Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are about to take over Darfur entirely from the Sudanese army, experts and activists have told Al Jazeera.
They said that more mass atrocities could occur at the hands of the paramilitary force, which has been accused of war crimes and genocide, once it conquers the region – a province the size of France.
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Last week, the RSF defeated the army in South, West and Central Darfur and is now preparing to take the north, where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people have sought refuge.
Thousands of new IDPs have come to North Darfur since the RSF and army squared off in April, joining hundreds of thousands of people already displaced by Darfur’s 2003 civil war.
“People are leaving in anticipation of a big conflict. Some are fleeing to small towns that are unsafe. Others are going to the mountains or to Libya,” said Bashir Osman*, who spoke to Al Jazeera from North Darfur and who was recently displaced from South Darfur’s capital Nyala.
RSF rule could make life even harder for Darfur’s 11 million (PDF) residents, activists and experts said, referring to the group’s apparent inability or unwillingness to control their own forces, which have looted entire cities and towns since the war started.
They also cited the RSF’s long history of grave human rights abuses against non-Arab communities in Darfur, as well as perceived critics.
Lawlessness and Looting
Abdel Raheem Dagalo, the RSF’s second-in-command, urged inhabitants to return to their homes after his forces captured Nyala on October 26.
Dagalo, who has been sanctioned by the US for overseeing atrocities, and is the elder brother of the RSF chief Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – widely known as Hemedti – also called on the police to protect civilian property and for tribal leaders to manage disputes in the city. In effect, the RSF had washed its hands of the responsibility to govern, said Suliman Baldo, the founder of the Transparency and Policy Tracker, a think tank.
“The RSF doesn’t have the capacity to manage population centres and to provide an alternative to government systems,” he told Al Jazeera. “They are not hiding it and this is why they are asking people to do things themselves. This will mean further tensions and a breakdown in law and order.”
Since defeating the army in South Darfur, two activists from the region said that RSF fighters have been accusing civilians of being members of an Islamic movement in Sudan that ruled for three decades behind former leader Omar al-Bashir.
They said the accusations appear to be a pretext to confiscate civilian assets and to harass perceived opponents, including human rights monitors.
“The RSF’s intention is to find a justification to steal everything people own such as their cars and belongings,” said Mohamad Nyala, a journalist from the region who spoke to Al Jazeera from Nairobi, Kenya.
Across Darfur, women and girls are also at greater risk of sexual abuse from the RSF, activists said.
The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) found that at least 20 women and girls are being held across Darfur in ‘slave-like conditions’ by fighters in “RSF uniforms” or armed groups “affiliated to the RSF.”
The UN has also documented 50 cases of sexual violence including incidences of rape and gang rape.
Nehla Yousef, an activist from South Darfur, told Al Jazeera that incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence are likely much higher than what the UN has reported. She blamed the RSF for targeting and threatening local activists, pressuring them to flee Darfur rather than stay to monitor violations.
“We are hearing less cases of sexual violence and rape because there is less ability for activists to move and monitor,” she said, from Kampala, Uganda, where she recently escaped to. “There are also no functioning police stations, hospitals or even internet connection that would allow us to listen to or learn of reported cases of rape [in South Darfur].”
Al Jazeera sent written questions to RSF spokesperson Yousif Ezat asking about the allegations of sexual violence against women and girls, but he had not responded by the time of publication.
Calls for protection
Total RSF rule could lead to more major atrocities against civilians, warned Mohamad Osman, the Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
He told Al Jazeera that the UN Security Council has the power to authorise a peacekeeping mission to provide at least minimum protection for civilians, while also helping to monitor abuses and atrocities.
“The UNSC is the primary body responsible for [protection issues] but since the beginning of the conflict, we have not seen any indication that they are even bringing up the situation in Darfur,” he said.
The RSF is already implicated in aiding and abetting allied militias in the attempted ethnic cleansing of the non-Arab Masalit tribe from West Darfur and assassinating human rights monitors, lawyers and journalists.
Local monitors say that the RSF and its allied militias have carried out more mass killings since West Darfur fell entirely to the RSF on November 4.
Just two days later, the RSF reportedly killed Masalit tribal leader Mohamad Arbab and abducted six of his sons in Ardamata displacement camp, two sources monitoring the situation told Al Jazeera.
Local monitors said that up to 800 young men in the camp were then executed.
“There is a long list of violations that are ongoing in West Darfur,” said Bedour Zakaria, a human rights monitor from the region who now lives in Kampala. “[The RSF] are still hunting people down.”
Chaos and terror
On November 2, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the RSF to halt its advance on el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. He said the attack would subject civilians to “extreme danger.”
Residents in North Darfur told Al Jazeera that most people expect the battle to generate a major humanitarian disaster, with many predicting that the RSF will conquer the city within two or three weeks.
Baldo said that the army is simply outmanned and outgunned.
“The army has not won any battles in this war because they don’t have a strategy that is sustainable,” he said. “They just stay in their garrisons and in their positions until the RSF encircles them.”
Osman, the resident from North Darfur, added that most people would prefer to see the army defeat the RSF, but that he was not optimistic.
“Under the RSF, there is more chaos and more violations of human rights,” Osman said. “People here are scared that if the RSF wins in el-Fasher, then they’ll terrorise this place, just as they terrorised everywhere else in Darfur.”
*Osman’s name has been changed at his request for fear of potential retribution from the RSF or its allies.