My opening question seemed harmless, but the atmosphere had turned tense.
I was interviewing a group of community leaders at one of the dozens of displacement camps still dotted across Darfur. I’d asked what they thought about the international peacekeeping mission in the region closing its doors after 13 years.
My colleague and interpreter – the Sudanese journalist Mohammed Amin – turned to the group to find out the problem. Then he turned to me. “They’re asking: ‘Where are the BBC, where are Al Jazeera?’” Mohammed explained.
Their problem, he continued, was not with me or my question, but with our profession. Foreign journalists used to visit Darfur all the time. Why, the group wanted to know, don't they visit any more?
In the moment, I wasn’t sure how best to answer.
The expression “forgotten crisis” is a problematic one – no crisis is forgotten by the people living through it, nor the local journalists who cover it, week in week out, year after year.
But in Darfur, where violence once grabbed international headlines – and aid organisations once pumped in money and manpower – “forgotten crisis” is a term many residents now seem to relate to.
“In 2003 and 2004, [aid groups] used to visit us frequently,” said 65-year-old Yahia Khamis, a resident of the rebel-held Jebel Marra mountain range, where only a handful of foreign journalists have reached in the past decade. “But now there are none.”
It shouldn’t be the case, as surging violence over the past few months has once again shown.
Since January, hundreds of people have died in attacks that have driven more than 230,000 Darfuris from their homes – four times the number displaced by the conflict in the whole of 2020.
On a three-week reporting trip earlier this year, I saw a region experiencing a series of unsettling changes: peacekeepers pulling out, a new peace deal stirring tension, and Sudan’s political transition shifting the balance of power between polarised communities.
I also saw much that remains worryingly unchanged.
More than 1.5 million people are still living in displacement camps, many of them since conflict erupted in 2003. They have no real prospect of returning home because their land is occupied by new settler groups.
Some of the same rebel movements that began fighting the government in 2003 are still active after nearly 20 years. When I met their leading commanders in the remote mountains of Jebel Marra, it was instantly clear that the war is far from over.
Though the rebel's main enemy – former president Omar al-Bashir – is now behind bars, they point out that army generals linked to his regime have retained power through top jobs in the civilian-military administration tasked with steering Sudan to elections.
As the crisis rumbles on, a humanitarian response seems lacking in almost every respect. Support in the displacement camps has shrunk to a trickle, while those fleeing recent violence told me they had to wait weeks on end for aid groups to support them.
And in villages in Jebel Marra – where rebel in-fighting and militia attacks continue to take lives and displace thousands – I met communities like Khamis’ that have received nothing from aid groups for over a decade.
Scenes of the past in a Darfur border town: ‘It’s about cleansing and removing others’
Darfur got plenty of attention in the 2000s, when rebel groups – mostly from the region’s non-Arab Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa communities – revolted against al-Bashir's government.
The conflict became a global cause célèbre, attracting Hollywood megastars and activists with “Save Darfur” lawn signs and wristbands. A vast humanitarian relief operation was launched; peacekeepers stepped in despite having no peace to keep.
Like previous Khartoum administrations, al-Bashir was accused of neglecting the western region, which still lacks basic infrastructure and public services.
As rebels launched attacks, al-Bashir responded by arming Arab militias – known as the Janjaweed – who killed thousands of mostly non-Arabs in a campaign of violence that earned the ex-president an International Criminal Court indictment for genocide.
Recruiting mainly landless Arabs – some from local camel-herding groups, others from neighbouring Chad – the Janjaweed used the war to dispossess communities, drive them into camps, and change the demographic map of Darfur.
Large-scale fighting has since receded, but remnants of the Janjaweed militias remain active, land remains occupied, and camp residents are unable to return to their homes. Many questioned why the peacekeepers left in December.
Patterns of current violence in some ways resemble the past, as I discovered after taking a flight from Khartoum to El Geneina, a mid-size border town whose residents have suffered the worst of recent attacks.
Rows of singed houses and burnt-out cars flanked both sides of the main road leading into the town. Some 150,000 displaced people were sheltering in local schools, mosques, government buildings, and ordinary backyards. Most were from the region’s Masalit group, and had been living in a sprawling displacement camp set up in 2003 on the outskirts of town, which is the capital of West Darfur state.
After a local Arab was killed in the camp in January – allegedly by a Masalit – the site was attacked by Arab militiamen. Among them were members of the Rapid Support Forces, an official government unit which grew out of the Janjaweed.
Days of clashes left hundreds dead, while Sudanese troops – in their first major test since the December exit of the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission, known as UNAMID – failed to intervene.
The Masalit leaders I interviewed often explained the violence as a continuation of the same land-grabbing strategy the Janjaweed have pursued since 2003. With the peacekeepers gone, some even spoke of fearing a second genocide.
“They want to remove the displacement camp,” said Daud Ibrahim, a leader of displaced people in the area. “It’s about cleansing and removing others.”
But after a week of reporting in El Geneina – involving dozens of conversations with local officials and community leaders from both sides – it seemed something deeper was also going on.
While Sudan’s transition has led to profound social change – the repeal of conservative morality laws, for example – in Darfur, competing expectations and visions of the future have caused inevitable tensions.
Empowered by the transition, Masalit leaders have intensified calls for justice, compensation, and the return of land taken from them during past conflicts. Arab communities – some of which occupy the land – have felt threatened as a result.
Local government officials, researchers, and aid workers in El Geneina all told me that those linked to the old security apparatus – and to al-Bashir’s former ruling party – stand ready to exploit the tensions.
“It’s not tribal, it is political,” Mohamed El Doma, the recently replaced governor of West Darfur, said in an interview from his office overlooking one of El Geneina’s many displacement camps. “The NCP [al-Bashir’s former party] wants to destabilise the situation.”
Food shortages and endless displacement: ‘Where is the action?’
I had assumed that aid groups – some of which were kicked out by al-Bashir – would be in a better position under the new transitional government. UN officials had made a song and a dance – quite literally – about reaching parts of Sudan for the first time in years.
But the emergency response in El Geneina seemed lacklustre, at least compared to the past. A month after fleeing, many displaced people told me they hadn’t received food from aid groups working in the town. Camps had no water sources or toilets.
Without enough food, people who had received blankets and kitchen sets from aid groups had to sell them to feed their families. Falling temperatures then stopped them sleeping at night.
Some aid officials I spoke to compared the slow response with relief efforts for the roughly 60,000 Ethiopian refugees who have fled to a remote part of eastern Sudan since conflict broke out in the northern Tigray region last November.
While fewer in number than El Geneina’s displaced, dozens of aid groups rushed to help set up camps and support the new arrivals as Tigray hit the headlines – just like Darfur once did.
“Where is the action?” one frustrated official working on the El Geneina response said to me.
El Geneina was not the only place I went where humanitarian needs were not being met. Aid was also clearly lacking in the displacement camps I visited in different parts of the region.
Set up in the early 2000s for the mostly non-Arabs targeted by the Janjaweed, the camps have since mushroomed into small towns, where a new generation has been born and raised.
Al-Bashir’s government saw the camps as an embarrassment and pressured residents to go back to their villages. But most say they can’t return – at least not permanently – because their lands are occupied by Arab groups and militias.
That leaves hundreds of thousands trapped in limbo even as food rations have been reduced and social services remain scant. Most camps I visited had no roads, little electricity, and few durable houses.
“Before, it was better – there was humanitarian assistance. But it has been reduced,” Hanan Hassan, a community leader from Kalma, one of the largest camps in Darfur, told me. “Now, people are really suffering.”
While aid is lacking in the camps, the humanitarian situation is arguably worse in rural areas – and none more so than in Jebel Marra, which I hiked up on a three day-round trip to meet Darfur’s largest rebel group.
Known as the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW), the group has maintained a continuous presence in Jebel Marra since conflict first broke out in Darfur. Mountain residents have suffered more than most as a consequence.
“The camps have since mushroomed into small towns, where a new generation has been born and raised.”
Under al-Bashir, aid groups were blocked from working in the area, even as Khartoum allegedly dropped chemical weapons and barrel bombs on residents – many of whom still bear the scars.
The mountains straddle three of Darfur's five states, but look nothing like the semi-arid plains beneath. Lemon and orange orchards grow on the slopes, alongside onions and tomatoes that are sold in markets across Darfur.
But despite the nutritious food, a lack of health services means rates of malnutrition are paradoxically high. Children, meanwhile, are born with crippling birth defects that could be avoided if pregnant women had basic medicine.
Aid officials told me they are trying to increase their support to communities in Jebel Marra as access improves. But with funding for a neglected crisis often zero-sum, some fear more money spent in the mountains will mean less money spent in the camps.
That’s not a choice that should have to be made.
A brush with Sudan’s deep state: ‘Nothing changes, nothing changes’
Of course, more emergency aid won’t solve Darfur’s conflict, and nor will a peacekeeping mission that splurged over $1 billion a year – much of it on its own astronomical operating costs.
Even when Darfur was in the headlines, the response was not always helpful. Activists and journalists framed a complex crisis as “Arabs” versus “Africans”, while peacekeepers often stood by as civilians were killed.
I won’t win a prize for suggesting that what’s needed now are long-term solutions that address Darfur’s deep grievances: a lack of justice and accountability, systematic under-development, and the thorny issue of land ownership.
The new transitional government is hoping to contribute by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the region as part of a new peace agreement it signed in October with rebel groups from Darfur and other parts of the country.
But the Jebel Marra rebels have refused to sign, and Darfuris are sceptical of the government, whose top figures include Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – a general who led attacks against civilians in Darfur – and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a former Janjaweed commander better known as Hemedti.
Elements of the old order remain anchored in other institutions too – part of a deep state that many blame not only for the recent violence in El Geneina, but also for more broadly undermining the 2019 revolution.
Aid officials told me that individuals within the Humanitarian Aid Commission – the government body that regulates humanitarian work – still obstruct them when negotiating travel permits and stamps to access communities in need across Sudan.
Military officers in Central Darfur state harassed Mohammed and I when we asked for permission to visit SLA-AW-controlled parts of Jebel Marra – a simple request that ended with the confiscation of my travel permit and three days of begging to get it back.
I had hoped the new civilian governor of Central Darfur – a former human rights defender seen as part of Sudan’s new guard – would help solve the impasse, or at least get back my Khartoum-issued permit.
But Governor Adeeb Abdel Rahman treated me with the same suspicion as the military, blocking our passage to Jebel Marra and shouting at me at one stage: “Go back to where you have come from.” He did not respond to a request for comment.
After Abdel Rahman's threats, another Darfuri rights defender and confidant of Mohammed told us we had “no friends left” in Central Darfur and should leave the state. We took the advice as soon as our permits were returned.
“If I went to Jebel Marra on my own and came back, they would accuse me of being a rebel,” Mohammed told me after the incident.
“Nothing changes, nothing changes,” he added.
Inside Darfur’s rebel-held mountains: ‘If there is a war, we are ready’
Events in Central Darfur didn’t dissuade us from visiting the rebels – something we’d been planning for several months. Instead, we drove to South Darfur state, where community leaders sympathetic to the SLA-AW helped facilitate the trip via a new route.
The plan was to reach a faraway village called Torontonga, where the SLA-AW’s main command centre was based. I wanted to understand why the group – which first emerged in 2001 – was refusing to make peace with the new government.
UN experts have accused the rebels of a range of macabre abuses, including killings, torture, and forced labour. The rebels make money by taxing displaced people and gold-miners, and by using their troops as mercenaries in neighbouring Libya.
Still, the group remains popular among Darfur’s displaced and seems able to attract youngsters to its cause. One set of new recruits even joined us on our journey to Torontonga, a bruising trek up Jebel Marra’s steep slopes and rocky streams.
Travelling by donkey and on foot, we crossed empty villages destroyed in air raids, and passed communities who greeted the recruits with contributions of hot tea and bowls of thick porridge. The war effort had clearly not ended.
We’d been told the journey would take just six hours, but that number was revised – again and again. We ended up spending the night sleeping out in the open, something the flip-flop-wearing recruits somehow found easier than better-equipped journalists.
Arriving in Torontonga late the following afternoon, I saw a village of stark contrasts: picture-perfect stone houses tucked away within sun-dried hills, and a busy rebel garrison that further demonstrated just how far away Darfur is from peace.
After meeting junior rebel officials – and catching up on some sleep – we were led to the office of the SLA-AW force commander, a burly, middle-aged man known by his nickname, Gaddura.
I asked why his group had refused to sign the agreement. “People who committed crimes have graduated to the top,” he told me, referring to al-Burhan and Hemedti. “We won’t negotiate with those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against our people.”
Though I’d expected this answer, I was surprised – over the course of the hour-long interview – by the level of hostility Gaddura and his men showed towards the transitional government, particularly as the group had agreed to a ceasefire arrangement.
One rebel official blamed recent violence that has seen thousands displaced in Jebel Marra on “militias of the transitional government”, but provided no evidence that such groups exist.
And Gaddura suggested – also without evidence – that groups who had signed the new peace agreement were preparing to fight the SLA-AW. “If there is a war, we are ready,” he told me.
As we spoke, the sound of rebel recruits chanting slogans at a military training centre floated through the hills. Outside Gaddura’s office, a group of rebels in smart uniforms, meanwhile, stood guard with assault rifles and a gun-mounted pick-up – ready for any eventuality.
Nearby, a noisy generator powered a rebel war room where troops charged phones and watched Sky News Arabia on a flatscreen television – rare luxuries in Jebel Marra.
After interviewing Gaddura, I took a short break in the room to top up my phone battery and catch up on the day's developments. I can’t remember what topics made the running order – I was too tired to take notes – but I can remember that Darfur certainly didn’t.
The first video shows the aftermath of a January attack on a displacement camp in West Darfur’s El Geneina. The second video shows a rebel guide leading The New Humanitarian’s reporting team through the mountains of Jebel Marra.