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As new conflict unleashes Darfur’s old demons, those who can flee to Chad

‘If you have nothing to give them, they will kill you.’

This is a photograph. It shows a line of Sudanese women who've had to escape the war standing in an arid environment. They're all carrying things in their hands. One has a child on her side. They are waiting in line to receive aid. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Sudanese refugees in the Chadian border town of Koufron, head to a food aid distribution on 9 May, 2023.

As clashes continue between the military forces vying for political power in Khartoum, some of Sudan’s worst violence has taken place in the western region of Darfur, with those fleeing to Chad describing desperate civilians cut off from help and struggling to escape fighting between rival militias. 


In El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, hundreds have died in urban battles between Arab and non-Arab militias in a city largely vacated by the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the main rivals battling each other in Khartoum and other parts of Sudan.


The fighting has cut power and water supplies, with markets, hospitals, government buildings, and humanitarian offices all looted. Camps for internally displaced – set up after bouts of conflict in the early 2000s – have been burnt to the ground by militia aligned with the RSF.


“All hospitals and clinics are closed; civilians are dying for lack of care,” said Abdulazim Malik Adam, who until recently was a medical student at the University of El Geneina.


“We tried to organise mobile clinics in my neighbourhood, but we are not qualified enough,” he told The New Humanitarian. “Nobody was able to do surgery. Some people injured by gunshots would just bleed to death.”

A map showing both countries of Sudan and Chad. There are locator dots in Khartoum, EL Geneina and Koufroun.

El Geneina is just 40 kilometres from Koufroun, a border town in eastern Chad in a region where close to 90,000 Sudanese refugees are sheltering. But such is the insecurity along the road that earlier this month only a trickle of people were able to reach the border each day.


Among the new arrivals was Abdulsalam Omar Bashir, a trader. People in Koufroun were so eager for news he was bombarded with questions: “How is the situation there? Why don’t people leave the city?,” asked one woman. And then: “Who hit you?”, when she noticed his bleeding ear – the result of a beating at a roadblock on the way to Koufroun.


Clearly relieved to have got out, Bashir responded to the clamour as patiently as he could. “A lot of people have died in El Geneina,” he told the crowd. “It's hell… everyone is scared.”


He had taken advantage of a brief lull in the fighting to negotiate his way through a series of roadblocks controlled by Arab militia and bandits who have taken advantage of the chaos.


“Our driver was also Arab; otherwise they wouldn't have let us pass,” Bashir told The New Humanitarian. As a precaution, he also gave the driver his money for safekeeping, carrying just a little cash in his pocket and a phone, ready to hand it all over if the need arose. “If you have nothing to give them, they will kill you,” he added. 


A humanitarian crisis

The thousands of families in Koufroun have mostly come on foot, donkey, or horse-drawn cart, crossing the dried-up wadi that separates the two countries.


There is little here for the refugees. Families shelter under thorny acacia trees, hanging colourful bits of cloth to provide a little shade from a scorching sun. The few belongings they gathered before they fled are beside them in the sand: a metal pot, a bag of food, some clothes – sad, hastily-grabbed remnants of their previous lives. 


“We are preparing for an increasing rate of malnutrition among children if there is no financial means to take care of them.”


Most of the new arrivals are from the town of Tendelti, just a few hundred metres away, the white minaret of the mosque and its mud-built houses discernible in the distance. 

They left to escape growing tensions between residents and Arab militias in the area, which in April degenerated into open violence.


"People were killed, houses were burned, then we were chased away,” Hawa Rahma Ismail, from one of Darfur’s main non-Arab communities, told The New Humanitarian. 


Starting from the early morning, long queues of people form daily outside two small sweltering white tents, set up to serve as an emergency clinic by the French NGO, Première Urgence Internationale.


Most of those in the line are children brought by worried mothers. They suffer from a mix of malnutrition; respiratory infections aggravated by the camp’s swirling clouds of dust; and malaria, as few people here have mosquito nets.


“We carried two bags of millet and three bags of groundnuts; this is what we’ve been eating since we arrived,” said Nouracham Adam Yaya from Tendelti, cradling her four-year-old son in her arms. He was so weak he could barely stand unaided.


The humanitarian effort is faltering. There were already 900,000 refugees in Chad before the recent eruption of violence, and last year the World Food Programme could only provide them with half rations. It warned earlier this year that money will run out completely from May, even as more people trudge across the border from Sudan.


“We are preparing for an increasing rate of malnutrition among children if there is no financial means to take care of them,” Mahamat Nour, the doctor in charge of the Koufroun clinic, told The New Humanitarian.


The refugees here are victims of a power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF, which exploded into direct military confrontation in the capital, Khartoum, in April. 


That violence has reverberated across the country, especially in Darfur, aggravating old fault lines between Arab and non-Arab communities. 


A history of strife

Darfur has been ravaged by violence since 2003, when armed groups from the region’s main non-Arab communities – including the Masalit, Fur, and Zaghawa – rebelled, accusing the Arab-led government in Khartoum of their deliberate marginalisation.


Khartoum outsourced its fighting to the nomadic Arab militias who were already at odds with Darfur's sedentary population over grazing and land rights. These so-called “Janjaweed”, armed by the government, became a major player in an almost two-decade-long war – killing, raping, and burning villages to crush the insurgency.


The RSF, which officially formed in 2013, grew out of the Janjaweed. They are commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – better known as Hemedti – a Janjaweed veteran. Now roughly 100,000-strong, the RSF was created as a praetorian guard for al-Bashir, but continued to be accused of rights violations in Darfur, and later in Khartoum against pro-democracy demonstrators.


After months of popular street protests in 2019 demanding the end of al-Bashir’s regime, he was removed from power by the SAF, led by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Hemedti’s RSF. Both men became senior members of a military-civilian power-sharing government that was supposed to lead Sudan to multi-party elections.


A key plank in that process was the 2020 Juba peace agreement aimed at ending all of the country’s insurgencies – including the rebellion in Darfur. But some violence continued in Darfur, with attacks by Arab militia and the RSF against non-Arab communities, who they worried would seek the return of land seized from them.


“The [current] fighting has a lot to do with local factors, such as land ownership, but really, in the background, it’s also about power,” said Mohamed Osman, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Arabs felt that the Juba peace agreement empowered the non-Arab communities – they were worried that they were going to try to settle scores.”


Risks of a wider war

Burhan and Hemedti seized power for themselves in a coup in October 2021, truncating Sudan’s transition to multi-party democracy. But more than 18 months of popular street protests – further provoked by Sudan’s tanking economy – forced the military government to begin negotiations over a new power-sharing arrangement, even as their political alliance disintegrated.


The tensions degenerated into vicious street fighting in Khartoum on 15 April – the consequence of both men’s political ambitions and the wavering attention of the international community.


 “If they find young men, they might kill them. If you did something in the past they didn’t like, they might kill you too. Nobody is safe.”


Despite calls for calm from local authorities, conflict also erupted in El Geneina a little over a week later. With the SAF and the RSF redeploying much of their forces to the battle for Khartoum, the fighting in the city has pitted Arab militiamen – many of them members of Hemedti’s Rizeigat community – against the Masalit.


“The militias are everywhere,” said Mona Malik Adam, a Sudanese women’s rights activist who spoke to The New Humanitarian in Chad. “If they find young men, they might kill them. If you did something in the past they didn’t like, they might kill you too. Nobody is safe.”


The power struggle between the two generals has re-awakened the old demons in Darfur that the Juba agreement tried to address. It also risks a wider conflagration in an unstable region in which Sudan, Chad, Libya, and Central African Republic all share a connected history of political unrest.


In Koufroun, there’s little sympathy for Burhan, but a great deal of fear and anger towards Hemedti and the RSF – a consequence of the informal alliance he retains with the militia that drove them from their homes. 


Yussuf Abdulahi Gagaya runs a small stall in Koufroun where he serves tea and coffee. He has chosen – without any enthusiasm – his side in this conflict. “Al-Burhan is also responsible for deaths in Darfur, but I support the army,” he said. “Hemedti is a bandit.”


Edited by Obi Anyadike.

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