Fears of ethnic cleansing mount in Sudan’s West Darfur

Multiple ceasefires and international mediation efforts have failed to stop the conflict from escalating.

The abduction and execution of a regional governor in Sudan has raised fears that the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is aiding a campaign of ethnic cleansing, survivors and experts have said.

Khamis Abakar, the governor of West Darfur, was killed hours after he criticised the RSF and allied Arab fighters of “genocide“, in an interview on June 14 with a Saudi news channel.

His body was found in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur. 

“Civilians are being killed randomly and in large numbers,” he told Al Hadath TV, urging the international community to intervene to protect people in el-Geneina. “We haven’t seen the army leave its base to defend people.”

The RSF denied any responsibility and blamed the killing on outlaws fighting a “tribal conflict”.

The Sudan Conflict Observatory, an independent monitor funded by the United States, said the RSF was responsible for what it called an extrajudicial killing.

“The entire city is under the RSF and the [Arab] militias cooperate with them. Today, all of el-Geneina is destroyed,” Abakar told Al Hadath. “There is no protection for us whether from the central government or from the regional government.”

Abakar was from the non-Arab, Masalit tribe. According to witness and rights groups, Arab militias and the RSF – a group mostly composed of Arab recruits – have targeted Masalit displacement camps, killed people attempting to escape to neighbouring Chad, kidnapped and raped women and executed influential figures in the community, such as tribal leaders and human rights lawyers and monitors.

Witnesses have spoken of corpses lying on the streets for days and at least 1,100 people have reportedly died so far.

Months of simmering tensions between Sudan’s army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF commander, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, descended into war on April 15. Ten days later, they took their armed struggle to West Darfur.

However, the army quickly retreated and left a power vacuum that RSF fighters and Arab militias exploited.

“We express our deep concern over these crimes and violations committed by militias against civilians and we demand international protection for the state of West Darfur,” said the Roots Organisation for Human Rights and Monitoring Violations, a local civil society group from West Darfur.

‘The army is silent’

More than 115,000 refugees have escaped from West Darfur to Chad despite the perilous journey, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Human rights monitors in el-Geneina told Al Jazeera that Arab militias and RSF fighters were guarding all exit points from the city and demanding bribes from families trying to flee.

Ahmad Hagar said on Friday that he paid the equivalent of $500 to militias so that he could escape on May 28 with his wife and five children. He blamed the Sudanese army for failing to intervene to defend the Masalit.

“Arab militias cooperate with the RSF and the army is silent,” he told Al Jazeera.

Army spokesperson Nabil Abdullah did not respond to queries on why troops were not intervening to protect civilians in el-Geneina.

The threat of targeted killings has prompted influential figures such as the Masalit tribal chief, Sultan Sa’at, to flee with his loved ones. They left shortly after Arab fighters raided his brother’s home and killed him, according to Nahid Hamid, the sultan’s wife and a human rights lawyer.

“After his older brother was killed in his home, the sultan and his entire family fled. His children, his brothers and sisters and everybody,” she told Al Jazeera.

Hamid said she was in Khartoum when the civil war erupted. Now in Egypt, she said the murder of her brother-in-law is the result of lawlessness in the region.

“There is no security,” she added.

Global indifference?

Several international and local civil society groups on Friday published an open letter asking regional and international institutions, as well as influential countries such as the US, to “publicly denounce the RSF’s role for committing atrocities in West Darfur”.

The letter came two days after a comment by Sudan’s UN envoy Volker Perthes sparked outrage. He said that targeted attacks against civilians based on ethnicity in West Darfur were “allegedly committed by Arab militias and some men in RSF uniform”.


The RSF and its lobbyists used similar language to deny their involvement in the sit-in on June 3, 2019, in which 120 pro-democracy protesters were killed.

Despite dozens of witness testimonies and hundreds of videos that implicated RSF fighters in the attack, the group blamed imposters that dressed in RSF uniforms.

When Al Jazeera asked Florence Marchal, the spokesperson for the UN mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), why Perthes used the wording that he did, she said, “We are super cautious. We cannot name [the perpetrator] if we are not able to verify.”

The US Department of State was more direct in its statement, which said that Washington “condemns in the strongest terms the ongoing human rights violations and abuses and horrific violence in Sudan, especially reports of widespread sexual violence and killings based on ethnicity in West Darfur by the Rapid Support Forces and allied militias.”

Pursuing justice

Careful monitoring and evidence gathering is essential in order to give survivors from West Darfur a chance to pursue justice, according to Emma DiNapoli, an expert on international law who focuses on Sudan.

DiNapoli said on Friday that the International Criminal Court (ICC) could be an avenue to hold perpetrators to account since the court already has jurisdiction over Darfur thanks to a UN Security Council Resolution passed in March 2005.

Based on that resolution, the ICC indicted Sudan’s former ruler Omar al-Bashir – and other members from his regime – for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2009. Al-Bashir was later indicted for genocide.

With Darfur now embroiled in another civil war, the ICC could in theory open up new cases.

“There is clearly a case [to prosecute perpetrators] for crimes against humanity [in West Darfur] and I would say the same is true for war crimes,” DiNapoli told Al Jazeera.

“Crimes against humanity include deportation by forcible transfer and persecution on ethnic grounds and don’t need to occur in an armed conflict. But they need to be proven to be part of a broader systematic attack directed against the civilian population,” she added.

Activists in Sudan have already been advocating for the ICC to look into the killing of Abakar.

One human rights monitor, who asked that his organisation and name stay anonymous for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera on Friday that any new investigation could act as a deterrent against future human rights violations.

“I know these people in Darfur,” he said. “If you even mention the ICC, then perpetrators begin shaking in fear.”

Source: Al Jazeera