit farmers. “The head of the beast that killed the Masalit — who is Bashir — was removed but the whole body remains, and the release of Musa Hilal is some of the clearest evidence of that,” said Nahid Hamid Abulghasim, a Masalit lawyer representing the mostly Masalit victims of January’s violence.

Hilal did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Four lawyers representing victims of recent violence, including Nahid Hamid Abulghasim, far right, stand in front of Geneina's courthouse in March. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

Abdalla, who once managed a bank and taught briefly as a professor in Geneina but now lives in a makeshift camp, said Hilal’s release was what made him consider seeking refuge in neighboring Chad, more even than the violence that destroyed his home and sent him fleeing. “His release is like a siren of danger. He is the one who has made our lives hell, so when he is free, we always expect the worst,” Abdalla said.

The Sudanese government deployed additional troops to Geneina this month, and relative calm has held for more than a week. But troops can’t mete out justice, and Masalit leaders have rejected the government’s offers to mediate.

Hibir, the attorney general, said that Darfur and the country in general need three times as many prosecutors, and that the whole justice system “needs radical change and reform” to keep up with new conflict, let alone decades of unprocessed past violence.

According to the United Nations, around 2,000 people from Geneina had fled to Chad as of mid-April. Abdalla is not yet among them.

“If we leave, that would mean to give them the ethnic cleansing that they want,” he said. “We have paid in blood for this land — we can’t just leave it.”

Abulghasim, the lawyer, said a resolution of the conflict in courts is a futile hope, and that Abdalla has next to no chance of pursuing a case against RSF soldiers.

“I consider my job as a lawyer a sacred duty, but I will not lie to you — in Sudan, it is impossible,” she said on a recent visit to the safe house where Abdalla was staying, about a week before April’s violence caused him to flee again. “In Sudan, there is no such thing as justice.”

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