No escape, no aid as fighting intensifies in Sudan’s West Darfur

While attention has focused on the conflict in Khartoum, an uptick in violence in el-Geneina is terrifying residents.

People walk among scattered objects in the market of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, as fighting continues in Sudan
Residents walk in what remains of a market in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, amid the continuing conflict in Sudan [File: AFP]

As Sudan’s civil war enters its second month, ethnic killings are terrorising civilians in the troubled West Darfur region.

Residents told Al Jazeera that no place is safe and that Sudanese Arab fighters stormed a hospital to execute 12 wounded non-Arab civilians on May 14. Government buildings, food markets, schools and internally displaced camps have also been attacked, looted and burned.

“They are killing all residents … and committing crimes against humanity,” said Jamal Khamis, a human rights monitor in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur.

“The militants especially know who the political and human rights activists are,” he added, suggesting that he could be targeted.

Since a conflict erupted between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on April 15, the two sides have redeployed thousands of fighters from across the country to try to consolidate control over Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.

That has left a power vacuum in West Darfur where Arab militias have reportedly killed hundreds of people in el-Geneina.

The region has long been a source of tension between Arab and non-Arab communities because of disputes over land and water resources. The grievances date back to 2003, when non-Arab armed groups rebelled against the central government for neglecting and exploiting Darfur.

Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, responded by outsourcing suppression efforts to Arab tribal militias who were later repackaged into the RSF. Between 2003 and 2008, up to 300,000 people died in the violence as well as from diseases and famine brought on by the conflict, according to United Nations officials.

Now, residents in West Darfur are afraid of living through another civil war.

“It’s the Arabs who are attacking,” Fadil Barus, a member of the Arab Rizeigat tribe, told Al Jazeera from el-Geneina. “But war isn’t good … and I am not fighting. I’m a citizen that has humanity.”

False promises

Months after al-Bashir fell from power following a popular uprising in April 2019, West Darfur witnessed some of its worst violence in years.

In December 2019, 72 non-Arabs from internally displaced camps were killed, according to local rights groups. Survivors told Al Jazeera that uniformed RSF fighters were involved in coordinating and directing the attacks.

Despite the acute protection concerns in the region, the UN Security Council did not renew the peacekeeping mission for Darfur which expired at the end of 2020.

Peacekeepers in Darfur were often criticised for failing to effectively protect civilians, yet rights groups said that their presence somewhat dissuaded attacks since they monitored and reported atrocities that threatened to identify and expose perpetrators.

After the peacekeepers left, hundreds of more people were killed in subsequent attacks despite promises from the RSF and the Sudanese army to provide security in Darfur.

Both forces are now fighting an existential battle for Khartoum as the death toll mounts in el-Geneina.

“Snipers are targeting many people who have influence [in the community] such as doctors, engineers and teachers,”  said Ibrahim Musa, a resident in el-Geneina from the non-Arab Masalit tribe.

Musa said that he has lost more than 20 friends and relatives since the fighting erupted last month. A sniper shot his younger brother near their home, but he survived, he added.

“RSF snipers are located on high buildings … we try to [avoid] them by staying very close to walls … [and not walking] in the middle of the street,” Musa told Al Jazeera.

‘It’s a disaster’

Masalit displacement camps have also been looted and burned, residents have said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Khartoum, Nahid Hamid, a human rights lawyer and the wife of Sultan Sa’at who represents the Masalit in tribal disputes, said that fighters entered their home in el-Geneina and stole cars, money and gold jewellery

“The situation is a disaster. It’s a disaster. It’s a disaster,” she told Al Jazeera. “Homes are burning … all the homes will burn.”

Hamid added that Arab fighters stormed the home of her colleague and stole his valuables, killed his father and then evicted him.

Last month, many non-Arabs armed themselves by looting weapons from the local police station, but they have remained outgunned by much more powerful Arab militias who are fighting with RSF support, residents said. Since fighting began, some blamed the army for not defending them.

Al Jazeera contacted army spokesperson Nabil Abdullah to ask why the army has not stepped in to protect civilians, but he did not respond.

‘Nowhere to hide’

Fleeing the violence is challenging because of the insecurity on desert roads exiting the city, where thieves and armed groups look to stop cars at gunpoint, said Mathilde Vu, the head of communications for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“[We heard] that there were cars trying to leave when they were shot at. There is heightened criminality on the roads,” she told Al Jazeera from Nairobi, Kenya, where she is monitoring the situation in West Darfur.

“[In el-Geneina] there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape and nobody to protect you,” Vu added.

Beyond the killings, food prices are soaring due to acute shortages across the city. Prior to the conflict, most displaced people were heavily reliant on humanitarian assistance and about 42 percent of all residents in the state relied on aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In March, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that about one of three children suffered from chronic malnutrition in Darfur.

But humanitarian assistance has been suspended because of the fighting and food supplies have been disrupted due to insecurity on the roads.

“Just like in Khartoum, people will die from bullets or hunger in West Darfur,” Vu told Al Jazeera. “The big difference with Khartoum is that el-Geneina was already an open-air camp in some way.”

For now, a number of community activists have been risking their lives to communicate to the world about the violence.

Jamal Khamis, the human rights monitor, said that his peers are constantly fixing electricity grids, so they can access the weak internet connection.

“It’s difficult for people to focus on how to get their voices out to the foreign media,” Khamis said. “They are still grasping how they escaped death and how they survived [attacks] from [Arab] militias.”

Source: Al Jazeera