The new cycle of atrocities in Darfur must be stopped

As the RSF closes in on el-Fasher, there must be urgent international action to prevent atrocities.

People fleeing the violence in West Darfur, cross the border into Adre, Chad, August 4, 2023. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
People fleeing the violence in West Darfur, cross the border into Adré, Chad on August 4, 2023 [File: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra]

For months now, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an independent military force, together with allied armed groups, have been besieging the city of el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. If the city falls, this would likely kick off yet another wave of killings. This is happening in the total absence of any UN or other international or regional presence mandated to protect the civilian population there.

RSF forces and affiliated armed groups have already killed thousands of mostly Massalit people in el-Geneina, West Darfur, and surrounding areas, forcing more than half a million people, mostly Massalit, to flee into neighbouring Chad. The risk now is that they will take aim at the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who, fleeing the violence in other places in Darfur, have found refuge in el-Fasher.

Reading horrifying new developments in Darfur draws my mind back to July 2023, when my colleagues and I travelled to eastern Chad to gather evidence of mass killings in el-Geneina.

On a hot day in July, my interpreter and I were walking in the arid outskirts of the small town of Adré in eastern Chad, where hundreds of thousands of people, mostly ethnic Massalit women and children, were staying, having fled the violence in West Darfur. Men were noticeably absent. Families were living in makeshift shelters consisting of four sticks and a piece of tarp, which hardly protected them from the scorching sun or torrential rains. There was almost no access to electricity, running water, or regular food provision.

My interpreter, a leading member of the Massalit human rights community in el-Geneina, knew practically everyone. Every few minutes our walk through this enormous makeshift settlement was punctuated by the chirp of greetings that sounded almost cheerful.

But the raw pain that every family was experiencing crystalised when we reached her close friend, Zahra Khamis Ibrahim. When the women saw one another, they each held their hands up, palms up and started whispering prayers for the dead. Then they collapsed into each other and started sobbing.

Zahra’s 17-year-old son was brutally executed by armed Arab militiamen as he and his friends were trying to escape the horrific mass killings in el-Geneina on June 15, the same day tens of thousands of civilians fled to Chad.

Despite Zahra’s searing loss, she was still documenting instances of sexual violence, a job she had been doing for years as the founder of an organisation supporting survivors. In the camp, she introduced me to a slim, shy, 28-year-old economics student, who asked not to be named.

In a sweltering tent, she sat across from me on a mattress. Beads of sweat gathered on her forehead as she told me that eight armed men, two in RSF uniform and six in civilian clothes, entered her family’s home on June 8. They beat her relatives, shot her mother in the leg and one of them raped the student. When she got to that part of the story, it looked like her whole body was collapsing onto itself, like she was trying to disappear. She physically recoiled when I ask if she thought she might ever return to el-Geneina, and vigorously shook her head.

I interviewed her 24-year-old cousin, who also asked not to be named. An armed man raped her when she tried to retrieve her three children’s clothing from her home that had been ransacked by RSF and Arab militia forces several weeks earlier. Her hands were shaking as she told me that she had not gotten her period yet, “I can’t be pregnant again, please help me find a solution,” she implored. When she was able to finally access health services the next day, she was told she was indeed pregnant.

A few days later we interviewed the best friend of Zahra’s son. He was with her son when armed men aligned with the RSF forced everyone fleeing with them to lie on their chests on the ground. One man said to them, “I have 10 bullets. I am ready to shoot whoever I want to.”

The man killed Zahra’s son with a bullet straight to the head and killed two more of their teenage friends, the 17-year-old friend told me, his eyes cast down. At the end of the interview, I asked him how he was coping. “I don’t think I am OK,” he said. “I am not able to sleep at night, I just keep remembering all the things I saw.”

The scale of the pain among the Massalit population in Adré was palpable, and at times almost unbearable. I saw people smiling and laughing with each other and then falling silent and staring off into the distance as if they were remembering a horror they had witnessed.

I had seen this kind of grief before – when I interviewed Yazidi survivors of ISIS murders and sexual slavery in Iraq in 2014, Rohingya survivors of widespread killings and rapes at the hands of the Myanmar military in 2017, and Palestinians at a hospital in northern Egypt last month, who had been wounded amid atrocities committed by Israeli forces in Gaza.

These three crises have received global attention and outrage, as they should, and yet the abuses witnessed by the Massalit over the last year have been barely mentioned in the news.

From my current base in Ukraine, I also have a front-row seat to the stark contrast between the global outrage at Russian forces’ atrocities here, and the muted response to what is happening in Sudan.

The UN fund for the crisis in Sudan has been woefully underfunded even though the victims in this conflict are as vulnerable as one could possibly imagine. As a result, in Adré there are limited medical services, and even more limited psychosocial services despite the immense need for them among the displaced.

Attention from foreign governments, the media and nongovernmental organisations is important. It is needed in order to secure life-saving humanitarian support and bring more scrutiny and ultimately justice to those who commit mass atrocities.

Late in the afternoon torrential rain suddenly began but people did not rush off to their tarp and stick shelters worrying about their possessions being washed away, as one might have expected. Most people did not have anything. RSF fighters and their allies had stolen what little people had as they fled Darfur.

Zahra sent me a message a few days ago, as people fleeing el-Fasher were surging across the border into Adré. She said the situation in the refugee camp has gotten worse as numbers are swelling, and resources dwindling.

As we urge in a report on Darfur we recently published, the UN and African Union need to send a peacekeeping mission to Darfur, mandated to protect civilians, monitor human rights and humanitarian law violations, and lay the groundwork for the safe returns of those displaced. The real risk is that without forces there to prioritise the protection of civilians, the terrors that Zahra and hundreds of thousands of others have suffered will be repeated not only in el-Fasher, but in other towns and cities in Darfur.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.