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ICC trial brings mixed feelings for Darfur Janjaweed victims

‘We are rejoicing at the news, and in sorrow recalling all the crimes he committed.’

A man in sunglasses sits facing the camera in a suit. Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
Yaqoub Mohammed Abdallah, a community leader at Darfur’s Kalma displacement camp, said an ICC trial into historic atrocities should give pause to other countries abusing human rights.

Survivors of Darfur’s conflict say they have experienced a mixture of painful memories and feelings of relief as the first trial into atrocities committed in the western region of Sudan continues proceedings at the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Witnesses have been testifying since April 2022 against Ali Muhammad Ali Abd–Al-Rahman, known as Ali Kushayb, who is accused of 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed while commanding the so-called Janjaweed militia in 2003 and 2004.

“The trial news brought memories and anguish,” Hanan Hassan, a community leader from Kalma, a large displacement camp outside Nyala town in South Darfur state, told The New Humanitarian. “We are… rejoicing at the news of Kushayb’s trial, and in sorrow recalling all the crimes he committed against us.” 

The Janjaweed was composed of Darfuri Arab militias created by the government of former president Omar al-Bashir to crush the region’s mostly non-Arab rebel groups. They revolted in the early 2000s, accusing the state of neglecting Darfur.

Janjaweed fighters killed vast numbers of non-Arab civilians during counterinsurgency operations, leading to accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Millions of Darfuris are still living in refugee settlements and displacement camps within Sudan.

Prosecutors have accused Kushayb of being “a willing and knowing participant in crimes”, attacking civilians with axes and ordering the execution of children. Kushayb has pleaded not guilty and claims he is the victim of mistaken identity.

Salih Haroun Mohammed told The New Humanitarian in an interview last year that he was shot by the alleged Janjaweed leader after he was detained in Mukjar town back in 2004.

Mohammed said he witnessed many detainees being killed at the time. “I never experienced anything like this in my life,” he said. “The prison was miserable, with very inhumane conditions… We were tortured during the nighttime.”

Rights groups say the trial shows abusers can be held to account even when crimes are committed decades ago. Yet impunity remains the norm in Darfur, with more than 700,000 people uprooted in a surge of violence since 2019.

Janjaweed militias are still active, albeit through a successor organisation called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). That group is now a formal part of Sudan’s security services even as its members are accused of continued atrocities in Darfur.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said in late January that Kushayb’s trial has made “swift progress” and that the prosecution intends to close its case by the end of this month. Khan said the pace of the trial has been the most “efficient” since the ICC’s creation.

Still, Khan said the court’s cooperation with Sudanese authorities has deteriorated in recent months and that ​​access to the country has become harder due to “new administrative hurdles”. 

Sudan suffered a coup in October 2021, ending the civilian-military power-sharing government that was supposed to steer the country to elections following the ouster of al-Bashir in 2019.

The coup was led by the head of the army, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – accused of coordinating attacks against civilians in Darfur in the 2000s – and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemedti’, a former Janjaweed commander and the leader of the RSF.

The military has promised to cede authority to civilian leaders under a new agreement – the details of which remained under negotiation – though critics say Burhan and Hemedti will maintain their political power.

Both men fear accountability, while ICC arrest warrants for al-Bashir and other individuals implicated in abuses in Darfur remain outstanding – a source of major frustration for victims of the 2000s conflict.

“The same crimes are still being committed in Darfur,” Yaqoub Mohamed Abdallah, the leader of Kalma, told The New Humanitarian. “Therefore, people think al-Bashir won't be brought to justice.”

Still, Abdallah believes the trial will give pause to “similar regimes worldwide” that are abusing their populations: “It is a delusion to think that you can commit a crime and escape with it.”

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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