Massacres in West Darfur: Depopulation campaign on mineral-rich lands by Sudan’s military junta?

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is led by Sudan’s military junta’s second-in-command, are accused of the massacres in Darfur in the last week of April, which led to at least 200 deaths and the displacement of around 100,00. Local sources say the armed forces were complicit

May 05, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
Sudan Darfur massacres
(Photo: IGS/Twitter)

Around 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of the massacres which unfolded in Sudan’s West Darfur State between April 22 and April 30, according to a flash update by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Monday, May 2. 

At least 200 deaths were confirmed by the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD) on April 30 after four people were killed in the State’s capital city El Geneina. Violence spread to the capital after starting around 80 kilometers away in the town of Kereinik, engulfing several small villages in between. 24 of the total killed are children and 23 are elderly. 

95 people were killed after being shot in the head. Another 51 were shot in the chest and 19 in the abdomen. Five people were burnt to death. The survivors are suffering a severe shortage of food, clean water and medicine. Most of the victims were Internally Displaced People (IDP) living in camps after having fled their homes during the civil war.

Eyewitnesses, civil society organizations and the Resistance Committees (RCs) that are leading the country-wide protests since the military coup on October 25 last year have blamed the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) for the massacres. West Darfur’s governor Khamis Abdallah Abkar also confirmed the involvement of the RSF. The RSF is led by the military junta’s second-in-command, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti.

“Military junta is fully involved in this massacre”

The Sudanese state, which is de facto the military junta that seized power in the coup, “is fully involved in this massacre,” said Mohammad (name changed), whose uncle and two cousins were killed in El Geneina’s market on April 29, allegedly by RSF men. 

Speaking on behalf of the RC in the city’s Al Shati neighborhood, he told Peoples Dispatch that the military junta is “using all of its military might and planning” to aid the RSF in carrying out an alleged depopulation campaign over the mineral rich land containing gold, diamonds, uranium and copper

Other Janjaweed militias – from which the RSF was organized in 2013 – are also involved in the attacks. Utilizing the conflict over land and water between the nomadic herdsmen and the sedentary farmers and pastoralists, which has been intensifying since the increased desertification since the mid-1980s, the Sudanese state created these militias from the nomads in the 2000s during the civil war in Darfur. 

They were armed and trained to suppress the rebel groups which sprung up among the sedentary communities in Darfur. These sedentary communities were politically and economically marginalized under the regime of former dictator Omar al-Bashir. They are also an impediment in the way of cashing in on the mineral wealth of the region.  

Bloody Gold

After displacing them in millions through a campaign of massacres, rapes, torture and burning down of entire villages, the Janjaweed with the connivance of the state had taken control of the bulk of the gold mines in this region by the end of the decade. Over the next four years – between 2010 and 2014 – an estimated 48,000 kg of gold, worth over USD 2 million, was illegally exported from war-torn Darfur.

After much of these Janjaweed militias were formally organized as the RSF in 2013 under the command of Hemeti, he quickly defeated his rival Janjaweed leaders, and brought all the gold mines in the region under his control by 2017 after the RSF took over the mines in Jebel Amer.

The “only large concession operational in Darfur” is under the control of the gold-trading company Al Gunade, owned by Hemeti’s brother and his brother’s two sons, according to an investigation by Global Witness. Hemeti himself is on the company’s board of directors.  

By the time al-Bashir was ousted from power in April 2019 by the pro-democracy December Revolution which began in 2018, the RSF had become so wealthy that it donated over USD 1 billion to stabilize the finances of Sudan’s central bank.

Despite the dictator’s overthrow by the revolution, the inner circle of Bashir’s generals, including Hemeti, managed to retain power by deploying the RSF to clear the sit-in demonstration outside the army HQ in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on June 3, 2019. 

An RSF captain told the BBC that the order to clear the demonstration was issued by Abdul Rahim Dagalo, which is also the name of Hemiti’s brother who owns Al Gunade. What ensued was a massacre of over 100 pro-democracy protesters, followed by a week of terror against the residents of capital as the RSF took control over the city, beating, torturing and killing residents who stepped out to the streets, in effect confining the population to a house arrest.  

The RSF was then incorporated into the state’s security forces under the subsequent joint civilian-military transitional government formed in August 2019, after the military yielded a share of state power (taken back after the coup last October) to centrist and right-wing parties.

The Janjaweed militias which were not under the RSF have not been disbanded and disarmed. These militias retain close links with the RSF and receive its support during attacks. Mohammad argues that the RSF is “a natural outgrowth of the Janjaweed militia” and they “are inextricably linked”. 

The current spiral of killings began with an attack on Kereinik on April 22 by these militias, supposedly in retaliation after two nomadic herdsmen were found dead in this town, which is dominated by farmers. According to the UN, 30%, or 146,700 of the 487,000 residents in this town are IDPs from the war living in camps.

The Um Dwayne camp was burnt down by the Janjaweed militias in this attack – for the second time. At least 20,000 people were displaced (in many cases re-displaced) as their homes were burnt down, the Darfur Bar Association said on April 23. 

West Darfur governor Khamis Abdallah Abkar said that after this attack, he had reinforced the 25 vehicles of security forces, mainly the SAF, by dispatching another 12 vehicles, with 10 fighters in each. But the SAF had to withdraw because they were massively outnumbered by the attack that followed on April 24, he maintains.

Adam Regal, spokesperson of the General Coordination of Displaced and Refugees, said there were only 15 security vehicles, which retreated when the attack started. 

Army collaborating with RSF?

Given that the region had been witnessing regular large and well-coordinated attacks by Janjaweed militias and the RSF itself month after month, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands, 15 vehicles were bound to be an under-deployment. 

The heavily armed attackers, wearing RSF uniforms, came in from all sides on 300 landcruisers along with several motorbikes and cars, according to the West Darfur committee of the pro-democracy group TAM. The four-wheel drives and weapons that were used in this attack are military grade and cannot be procured by ordinary citizens, the Coordination of Resistance Committees in El Geneina pointed out

Mohammad believes that the SAF is guilty of more than simply withdrawing in the face of an overwhelming attack. He accuses the SAF of actively collaborating with the RSF and deceiving the victims into their trap. 

He reiterated the allegations that those who had fled the town and taken to the mountains, armed with relatively smaller weapons which are awash in the region, were convinced to disarm and return to the town on the guarantee that the SAF would protect them. They were convinced after being tricked into believing that the SAF plane flying at low-altitude over Kereinik at the time was brought in to bomb the Janjaweed militias should they attack.

Just as the attack started, the plane disappeared from sight of those defenselessly trapped and encircled, while the SAF vehicles beat a retreat. TAM ‘s West Darfur committee added in a statement that “the plane was sent not for the purpose of protecting citizens, but to explore the region and provide anti-citizen intelligence to the RSF.” Initial reports indicated that 80,000 families had been displaced in this attack and 168 people killed.

While most media referred to this massacre as “tribal violence”, it is important to note that most farmers and nomads are not racially or ethnically distinct groups. Nevertheless, the largely Arabic-speaking nomads are portrayed as Arab tribes and the sedentary farmers and pastoralists who speak local languages are deemed to be non-Arab, African tribes. The massacres in Darfur are thus dressed up as a “tribal conflict.”

Sharing a video of the rows and rows of land-cruiser pick-up trucks carrying the heavily armed and uniformed RSF men on their invasion of Kereinik, the twitter handle of @SudanZUprising pointed out “No “tribe” has this amount of manpower, vehicles or artillery. Any reference to tribal clashes is categorically false.”

IDP and refugees camp spokesperson Regal added that “the government collaborates with the militias, supplies them with weapons and logistics, and guarantees immunity from prosecution.” He maintains that “the real purpose of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur is to take over their lands. Now the final step is to get rid of the witnesses in the IDP camps so no one can contest the new settlers’ claims.” Allegations are being made that the new settlers the government is bringing in include the Arabic-speaking “tribes”, often fighters from neighboring countries. 

Violence spreads to West Darfur’s capital  

Footage of the destruction in Kereinik show thick black plumes of smoke rising from the burning houses, markets and camps, as armed RSF men roamed the streets. Municipal buildings and a police station were also burnt. Medical workers, along with some patients, were reportedly killed in the attack on the Kereinik hospital, which has since been shut. 

Many victims injured in this attack were transferred to the hospital 80 kilometers away in El Geneina. Later that evening, the Coordination of El Geneina Resistance Committees reported that heavy firing had begun in parts of this city. 126,700 of the 646,000 residents here are IDPs. This hospital here too had to be shut down and all the patients evacuated on April 25, when the intermittent firing escalated to blasts and shelling as the RSF clashed with rebel forces who fought back. 

Silent protests were held across the country on April 26 condemning the military junta for being complicit in and responsible for the violence spreading in Darfur again. Later on that day, joint security forces were deployed in large numbers to bring the area under control. Along with the SAF, these included the RSF. While the rebel groups which shook hands with the military after the Juba peace agreement were also supposed to be included in this force, this is yet to materialize.

While the intensity of the violence and scale of the attacks have reduced after the deployment, the killings in El Geneina continued over several days, at least until April 30 when the CCSD confirmed a total of at least 200 deaths since April 22. The “surgical emergency is still operating at half capacity”, while the emergency services for women and childbirth, and the department of internal medicine “are not working”, the CCSD added. It called for “concerted efforts to fully return to work in the hospital.”  Reports of violence and looting by armed militias came also from Al-Fasher in the neighboring North Darfur State that day.  

Hundreds of thousands displaced since the Juba peace agreement

Across the Darfur region, at least 300,000 people have been killed and over 2.5 million displaced in the course of the civil war which peaked in the 2000s. While the Juba peace agreement was signed in October 2020 between most of the rebel groups and the military, critics maintain that it was merely a power-sharing agreement. Without addressing the questions of land and water, the return of the IDPs to the lands from which they were displaced, and the disarming of the Janjaweed, this agreement has brought no peace to the restive region. 

The rebel groups which were offered a share in state-power as a part of this agreement went on to support the military coup a year later in October 2021. Last year alone, another 430,000 were displaced in Darfur, followed by many more tens of thousands, including in El Geneina and Kereinik, in the early months of 2022. While some displaced in the recent surge of violence in West Darfur have begun returning to their homes, anywhere between 85,000 to 115,000 remain displaced, according to the UN. 

“Families have lost their food stocks and sources of income (labor wages from working on farms, domestic work or in the market). Prices of basic commodities such as sorghum, sugar, millet, and oil have soared, and people have no cash or disposable income.. Many IDPs have not eaten anything but green mangoes and sorghum for the past five days as all their food stocks were looted or burnt,” the OCHA said on May 2. With no water containers available, “an estimated 90 per cent of the IDPs are drinking water from unprotected sources.”