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How Dafuris displaced by past conflict are coping with Sudan’s war

‘If justice had been achieved for us, the war would not have happened.’

Pictured here is a makeshift displacement camp set up in in West Darfur state after a 2021 militia attack. The houses in the camp are made of sticks and pieces of fabric. You can see a few people walking between the houses. Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
Around two million Darfuris have been uprooted since war broke out in Sudan. Pictured here is a makeshift displacement camp set up in West Darfur state after a 2021 militia attack.

More than two million Darfuris have escaped their homes over the past five months as Sudan’s conflict has burst through the country’s westernmost region, leading to ethnically targeted militia violence and large-scale looting.

But the situation has also brought hardship for Darfuris who were displaced long before the current war started, and who have remained in camps where there is currently no humanitarian aid and limited access to outside markets and employment centres.

“The daily jobs and routine work that displaced people used to have has completely stopped,” said Adam Rigal, a spokesperson for displaced people and refugees in Darfur. “There will be famine – this is what the community fears.”

Over 1.5 million Darfuris have been living in camps for decades. Most are from non-Arab communities that were targeted – by the army and a local Arab militia known as the Janjaweed – after an uprising in the early 2000s by Darfur’s mostly non-Arab rebel groups.

Pictured are Residents of Abu Shouk displacement camp in North Darfur state. They are sat on the ground under a laminated roof.
Ahmed Gouja/TNH
Residents of Abu Shouk displacement camp in North Darfur state. It is one of dozens of camps set up for victims of a conflict in the early 2000s.

The small number of displaced people who had been receiving humanitarian aid in recent years have received nothing since the current conflict erupted in April and aid agencies suspended their activities, according to residents of three camps.

Health centres and schools that were supported by aid groups have also struggled to operate in the camps, many of which were built on the outskirts of Darfur’s main cities and have transformed into towns in their own right.

Displaced people travelling from camps to town centres and agricultural areas said they fear the presence of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitary group that evolved out of the Janjaweed and is now fighting the army for control of Sudan.

Some camp residents said artillery fire and airstrikes from the military – intended to hit RSF positions – have also fallen inside their camps in recent weeks, costing dozens of lives and leading to many injuries.

“I have a nephew who is a tuk-tuk driver. The RSF stopped him at a checkpoint and imprisoned him in a warehouse near the camp for a week.”

Despite the struggles, the camp residents who spoke to The New Humanitarian said they are coping with the conflict by pooling resources, reopening health centres, and even arranging ceasefire talks between local RSF and army commanders.

To end the conflict, they all called for accountability for army personnel and for members of the RSF, which many Darfuris still refer to as the Janjaweed or simply as “the militias”.

“We expected that there would be justice and accountability after the first war,” said Salwa Hamidi, from Abu Shouk camp, which is near El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state. “We said that justice must be done, and that is still our principle.”

The testimonies that follow have been edited for length and clarity. For more background on the Darfur conflict read our archival reporting, and for accounts of recent abuses by the RSF see our report from last month.

Mohammed Haroun, youth leader in Kalma camp: ‘I saw children who had died’

Mohammed Haroun is a resident of Kalma camp, one of the largest displacement sites in Darfur. He is pictured mid-sentence as he is sitting. His hands are in front of his face, palms open as he gestures. He is wearing a light grey button-up shirt.
Ahmed Gouja/TNH
Mohammed Haroun is a resident of Kalma camp, one of the largest displacement sites in Darfur. He said malnutrition cases are rising in his camp and that work has dried up for displaced people since war erupted.

We are safe inside Kalma camp [in South Darfur state] but if you pass a metre outside the camp, you will face the worst violations [by the RSF]: beating with whips, stealing and looting of personal belongings.

Living and moving has become very difficult. If you walk to Nyala [the nearby capital of  South Darfur state], you expect that you will not come back unharmed. You may be killed or injured. You may get arrested by the RSF. They may loot your money.

I have a nephew who is a tuk-tuk driver. He was fetching some goods from Nyala. The RSF stopped him at a checkpoint and imprisoned him in a warehouse near the camp for a week.

Working in farms to the north of the camp has become more risky and dangerous. A neighbour who went with his son to fetch grass for their donkey was severely beaten by an armed militia that also stole their phone.

The health situation in Kalma is very bad. Medicine needed to tackle seasonal diseases such as malaria, typhoid, and cholera are non-existent. The laboratory is closed due to the absence of a doctor who cannot travel from Nyala to Kalma.

My wife is pregnant, and we could not find any vaccines for her to prevent diseases during pregnancy. Since the beginning of the war in Nyala, most of the medical institutions concerned with women and children have been burnt.

Malnutrition cases are spreading. I went to the camp hospital myself and I saw children who had died, and others in a very serious and difficult condition. There is no good treatment, medicine, or medical staff.

The prices [of goods] are very high, and there is a lack of any kind of work for displaced people to cover their daily needs. People were eating from last year’s harvest of grain and beans, but all of this has ended.

Salwa Hamidi, community leader and representative of women in Abu Shouk camp: ‘We appeal to humanitarian organisations to expedite the provision of aid’

Salwa Hamidi is a resident of Abu Shouk camp in North Darfur state. She is pictured looking at the camera, standing. Her right hand is over her stomach. She is wearing a white full-body cover with flowers and red head-covering underneath.
Handout/TNH
Salwa Hamidi is a resident of Abu Shouk camp in North Darfur state. She said a lack of accountability for past violence is a root cause of the current conflict.

The war has affected us a lot. Organisations and humanitarian agencies have focused their support on the newly displaced people and left the old displaced in the camps [with nothing].

“The children have learned about war and the methods of war. If a child is sitting down, all the words they hear are about machine guns, bullets, and weapons.”

Famine and malnutrition have spread, and the health situation has become very bad. There is no food. Families are very tired. We hope that organisations will come and find out about the conditions the old displaced people are living in.

There are no schools or kindergartens – all of them are suspended. The children have learned about war and the methods of war. If a child is sitting down, all the words they hear are about machine guns, bullets, and weapons.

Cases of urinary incontinence have begun to appear as a direct result of the effects of this war and the fear and panic it has spread among children. In the continuation of this war, their future is lost.

We expected that there would be justice and accountability after the first war [in the 2000s]. We said that justice must be done, and that is still our principle. Even if there were 10 more wars, justice must be applied.

The absence of justice and accountability in Darfur has now resulted in killing and displacement in all the cities of Sudan, and the collapse and destruction is massive. Even the capital city has been destroyed.

We appeal to humanitarian organisations to expedite the provision of aid to displaced people without classification and discrimination, whether it is a newly displaced person or an older displaced person. All people are suffering.

Adam Rigal, spokesperson for displaced people and refugees in Darfur, and resident of Nertiti camp: ‘All institutions have completely collapsed’

Pictured is Adam Rigal, he is a spokesperson for displaced people and refugees in Darfur. He is wearing a sky blue blazer and a white button up shirt.
Ahmed Gouja/TNH
Adam Rigal, a spokesperson for displaced people and refugees in Darfur, said communities have been unable to cultivate their land or travel outside of camps without  risking attacks by militias.

The war has affected the lives of the displaced people inside the camps in Nertiti [in Central Darfur state]. It even changed the daily discussions that take place in the meeting places of community councils. 

We have a very large place in our camp where we sit to discuss the problems of the country, current and future issues. But people are now [discussing] strategies to make sure war does not reach the camp, that these calamities do not come to us.

The daily jobs and routine work that displaced people used to have has completely stopped, because [nobody] has cash on hand [due to the collapse of the banking system]. There will be famine – this is what the community fears.

Before the war, there were no militia checkpoints but now there are more than 12 between Nertiti and Tur [a nearby locality where people travel for work and to meet family]. They take away your money according to their desire, according to what is in their heads.

“I ask that people who have an iota of humanity discuss this issue and put forward solutions.”

Last year, displaced people cultivated two or three acres or land, but this year the same person planted less because of the difficulties of the war. Armed militias took advantage and began to enter their livestock onto farms. The situation is now the law of the jungle.

All institutions have completely collapsed and have been looted and torn apart. In Zalingei [the capital of Central Darfur], all institutions have been torn down and destroyed, including the university.

In our area of Nertiti, we have a peace and reconciliation committee, and are making efforts day and night to prevent clashes between the army and the RSF as well the SLA-AW [a rebel group traditionally opposed to both the army and the RSF].

We have met with army leaders, RSF, and the leaders of the SLA-AW. We made a deal with all three parties so that no military clash would happen. And if a party decides to lead an attack, they must notify us ahead of time.

There are more than 100,000 displaced families that have arrived in Nertiti from Zalingei, El-Geneina [the capital of West Darfur], Nyala, and Khartoum. This indicates that our place has safety, although preserving security requires a lot of effort.

My feeling about this war is that it is worse than the 2003 war in Darfur. It is making Sudan and the Sudanese people lose billions of dollars, and it is causing the total collapse of national institutions.

At the present moment, there is nobody who is thinking about justice, about how we get justice. The main concern people have is how to secure and provide supplies of food for their families.

I ask people who are outside Sudan and able to communicate to make sure these issues reach all concerned, including the UN Security Council. I ask that people who have an iota of humanity discuss this issue and put forward solutions.

Adam Isaac, health worker and resident of Abu Shouk camp: ‘We knocked door to door and asked people to donate food’

Pictured are people waiting outside a health clinic in Abu Shouk displacement camp in North Darfur state.
Ahmed Gouja/TNH
A health clinic in Abu Shouk displacement camp in North Darfur state. Shells fired by the army have landed inside the camp in recent months, costing several lives.

Since Decement 2022 until now, we have only received humanitarian aid once. And that aid was intended for displaced people in other Darfur states but couldn’t be delivered to them perhaps due to security concerns.

The burden on us increased even more after the war. We have received newly displaced people from the Tawila and Kutum areas. As community leaders, we knocked door to door and asked people to donate food for the new arrivals, a little corn and oil.

“Because of the difficult situation, camp residents – including nurses, doctors, and medical assistants – took the initiative to reopen a health centre inside the camp.”

In the first days of the conflict, the market in Abu Shouk was looted. Displaced people transported all their goods into their homes because more than 10 shops were being robbed in the market every day.

On the first day of the conflict, we also had five deaths in the camp and seven wounded [after shelling from the army towards RSF positions near the camp]. On the second day, we had five deaths and six wounded.

The injured were taken to a hospital [in nearby El Fasher] but were discharged the same evening after the RSF attacked the facility. Because of the difficult situation, camp residents – including nurses, doctors, and medical assistants – took the initiative to reopen a health centre inside the camp [that had been run by NGOs and had closed since April].

As for security inside the camp, there are a lot of attacks [involving camp residents who are part of the army or local rebel groups]. In some cases, they threaten people, steal phones, and attack with guns. This is a widespread phenomenon. 

We hope that our brothers in the armed forces and the rebel movements will coordinate together and stop the random firing of bullets in the evenings inside the camp. We need to have control.

If justice had been achieved for us as displaced people for the crimes committed [in the past], the recent events that befell Sudan – and the war – would not have happened. The people engaged in the war have ruined the country and destroyed the state. And worse than that, they have kidnapped girls and women, which they consider to be the spoils of war.

Madani Zakaria Bashir, community leader in Abu Shouk camp: ‘The war from 2003 did not stop, rather, it kept continuing’

Madani Zakaria Bashir, community leader in Abu Shouk camp: ‘The war from 2003 did not stop, rather, it kept continuing’
Handout/TNH
Madani Zakaria Bashir, a community leader in Abu Shouk, said women have been organising in the camp to ensure those in need have clothes and food.

During the 2003 war, when we arrived at the displacement camps, after two or three months had passed, humanitarian organisations came and provided food and medical assistance. 

“We see the deaths of large numbers of people. You could see seven or eight members of one family killed in just a few minutes inside their house.”

But since the war of April 2023 started, there is no organisation that came and provided anything for the newly displaced people, or for the displaced people from previous conflicts.

The way people are being killed in the current war differs from 2003. This time people are dying because of heavy artillery and missiles landing inside populated cities as well as in camps for the displaced.

We see the deaths of large numbers of people. For example, you could see seven or eight members of one family killed in just a few minutes inside their house, which is something different from before.

For me, the war from 2003 did not stop. Rather, it kept continuing, and each time it increased until now. If the former criminals [in the RSF and army] had been held accountable, they would not have committed crimes for a second time.

Even before the war started, we women used to suffer greatly, especially those who practised farming [in fields outside the camps]. We were subjected to rape and whipped by the militias, so we sat inside the camps and stopped farming. 

After the war, the dangers became even greater for us. But women in the camps began to share available meals and clothes with those in need. They shared everything that they owned.

We appeal to people to work towards holding the criminals accountable, because this is the only way that we can stop the war and stop the violence and rapes.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

This project was funded by the H2H Network's H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid.

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