In Sudan’s western region of Darfur, a place long synonymous with conflict, fears of a new civil war are on the rise.
Civilians have begun arming themselves, residents and humanitarian organisations have said, as they organise their own defence forces to protect themselves against attacks from rival tribes as well as the feared paramilitary known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
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The RSF is currently involved in a violent power struggle with its former ally, the Sudanese army, resulting in a security vacuum that armed tribes are now exploiting.
“The security situation in Khartoum poses a lot of threats to the people of Darfur because nobody is around to control these [Arab] militias,” said Ahmed Gouja, a local journalist and human rights monitor.
The developments have locals and international observers on edge. Some said they believe the current violence could degenerate into targeted ethnic violence, particularly in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, which has already been the site of fighting between Arab and non-Arab tribes over the past year.
Since Tuesday, residents from non-Arab tribes have said Arab tribes have attacked non-Arabs, burning government shelters and camps for internally displaced people to the ground.
The residents shared photos of the attacks, which Al Jazeera has been unable to verify.
Local government offices, central markets, hospitals, banks and warehouses belonging to international humanitarian organisations have also been burned, looted or both while at least 96 people have reportedly been killed in the violence.
Outmanned and ill equipped, the local police – mostly consisting of non-Arabs – have called on members of their communities to arm and defend themselves.
Many have heeded the call by raiding the local police station for weapons, residents told Al Jazeera.
“If you don’t have a chance to run away, then you need to look for guns,” Gouja said.
Since protests toppled Sudan’s former authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019, El Geneina has witnessed frequent flareups in violence.
The Arab Rizeigat tribe is particularly at odds with the non-Arab Masalit because both compete over dwindling land and water resources.
The former has often retaliated with collective punishment against the Masalit to settle personal disputes, residents and rights groups said.
In 2019, the killing of a Rizeigat man in the Krinding displacement camp, where members of the Masalit tribe live, set off an attack by Arab fighters.
Survivors said a local commander in the RSF spearheaded the violence, which killed 72 people.
Less than two years later, Rizeigat gunmen attacked camps for displaced Masalit people again, killing at least 138 people, according to local medics.
A third major attack occurred in the nearby town of Krenik in April 2022, which saw at least 168 Masalit killed and thousands displaced.
Now with all eyes on the fighting between the RSF and the army in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, Rizeigat militias are moving to capture land and resources in Darfur, local and international monitors warned.
“[Violence] is definitely taking an ethnic dimension in [el-] Geneina, and it’s not surprising,” said Mathilde Vu from the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We have terrible precedents.”
“People won’t be caught in [the] crossfire. They will be targeted,” she said.
Violence in Darfur could be exploited by the RSF and the army as each tries to consolidate control across the country.
Even before the war, both parties had stepped up recruitment in Darfur, according to a recent report on Sudan by a United Nations panel of experts.
Gouja said the RSF is still arming – or selling weapons – to Arab tribes, yet most people are able to purchase their own weapons, which are smuggled in from Chad, the Central African Republic and Libya.
“There are open and widespread markets [where you] only need money [to buy weapons],” he told Al Jazeera.
Bedour Zakaria, who lives in a camp for internally displaced people and documents rights abuses for a local monitor, stressed that the tensions between many Arab and non-Arab tribes date back to the brutal violence that swept the region two decades ago.
Back in 2003, al-Bashir and the military armed and recruited Arab nomads and pastoralists to fight mostly non-Arab armed groups, which were rebelling against the state, accusing it of neglect and exploitation.
An estimated 300,000 people are believed to have died in that conflict, which went on for almost 20 years.
Rights groups accused both sides of committing war crimes, but Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, were disproportionately responsible for spearheading mass slaughters and using rape as a weapon of war, according to Human Rights Watch.
In 2013, many of those Arab militias were repackaged as the RSF, a force that continued to attack civilians and particularly non-Arabs with impunity.
Now, the fear is that these communities may look to settle scores.
“Many [non-Arabs] are willing to support the army [in this war] to get revenge against the RSF,” Zakaria told Al Jazeera.
Civilians are also rushing to pick up arms in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.
After heavy fighting between the army and RSF, many communities in the south of the city fear that the latter will loot or take control of their homes.
That has compelled them to request guns from the army, which has willingly given them out.
“There is a lot of lawlessness and a lot of attacks happening, such as burning and looting,” said Mohamad Osman, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“One of the issues in addressing the situation in Darfur is that there is no [international] monitoring [mechanism], and now with the UN and diplomats evacuated, it will be even more difficult to [monitor the situation],” he said. “It corresponds with the need to have a monitoring body on the ground that is safe and secure.”
Residents in Nyala say the fighting there, unlike in El Geneina, has not taken on an ethnic character but that could change soon.
Mohamad el-Fatih Yousef, a journalist from Nyala for the local online news source Darfur24, said non-Arab tribes in the city had been bombed and killed by the army and Arab militias in 2003.
Two decades later, he believes the army is trying to outsource fighting to some non-Arab communities who are looking for revenge against the RSF and their perceived supporters.
“In the days of al-Bashir, the army and Arab tribes killed [non-Arabs] and displaced them,” Yousef said. “Now, the army could side with [non-Arab] tribes to target Arab ones.”