Is history repeating itself in Darfur?

Escalation of violence, alleged atrocities and ethnic cleansing in civil war raise fears of genocide akin to 2003

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and scenes of conflict
General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo leads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Arab militias that are battling the Sudanese army
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images / Shutterstock / Alamy)

The escalating violence and reported ethnic cleansing in Sudan's civil war could lead to a repeat of the genocide in the Darfur region in the 2000s, the United Nations has warned.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Friday that it was "gravely concerned" after the mass killing of at least 800 Sudanese by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and its Arab militia allies in West Darfur. 

The RSF captured the Sudanese army's main headquarters and "launched a brutal attack on the homes of Masalit community members" in a refugee camp in Ardamata, said the Sudan Tribune. Paramilitary forces reportedly went door to door, said Politico, "shooting men and boys and leaving their corpses scattered on the street".

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"Twenty years ago the world was shocked by the terrible atrocities in Darfur," said UNHCR head Filippo Grandi, when an estimated 300,000 people were killed. "We fear a similar dynamic might be developing."

What did the papers say?

Civil war broke out in April this year between the RSF, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), and the Sudanese Armed Forces, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, after the RSF attempted to seize control of the government in a coup d'etat. Since April, at least 5,000 civilians have died in the fighting, according to Amnesty International, mainly in the capital Khartoum or in Darfur, while nearly six million people have been forcibly displaced.

The escalation of violence last week after peace talks failed to achieve a ceasefire has "aggravated Darfur's deep-rooted divisions" between Arabs and Masalit ethnic groups, said the Financial Times. The UN believes the situation has "parallels with the outbreak of interethnic bloodshed in 2003".

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell agreed in a press release that the latest atrocities appeared to be part of an "ethnic cleansing campaign" aiming to eradicate the non-Arab Masalit community from West Darfur.

"We keep saying that the situation is horrific and grim. But frankly, we are running out of words to describe the horror of what is happening in Sudan," said Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the country. The human rights violations in Darfur are, she said, "verging on pure evil", The Guardian reported.

The "backbone" of the RSF's estimated 100,000 fighters is drawn from Arab tribesmen from the region, added Middle East Eye, but many of its fighters, including Hemedti and his brother, once belonged to the "fearsome Janjaweed militias that former president Omar al-Bashir used to wage a genocidal war against Black African tribes and rebels" in the early 2000s. 

In recent weeks, the RSF has seized Sudan's second largest city, Nyala, and most of the states that comprise Darfur, according to Andres Schipani, the FT's East and Central Africa bureau chief, in Nairobi. The RSF now controls Darfur, "a region almost the size of France", and most of the capital. 

The peace talks in Jeddah, mediated by the US and Saudi Arabia, are becoming "cover for the atrocities committed in Darfur by the RSF", Kholood Khair, founder of Khartoum think tank Confluence Advisory, told the FT. Twenty-five million people – more than half the country's population – are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance.

The UNHCR has described "shocking accounts of widespread rape and sexual violence" committed by the RSF, a tool of terror widely used in Sudan during the 2000s. 

Yousif Ezat, an RSF spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that he could not confirm or deny whether the group had committed atrocities in Ardamata. In a statement to CNN on Wednesday, the RSF said its forces were "fighting side-by-side with the people of Sudan to restore our country to its rightful path of civilian-led democratic rule".

What next?

The UN Security Council will meet on Thursday to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation. The EU is working with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other international bodies to try to document human-rights violations. 

But Sudanese analyst Mohamed Badawi told Middle East Eye that recent developments indicated that the RSF intends to declare a temporary Sudanese government in Darfur, parallel to Burhan's "war government". The RSF is also "aiming to secure its supply routes to the Central African Republic", he said, where it is assisted by Russia's Wagner Group.

Badawi, senior researcher at the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, described the war as a conflict of interests, not just between local rivals but between the rivals' regional and international allies too. "The scenario of dividing the country is possible," he warned.

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