‘They killed everything’: Darfur survivor recounts deadly attack

Despite a peace deal signed in 2020, a military coup in Sudan last year has brought back instability in the region.

Newly arrived children look over a cloth partition at the Zam Zam IDP camp, near Al Fashir in North Darfur, April 9, 2015
According to the UN, 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced in the war in Darfur, a vast region of western Sudan [File: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

El-Geneina, Sudan – When Adam Ibrahim heard the fazaa – the call to fight – he immediately took his gun and joined the men from his local community who had gathered to face the danger to their town Kreinik.

The sound of bullets being fired, and then the arrival of what Adam estimated was more than 100 vehicles, along with heavy artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, and men on horses and camels, made it clear that his town in Darfur, in Sudan’s west, was under attack on April 22.

Kreinik was overrun, and Adam, a 30-year-old father of four from the Masalit tribe, said he was shot four times on his knees by a masked man.

The fighter, while hiding his face, was wearing the uniform of the Sudanese government paramilitary organisation, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The United Nations said the April 22 attack on Kreinik is believed to have been carried out by the Arab Rzeigat tribe. Locals said they were also supported by the RSF, which grew out of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), a government-backed militia also known as the Janjaweed, which played an active role in the war in Darfur.

On April 24, the attackers returned to Kreinik, and fighting also spread to the state capital of West Darfur, El-Geneina, 80km (50 miles) to the west. At least 159 people were killed in Kreinik, more than 100 injured, and thousands displaced, according to the United Nations.

“They killed everything, especially men, even if they were little boys, whenever they saw them, they just shot them,” Adam said from his hospital bed in El-Geneina.

Reports indicate that two Arab nomads had been killed near Kreinik, which led to the attack on the Masalit-majority town. The Masalit are a non-Arab tribe.

The fighting in Kreinik and El-Geneina and the high death toll have brought back memories of the war in Darfur.

A senior RSF source declined to comment on the accusations against the organisation. The source, who spoke to Al Jazeera anonymously as they were not authorised to speak on the fighting in Darfur, said investigations were continuing and that the RSF would wait until their findings were published.

However, on April 29, Hemeti addressed events in Darfur at a public gathering, and blamed “both sides” for the fighting, while acknowledging the failure of the Sudanese state to protect the people of West Darfur.

However, the reality is that the forces remain divided, and fighting has occurred sporadically since the peace deal was signed, particularly since the Sudanese military took power in October 2021, bringing renewed instability to the country.

According to the UN, 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced in the war in Darfur, a vast region of western Sudan.

The fighting began when ethnic minority rebels rose up against longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir’s Arab-majority government. Khartoum responded by sending the PDF, recruited from among the region’s nomadic tribes, to fight.

The PDF has been accused of human rights violations by the UN and human rights organisations.

Figures with links to the PDF have kept their positions, despite the fall of al-Bashir after protests in 2019. One such person is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, currently the deputy leader of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council. Hemeti, a member of the Rzeigat tribe, also commands the RSF.

Tense situation in El Geneina

Adam has been forced to wait for his turn for an operation despite his injuries, as there are only two beds available for operations.

But Adam was lucky to even get to El-Geneina – for four days he was stuck in Kreinik, unable to escape safely, and unable to seek treatment.

The PDF controls most of the roads connecting El-Geneina to its surrounding towns, so locals need to use armed convoys for protection to reach the state capital.

The hospital in El-Geneina is now full of wounded residents from Kreinik, mostly from the Masalit, who make up the majority in the town.

In seeking treatment, they have been forced to leave behind families with little food, or none at all, after locals said the PDF had looted the market and burned what could not be carried away.

“We left many hungry people hungry behind us in Kreinik because of the lack of food,” Adam explained.

The situation in El-Geneina has been very tense in the week since the attacks took place.

UN staff and other aid workers had to wait for three days to be evacuated as the airport was closed due to continued fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese coalition forces – a grouping of former rebel groups, headed by Khamis Abakar, who now serves as the governor of West Darfur state, and is himself a former rebel leader.

Abakar survived an assassination attempt when armed men shot at his car on April 28. Sources close to Abakar told Al Jazeera that the would-be assassins were RSF fighters.

Soldiers loyal to him had previously been forced out of Darfur to Chad on April 7 after fighting in Adeykong, a town on the border with Chad. Abakar’s forces blamed the RSF for the attack.

Issmat Ibrahim, an analyst and correspondent for the daily al-Jareeda newspaper in El-Geneina, said the emotional toll of interviewing survivors was so great that he was not able to write about the fighting.

“I just couldn’t file my story at the end. It was horrendous. I didn’t know what to say,” said Ibrahim, who is now unable to leave his house at night for security reasons.

Ibrahim predicts that the situation will escalate further, as long as the RSF’s presence in the region continues, and West Darfur’s long borders with Chad and the Central African Republic remain uncontrolled.

“In the Sahel, there are so many uncontrolled groups. They could easily move in and out [of] Sudan. There are open-air arms markets everywhere in this region.”

“Many of these Janjaweed fighters have come from Chad, Niger, Mali and Cameroon, and maybe beyond, so it’s really very difficult to solve this issue,” he explained.

In El-Geniena, a city that is already segregated along ethnic lines, the sense is that fighting could break out once again.

Passing through majority-Masalit neighbourhoods, young men carrying guns stand next to makeshift barricades, stopping and questioning everyone passing through.

“It’s the only way to protect yourself; there’s no police, no army, no government who can protect you in this part of the country,” a person passing through the checkpoint said, after being stopped and questioned by armed men.

Most government buildings in El-Geneina have already been filled with internally displaced people (IDP), many of whom have been displaced multiple times as a result of the war in Darfur.

“We were one of only four families to not leave our home,” said Ishraga Ibrahim, a mother of four, and resident of al-Jamarik neighbourhood, where most of the fighting took place. “The entire neighbourhood ran away, and eventually my mother forced me to take my children and go to her.”

The number of people displaced from the years of fighting in Darfur has now risen to three million, according to the UN. The events in Kreinik and El-Geneina over the past week will only add to that number.

Leaving El-Geneina, it is clear that the PDF is in control of areas only a few kilometres away from the city.

At a checkpoint, a military intelligence soldier explained that the militia is a constant threat.

“Whenever there’s fighting or insecurity inside El-Geniena or in other towns, they [the PDF] take advantage and appear and terrorise people, robbing everybody but also specifically killing the Masalit, Missaryia Jabal or whichever ethnic group they have particular issues with,” the soldier at the checkpoint on the road to Chad said.

For Adam, there is always the very real fear that the PDF and the RSF could return, putting his family at risk again.

“My children were scared and spent hours under the beds,” Adam said. “The sounds of the bullets were awful.”

Source: Al Jazeera