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New Darfur Genocide: Sudanese RSF massacres Masalit

‘We Will Shoot You.’ War in Darfur Raises New Fears of Genocide.

Victims recount another round of atrocities two decades after mass killings in Sudan drew worldwide attention


The Wall Street Journal

March 21, 2024


Taiba Hassan Adam’s 10-year-old son, Mohamed, in Adré, Chad.


Photographs by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The Wall Street Journal

 

Her chest tightening in panic, Taiba Hassan Adam watched as a group of men splashed gasoline on the small brick and grass house. Their comrades kept their rifles trained at her. Hassan Adam’s three youngest children—10-year-old Mohamed, 8-year-old Awadia and 7-year-old Faiz—were stuck inside.


Moments earlier, the gunmen had moved chairs to block the building’s one metal door. Then they dropped matches into the shimmering liquid.


Hassan Adam had hoped the house would shelter her family from a wave of attacks in Sudan’s Darfur region. Now it was on fire, and all she could do was pray that her children would somehow find a way out.


“We will shoot you if you try to go in,” she says the men shouted at her and the other adults they held in the house’s yard. As the screams of her children broke through the flames, the men, Hassan Adam says, started to cackle. 


“They were just laughing,” says Hassan Adam, still stunned into grief in a sprawling refugee camp in Chad, across the border from her Sudanese homeland. “They knew there were children inside.”


About 50,000 refugees from Darfur live in the Ourang camp in eastern Chad.


Hassan Adam’s story is just one in a grim pattern of atrocities perpetrated by mostly Arab fighters against Darfur’s Black indigenous communities over the past 11 months. Officials say these acts are a continuation of the mass killings two decades ago that prompted worldwide protests and high-visibility outrage from celebrities like George Clooney and Don Cheadle. They’re being revived amid a broader war for control over Sudan—Africa’s third-largest country—between the country’s two most powerful generals.


This time, they’re drawing less attention. Diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and other global powers to end the fighting and protect civilians have fallen behind bigger foreign-policy priorities like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s war in Gaza, former officials and analysts say.


Through interviews with more than four dozen refugees in makeshift camps near the Chad-Sudan border, as well as aid workers, diplomats and international experts monitoring the violence in Darfur—a mineral-rich region roughly the size of Spain—The Wall Street Journal has documented abuses against civilians on an industrial scale. 


Salima Ibrahim Fadul, 27, was shot as she fled an ambush of snipers, her 1-year-old daughter strapped to her back and two other children clutching her hands. Naima Gammar Abdelkareem, 22, says gunmen beat her with sticks as she held her newborn baby. Sharif Adam, a 33-year-old car mechanic, watched the summary executions of 12 of his friends, their hands tied to their backs.


Other survivors say they were raped by multiple men, their homes set on fire or smashed by artillery. Several say their attackers pelted them with racially charged insults, calling them “slaves” or “dogs” and telling them that their land no longer belonged to them. Many of the attacks have targeted communities that had already been displaced by earlier bouts of violence in Darfur.


These acts, United Nations officials and international monitors say, have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Darfuris and the forced displacement of around 3 million, more than a fourth of the territory’s estimated population. Aid agencies have struggled to raise funds to support those in and around Darfur. Many are now sitting on the edge of famine.


A new report by U.N. investigators estimates that fighting between Arab militias and poorly armed self-defense forces from the Black Masalit community in the West Darfur city of El Geneina killed as many as 15,000 people between mid-April and June last year. A massacre in a camp of internally displaced Darfuris in November claimed as many as 2,000 lives, the report says. 


No one has counted the victims of other atrocities, like the one in the final days of June when gunmen set alight the house that sheltered Hassan Adam’s children. 


Sudanese refugees in Adré board trucks that will relocate them to a refugee camp four hours away.



Sharif Adam says he crouched behind a cupboard when gunmen entered his home in Ardamata, Sudan.


‘They told me to get my money. I said I don’t have any. They asked again,’ he says. ‘And then they just shot me.’ He says he later watched members of an Arab militia shoot and kill 12 of his friends.


Uneasy partnership


Hassan Adam’s family had settled on the outskirts of the small agricultural town of Murnei after fleeing another Darfur village during the massacres of the early 2000s. 


Some 300,000 Darfuris lost their lives between 2003 and 2008 in what the U.S. and others have labeled the first genocide of the 21st century. Many of them died as a result of the collapse of local agriculture and healthcare amid the killings, as well as the deliberate deprivation of humanitarian aid by Sudanese authorities at the time. 


In the years since, Hassan Adam, who is 38, made a modest living growing sorghum and other crops. Her children attended school and at home she would often find Mohamed and his younger siblings trading stories and giggling. 


“We had a good life,” she says. 



That ended in April last year, when an uneasy partnership between Sudan’s top two generals—Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto president, and his second-in-command, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo—collapsed into open warfare, with gun battles and aerial bombings shattering the streets of the capital, Khartoum. 


Both men’s careers were tied closely to Darfur’s earlier bloodshed. Dagalo, commonly known by his nickname, Hemedti, was one of the leaders of the infamous Janjaweed, the horse-mounted, mostly Arab militia behind many of the killings in the early 2000s. Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, had charged the Janjaweed with quelling an uprising of Darfur’s non-Arab communities. 


Burhan, Sudan’s current leader, had been a regional commander in Darfur for the Sudanese Armed Forces, which at the time backed up the Janjaweed with airstrikes and other military operations. 


Over the past two decades, Hemedti has built the Janjaweed into a more formidable paramilitary group, now called the Rapid Support Forces. Its estimated 100,000 fighters stood ready for Bashir to deploy to put down opponents and support allies at home and abroad. Hemedti also built lucrative alliances with the United Arab Emirates, which for several years hired RSF troops to fight in Yemen, and the Russian Wagner Group, to exploit Darfur’s gold mines.


Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), leader of Rapid Support Forces, formerly Janjaweed



Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto president


Amid large-scale protests against Bashir’s 30-year rule in 2019, Hemedti and Burhan teamed up to oust him in a coup. The generals initially pledged a gradual transition to democracy and, in September 2020, Sudan’s short-lived civilian government signed a peace agreement with many of the country’s armed groups. 


In Darfur, the deal handed more power to the region’s Black communities, including the Masalit, who traditionally were farmers. That rankled traditionally nomadic Arabs, whose animals often relied on the same land for grazing. Crucially, it also granted displaced Darfuris the right to return to land that, in many cases, was now settled by Arab communities or used to mine gold and other minerals. 


At the end of that year, the U.N. and the African Union began withdrawing a 10,000-troop peacekeeping force that had protected Darfuri civilians since 2007.


In Khartoum, tensions grew between Burhan and Hemedti over integrating the RSF into the Sudanese Armed Forces and who of the two would ultimately be in control. Within days of the war breaking out in April last year, the violence spread to Darfur. The RSF found easy allies in the region’s Arab leaders, who felt threatened by the ascent of the Masalit and other Black communities. 


“They saw the war as an opportunity to finish the job,” says Nathaniel Raymond, executive director at the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale University, which tracks the violence in Sudan in part through satellite imagery and online photos and videos.


Naima Gammar Abdelkareem says groups of Arab militia and gunmen wearing RSF uniforms raided her home three times. The last time, the men beat her while she held her newborn son and then burned her house. ‘I tried to protect the baby,’ she says. ‘They wanted to hit him.’



Nurses prepare to wrap Salima Ibrahim Fadul’s leg after her fourth surgery to repair it in Adré. Fadul says a sniper bullet shattered her shinbone as she and her children fled El Geneina. Terrified, her children ran to their grandmother, who later returned with a donkey cart to pick up Ibrahim Fadul.


No time to run


As news circulated in late June of attacks and looting of Masalit settlements, Hassan Adam moved her children—Mohamed, Faiz, Awadia and their 15-year-old sister, Safia—to the home of her eldest daughter, Karima. The adults stayed up through the nights, listening to the sound of gunshots. They prepared to flee at a moment’s notice. 


But when a group of fighters on motorcycles and horses stormed the small homestead one day around 10 a.m., there was no time to run. Some of the men were dressed in the RSF’s camouflage uniforms, and others in civilian clothing, Hassan Adam says.


Inside the burning house, Mohamed cowered in a corner of a smoke-filled room. He saw his younger siblings sprint for the one remaining exit: a small annex thatched from grass that immediately went up in flames.


From outside, Hassan Adam watched the structure collapse on top of Awadia, who didn’t get up again. Faiz emerged, burned badly on his head, legs, arms and abdomen. He was soon followed by a choking Mohamed, draped in a blanket that seared into his hands, arms, neck and shoulders.


At this point, the gunmen had moved on to neighboring houses, including one where, according to Hassan Adam and her daughter Safia, three other children died in the flames. Based on images captured on June 28 by a global fire monitoring system run by the U.S. National Space Agency, researchers at the Yale lab estimated that the fires set in Murnei affected an area equal to around 280 football fields.


The adults covered Awadia’s body with a plastic tarp. Faiz was alive, but unconscious. Mohamed wailed in pain, Hassan Adam says. 


“Don’t leave us,” he pleaded with his mother and sisters. “Please take us.”


Taking turns to carry the badly burned boys on their backs, Hassan Adam and her older daughters moved to a neighborhood east of the town that had been spared by the violence. Faiz died that same night. 


Three days later, Hassan Adam’s brother returned to the family’s charred homestead to bury Awadia’s body. Desperate to save Mohamed’s life, the family then left Sudan altogether. 


A 22-year-old woman says she was trying to flee an attack in El Geneina when two gunman dragged her into a building then beat and raped her. She lay there until her aunt found her. ‘Many women were raped, including on our way to Adré,’ she says.


Stolen phones


In response to the Darfur massacres of the early 2000s, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for six men it said were responsible. Among them were then-President Bashir, the first sitting head of state indicted by The Hague, Netherlands-based court and the first person it charged with the crime of genocide. 


Bashir, who has been in detention in Sudan since his 2019 ouster, has denied the charges.


The international fallout of those earlier killings, experts monitoring the conflict say, has informed the commanders behind the current atrocities. Raymond of the Yale research lab says that on several occasions, the RSF and its allies seem to have taken advantage of cloud cover before they attacked civilian areas, possibly to avoid their actions being captured on satellite images.


Nearly all survivors interviewed by the Journal reported having their phones stolen by the RSF and its allies as they fled El Geneina and other towns in Western Darfur. Experts investigating the violence believe that was part of a strategy aimed at preventing footage of atrocities and their perpetrators from reaching the outside world. 




Destruction in El Geneina

 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in December that the RSF and allied militias were responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Darfur—and that the RSF and Sudan’s military had committed war crimes.


The ICC’s current prosecutor, Karim Khan, told the U.N. Security Council in January that both the RSF and the Sudanese authorities were obstructing his efforts to investigate abuses in Darfur that could fall under the court’s jurisdiction.


The recent U.N. report found that the Sudanese Armed Forces failed to protect civilians in Darfur from attacks by the RSF and its allies, and used airstrikes to target RSF-controlled cities, including densely populated civilian neighborhoods.


Hemedti has denied that RSF fighters deliberately targeted civilians in Darfur and blamed the massacres on “tribal violence” unrelated to his campaign. [Genocide Watch comment: the ethnic "Civil War" tactic of denial]


In an August news conference posted on Facebook, a group of Arab leaders in West Darfur denied committing atrocities and blamed the Masalit for starting the violence.

[Genocide Watch comment: the Blame the Victims tactic of denial]


The Sudanese military has denied committing war crimes and says it is investigating reports of individual infractions by its troops. [Genocide Watch comment: the rogue troops tactic of denial]


Sudanese refugees at a camp in Adré receiving food aid.


Refugees in Chad lined up to receive food aid.


Dwindling food aid


The U.N. and other aid groups say both parties in the war have stopped them from reaching many of the 25 million Sudanese—more than half of the country’s total population—who now depend on humanitarian assistance.


Medical charity Doctors Without Borders estimated last month that in just one camp for displaced people in North Darfur, 13 children are dying from the effects of malnutrition and unsafe drinking water every day. 


In areas that can be accessed, including in neighboring Chad and South Sudan, aid groups say they don’t have funding to support refugees streaming into countries that are among the poorest on earth. Makeshift camps—some built into the sand of the Sahel desert—lack sufficient water, tents and latrines to sustain more than a million people, most of them women and children. 


Refugees driven out of their homes in Sudan by RSF waiting for food in Chad


The World Food Program has already cut rations for Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and warned last week that without extra financing, it will have to suspend food aid for refugees in Chad in April.


Of the nearly 560,000 Darfuris who have fled to Chad since the start of the war, roughly half arrived in Adré, a dusty town whose population increased nearly fivefold within a matter of months. 


In a tented field hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, Hassan Adam has spent the past seven months sleeping on the floor next to Mohamed’s bed. In two surgeries, doctors have sought to graft skin from his thigh to his scarred hands and arms. Every day, a physiotherapist carefully bends his fingers, trying to restore their mobility. 


“His pain is better,” Hassan Adam says. “In the past we had to feed him, now he can feed himself.”


But Mohamed, the 10-year-old boy who loved to run and joke, remains haunted by the memories of the fire that killed his siblings, Hassan Adam says. So does she. “I will hear them screaming in my head until the day I die,” she says.


Taiba Hassan Adam sits with Mohamed in the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Adré on Jan. 31.


Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at Gabriele.Steinhauser@wsj.com


Copyright ©2024 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Appeared in the March 22, 2024, print edition as 'In Darfur, Genocide Fears Rise Again'.

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