In Sudan‘s capital, Khartoum, the call to the Eid al-Fitr prayer on Wednesday was accompanied by the scattered sound of gunfire. Shops were closed as armed soldiers patrolled the mostly empty streets, stopping and frisking pedestrians and firing into the air, on what would usually have been a festive holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Residents said the soldiers, dressed in tan fatigues, were part of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the paramilitary group accused of violently dispersing a weeks-long protest camp outside the military headquarters in Khartoum on Monday.
At least 101 people were killed during and after the bloody crackdown, according to medics aligned to the protest movement. Nearly 400 others were wounded.
For some protesters, the RSF’s assault at dawn came as a surprise.
Weeks before the attack, the RSF’s commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, said he had refused an order by Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, to open fire on the thousands of protesters who had been demonstrating against his three-decade authoritarian rule since December.
Disobeying al-Bashir, the military sided with the protesters and removed him from power in April. But protesters remained on the square outside the military headquarters, demanding the 10-member Transitional Military Council (TMC) that replaced al-Bashir cede power to a civilian-led authority.
One protester said he did “not expect the RSF to attack the sit-in”.
“There were rumours going on for days but we thought that’s all it was, rumours,” said Mazin, who gave only one name. Voice shaking, Mazin said he saw soldiers with the RSF opening fire on protesters and forcing others to dismantle barricades on the roads leading to the sit-in, the protest movement’s main rallying point.
“I was one of the people who literally cried,” he said.
The TMC, in which Hemeti serves as deputy head, denies trying to clear the protest camp and has launched a probe into the violence. In the immediate aftermath of the crackdown, the body also cancelled all prior agreements reached with protest leaders and said it would elections within nine months – a plan rejected by protesters.
But as global condemnation over the violence grew, the TMC’s head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan offered to resume talks. However, that call was also rejected by protesters, who said the military could not be trusted.
“We do not want to move forward with the RSF as part of the Sudanese army,” said Hajooj Kuka, a protester and member of the Girifna pro-democracy movement. “At this point, we have totally lost trust in them.”
Speaking from Khartoum, Kuka said soldiers with the RSF were stopping people on the streets, “looting” and “checking pockets and mobile phones”.
“There’s also been reports of rapes and beatings,” he said.
The RSF’s tactics against protesters are not new, said analysts.
The paramilitary force grew out of the Janjaweed militias which rights groups accuse of committing war crimes – including killings, rapes and torture of civilians – in Sudan’s western region of Darfur after the outbreak of conflict there in 2003. The force was established in 2013 to fight armed rebel groups in Sudan. Hemeti was appointed its commander.
Jerome Tubiana, a researcher on Sudan, Chad and the Horn of Africa who met Hemeti in 2009, wrote in a Foreign Policy report that the general was in his 40s and hailed from a Chadian Arab clan.
Born into an impoverished family that settled in Darfur in the 1980s, Hemeti dropped out of primary school in the third grade. He made a living by trading camels before becoming a leader in the feared Janjaweed militia when the Darfur conflict broke out.
In addition to the Darfur region, the RSF were also deployed to states such as South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, where they were accused of committing rights abuses. In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch described them as “men with no mercy”.
“The RSF mostly fought rebels and attacked civilians, using the same blitz-raid tactics [as] the rebels they were supposed to fight in Sudan’s war-torn rural areas,” Tubiana said.
“They also repressed earlier protests in Khartoum most notably in 2013, when at least 200 people were killed. It was, in a way, the first time that residents of Khartoum experienced the violence to which Darfur and other war zones have been subjected to for years.”
In 2015, the group was granted the status of a “regular force” and two years later was brought under the Sudanese army reporting directly to the president. The RSF became al-Bashir’s “praetorian guard”, tasked with protecting the president from any coup attempt by the army, according to Tubiana.
Thus, the RSF became a “third pole of power” within Sudan’s security apparatus, and a rival to the army and intelligence bodies. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy estimated there are 30,000 troops under Hemeti’s command in the RSF.
The group’s influence also grew when Sudan joined the Saudi-UAE-led military intervention in Yemen’s war in 2015. Members of the RSF were deployed in Yemen and received support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, including money and weapons.
When mass protests broke out against al-Bashir’s rule in December, Hemeti said the protesters’ demands were “legitimate”.
And when the military removed al-Bashir on April 11 and protesters demanded the generals cede power to civilians, Hemeti issued a statement saying the RSF would not “accept any solutions rejected by the Sudanese people” and urged dialogue between the military and the protesters.
On April 13, al-Burhan replaced the TMC’s then-head General Awad Ibn Auf and appointed Hemeti as his deputy – and today many see the RSF commander, not al-Burhan, as the key player in Sudan’s politics.
Since his appointment, Hemeti has been in the public eye, meeting diplomats, making speeches and lobbying for support from regional powers.
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy cited Hemeti claiming in April that he deposited about $1bn to the Sudanese Central Bank, sourced from the salaries of his men’s participation in the Yemen war and the trading of gold.
The TMC has the backing of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which have pledged $3bn in aid to Sudan. In late May, Hemeti travelled to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to meet the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and vowed to back Riyadh against “all threats and attacks” from its arch-foe, Iran.
He also pledged to continue to deploy Sudanese forces in Yemen.
But despite Hemeti’s growing political clout, the RSF’s deadly crackdown on protesters could trigger a backlash from elites in Khartoum as well as sections of the army, Tubiana said, noting that some soldiers were recorded on video saying they were disarmed before Monday’s violence.
The RSF’s “targets in Khartoum are not the usual non-Arab marginalised people from the peripheries, but include urban, middle-class, educated people, with connections to the elite and the al-Bashir regime”, he explained.
“One could still expect the army, or some in the army, to oppose Hemeti’s repression against the protesters,” Tubiana said.
In such a scenario, Hemeti could lose the support of the RSF, he said, adding: “They remain an essentially mercenary forces. For now, they seem to follow Hemeti in the hope of getting power or money, but their loyalty would decrease if they meet strong obstacles or find other opportunities.”
On Wednesday, Hemeti told his troops the military had no intention of governing the country.
“We’re the guarantors of the revolution in the absence of a government,” he insisted, but warned against “chaos”.