When war broke out on Saturday in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, Yasir Othman anticipated that the clashes would quickly spread to his home in Darfur, a region still recovering from two decades of fighting and massacres.
As the stronghold of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group currently locked in an existential battle against the Sudanese army, Othman knew that Darfur would soon be engulfed in conflict, again.
“The war is happening here now and there are a lot of innocent people who have been killed. Hundreds of people here are dead and they haven’t been buried yet,” said Othman, who is from North Darfur’s capital, el-Fasher.
“Both the armed forces and the RSF have casualties, but the RSF has suffered more,” the 39-year-old added.
Othman later told Al Jazeera that three people in his neighbourhood had been killed by a bomb, after which the mobile network in his area cut out.
In South Darfur’s capital, Nyala, local monitors say at least 22 people were killed on the first day of fighting. The violence has since escalated, causing significant civilian casualties. Witnesses told Al Jazeera the army has indiscriminately bombed RSF positions, while the RSF has raided people’s homes, looted markets and engaged in ground battles with army troops.
Two decades of conflict
The bloody incidents have evoked painful memories of the violence that began shaking Darfur in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebel groups rose against the central Sudanese government decrying the historical neglect that their region had suffered and the continuing exploitation of their resources by Khartoum elites.
The military government at the time decided to outsource fighting this rebellion to Arab tribal militias, a force that ended up committing mass slaughters and numerous human rights abuses in Darfur, according to rights groups.
The resulting conflict crushed the rebellion, but at a terrible human cost. Between 2003 and 2009, more than 300,000 people died in armed combat – most in the first two years – and subsequently from hunger and preventable diseases, which spread rapidly due to the destruction of infrastructure in the war.
In 2013, many of the Arab tribal militias were repackaged into the RSF by former President Omar al-Bashir, who hoped they would protect him against all threats to his rule. The RSF’s leader, Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, was given his own chain of command, separate from the military.
“The RSF is the son of the army,” said Othman, with resignation.
Over the years, Hemedti has grown rich and powerful in his own right, by capturing gold mines and leasing out fighters to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
And now, the RSF is squaring off in Darfur against the army that was its parent.
No protection, no monitoring
The humanitarian situation could deteriorate quickly in Darfur if the international community does not monitor the situation closely. Beyond local monitors, no international mission exists to document abuses. The last one was the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission, UNAMID, but its mandate expired at the end of 2020.
The urgent need for monitoring became glaringly obvious after the military and RSF spearheaded an October 2021 coup to upend Sudan’s transition to democracy. In the months that followed, “armed Arab assailants” perpetrated the worst violence against civilians that West Darfur had seen in years, prompting little condemnation or concern from the putschists.
“Since the coup, we have been calling for the UN to establish a new mandate to monitor events in Darfur, but they didn’t,” said Mohamad Osman, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The roughly 1.6 million people, having been displaced by previous conflicts, who are living in camps are the most vulnerable, according to Mohamad Al Fattah Youssef, a local journalist and the founder of Darfur 24, an online news source.
“Three people were killed in an IDP camp by a bomb that fell in the south of [Nyala],” he told Al Jazeera, as the sounds of clashes echoed in the background. “The displaced are really vulnerable right now because all the humanitarian services have been cut off.”
Humanitarian workers have been killed in the crossfire, too. On April 16, three staff from the World Food Programme (WFP) were shot dead in North Darfur’s capital el-Fasher, while two others were badly injured. The killings prompted WFP to suspend operations in the country.
Residents and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that homes and warehouses belonging to UN aid organisations such as WFP and the UN refugee agency have also been looted by RSF fighters, raising concerns that Hemedti does not have strong control over his troops.
Rights groups also fear that the battle in Darfur may prompt Arab tribes with close ties to the RSF to settle scores against non-Arab communities. While clashes in Darfur historically take on an ethnic character, the root causes of conflict have long been tied to land disputes, lack of justice and resources.
Worse to come?
While this current bout of fighting in Darfur has been limited between the RSF and the army, there are questions about what the non-Arab Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – a rebel movement with historic links to Hassan al-Turabi, a former al-Bashir ally and the pioneer of modern political Islam in Sudan – and the Sudanese Liberation Army of Minnie Minnawi (SLA-MM) will do.
In the 2000s, both groups fought against the RSF and the army in Darfur, before eventually losing all their territory and being forced to retreat into Libya, where they fought as mercenaries for competing factions.
In October 2020, the Juba Peace Agreement, which Hemedti oversaw, brought both groups back to Sudan. On paper, the agreement promised to solve root causes of conflict such as land claims and equitable resource distribution. But in reality, some observers have said (PDF), the RSF and the army co-opted JEM and SLA-MM to build a stronger front against civilian pro-democracy players.
The two rebel groups, who had little leverage since they had few supporters in Sudan, were promised a fair share of the corrupt economy as integrated members of the security forces.
More than a year later, both JEM and SLA-MM backed the 2021 military coup that upended Sudan’s aspirations for democracy. Now, they are in a position to tip the balance of power between the army and the RSF.
“I think [both groups] are looking to see who is more powerful before they take sides,” said Anette Hoffman, a Sudan expert with Clingendael Institute, an independent think tank in the Hague.
The bigger threat to Hemedti, however, is his nemesis Musa Hilal. A member of the same Rizeigat tribe as Hemedti, Hilal was the leader of the Arab tribal militias that spearheaded killings in Darfur in the 2000s.
When the RSF was formed in 2013, he was sidelined in favour of Hemedti, whom Khartoum perceived to be a more obedient and transactional client.
In 2017, Hemedti arrested Hilal after the latter reportedly refused to surrender his militia’s weapons to the government. Hemedti then signed off on releasing Hilal from prison in March 2021.
Hoffman noted that Hilal has long had fighters in Libya, where they have fought as mercenaries and accrued weapons. She added that Hilal is generally seen as a more credible figure within the Rizeigat tribe due to his status as a sheikh in Sudan’s Native Administration Councils, the local tribal authorities that represent their communities and mediate to end local conflicts.
Even before the war, there were reports that the army was recruiting from Hilal’s supporters to undercut Hemedti from within.
“Hilal has always been waiting for a moment to get revenge [against Hemedti] and I would be really surprised if he remains on the sidelines, especially if the RSF fully retreat to Darfur,” said Hoffman.
Osman, of HRW, agreed and said the outsourcing of the conflict to tribal militias in Darfur and elsewhere should be expected, given the history of Sudan.
“The bottom line is that every minute of fighting that continues is bad for civilians. These are forces that never showed any respect for the laws of war or international law,” he said.