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As Darfur falls to the RSF, where is the outrage at their atrocities?

‘I have been asking why all these international humanitarian treaties and laws are failing us.’

Pictured are families walking away as they escape Ardamata in West Darfur cross into Adre, Chad, after a wave of ethnic violence, November 7, 2023. El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters
Families escaping Ardamata in West Darfur state cross into Chad, on 7 November 2023. Survivors recounted executions and looting by RSF and allied Arab militias.

Abdo Idriss* was not a wealthy man, but he was famous around Ardamata. For decades, he rode a donkey cart with a water tank around the Darfuri neighbourhood, a vital job that brought him into almost everybody’s home on one occasion or another.

His life was ended, however, in late October, when fighters from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) knocked on his front door and demanded riches. When Idriss said he only had a solitary donkey, they shot him dead and killed his sons.

For the past few weeks, the RSF has been seizing full control of Darfur after ousting the Sudanese army from its main bases, one of which was in Ardamata. In the process, its fighters have killed hundreds of civilians and pushed thousands from their homes.

As a Darfuri journalist and human rights monitor (currently exiled in Kenya) I have been documenting these abuses on a daily basis. I have been struggling with patchy phone and internet connections and wrestling with my own sense of powerlessness.

As the number of dead has surged, I have been asking why all these international humanitarian treaties and laws are failing us, and why the UN Security Council and the African Union are staying so conspicuously silent.

With the RSF now in control over most of Darfur and the capital Khartoum, and the national army in charge of north and eastern Sudan, I fear our country is likely to be split like neighbouring Libya, which is ruled by rival governments.

Already, the RSF is trying to present itself as a legitimate ruler in Darfur. It has been doing some basic community services and has even sent humanitarian aid to some of the same communities that its fighters have terrorised.

Yet, as RSF supporters carry out a propaganda campaign – calling on people to return to their homes – its members and allied militiamen continue to abuse people. Much of Darfur is scarred by war and there is little to suggest the paramilitary force can rebuild it.

Instead, an RSF-controlled Darfur will mean no accountability for perpetrators of atrocities. It will mean no justice for people like Abdo Idriss, a man whose death symbolises to me the loss of so many innocent and peaceful lives in this war.

Haunting videos and shameful silence

The RSF is led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is better known as Hemedti. It evolved out of the Darfuri Arab militias – known as the Janjaweed – that were created by our government in the early 2000s to crush Darfur’s mostly non-Arab rebel groups.

Darfur has been badly impacted by conflict since the RSF and army started fighting each other in April. Battles rocked major towns for several months, with both sides showing little regard for the many civilians being stuck between them.

The RSF was in the ascendency from the start, but it began taking full control of Darfur in late October. It has now seized army garrisons in four out of the region’s five states: Central Darfur, East Darfur, South Darfur, and West Darfur.

In one of several videos that surfaced, I watched a man asking to be shot by RSF fighters who were forcing him and others to bury themselves alive. I do not have the words to describe this kind of inhumanity.

In several places, local community leaders arranged for the army to surrender their bases to avoid a bloody final showdown. These interventions saved lives and show the powerful role that civil society groups are still playing in this conflict.

However, the army fought back in other areas and mobilised local residents to help. This resulted in acts of collective punishment against civilians by the RSF, most notably in Ardamata, a suburb of El Geneina, the capital city of West Darfur.

RSF forces there accused members of the non-Arab Masalit group of supporting the army. After seizing the military base in early November, its fighters went through residential areas, killing hundreds, possibly thousands of Masalit.

Survivors who fled to neighbouring Chad told me that Masalit and other non-Arab civilians in Ardamata were slaughtered during house-to-house searches. Others said civilians were seized at checkpoints, taken to the side of the road, and shot dead.

In one of several videos that surfaced, I watched a man asking to be shot by RSF fighters who were forcing him and others to bury themselves alive. I do not have the words to describe this kind of inhumanity.

The Ardamata attack was the latest in a line of RSF atrocities against West Darfur’s Masalit. Since April, over half a million Masalit have fled to Chad, and rights groups, UN experts, and governments have warned of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Yet the international community has remained shamefully silent, and the UN Security Council is yet to pass a substantive resolution on any aspect of the broader Sudan conflict.

Twice attacked, twice displaced

Ardamata was not the only place attacked by the RSF in recent weeks. Civilians at a displacement camp in Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur, were also targeted en masse as the paramilitary group seized the army garrison there in late October. 

The displacement camp housed victims from the early 2000s conflict, and occupied a space close to the army base. Because soldiers crossed through it and used its market, RSF fighters targeted it for collective punishment.

I spoke to a man from the camp – which is called Hasahisa – who said he has seen 12 people killed by RSF fighters and allied militias as they raided his part of the camp. He said women and girls were raped, and the dead were left unburied.

As thousands of people fled, homes were burnt and properties were looted. My source said the militia fighters took everything: tuk-tuks, tyres, beds, mattresses. He said they left the camp with nothing.

The displaced escaped to other parts of Zalingei and are now sheltering in a school and at a university building. But after several months of conflict, Zalingei is a tough place to be even for those that haven’t been uprooted.

The Hasahisa attack brought back memories of the early 2000s for camp residents, and it made me wonder why a powerful militia is targeting people with so little power? Why raid their camps? Why burn down their houses?

Life under the RSF: ‘You may face your death at any moment’

After seizing bases and carrying out these atrocities, the RSF has been trying to scrub away the evidence of its crimes, while at the same time strengthening its reputation as a legitimate ruler in the region.

In parts of West Darfur, the group has been preventing Masalit civilians from escaping to Chad to shield it against allegations of crimes against humanity. “How can there be ethnic cleansing if there are still Masalit in El Geneina,” RSF officials will try to say.

Meanwhile, in Ardamata, RSF members have been burying bodies, collecting war remnants, and sending humanitarian aid into the town. They even arranged a reconciliation conference that they forced survivors to join.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine lost his brother, a rickshaw driver, in Nyala. The driver was at a market when two RSF-aligned militiamen asked him to take them to a northern neighbourhood. When they arrived, they shot him dead and took his vehicle.

How can a group responsible for killing hundreds of civilians, and of raping women and girls, be the one trying to reconcile people just a few days later? This is a question that needs to be raised a hundred times over.

The RSF has also been reputation-laundering in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Since ousting the military on 26 October, it has used its resources to support a large pharmacy, repair telecommunication services, and help clean up the city’s main market.

These kinds of activities have been seized upon by RSF members and supporters who are fighting a propaganda war on social media. Every day, they try to convince people of the RSF’s magnanimity.

Yet insecurity persists in Nyala and the other areas the RSF now controls. Its fighters and allied militiamen are still travelling around with weapons on motorbikes, stealing from people, and sometimes even killing them. 

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine lost his brother, a rickshaw driver, in Nyala. The driver was at a market when two RSF-aligned militiamen asked him to take them to a northern neighbourhood. When they arrived, they shot him dead and took his vehicle.

“We don’t see shells and missiles, but we don’t have any safety,” my friend told me when describing the incident. “You may be moving around, and you may face your death at any moment. You cannot go and report it because there is no mechanism to do so.”

Standing against the division of Sudan

While the lack of justice and accountability is perhaps the bleakest prospect of an RSF-ruled Darfur, it is hard to imagine how a genocidal militia will go about putting together any kind of functioning government.

How are they going to help businesses operate when there are no banks? How are they going to pay government workers their salaries? Will they be running police stations and the judicial system?

What are they going to do to rebuild the towns, cities, and villages that their own forces have wrecked? Government buildings have been destroyed, so who is going to pay to fix them?

To take full control of Darfur, the RSF will also need to capture North Darfur state. Yet various non-Arab rebel groups have promised to support the army if the RSF tries to do this. More bloody battles like those in West Darfur likely loom.

To avoid these nightmarish scenarios, we must use our voices to stand against this conflict and against the division of Sudan, advocating instead for a civilian government that rules the whole country equitably.

A key job of such a government would be to hold the warring parties accountable for what they have done since April. The memories of Ardamata’s Abdo Idriss, the residents of Hasahisa, and the rickshaw drive from Nyala, all deserve nothing less.

*Name has been changed for security reasons.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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