’The revolution was hijacked’: Inside the conflict in Darfur

Two years after mass protests led to the removal of dictator Omar al-Bashir, Darfur is still caught up in conflict. From displaced residents to RSF commander Hemeti, voices from Darfur discuss the violence.

An RSF member guards a desert water station in North Darfur [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

Darfur, Sudan – On the streets of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur – nestled between private houses mostly made of earth – are large, concrete public buildings. Some used to be schools, others a tribunal and a theatre. Now they are all flooded with people fleeing recent waves of violence.

In January 2021, the Kirinding camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) on the outskirts of town was attacked by gunmen for the second time in just over a year. The houses were largely burned – their ruined earthen walls are now covered with soot; on the ashen ground, abandoned donkeys roll on their backs, causing grey clouds to rise up and get carried by the winds. In the empty streets are scattered broken pieces of pottery, grain and luggage the attackers did not loot and that the 50,000 residents had no time to take with them.

The previously displaced community was forced to move once again, this time into El Geneina itself. They sheltered in some 84 government buildings that were designated “gathering sites” by the state, compelling schools and most services using those facilities to come to a halt.

Many of the Kirinding IDPs, the main victims of this latest episode in the endless war in Sudan’s western province, have survived previous attacks by Sudanese government forces and proxy militias.

In 2003, confronted by endless rebellions in Sudan’s peripheries, those in power in Khartoum were caught by surprise at the emergence of a small but successful rebellion in Darfur. As the new rebels recruited fighters among Darfur’s non-Arab communities, the regime decided to arm the rebels’ Arab neighbours.

Nicknamed the Janjaweed (meaning “evil horsemen”), they quickly grew to a force of several tens of thousands of men. They attacked on horses, camels and, increasingly, pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns. Generally supported by the army, they systematically targeted non-Arab communities who were accused of supporting the rebels. They killed the men, raped the women, looted their properties and burned their villages.

A gathering site for IDPs at a school in El Geneina, West Darfur [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

In precolonial and colonial times, coexistence between Arab and non-Arab communities was the standard. But with ideologies such as pan-Arabism gaining traction in neighbouring countries (like Egypt and Libya), and successive regimes in Khartoum promoting their own version of Arab supremacism against purely non-Arab fighters in southern Sudan, identities hardened in Darfur. The war in 2003 was not only the climax of older tensions, it set in motion an earthquake that subsequently damaged Darfur’s old social fabric.

In the last 18 years of war, Darfur IDPs have become seasoned in the art of building shelters – made of cardboard packaging, plastic sheeting, branches, straw, and occasionally even bricks. Since January’s flood of new arrivals, huts in El Geneina have been built in record time: An empty sandy square in the morning could turn into a new crowded camp by twilight. Meanwhile, some people squat on the stairs of buildings, on balconies, or in abandoned cars within compounds. Inside the “gathering sites”, horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens – everything that could be saved while fleeing the camp – have found a home.

Outside, children perch on the walls, gazing at military vehicles parked at each corner – a threatening sight, even though these government forces are meant to protect the IDPs from further attacks. The 50,000 who fled add to a host population of about 170,000 people, made up of various Arab and non-Arab tribes, which are also not impervious to external tensions. In April, fighting between Arabs and Masalit – historically West Darfur’s main community – spread to the town itself, bringing more displaced to the gathering sites. There are fears of a new wave of violence.

An IDP gathering site at the Ministry of Education in El Geneina [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

‘The men had sworn to stay even if they died’

Since 2003, the Masalit have lived in IDP camps like Kirinding and also made up a large proportion of the 300,000 Darfuris in refugee camps in neighbouring Chad. A whole generation has only known camp life, and some have barely left the camps, fearing the insecurity outside.

Zeinab*, a displaced Masalit woman in her 40s currently living in Abu Zer IDP camp just outside of town, acknowledges that the IDPs do not trust government forces, so that even “when they deployed cars to protect Abu Zer after Kirinding was attacked in January, we all fled when we saw them”. This is not only because those same forces first provoked the displacement of the Masalit in 2003, but also because, in recent years, local Arab members of the government forces have taken part in attacks against IDP camps, sometimes wearing their uniforms and using their service vehicles and weapons.

Zeinab speaks in a mostly monotone voice, sometimes she even smiles, betraying no emotion other than the sense she has become accustomed to the violence. She lost eight relatives, including her brother and six other male family members, in the January attack. Darfur’s displaced have learned to flee quickly when there are raids on their camps. In Kirinding, as in Abu Zer, Zeinab says: “When we heard the first shots, women and children fled to town, but the men had sworn to stay even if they were to die.” Nine women and 12 children were reportedly killed. Zeinab says more than 100 men were killed in the attack.

Since then, only a few IDPs have been returning to Kirinding for brief visits to the ashen remains of their homes. But there is the threat of snipers shooting at them from neighbouring Arab villages, and Zeinab says women looking for their belongings were raped, but shame prevented the victims from talking about it or reporting it to the police.

The burned remains of Kirinding IDP camp in West Darfur [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

Has nothing changed in Darfur in 18 years? In December 2018, mass protests began all over Sudan and by April 2019 they led to the removal of dictator Omar al-Bashir by some of his own generals. This was followed by the establishment of a joint military-civilian transitional government. With the main culprit behind bars, optimists thought the violence in Darfur had no reason to continue. However, it has been increasing. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 236,000 people were displaced between January and April 2021, the highest number of displacements in at least six years.

The attackers’ identities and modus operandi – including killings, rapes, looting and arson – strongly echoed the Janjaweed attacks at the beginning of the conflict nearly 20 years earlier. Not that the violence had truly lessened in the years between, it had only morphed as it increasingly slipped from international attention. With independent relief organisations gradually expelled from Darfur, the UN avoiding speaking out to preserve their relations with the al-Bashir regime, and global fatigue about a protracted conflict, acts of violence often went unnoticed outside of Darfur.

While Janjaweed attacks were at times less intense – with a large swath of their targets displaced into camps, there was simply much less to burn and loot – such attacks were replaced by fighting, successively, between rebel factions, between armed Arab groups themselves, and ultimately, during al-Bashir’s last years, by unsuccessful government campaigns to annihilate shrinking rebel mountain strongholds. Some areas were quiet for years, but their largely displaced non-Arab residents had to accept living under the hegemony of Arab militias.

This was, in particular, the case in West Darfur, considered Darfur’s quietest state during the past decade. However, strikingly enough, this is where recent violence has peaked, with three enormous attacks by Arab militias since December 2019, including two on Kirinding camp – each leading to the deaths of between 60 and 160 mostly Masalit civilians within a few days.

The violent surge was likely aggravated by the gradual withdrawal of the joint mission from the UN and the African Union to Darfur (UNAMID). The general view on the ground is that, while the peacekeepers – whose numbers peaked at 23,000 in 2011, then the largest peacekeeping force worldwide – rarely intervened and mostly observed, their very presence acted as a strong deterrent. That was proven right when, in December 2019, six months after UNAMID’s withdrawal from West Darfur, Kirinding camp was attacked for the first time. The second attack in January 2021 took place two weeks after the closure of the whole mission.

All four outbreaks of violence since December 2019 began as small scale incidents between individuals. But each time, the response from Arab communities was swift, violent and extensive.

A displaced woman visits the Kirinding IDP camp after it was burned in January [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

In December 2019, the trigger was a dispute in a TV club during which an Arab youngster was stabbed by a non-Arab. The victim was a member of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the latest government paramilitary group into which Arab gunmen who were previously part of the Janjaweed were integrated. His death provoked a rally of angry Arab community members. Local figures delivered speeches demanding the removal of Kirinding camp in front of a crowd shouting cries of vengeance and including some of the top officers in West Darfur’s security forces. Then 2,000 gunmen attacked the camp, killing at least 60, witnesses said. The state’s RSF commander, accused of having led the attack, was transferred to Khartoum, where he was promoted from lieutenant colonel to colonel.

Violent incidents also multiplied in rural areas. In the past decade, West Darfur’s relative peace allowed the gradual return of IDPs and refugees from Chad: those who were ready to take risks in order to farm rather than depend on relief. Their aim was also to show that they would not give up their land rights.

In 2012, The New York Times published an optimistic dispatch from a “return village” called Nyoro, 20km (12 miles) south of El Geneina. It was titled: A Taste of Hope Sends Refugees Back to Darfur, and included an enthusiastic quote from West Darfur’s UNAMID head Dysane Dorani: “It’s amazing. The people are coming together. It reminds me of Lebanon after the civil war.” The piece was immediately contested by many Darfur activists, saying the embedded journalist had been manipulated by UNAMID.

People build a shelter at an IDP gathering site at a school in El Geneina [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

Even if Nyoro was far from being representative of the whole of Darfur, returns actually took place there as Adam*, a local chief, told me a decade later: “We returned in 2010, because we were willing to retrieve our land.” The returnees found Arab nomads from Chad had settled on their farms. “We heard the area was empty and good for livestock,” the Arabs explained to Adam. In Nyoro, as in other pockets across Darfur, the returnees accepted a very unbalanced peace of victors. To be allowed to return, sometimes only for the farming season, the IDPs had to share their land and harvest with Arab newcomers.

After al-Bashir’s fall, while hopes of a more balanced peace grew, Nyoro did not escape new tensions between Masalit and Arabs. The village was partly burned during each of the three main waves of violence in West Darfur. In January 2021, all its inhabitants ran away. “We left everything here, I just moved with my clothes on my back,” Adam recalled. The local RSF unit escorted them to a safer place but did not protect the abandoned village.

I drove south along the same road Nyoro’s displaced had followed, until the 80,000-inhabitant Masalit town of Misterei. No Arabs could be seen – considered sympathisers of the previous regime, they had been virtually forbidden from entering Misterei since mid-2020, when a pro-revolution sit-in had been organised in the town, as they had in various locations across Sudan.

Peaceful sit-ins and violent attacks

It is generally considered that the protests that led to al-Bashir’s removal began in mid-December 2018 in Damazin, Blue Nile State – 700km (435 miles) east of Darfur – before spreading to Khartoum, 450km (280 miles) from Blue Nile. Activists in El Geneina, however, assured me that a few days before that, high school students in town organised the revolution’s first protest. Early demonstrations united Darfur’s Arab and non-Arab communities. But the sit-ins that took place in 2020 across Darfur were not only supporting a democratic and civilian transition: the non-Arabs were also demanding that Arab settlers be evicted from their land.

Arab communities felt targeted. In July 2020, 500 armed Arabs attacked Misterei, killing 60 to 80 Masalit residents. But here too, something had changed. For the past two decades, the Masalit could only run away when confronted by the Janjaweed – with the government strongly backing the attackers, resistance equalled suicide. This time, with the al-Bashir regime removed, they fought back and repelled the attackers. More than 100 Arabs were killed, according to Saleh*, a local Masalit agid (war chief).

A sit-in at the non-Arab village of Fatta Borno in North Darfur in October 2020; the slogan written in red on the wall reads ‘ancestral homeland’ [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

The revolution not only allowed the Masalit to organise protests to reclaim their land, but they also began to rearm. Even before colonial times, the Masalit, whose sultanate remained independent until 1923, were known as fierce fighters. In Darfur, many communities have traditional war chiefs, often known as agid, in charge of mobilising the youth to defend the village in case of attack, or to run after stolen livestock. Saleh, now in his 50s, had been chosen as an agid when he was 20, in the 1980s. At that time, the Masalit armed self-defence groups took part in violent battles for land against Arabs. They did not always lose – the Arabs, not yet armed by the government, were not necessarily better equipped or prepared. Saleh said he won more than 10 battles, the latest in 2002. Then, the government began to arm the Arabs. “After 2003, we agids had no choice: either to join the rebels or to remain silent in the camps. I remained silent but never left Sudan, in spite of the war.”

After the first attack on Kirinding in December 2019, the Masalit realised “the government was not protecting [them]”. Saleh held a meeting with the Misterei community, and told them: “the government is failing, we have to protect ourselves”. He said the spears, knives and saforoks – the signature Masalit throwing sticks – should be replaced by firearms. So, when Misterei was attacked in July 2020, the Masalit were ready to defend themselves.

“It was our first victory since 2002,” Saleh said.

The second, according to many Masalit, was when Kirinding was attacked again by Arab gunmen, an estimated several thousand of them, in January 2021. While elders, women and children ran away, the self-defence fighters remained in the camp, prepared. Estimates from both sides put the deaths on the side of the Arab attackers at more than 200. Could this be seen as an unprecedented victory? At least 100 Masalit were also killed, the camp burned and its residents displaced.

A senior Masalit self-defence fighter makes protective charms in West Darfur [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

The Arabs changed tactics, possibly because of their unusual losses, according to the Masalit; or because they were encouraged by kinsmen attempting to de-escalate the violence, according to Arab soft-liners themselves. Those organised what they called a “sit-in of the Arab tribes”. Demands were indeed tribal, and radical, including the dismantlement of the IDP camps around El Geneina. Arabs also blamed the RSF commander for not fighting on their side. The Masalit were shocked. Masalit revolutionary youths felt that, by organising a sit-in for the first time, the Arabs were hijacking what until then had been a trademark tactic – namely, non-violent protests – of non-Arab civilians against the al-Bashir regime.

Whether the means were peaceful or not, it seemed impossible to escape remobilisation along tribal lines. In April, fighting resumed in El Geneina, confirming that both sides were preparing for more war. According to the UN, about 150 people were killed and more than 100,000 displaced in a week. Once again, the various military and civilian components of the transitional government seemed unable to react.

For Darfur Arabs, since al-Bashir’s fall, the signals sent from Khartoum have been ambiguous. Many of them hoped that the power they had acquired during the war would remain unchallenged, thanks to one man – RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti (a pet name for Mohamed), is now one of the most powerful men in Sudan.

Meeting Hemeti

When I landed in Khartoum in September 2020, after eight years of absence during which I could not access Sudan but kept following it from neighbouring countries, I tried as much as possible to learn about the fate of people I had met before – more than a few had been killed. “The dead will be a martyr, the survivor will become rich,” goes a Sudanese war slogan. One survivor was easier to track down than he was to meet. But eventually, I found myself driving to one of the villas hosting Sudan’s top officials.

I was introduced into a large room that served as living room, dining room and office, all decorated in blue, gilt and silvery tones. The large sofas reminded me of an oriental furniture shop in South Darfur’s capital, Nyala, where I had first met the man, back in 2009 – it was one of his early business efforts that contrasted with the poverty of its surroundings. It is only when the man took off his anti-COVID mask that I recognised it was Hemeti.

He rose from a local Arab militia leader to become second-in-command of the Sovereign Council, the paramount body of the transitional government now ruling Sudan, merging civilian revolutionaries and military leaders who turned against their former mentor, al-Bashir. From 6,000 men initially, military sources estimate his RSF has grown to more than 125,000 soldiers, enough to challenge the regular army.

As he had much to tell, we had to meet again. This time, he was in uniform, wearing leather sandals while stringing a tasbih (Muslim prayer beads) in his hand. Hemeti has a reputation for being a pious Muslim, and there are rumours that he recruited more than 100 fuqaraa (Islamic scholars) to pray for him; however, he is by no means a fanatic and recounts how in April 2019 he disobeyed orders when al-Bashir, quoting an Islamic law supposedly allowing a ruler to kill 30 percent or even half of a people in order to bring stability, demanded the military open fire on protesters calling for his departure.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, in his Khartoum villa. A camel trader from Darfur who dropped out of primary school, he became the commander of the RSF and, after turning against his mentor Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the deputy head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

Hemeti told me he was born “in the bush” and spent only three years in primary school and as many in Quranic school. Then he “started real life” – exporting camels to Libya and Egypt, until 2002-2003, when the Darfur non-Arab rebellion erupted. He said the rebels then attacked Arab caravans on their way to Libya, killing 75 men, looting 3,000 camels, and stopping the lucrative trade. This is how he and many other Arab leaders have long justified joining the government-backed militias, even though the Arabs’ record quickly became more deadly than that of the rebels.

By 2003, Hemeti had become an amir (war chief) in the area where his clan had settled north of Nyala, protecting the town from possible rebel attacks. By 2004, he had recruited 400 men. He said he warned the government that those should be integrated into regular forces or public opinion would turn against Darfur Arabs. But “the name of Janjaweed came out and what happened, happened,” he said. (“What happened, happened” has become a gimmick in the mouths of Darfur political players when talking about sensitive issues).

In 2007, he claimed to be a rebel for a few months. Whether he was sincere or just tried to leverage his position with the government is difficult to determine. But when I first met him in 2009, he was still clearly frustrated with the government’s continuous use of the Arabs as cheap proxies. He waited until new opportunities arose in 2013. That year, Arab militias openly fought the intelligence service in Nyala. Rather than joining them, Hemeti decided to protect the neighbourhood where the humanitarian community was based, evacuating aid workers to the UNAMID base. “It was the first time I saw khawaja (white people) climbing on a lorry!” he recalls. The move led him to be picked by the government to lead a new paramilitary force created in order to retake control of the Janjaweed.

The RSF was first focused on defeating rebellions all over Sudan’s peripheries. Their ruthless annual campaigns did not succeed at unseating the fighters from their main mountain strongholds but they defeated several rebel incursions from neighbouring countries. They were also deployed to quell protests in Khartoum itself as early as 2013 when at least 200 protesters were killed. First under the intelligence service, then under the direct control of the presidency, they became al-Bashir’s praetorian guard. The rumour goes that the dictator then nicknamed Hemeti “Himayti” (my protector), although Hemeti says this is gossip. He acknowledges he became close enough to al-Bashir to warn him of the aggravating economic crisis.

An RSF patrol in Kordofan [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

In 2017, he discussed with the dictator the fact that Sudanese gold, instead of bringing hard currency to the state, was directly smuggled by private companies on jets to Dubai. Hemeti was personally interested – the camel trader had never stopped doing business, and with close relatives, he had founded a holding called al-Jineid (a mythic ancestor of most Arab tribes in western Sudan), involved in particular in trading gold. Al-Jineid was favoured by the RSF’s military might in some mining areas, but Hemeti still felt that not only the whole economy but also his own interests were threatened by older companies closer to the regime.

Hemeti says al-Bashir repeatedly refused to address corruption issues. That day in 2017, when the RSF leader left the presidential palace with Abderrahim Dagalo, his brother and right-hand man, Hemeti told him: “What we’re doing is like filling a drilled girba (a camel rider’s waterskin).” He claims it was the day he decided the country needed change, but acknowledges he remained hesitant about how to provoke it, since “a popular revolution could risk repeating Syria’s and Libya’s scenarios, and a military coup [would] attract international condemnation”. A year later, the revolution erupted anyway, and he says he “decided to protect it from day one”. In March 2019, he made a speech in an RSF garrison, blaming the regime for the economic crisis, and supporting the protesters.

Hemeti played a key role in al-Bashir’s removal in April 2019. But a massive sit-in in front of the army headquarters continued to call for him and other generals to hand over power to a civilian government. Reportedly, there were some posters of Hemeti at the sit-in – whether they were put up by real supporters, by RSF infiltrating the protest, or by protesters trying to get him on their side is unclear. On June 3, 2019, “what happened, happened”: armed forces cracked down on the sit-in, killing more than 120. Hemeti was blamed but since then, various explanations have diluted his responsibility, including the persisting presence of elements loyal to the former regime within the RSF.

Since then, Hemeti feels he has been the target of a campaign orchestrated by Khartoum’s elite, “from the right to the left” – both former regime loyalists and leftist revolutionaries who kept mocking his lack of education. Since independence, Sudan’s main feature has been the concentration of power in the hands of the centre’s elites, triggering violently repressed insurgencies in marginalised peripheries such as Darfur. Hemeti is now presenting himself as a representative from the peripheries, the first to reach such a high position. He is attempting to get support among Darfur non-Arabs and, in the name of the government, he signed a peace agreement with main rebel groups in October 2020.

“We should acknowledge that without Hemeti, Bashir would not have fallen,” a civilian minister told me. “But most Sudanese also fear his forces. Some of us, politicians from the centre, also fear he could constitute a bloc from the peripheries, an alliance of the Darfuris against the centre”.

After the rebellion

An asphalt road to Darfur had been an old promise of the al-Bashir regime, and the delays in the project were a trigger for the rebellion. Paved during the final years of al-Bashir’s rule, it is now said to be the best road in Sudan. At night, it is dotted with corpses of nightjars not yet accustomed to the lights of the cars.

The asphalt stopped abruptly, shortly after North Darfur’s capital El Fasher. Back to the old ruts in the sand, I was escorted by an RSF car. The crew’s leader was a once-famous non-Arab rebel commander, a sign of Hemeti’s attempts to integrate his former foes. Ismail “Abunduluk” is 45 years old and seems to have always been at war.

As a child, his family was decimated by Janjaweed attacks. “As I was growing up, I was asking where my aunt was, where my uncle was,” he remembered. “I was told what happened and that the Janjaweed were civilians like us. Then how did they get weapons if the government was not supporting them?” As early as 1993, when he had just turned 18, he tried to enlist in government-backed militias in the belief it could allow him to protect his community. He was rejected as too young, then opted for the secret “popular camps”, where self-defence groups were clandestinely training. Like many among those early fighters, he joined the rebels in 2002.

In 2003, Abunduluk took part in the foundational moment of the Darfur rebellion. The fighters succeeded in destroying the government aircraft at El Fasher’s airport. Moving to the army club, a thirsty Abunduluk opened the fridge and found a man in underwear hiding. While drinking a Pepsi, he says he found a prize prisoner – the head of Sudan’s air force.

Abunduluk became a young rebel commander with long dreadlocks – he has cut them since, as “Bobs”, popular among rebels, are forbidden within the RSF. In 2007, at the time Hemeti threatened to join the rebels, Abunduluk engineered local peace talks with disgruntled Janjaweed around his rebel enclave. But those not-so-secret deals were fragile and proved to be Trojan horses for the government, who gradually brought back many Janjaweed then used them to buy rebels, offering them money and government positions. Ten years later, Abunduluk was still surrounded, this time by a far superior RSF, which overpowered him. Compelled to negotiate, more than 300 of his soldiers were integrated into Hemeti’s forces, although he did not get more than a master sergeant rank.

The RSF guards a desert water station where Hemeti’s camels are said to be watered in North Darfur [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

More rebels could join the RSF, thanks to the recent peace agreement. Already, the presence of former rebels allows Hemeti to claim that the RSF has become “a national army”, more representative of Sudan’s diversity than the army, which has a reputation for being dominated by people from the centre of the country. Indeed, my escorts hailed from diverse parts of Sudan. In a country hard hit by the economic crisis, some had abandoned their studies to join the RSF in the hope of getting proper salaries. They dreamed of being sent to Yemen, where both RSF and Sudanese army troops are deployed within the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels. They are encouraged by those, like Abunduluk, who came back alive.

No matter that the veterans, in spite of being told to keep casualties secret, keep talking of the days where Houthi missiles killed many of them. In March 2021, according to Montecarro, a platform for Sudanese citizen journalists, 250 RSF personnel deployed in Darfur were reportedly arrested after they mutinied in protest against not being sent to Yemen.

For Hemeti and Sudanese army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, now Sudan’s Sovereign Council chairman who was then involved in the Yemen deployment, the troops sent to Yemen were not only guns-for-hire: the efficiency of the Sudanese contingent earned the two officers support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Also, in order to make friends abroad and improve his image, Hemeti deployed his forces on the routes to Libya to block migrant smuggling, claiming to act in the name of the European Union. At the edge of the Sahara, the commander of Zuruq garrison claimed smuggling had indeed stopped. The latest desert patrol arrested only poachers who had killed a gazelle. Even the RSF themselves seem concerned by the hunting interdiction – they chase gazelles only discreetly, and the horns adorning some of their bumpers are said to predate the ban.

A bullet hole, the head of a poached gazelle, and a Quran are seen from the cabin of a Janjaweed commander’s pick-up truck in North Darfur [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

Simmering tensions

In spite of their efforts to turn into a more professional force, the RSF’s deployment all over Darfur has not been welcomed unanimously. In the Jebel Amer gold mine, where 800 people were killed in fighting between rival Arab militias in 2013, locals acknowledged that the RSF had improved security. Yet, accused of a conflict of interest, Hemeti had to hand over al-Jineid’s local gold factory to the government in 2020.

Further north, Malha, the capital of the non-Arab Meidob, is the last town before crossing the Sahara to Libya. The main business here is the sale of cars exported from Libya, carried by the dozen on double-decker trucks. In 2018, Hemeti’s forces disarmed the Meidob rebels who were controlling the road. The RSF is now taking lucrative taxes (about $1,500 per truck) which do not make them popular. The morning of my visit, a Meidob was arrested after yelling insults at the RSF Arab commander. An RSF officer says there is not a single day where the f-word is not shouted in front of his office.

In some areas, coexistence remains difficult. In others, I saw farmers and gold miners asking the RSF to intervene to solve incidents between themselves. A government official told me people were “now sometimes happy to see them”, to his own surprise. “Hemeti is our only teeth. When incidents take place and we deploy joint RSF, army and police forces, only the RSF intervene quickly.”

Jebel Amir goldmine, the site of fighting between rival Arab militias when 800 people were killed in 2013, in North Darfur [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

There were instances when the RSF helped to avoid violence. In Nyertiti, in Central Darfur, in mid-2020, they were deployed to protect a sit-in organised at the same time as one held in Misterei, similarly merging national demands for democracy and local demands for security. “That was when Nyertiti entered Sudan’s history,” a local chief told me. Hemeti’s brother, and RSF deputy commander, Abderrahim Dagalo, visited the protesters and accepted most of their demands. The RSF arranged the peaceful evacuation of Arab settlers from one area, and protected IDPs farming there.

Nevertheless, the RSF’s peacemaking role makes Arab communities feel excluded from the change. They look warily at Hemeti’s promise to enforce the 2020 peace deal’s provisions, including the evacuation of land occupied during the war. Their violent mobilisation in West Darfur exposed Hemeti’s and the whole transitional government’s inability to implement that peace process and to protect Darfur’s non-Arab civilian population from further violence.

Hemeti sometimes appears stuck between his commitment to peace and his tribal loyalties. Too many Arabs have not given up the Janjaweed’s supremacist agenda and still see the RSF as their tribal militia, rather than the “national army” Hemeti has ambitions to form.

Long controlled by rebel groups, the strategic trade route between Darfur and Libya was taken over by the RSF in 2018, allowing them to tax, in particular, the lucrative smuggling of cars from Libya [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

Since the beginning of the war in Darfur, Arab armed groups have asked to be integrated into regular forces. However, in June 2021, in a speech in front of rebel signatories of the peace agreement, Hemeti publicly rejected plans to put the RSF under army command. He may feel doing so would mean losing control over his forces, and risking being overthrown by army generals. This was widely interpreted as a sign that long forecast tensions between the army and the RSF were threatening Sudan’s transition.

Approving Hemeti’s anger, Darfur rebels blamed the army for being reluctant to implement the peace agreement, in particular the key provision of joint government-rebel forces, which are supposed to replace UNAMID and to be the main government tool to protect Darfuri civilians.

Not only does each side spread innuendos about adversaries, but widening divides also risk preventing Sudan’s transitional authorities from reacting quickly and strongly enough to the next wave of violence.

“We’ve been waiting for Bashir’s fall and hoped the revolution could satisfy us,” an IDP leader told me. “We’ve been waiting for a good government. But we felt the revolution was hijacked by politicians in the centre, who are not different from Bashir. None of them considers Darfur. Then incidents started again, and we’re just waiting for the next one.”

*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.

Source: Al Jazeera