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RSF Arabs kill thousands in new Darfur genocide

The Slaughter of El Geneina

Reuters

Published September 22, 2023


Mass graves at Al Ghabat cemetery in El Geneina. Masalit residents buried hundreds of slain relatives and friends under cover of night amid a weeks-long assault by Arab forces. Photo: Roots for Human Rights and Monitoring Violations

 

As Sudan plunged into civil war, the ethnic-African Masalit tribe came under weeks of systematic attacks in West Darfur by the paramilitary RSF and allied militias. In the city of El Geneina, at least 1,000 bodies were buried in Al Ghabat cemetery – which filled with hastily dug mass graves.

 

September 22, 2023

This story contains graphic images

ON THE CHAD-SUDAN BORDER


They were determined to bury their dead – even if the snipers on the surrounding rooftops meant they were risking their lives to do so.


To give themselves cover, they buried the dead at night, putting multiple bodies in the same hastily dug graves. They worked quickly, forced to dispense with much of Islamic burial practice, as they placed fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and neighbors in the ground. The bodies revealed the brutal way their lives had ended. Some were burned beyond recognition. Some were missing limbs. Others had gashes across the throat.


The flow of corpses was constant. On April 24, schoolteacher Abdel-Majed Abdullah says he helped carry 52 bodies wrapped in blankets – 27 men, 16 women and nine children – and line them up in newly dug pits. On April 27, surgeon Kamal Adam says he accompanied the body of his slain father, shot dead inside his own home, and placed him in one of three large pits along with 107 other bodies. On April 29, 56 more were buried. On May 7, lawyer Khaled Ismail attended the burial of 85 people, including a colleague who he says was burned alive, after attackers locked the man in his home and set it alight.


The burials in Al Ghabat cemetery continued for more than seven weeks, from late April until mid-June, turning the rectangular plot into a sprawling mass grave for at least 1,000 residents of the Sudanese city of El Geneina in West Darfur. The carnage, according to dozens of eyewitness accounts, was the result of more than 50 days of attacks on the city’s majority ethnic African tribe by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force drawn largely from Arab groups, and allied Arab militias known as Janjaweed.


The killing frenzy reached a climax over several days in mid-June, as El Geneina was turned into “swamps of blood,” according to one survivor. Another described the bloodletting as “the end of days.”


The peril was so unrelenting that many survivors told Reuters they were unable to give their dead the prompt burial called for by Muslim and local custom. Fatma Idriss says Arab militiamen shot dead her husband and three other men in her home, then prepared to incinerate the corpses.


“Don’t set them on fire,” she begged. Idriss says she managed to drag her husband away and cover him with a blanket before escaping and later finding refuge across the border in Chad. She promised herself she would return to bury him.


The tenacious resolve of survivors to bury El Geneina’s dead with honor is one of the signature features of the conflict that tore apart the city. Reuters interviewed more than 120 people who fled El Geneina to Chad, where Idriss and hundreds of thousands of other refugees are now living in camps. Survivors, many in tears as they spoke, described children being shot, women and girls raped, people picked off by snipers in the streets, and others slaughtered inside mosques where they had sought shelter.


Burying the dead en masse


Reuters used satellite imagery to trace how Al Ghabat cemetery expanded rapidly as the Masalit community buried its dead.


Through their accounts, supported by an analysis of satellite imagery, photographs, social media footage and lists of the dead compiled by local rights activists, Reuters has assembled the first comprehensive chronicle of the violence that consumed El Geneina earlier this year.


It was a rolling ethnic killing campaign that lasted for weeks. The target: the city’s darker-skinned Masalit tribe, for whom West Darfur is their historical homeland. The Arab attackers, multiple survivors said, often referred to the Masalit as “anbai,” meaning slave. [Genocide Watch comment: This is classic genocide.]


The killings, dozens of witnesses recounted, included executions of El Geneina residents who were identified as Masalit, sometimes after being interrogated by RSF and Arab militia fighters. The militiamen, survivors said, were particularly focused on killing Masalit men and boys, seen as potential fighters. Desperate to save their sons, mothers described dressing them in girl’s clothing, hiding them under beds or beneath their flowing robes, or shoving them out of windows so they could escape before RSF and Janjaweed fighters arrived.


Hundreds of thousands of people fled West Darfur to Chad as the violence spread across the region. The refugees are now living in camps, like this one in the town of Adre, Chad, near the Sudan border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

 


The belongings of people who fled the violence in West Darfur are transported in carts across the border between Sudan and Chad in early August. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

 

The survivors’ accounts reveal a campaign that was systematic and coordinated. Mortar fire was directed at specific areas of El Geneina where the Masalit lived. Roadblocks were set up on main arteries to control movement in the city. Arab militiamen specifically hunted for prominent figures in the Masalit community. When the campaign was over, RSF and Arab militiamen oversaw an effort to hide the atrocities, which included burying bodies on the city’s outskirts, more than 15 witnesses told Reuters.


What happened in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, was part of a two-decade campaign of “ethnic cleansing, occupying land and demographic change” by the RSF and Arab militias, alleges Hobeldin Hassen, a Masalit rights activist from El Geneina who fled to Chad. Their members, he said, “are mobilized and indoctrinated to annihilate the original inhabitants of Darfur.”


The RSF didn’t respond to questions from Reuters for this report. Arab tribal leaders couldn’t be reached.

In public comments, Arab tribal leaders have denied engaging in ethnic cleansing in El Geneina, and the RSF has said it wasn’t involved in what it described as a tribal conflict. In a news conference posted on an El Geneina community social media page on Aug. 21, Arab tribal leaders in West Darfur blamed the Masalit for instigating the fighting. The Arab leaders said the Sudanese military had colluded with the Masalit, supplying them with weapons to attack the Arab community. The RSF played no role in the fighting, they said.

[Genocide Watch comment: As usual, the RSF is lying.]


“You started the war; you rolled up your sleeves for war,” said Emir Massar Aseel, the leader of the Rizeigat tribe, from which many RSF commanders hail. “Take responsibility for the results of the war.”


The Sudanese army didn’t respond to questions for this report, including why soldiers stationed in El Geneina didn’t intervene to protect civilians under attack.


Source: Natural Earth


Reuters was unable to independently corroborate some of the survivors’ accounts. But witnesses were consistent in the violence they described and in the details and sequence of specific events in El Geneina. In many cases, multiple survivors described the same event.


In some cases, satellite imagery bore out what was happening on the ground, including images that reveal widespread destruction across large swathes of the city. A Reuters analysis found at least 1.8 square kilometers of destruction emerged in El Geneina from April 19 through June 29. That’s equal to about 250 soccer pitches.


Reports issued by human rights organizations have outlined similar patterns of violence. Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, told the U.N. Security Council in July that his office had begun investigating alleged atrocities in West Darfur, including extrajudicial killings, arson and looting. Earlier this month, the United States imposed sanctions on two senior RSF figures, including Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo [aka Hemedti], the paramilitary’s deputy leader. Dagalo described the U.S. decision as “unfair” and based on information “from one side.”


Hassan Zakariya, who ran one of two field hospitals that operated in El Geneina during the violence, shared a list of names of more than 880 people he said had been killed between April 24 and June 9. The full toll, he estimated, was more than 4,000 dead and at least 10,000 injured in Geneina alone. More than 290,000 people have fled the city for Chad, according to an estimate by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Before the violence, El Geneina had about half a million people as of 2022, according to the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).


Hassan Zakariya, a medic who ran a field hospital in El Geneina, shared a list of more than 880 people he said were killed in attacks by the RSF and Arab militias. He estimates more than 4,000 died in total. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


Violence erupted in Darfur days after war broke out between the Sudanese army and the RSF in Khartoum, some 1,400 kilometers to the east. The fighting in the Sudanese capital started on April 15, sparked by tensions between the army and the RSF over a plan to integrate their forces as part of a transition to civilian rule. The army, along with the RSF, had taken over in a coup in 2021, two years after toppling long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir.

 

Khartoum has been devastated by air strikes and artillery as the army has battled RSF fighters, who have taken up positions in homes, hospitals and schools. RSF fighters have been accused by human rights groups of looting and widespread rape in the capital. Hundreds of civilians have been killed.


In West Darfur, home to 1.8 million people, the violence was not confined to El Geneina. Reuters spoke to 30 people in towns across West Darfur, one of five states in the Darfur region. They described bloody ethnic targeting and being expelled from their land by the RSF and its allied militias. Many said their homes were burned to the ground. Satellite images of West Darfur show areas with burn scars where residents reported attacks. The U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands of people from these areas have fled to Chad.


Satellite pictures also reveal how the northern part of Al Ghabat cemetery expanded markedly in the weeks after violence erupted in El Geneina. The mottled earth, clearly visible in the pictures, is consistent with on-the-ground photographs obtained by Reuters from a local lawyer who said he participated in the burials. The photographs show multiple mounds of brown sand in the cemetery – each one a mass grave where city residents said they buried the dead.


“The cemetery is packed full with bodies,” Sultan Saad Bahreldin, the traditional leader of the Masalit, told Reuters. “The deaths never stopped.”


Besides Al Ghabat, more than 20 people spoke of six other cemeteries in El Geneina where they buried their dead in mass graves. Satellite images reviewed by Reuters showed that multiple new graves appeared during the violence in at least three of the cemeteries. On Sept. 13, the head of the U.N.’s Sudan mission said the organization had received credible reports of at least 13 mass graves in the city and surrounding areas.


The RSF has its roots in the violence that ravaged Darfur in the early 2000s. The force was born out of the Janjaweed militias – meaning “devils on horseback” in Arabic – that were armed by the Sudanese regime at the time to help crush a revolt by rebels who accused the government of neglecting the region.


The Janjaweed carried out attacks on civilians. By 2008, an estimated 300,000 had died, many from starvation, and 2 million had been driven from their homes. The United States had earlier declared the violence amounted to genocide, and in 2007 a joint peacekeeping force of the African Union and United Nations deployed to Darfur.


Most of those uprooted were from the non-Arab tribes in Darfur, including the Masalit. They were forced to live in camps for internally displaced people, or IDPs. In El Geneina alone, dozens of these camps were destroyed in the recent assault on the city, according to satellite imagery and dozens of residents who fled to Chad.


El Geneina, Arabic for “The Garden,” has historically been the seat of power of the Masalit. Traditionally farmers, the Masalit made up the majority of the population of El Geneina and its surroundings until the recent violence. The rest of the population is made up of Arab tribes and other non-Arab ethnic groups.


RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – known as Hemedti – with supporters in 2019. A former camel trader, Hemedti rose to power after helping crush a Darfur rebellion from 2003. REUTERS/Umit

Bektas


The leader of the RSF, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, is a member of the large Arab Rizeigat tribe, traditionally a nomadic people. The paramilitary’s West Darfur headquarters is in El Geneina.


The head of the RSF, Hemedti, is a former camel trader. His power base is in the Darfur region, where he was involved in the conflict that erupted in 2003. He joined the government’s campaign at the time to quell the rebellion in Darfur as part of the Janjaweed.


Under Hemedti, the militia was ultimately transformed into the RSF paramilitary, which was recognized by law as an independent security force in 2017. The force was estimated to number around 100,000 before the war started.


Hemedti’s role in helping crush the 2003 rebellion won him influence and ultimately served as a springboard for his political ambitions. In 2019, after he helped topple his one-time benefactor Bashir, he became deputy head of state. That made him Sudan’s second-most powerful person, behind his then-ally, military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. After vying for dominance, Hemedti and al-Burhan are now at war.


At the heart of the violence that has plagued West Darfur is a competition for land, water and other scarce resources between non-Arab farming communities and nomadic Arab livestock herders. According to the United Nations, over 60% of the population of West Darfur was “food insecure” even before the latest violence erupted.


There have been eruptions of ethnic conflict in recent years, but none as protracted and systematic as what unfolded in West Darfur from April to mid-June. Since 2019, hundreds of non-Arab residents in the region had been killed in attacks by RSF and Arab militias, according to the United Nations.


In 2017, the U.N. approved a phased drawdown of the peacekeeping force. The force’s mandate ended three years later – a turning point in West Darfur.


Internal U.N. reports written in 2021, reviewed by Reuters, warned of the risks of removing the peacekeepers. According to one report, the “closure of the mission and the withdrawal of physical protection assets” would create “a protection void in Darfur.”


Another report described the RSF as a “primary conflict actor.”


Tensions had been rising since 2019. A peace deal forged in 2020 between the Sudan transitional government and rebel groups had paved the way for displaced Masalit people to return to land seized by Arabs. But some Arab inhabitants were unhappy with the deal, another report warned.


“Attacking Masalit civilians living in El Geneina or the IDP camps around town,” the report said, “is a way of sending a signal to the Masalit people that they are not welcome in the area and that they no longer have a traditional claim over the land in the area.”


Two years later, those tensions would explode.


At around 7 a.m. on April 24, Badreldin Abdel Rahman was getting ready to leave his house when he heard gunshots. A staffer for an international humanitarian organization in El Geneina, he lived 400 meters from the RSF headquarters in the city. Skirmishes had erupted between the RSF and a Sudanese army unit, based in northern El Geneina, he and other residents said.


Abdel Rahman and dozens of other witnesses, all of whom subsequently fled to Chad, recounted what happened next.


The Sudanese army soldiers, they said, quickly retreated to their base on the far northeastern edge of El Geneina. As they withdrew, RSF and Arab militia forces turned their fire on residents in the largely Masalit areas of the city’s southern districts. Some of the Arab militiamen, their faces obscured, arrived on horseback, others on motorbikes or in mud-covered land cruisers.


Masalit residents grew worried about a repeat of past hostilities in which they were targeted. Around 2 p.m., hundreds of Masalit residents rushed to police weapon depots, according to six people present. Police officers, some of them Masalit, opened the doors, allowing the crowd to grab thousands of Kalashnikov rifles. Elderly men, women and teenagers, untrained in how to use the guns, were seen in the streets with rifles, five witnesses told Reuters.


“El Geneina at this point became fully militarized, and the entire city found itself forced to fight to deter the brutality of the militias,” said an activist in the city.


That night, the first bodies were buried in Al Ghabat cemetery – more than 50. The desire to do right by the victims was intense. Muslim and local custom call for a quick and respectful burial – washing the body, placing it in a shroud, making sure it has its own spot in the grave.


“It's a show of extreme shame and humiliation if people are forced to leave the dead unburied,” said Hobeldin Hassen, an El Geneina activist who said he buried multiple victims in the cemetery. “Burying the dead is the ultimate display of dignity and respect for the deceased.”


But with snipers lurking and so many dead, survivors often lacked time to do it right.


“Bodies were wrapped in mosquito nets or blankets,” said Adam, the surgeon who placed his slain father in a mass grave. “There were no lines separating the bodies from each other. There was no time or space.”


And not all those killed on April 24 could be laid to rest. Idriss, 45, a mother of 11 children, said militiamen stormed into her home in the Al Jabal district, yelling, “Where are the men?”


Once inside, she said, they shot her husband, her brother, a neighbor and a relative. The attackers, Idriss said, referred to them as “anbai” – slaves.


They wanted to burn the bodies, she said. She grabbed the hands of the militiamen and implored them not to. She succeeded in dragging her husband’s body back to their bedroom and covered him.


She was determined to bury him, she said, but the fighting that raged the next few weeks made it too dangerous. In mid-June, she fled to Chad with her children, leaving his body in the room and vowing to come back.


Fatma Idriss recounted how RSF and Arab fighters killed her husband. She was unable to bury him before fleeing to Chad – but vowed to return. Photo by Abdullah Mohammed

Orphan

As in the 2003 violence, rape again became a weapon of war in the region. Reuters interviewed 11 Masalit women and girls who said they were raped by RSF and Janjaweed fighters. Another three people said they witnessed women being raped.


A Human Rights Watch report published on Aug. 17 said the RSF and its allied militias had raped several dozen women and girls. “The assailants appear to have targeted people because of their Masalit ethnicity and, in some cases, because they were known activists,” the report said.


A 15-year-old girl described to Reuters how she saw her father and mother killed and was then gang raped. She spoke in short sentences, avoiding eye contact, sitting next to her elder sister in the sprawling refugee camp that has sprung up in Adre, a town on the Chad-Sudan border.


A drawing by a 15 year old survivor of sexual assault.

 

In the early hours of April 27, the girl said, the displacement camp in El Geneina where she lived with her family was shelled. Then RSF and Janjaweed fighters arrived on foot. They dragged her father into the street and shot him in the chest.


“My mother was pleading with them to stop,” she said. “They shot her in the neck.” Then they poured petrol on the family’s home and set it alight.


Terrified, the girl said she and about 15 other people ran to a building across the street and took shelter there – only to fall into the hands of RSF fighters occupying the building.


Five of the fighters she recognized as part of the group that killed her parents. They locked her and a friend in a room. The men wore military fatigues and the red caps of the RSF, she said. For five hours, they took turns raping her and her friend.


She heard her friend shouting: “Kill me.” Then there was a gunshot.


“They killed her because she was talking back,” the girl said. “I stayed silent.”


The men left after the assault. “I couldn’t move,” she said. Hours later, a man from the neighborhood passed by with a cart and helped her climb in. He took her to the outskirts of the city, and she ultimately made her way to Chad.


The teen has only ever known life in an IDP camp. Like many who fled to Adre, this wasn’t the first time she’d been forced from her home. She was born in an IDP camp in Krinding, east of El Geneina, after the family was attacked in 2003 by the Janjaweed and forced off their land, where they raised cows and other livestock. In 2019, she said, Krinding came under attack by RSF and Arab militias and her family’s hut was torched. The family sought shelter at yet another IDP camp in El Geneina.


The girl’s elder sister, Khadija, 20, sat next to her as she spoke, confirming elements of her account. When the girl arrived in Adre, Khadija said, she was in pain and still bleeding from being raped, so she took her to a field hospital. But the doctors said they were only able to treat the large number of people arriving in Adre with gunshot wounds, Khadija said. They gave the girl painkillers and turned her away.


Rape is being used again as a weapon of war in Darfur, as in prior conflicts. Reuters interviewed 11 survivors of sexual violence, who said they were raped by RSF and Arab militiamen. Several of these women can be seen here after fleeing to Adre, Chad. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

 

In June last year, Hemedti visited El Geneina. He released a white pigeon – a symbol of peace – at an event where he announced he was in the city to help mediate between the various tribes. Masalit activists issued statements at the time accusing Hemedti of trying to conceal atrocities committed by his forces and of buying the loyalty of Arab tribal leaders and militias with cash and cars.


Hemedti didn’t respond to questions sent to the RSF by Reuters.


On June 20 this year, several days after the violence ended, Hemedti accused the Sudanese army of fueling the conflict by arming tribes. In comments posted on an RSF social media page, he said he had proof that the military had a “sinister plan to inflame tribal war in Darfur, starting in El Geneina.” Hemedti didn’t provide any evidence.




Satellite images show the destruction of Abu Zor IDP camp in El Geneina. The first image was taken on April 19, before the violence erupted. The second image, showing the damage, was taken on June 21, after the violence subsided. Source: Pléiades Neo © Airbus DS 2023

 

He said he had ordered his forces to stay out of the conflict in El Geneina. “We pay tribute to all the innocent civilians who fell victim to the tribal conflict,” he said. [Genocide Watch comment: As usual, Hamedti was lying.]


More than two dozen people interviewed by Reuters, including Masalit tribal leaders, fighters and lawyers who fled El Geneina, said they saw RSF commanders and Arab tribal leaders overseeing the assault on the city. This included directing mortar and RPG fire at IDP camps and government offices in El Geneina, they said.


Sporadic battles raged throughout May, as Masalit fighters, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, tried to keep the better-armed RSF and Arab militias at bay. Thousands who fled from IDP camps under attack took refuge in the El Geneina district of Al Madaris, near the office of the governor of West Darfur, himself a Masalit.


Six Masalit fighters told Reuters that some 2,000 armed Masalit men deployed to the area and set up sandbag barricades to protect the people sheltering there. Among them were members of the Sudanese Alliance, an umbrella group of armed factions that have fought in Darfur’s past wars. Operating under the command of the governor of West Darfur, it was outgunned by the RSF, six fighters said, and many of its fighters would later flee to Chad.


The RSF began setting up checkpoints on the main streets of El Geneina, blocking people from leaving. “They imposed a siege on the city, so getting in or out was like committing suicide,” said Noah Alfadeil, 30, a resident who made it to Chad. “If the men tried to get out, they would be gunned down.”


By early June, the Masalit fighters were being overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the RSF and its allied militias. The city’s Al Majlis district was devastated. Homes were torched. Many of the inhabitants fled or were killed.


One of the holdouts was Tarek Bahreldin, an older brother of the sultan of the Masalit. The sultan, whose powers include mediating disputes among his people, had fled the family home several weeks earlier after it was attacked by militiamen. He was hiding with friends in the city, and would later escape to Chad.


Tarek Bahreldin, brother of the sultan of the Masalit, was slain. His body lay in the street for two weeks.

 

On June 8, some 50 RSF and Janjaweed militiamen entered the green complex that housed the sultan, his siblings and their families.


Fatma, a daughter of Bahreldin, described what happened that day.


The militiamen weren’t aware who the family was, she believes. They demanded to know if the family were “Arab or Masalit,” she said in an interview in Adre. “I told him, ‘We are Arabs.’ If we’d said we are Masalit, they wouldn’t leave any of us alive.”


Bahreldin held his favorite prayer beads and waved them at the men occupying his home. “This is my only weapon. God’s verses,” she recalls him saying.


The family decided to leave home and move to a safer area in northern El Geneina. But Bahreldin wouldn’t go. They ate what would be their last meal together. Then, at 4 a.m. on June 9, the family left. Bahreldin’s wife, Mariam Ismail, promised they would come back for him. But snipers in the surrounding streets made that impossible, Fatma and other family members said.


Three days after they left, the family got word that Bahreldin was dead. Mariam said he’d gone to a mosque across the road to eat. An Arab cleric who knew him offered shelter in the mosque and tried to convince him to stay. But Bahreldin told the cleric that if he was going to die, he wanted to die in his own home, Mariam says the cleric later told her.


Bahreldin was shot dead as he left the mosque, Fatma said. For the next two weeks, his body lay in the street outside his home as RSF and Arab militia forces prevented the family from burying him. Snipers lined the rooftops, ready to shoot should they try to retrieve him.


“The entire family could see his body from a distance and couldn’t do anything,” said Fatma, tears rolling down her face.


Only once the fighting ended did the RSF allow Bahreldin’s body to be moved. The family said they asked the Red Crescent for help burying him.


Bahreldin was finally laid to rest in Al Ghabat cemetery. When Red Crescent workers brought his body to the cemetery, the family said, the RSF forced them to bury him in a mass grave with others.


Asked about the role played by the Red Crescent, Aida Elsayed Abdalla, secretary general of the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, told Reuters her organization doesn’t “talk about individual cases to respect the confidential process around dead-body management.”


Events on June 14 would set off several days of slaughter that residents described in apocalyptic terms.

That day, Khamis Abbakar, the governor of West Darfur, gave an interview to the Saudi-owned Al Hadath TV channel. He accused the RSF of “genocide” and called for “international intervention to protect those left.”

“This nation is being killed in cold blood,” he said, as gunfire crackled in the background.


The same day, Abbakar was killed by RSF forces, Reuters reported in June, citing two government sources. The fighters who seized and killed him were led by the RSF's West Darfur sector commander, Abdul Rahman Juma, the U.S. State Department alleged this month in announcing sanctions against Juma over the killing. Abbakar was seen being led into Juma’s office in footage posted on social media.


Hours later, images of Abbakar’s battered corpse were circulating on social media. In footage posted later, celebratory cheers can be heard in the background as a truck rolls over the governor’s body and women hurl rocks at the corpse. A relative and four aides told Reuters the body shown in the footage was that of the governor.


In his June 20 message on social media, RSF leader Hemedti said he condemned “the assassination” of the governor and pledged to investigate.


The killing of the governor was a blow to the morale of the thousands of Masalit and other non-Arab residents sheltering near the government compound and in surrounding areas.


The residents now faced a choice, said Abdel Khaleq Douidan, an adviser to the governor. They could head to the Sudanese army base in northern El Geneina – a gamble because they could be intercepted by the RSF and Arab militias. Or, they could remain where they were. Douidan was against heading to the base, saying the Arab militias “have no ethics.”


But they chose to risk it, believing that if they could reach the base before sunrise they would evade the militias. Around midnight on June 14, thousands began leaving the government compound and making their way to the base, about seven kilometers away. There were people in cars, on donkeys and on foot. Some pushed carts loaded with the wounded. The sheer size of the group slowed their advance.


They still hadn’t reached the base when dawn began to break and calls to prayer came blaring through mosque loudspeakers, awakening the RSF and Arab militiamen. Hundreds of Arab fighters armed with machine guns, sniper rifles and knives descended on the crowd, according to Douidan and dozens of other people present. A massacre ensued, at least 30 people in the crowd told Reuters.


The fighting spread beyond El Geneina to other West Darfur towns where the RSF and Arab militias carried out similar attacks, said multiple people who fled the area. This group of men injured in the fighting in the town of Misterei received treatment after reaching Adre, Chad. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra



Nussayba Mohammed Adam, 6, from El Geneina, sits in a hospital in Adre, Chad, in late July. Nussayba’s father said she was injured when RSF fighters rammed vehicles into a crowd of people heading to the Sudanese army base in northern El Geneina on June 15. Other children with similar injuries were in the beds alongside her. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

 

People were cut down by machine gun fire. Some were crushed as militia fighters rammed their vehicles into the crowd. Others were cut open by militiamen wielding knives. Three Masalit fighters who had guns told Reuters they fired back.


Weam Ezzeldin, a 30-year-old sociologist who said she previously worked for a Western charity in El Geneina, was trapped in the crowd that day. She says she grabbed her mother with one hand and her sister with the other as they tried to escape the hail of bullets. There was carnage all around. A young girl cried for help after her mother was shot. Another woman, her baby tied to her back, fell after being struck by bullets. A wounded infant was left behind by her parents as they tried desperately to carry away their other injured children.


“I can’t express what I have seen,” said Ezzeldin. “Is it normal to stomp over dead bodies while running?”

Hundreds of thousands of people fled to Chad as the violence spread across West Darfur. Throngs of people can be seen heading out of El Geneina toward Chad in video posted on social media.


In the chaos, Ezzeldin had to choose who to help. She grabbed her mother, who had been shot, as well as the baby still strapped to the back of its dead mother, and led them to a nearby house. From a corner of the house she saw Arab militiamen storming in. They lined up young men who were hiding inside and shot them dead, she said.


“You are Masalit. You are cursed. You killed us,” the Arab fighters told the young men. Then they executed them, she said.


Some in the crowd tried to escape by heading to Kaja Valley, which cuts across El Geneina. But it was filled with rainwater. Elderly people and young children drowned after wading into the water, said dozens of people who were there. Others were killed as militiamen picked them off with rifle fire.


“The water turned red,” said Arafa Abdel-Shafi, a young woman caught up in the violence with her family. Her niece drowned that day, she said.


Many people fled the area and sought cover in other parts of the city. But RSF and Arab militiamen continued to hunt them down, according to at least a dozen survivors.


Asaad Arbab, an activist who kept records of people killed in IDP camps, said he found shelter with 200 people in Al Madina al Manawara mosque in central El Geneina. RSF and Arab militiamen stormed the mosque’s courtyard and killed more than 30 people, he said. Most of the survivors escaped through another exit, he said.


As the attacks continued on June 15, many decided their only chance was to make the 30-kilometer journey to Chad. They moved west out of El Geneina, most on foot, as they began an eight-hour walk to the border.


The route proved fatal for many. The RSF and Arab militias had set up checkpoints on the roads, said people who were stopped along the way. Men were separated from women and shot. Bodies littered the roads to Chad, eight people who survived the journey told Reuters.


At the checkpoints, young women were taken away by militiamen and raped, according to a dozen eyewitness accounts. Some said they directly witnessed the rapes. Others said they saw women picked up by RSF and Janjaweed fighters and taken into the bushes. They came back in tears.


Gamar Khater, a Masalit elder from El Geneina, shows notes he took on the atrocities he says he witnessed during the RSF and Arab militia assaults in the city.

One section, titled “Ways of killing African tribes,” listed snipers, swords and “beheading with knife.”


Gamar Khater, an El Geneina elder

 

Gamar Khater, a prominent El Geneina elder, said 17 of his family members were killed, most after the governor’s death. Khater kept notes of what he and others witnessed during the weeks of violence.


“I saw bodies along the road at these sites,” one entry reads. He then lists the names of five locations where he’d seen corpses on the journey to Chad.


One section in the notes is titled “Ways of killing African tribes.” The list includes mortars, snipers, swords, “beating to death with clubs” and “beheading with knife.”


In the ICC’s investigations, prosecutor Khan said he had given “clear instructions” to his office “to prioritize crimes against children and crimes of sexual and gender based violence.”


Key places and incidents in the April-June massacres in El Geneina. A Reuters analysis of satellite imagery found that at least 1.8 square kilometers of destruction emerged in the city from April 19 through June 29.

Sources: Open Street Map; Shuttle Radar Topography Mission; Reuters reporting and analysis of satellite imagery from Copernicus, Planet Labs PBC, Maxar Technologies and Airbus


Seven weeks of mayhem


The ICC said in response to questions that it could not elaborate on its probe due to “confidentiality,” which is essential “to protect the integrity” of its investigations and “ensure the safety and security of victims.”


A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department would not say if further sanctions on RSF leaders are being considered. But in response to questions, the spokesperson said: “We will not hesitate to use these tools to respond to the atrocities and other abuses committed by any of the warring parties.”


At their Aug. 21 press conference, Arab tribal leaders denied committing atrocities. They sat at a table in front of a tank. During the conference, they set fire to a Masalit flag.


The Masalit, they said, were the “aggressors.” El Geneina’s governor and his supporters had initiated the attacks, they said, while the Masalit had looted police stations, grabbing thousands of rifles. The Arabs had been forced to defend themselves.


“Arabs don’t want wars,” said Massar Aseel, the Rizeigat tribal leader. “But in the name of God,” he added, “if you want war, we are ready.”


Telecommunications were down in El Geneina during much of the violence, making it difficult to get evidence of the attacks to the outside world. And during and after the violence, the RSF and Arab militias took measures to cover up its actions, dozens of residents said.


Almost all the people interviewed by Reuters – more than 100 – said their mobile phones were seized by militiamen during attacks on their homes or at checkpoints along the road to Chad.


The RSF and Arab militias specifically hunted for prominent figures among the Masalit, such as activists, lawyers and doctors, according to more than two dozen people who made it to Adre.

In mid-June, the fighting was over and the RSF and Arab militias were in full control of El Geneina. They began efforts to "sanitize" the city.


Decomposing bodies lay in the streets amid the personal belongings of the fleeing throngs, said a Red Crescent volunteer. There were blankets, shoes, clothing, bags of flour, kitchen utensils and ID documents.


“I couldn’t take the smell of human beings decomposing in front of my house,” said the volunteer, a schoolteacher, who helped collect bodies after the fighting. “The least we can do is to honor them by burying them.”


Three people who say they volunteered to help the Red Crescent bury bodies after the fighting said militiamen prevented them from taking pictures or keeping any record of the dead. They said they were also told by the RSF and Arab militias not to help the wounded, and said they saw RSF and Arab fighters shooting injured people.


Since the conflict began, Red Crescent staff and volunteers have done “all they can to help others, day in day out, in an extremely volatile security environment,” the organization’s Abdalla told Reuters. Five Red Crescent volunteers were killed in the first month of the conflict in El Geneina, she said, and the organization’s local branch was looted and burned. The situation, she said, remains “full of risks for staff and volunteers.”


Some tried to assist the injured. One woman who was searching for her three missing brothers said she hid an injured man in a bread oven inside a house in an attempt to save him. She left a sign so that a group of activists helping the injured would know he was in the house. She doesn’t know what became of the man.


Six people told Reuters that under instruction from the RSF and Arab tribal leaders, bodies were loaded onto trucks, taken to an area on the outskirts of El Geneina called Al Torab Al Ahmar and buried in pits. On July 13, the United Nations accused the RSF of ordering the burial of “at least 87 ethnic Masalit and others” in a mass grave at Al Torab Al Ahmar.


Farah Yahia said he too saw bodies dumped on the outskirts of El Geneina.


Yahia, an El Geneina merchant, said he was rounded up with 10 other men by masked RSF fighters and Arab militiamen on June 15 and held in a water facility that was used as a detention center. For three days they were locked in a room without food or water. Some of the men, he said, started to drink their own urine. “It was a terrible thing, but they were so thirsty,” he said.



Adam Abdullah, 45 said he escaped death on the morning of June 15. He was sitting on a bed in Sadaka hospital, a makeshift infirmary in southern El Geneina, waiting to be treated after getting hit by shrapnel in his leg. Around 7 a.m., he said, a group of armed men burst in and shot everyone. He was struck in the arm by a bullet and could feel blood flowing down his back. He held his breath. “I pretended to be dead,” he said.

 


Maab Abu Zaar, 12 sustained face injuries after a mortar fell on her house on June 12, killing her 27-year-old mother. Maab’s father had been missing since the war broke out on April 15. Now orphaned, Maab and her five siblings hid under beds or behind the wardrobe through days of shelling and bombing of her district. Maab’s 57-year-old grandmother, Amna Abu Bakr, eventually took the children and fled to Adre. “I felt a lot of pain,” Maab said.

 


Abdel Azim Khater, 32 said he was shot multiple times as he tried to make his way on foot from El Geneina to Chad in mid-June. He was left wounded by the side of the road after militiamen shot him in his right side, he said. The next day, militiamen who found him there shot him in the leg, he said. The day after that, he was shot again, in the shoulder. “I pointed at my forehead and pleaded with them, ‘Please shoot me,’” he said. “‘I want to die.’”

 


Adam Hassan sat in the refugee camp in Adre, Chad, looking through an album with pictures of his son and father, who he said were killed by the RSF and Arab militias in the West Darfur town of Murnei in June. “My son was killed and they threw his body in the fire,” he said. “Don’t call these battles. There were no battles. They didn’t want to see any Blacks in the town,” he said.

 


On the third day, the men were lined up. Their captors quizzed them about their tribal affiliation, promising not to harm them. “In the name of God, fear nothing,” Yahia recalls them saying. “What is your tribe?”


Those who answered “Masalit,” he said, were executed.


Yahia said he lied and lived. He told his captors he was a member of another non-Arab tribe.


The RSF fighters then brought him along as they disposed of the bodies of the executed men. The corpses were placed in trucks, driven to the city’s outskirts and dumped in trenches, Yahia said. Two other people held at the detention center told Reuters they also saw bodies being loaded onto trucks and driven out of the facility.


All three men said detainees were tortured. One of the three, Salah Moussa, said he was tied to a mango tree and forced to hang by his arms for two days. He now has difficulty lifting his arms or holding objects. “My body became numb,” he said. Bruising was still visible around his ankles and wrists where he said he was tied up.


Yacoub Yahia said he was held in a makeshift detention center in El Geneina in mid-June. He shows scarring on his arms which he said he sustained when his captors hung him from a mango tree in the facility. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


After several days, Yahia said he bribed his way out of the detention center. His captors let him go after relatives and neighbors paid them a sum equivalent to $800.


In late June, 58 days after leaving the body of her slain husband behind in their bedroom, Fatma Idriss left her tent in the Adre refugee camp and walked the 30 kilometers back to her hometown. She traveled with a group of other women who also wanted to bury their dead. Two of them confirmed her account.


Idriss found a wheelbarrow, loaded it with her husband’s remains and pushed it to Al Ghabat cemetery. With the fighting over, she set about burying him in the full light of day. Other people at the cemetery helped her place his body in one of the mass graves. Then she walked back to Adre.


 

REUTERS INVESTIGATES

The Slaughter of El Geneina

By Maggie Michael in Adre, Chad, and Ryan McNeill in London

Photography: Zohra Bensemra

Video: El Tayeb Siddig

Additional reporting: Nafisa Eltahir, Aidan Lewis, Eleanor Whalley and Milan Pavicic

Photo editing: Edgar Su and Zohra Bensemra

Data: Ryan McNeill and Lena Masri

Graphics: Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa and Simon Scarr

Art Direction: Catherine Tai

Design: Catherine Tai and John Emerson

Edited by Peter Hirschberg

© 2024 Reuters. All rights reserved

 

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