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War has destroyed my Darfur town – but I will keep fighting for justice

‘There was a feeling that we were going to die, that we had no chance to survive.’

Pictured are the gates of Nyala's main market burned down along with other debris and rubble. Ahmed Gouja/TNH
The main market in Nyala, the largest town in Darfur, was destroyed amid a looting spree carried out by militias and paramilitary fighters.

The sound of explosions and gunfire had rocked our neighbourhood for weeks, confining us inside and sending children scurrying under their beds. Then the inevitable happened: A shell ripped through the lightweight iron-sheet roof of my family home.

My eight-year-old nephew Muhanad was sitting on his mother’s lap when the shell landed in our living room, barely making a sound. It sliced through his head and opened up a large wound that came painfully close to killing him.

Stories like this are commonplace in Nyala, the largest city in Sudan’s Darfur region and the place I am from. Like much of Darfur, it has been destroyed by the war that broke out in April between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

I am a journalist and human rights defender who has spent years documenting conflict in Darfur. But nothing prepared me for what it feels like to see my city looted, to see my relatives and friends killed, to see my neighbours lose their jobs and slowly starve.

I have learnt that the impact of war is not just about death and destruction. It is about the damage it does to your sense of agency: the way it makes you feel powerless; the way it makes you feel like there is nothing that you can do to make things better.

When my nephew was hit, we took him to a local hospital only to find that all of the doctors had fled and that they didn’t even have a bed for him to lie on. We sat for hours with a bandage trying to stem the blood. We felt totally helpless.

A map of Sudan with all its neighbouring countries labeled. There is a locator dot in Khartoum and Nyala. The entire Darfur State is highlighted in red.

Later in the day, we went to one of the few private hospitals that was still open, but they charged us thousands of dollars for surgery. We managed to raise the funds but other families that walked in with dying relatives did not.

Last month, I left Darfur because there were risks to me staying put given my work, but the sense of powerlessness has only gotten worse. Every time I receive a message or a missed call from my family, I worry something may have happened.

Still, my powerlessness is balanced by pride: pride in the local initiatives that have sprung up in my town to support those affected by the war, and pride in the knowledge that though Nyala has been destroyed, we will build it back again.

I personally will never give up the fight for justice in Darfur. I will not stop documenting crimes and calling for an end to impunity. I will always seek to bring attention to what is happening in my region. The next generation deserves nothing less.

A deceased uncle, a slain neighbour

I was born in 1985, just a few years before our autocratic former president, Omar al-Bashir, took charge in a military coup. He went on to hold power for three decades and terrorised Darfuris in the process.

I was at secondary school in 2003 when war broke out in Darfur. Rebels from mostly non-Arab groups rebelled against al-Bashir’s government, citing marginalisation. Al-Bashir responded by arming Darfuri Arab militias known as Janjaweed.

Those militias displaced millions of Darfur’s non-Arab groups and then took over their land. They later morphed into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the paramilitary group that is now battling the army elites that spawned them.

The current war broke out in Khartoum, but quickly spread to Darfur. In some areas, the RSF and allied Arab militias have launched attacks against non-Arabs – continuing what was started 20 years ago – though in cities like Nyala they are mainly fighting the army.

The first few weeks of the conflict in Nyala were the hardest. Burying relatives became one the main daily activities for people. You would hear artillery being fired by the army. Then you would get the news that somebody you knew had been cut into pieces.

Pictured is a hole in the corner of a ceiling caused by a shelling.
Pictured is a street with pedestrians and cars. At a distance a cloud of fog caused by shelling can be seen.

Large numbers of people have been killed and wounded in clashes between the army and the Rapid Support Forces in Nyala. Shells have crashed into houses, and explosions have rocked neighbourhoods. (Ahmed Gouja/TNH)

On day one of the conflict, we lost a neighbour called Adam Musa. He was sitting on a chair 200 metres away from us when a stray shell struck his back. On day two, we lost one of our uncles – a local RSF commander called Issak.

I had my own brush with death in the second week of the war. I had travelled to the centre of Nyala to buy insulin for a diabetic neighbour. I arrived at a pharmacy safely, but on the way back, at around 11am, I was detained by a group of soldiers. 

They accused me of being an RSF leader because of my skin colour and my Arab tribal origins. “You Arabs, you militias,” they cursed, as they tied my hands behind my back, pushed me to the ground, and fired three live rounds close to my head.

Eventually, a commander showed up, accepted the validity of my press card, and apologised for what had happened. He told me this wasn’t the official behaviour of the army, but I avoided areas with soldiers from that point onwards.

Motorcycle militias and illicit markets

In these first few weeks, I would often find adults breaking down and crying at random moments. In my house, there was a feeling that we were going to die, that we had no chance to survive.

And if the fear of being struck by a shell or caught in crossfire wasn’t enough, we soon began contending with another horror: RSF-aligned Arab militias in civilian clothes that scoot around on motorbikes, looting everything of value.

The presence of the militias echoes scenes from the 2003 Darfur conflict. Back then, Janjaweed fighters would raid villages on horseback, plundering livestock and household goods. The difference now is that the militias are targeting big cities.

The impact on Nyala has been devastating: The militias and RSF fighters have looted government ministries, and they have pillaged hospitals, markets, people’s shops and houses, and the offices of international aid agencies.

A high angle photo of Nyala’s main market with many people walking through it.
Ahmed Gouja/TNH
Nyala residents come out of their houses to buy food and other supplies.

The dormitories of a school set up for orphans in Nyala were destroyed, as was a professional training centre that taught hard skills to a new generation of youth in the region.

A major medicine store that contained supplies used by people across Darfur was also looted. And a printer in the ministry of education building that created books for primary and secondary students across the region was taken too.

Some civilians began arming themselves to protect against the looting, though others sadly participated in the plunder. After the militias took items of value, civilians would pick apart the rest: furniture, tables, books, even the roofs of buildings.

Soon the stolen goods started appearing in illicit markets in RSF-controlled areas where weapons and drugs were also on sale. People called them “Colombia markets” because of the connection to illegal substances.

Food shortages, and the toll on women and girls

The militia presence forced merchants to withdraw their stock from shops and markets and store them in their padlocked homes. As a result, it has become harder and harder to find food in town, and the price of what is available has soared.

Food from Khartoum – our main source of supplies – has dried up as the fighting there has intensified. Traders are bringing in goods from neighbouring South Sudan and Libya, but bad roads and insecurity impact their efforts.

Members of my family have often been eating just a single meal per day – usually lunch. We have depended on the generosity of my brothers who have been sending us money from their base in Saudi Arabia.

The exterior of an INGO office after being raided.
Two women walk among various items inside an INGO office that has been raided.

The offices of international humanitarian organisations, two of which are pictured here, have been raided over the past few months, and their operations have ground to a halt. (Ahmed Gouja/TNH)

Getting medicine has also become a challenge as prices soar. A doctor friend in Nyala told me last week that a young girl had her hands amputated because her family were unable to buy fresh bandages to keep her wounds clean.

The humanitarian situation is even worse for those living in the massive displacement camps on the outskirts of Nyala. These camps house victims of the early 2000s conflict. They are the unseen face of the current humanitarian crisis.

Many of the displaced are dependent on international humanitarian aid – which has been suspended in Darfur – and on daily work in Nyala, either at the market or in the houses and shops of townspeople.

Women and girls have been especially impacted by the conflict. According to my sources, some are being kept in warehouses and hotels by RSF and militia fighters who are sexually abusing them. I believe there may be several hundred cases.

The spirit of the Sudanese

As a journalist in a situation like this, receiving reams of information over WhatsApp, the most constructive thing I can do is use social media to raise awareness of what we are facing.

Others have been focusing their efforts on helping those in need. In my area, groups of people have been distributing soup, while neighbourhood-based activist groups set up civilian checkpoints to restrict the movement of the motorcycle gangs.

Local residents have also been supporting people uprooted within Nyala. They have received no help from international aid agencies, whose response efforts are focused on those fleeing Khartoum, more than 1,000 kilometres away.

Nyala’s displaced fled the most dangerous parts of the city and are currently sheltering in the dormitories of a local university and in schools. Every day, locals bring them supplies of water and food.

Community leaders at one of the camps set up in the early 2000s have, meanwhile, led a local initiative to track down looted medicine and return it to one of the main hospitals in Nyala. It is humbling to see people with high levels of need do such a thing. 

A ceasefire committee was also set up at the beginning of the conflict to coordinate the efforts of community leaders and authorities that have sought to mediate between local army and RSF units and beg them to stop the war. 

Similar committees have been set up in other parts of Darfur, underscoring the determination of residents to resist a conflict between two parties that very few civilians support.

At first, the ceasefire committee succeeded in Nyala, brokering a pause to the conflict around Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. But after Eid passed, the war continued.

Peace requires justice

Right now, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The RSF has control over almost all of Nyala, and much of the rest of Darfur, though the army is still entrenched in a few bases and clashes are frequent.

Some people seem to think that the RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemedti’, will build back Darfur and make it more developed. I tell them that a militia that destroys libraries, schools, and hospitals is not going to bring democracy.

Pictured are people at an open market to the right is the person closest to the camera he is sitting on sacks of grains and other food items at a market.
Some chairs along with items to make tea are pictured under the shade on a sunny day.

Some semblance of normality does return in Nyala when clashes between the army and the Rapid Support Forces temporarily cease. But there is an absence of food and medicine in the city, and the prices of goods have soared. (Ahmed Gouja/TNH)

What we need most urgently is humanitarian assistance. International aid groups say Darfur is too insecure to operate in, but I have followed wars in other countries like Ukraine where they work in even tougher circumstances. Why can’t they do that here?

International actors also need to recognise that peace requires justice. This crisis won't end with military men having talks and signing pieces of paper. Ending the gunfire won’t bring our relatives back. We need reparations and an end to impunity.

Finally, we need to keep using our voices as Darfurians. The men with guns are speaking louder than us right now, but we have the power to speak up too, to let the world know what is really happening.

I often feel like I am part of an unlucky generation in Darfur. For 37 years, I have witnessed people dying and perpetrators enjoying their lives. Not for the first time, I have had to leave the region for safety abroad.

But we cannot allow this to be the case for the next generation of Darfurians, let alone this one. That is why I will spend the rest of my days fighting for justice and peace. I will never give up.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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

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