Fighting between Sudanese army and RSF has disastrous impact in Darfur as hundreds of thousands are displaced

While the national capital Khartoum has seen the most intense battles between the army and the paramilitary RSF, most of the internal displacements are occurring in Darfur due to escalating armed conflict between militias. The region already has most of Sudan’s 3.7 million Internally Displaced Persons

May 13, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
UNHCR staff with refugees from Sudan in Chad. Photo: UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

Over 700,000 people have been internally displaced in Sudan since April 15 when the armed conflict began between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Its spokesperson, Paul Dillon, said at a press briefing in Geneva on May 9 that the number has doubled in the last week after IOM had previously estimated on May 3 that 334,053 had been displaced, 72% of them in West Darfur and South Darfur States.

In the States of South Darfur, North Darfur, and Central Darfur, clashes between the SAF and RAF began soon after they started fighting in Khartoum, killing many civilians, Mohammed Alamaldin, a civil society activist from West Darfur’s capital El Geneina, told Peoples Dispatch.

However, in his own State of West Darfur, which eventually saw the worst of violence, community members — including youth, women, and elders — had managed to secure a local agreement between SAF and RSF “to wait until the winner is determined in Khartoum.”

The locally negotiated truce lasted for a little over a week before the forces clashed on April 24. Amid the ensuing insecurity, the armed conflict between West Darfur’s ethnic militias escalated, killing over 250 and wounding 300 civilians between April 27 and May 3, according to Alamaldin.

Over 200,000 people have been displaced in the State’s capital, El Geneina, he said, adding that at least 125,000 of them were already Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), re-displaced after 25 IDP camps were attacked and completely burnt-down by RSF-backed militias. The Darfur region in western Sudan was already home to most of the over 3.7 million IDPs who were in the country well before the armed conflict between the SAF and the RSF began.

Most of them were sedentary farmers, forced to flee their homes and lands from the rampaging militias known as the Janjaweed, created from the nomadic herders recruited and armed by the regime of former dictator Omar al-Bashir during the civil war in the 2000s.

The tensions between the sedentary farmers and nomadic herders are rooted in competition over land and water, which has particularly intensified since the increased desertification of the region in the mid-1980s.

Although not racially distinct groups, the nomadic herders, who predominantly speak Arabic, have come to be known as “Arab tribes,” while the sedentary farming communities, which mostly speak local languages, are often referred to as “African tribes.” Marginalized economically and politically under Bashir’s Islamist regime, the latter had supported the rebel groups during the civil war.

It is the fighting between the RSF-backed militias of the “Arab tribes” and the militias of one of the “African tribes” called the Massalit that has caused much of the destruction in West Darfur since April 27, Almaldin said.

Taking advantage of the further degeneration of security due to the fighting between the SAF and the RSF, the Arab militias launched attacks on villages, markets, and the camps of the Massalit IDPs, droves of whom are sheltering in Save the Children’s field office in Geneina.

Arab militias have also looted the supplies of the World Food Programme (WFP) and burned down its office in the city, Almaldin added. They have also occupied the Sudanese Red Crescent Society.

The Massalit militia members have, in turn, reportedly seized a large number of arms from a local police station to defend themselves. Most Massalit militia members are buying their own weapons, awash in the region. In possession of heavy arms, they have been able to destroy several RSF vehicles that were being used by the Arab militias, said Almaldin. Massalit militias have occupied the office of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the NGO Sudan Social Development Organization in Geneina.

“Every member of the tribe is contributing in different ways to establish self-defense,” either by volunteering to fight or by providing support to the fighters, he explained, pointing to a state of total mobilization.

Toby Harward, principal situation coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Darfur, has warned, “If the fighting [between SAF and RSF] isn’t brought to an immediate end, it could unleash communal conflicts that will have an absolutely devastating effect on the very fragile social fabric of Darfur and risk repeating previous conflicts.”

200,000 to 300,000 people were estimated to have died as a result of the conflict in the first five years of the Darfur civil war from 2003 to 2008. In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It was only a decade later that Basir was overthrown by a pro-democracy mass-movement in Sudan.

RSF’s bloody origin in Darfur 

In the meantime, the bulk of “Arab” Janjaweed militias, which had been deployed to commit these atrocities in Darfur with both ground and air support from the SAF, coalesced in 2013 to form the RSF, under the command of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a.k.a. Hemeti.

A decade later, Hemeti, who had in the meantime risen to become the deputy chairman of Sudan’s military junta, vowed to kill or capture the junta’s chairman, General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, who is the chief of the SAF. The SAF chief, on his part, has vowed to destroy the RSF after the power struggle simmering within the military junta between the two security forces escalated into an armed conflict following disagreement over timelines for the merger of the RSF into the SAF.

While the SAF has reportedly made attempts to get the “non-arab” militias to align with it against the RSF, the militias remain skeptical of the SAF and its chief, Burhan, who also rose in the ranks of the army during the Darfur civil war.

At that time, when Hemeti was leading the Janjaweed militias, which had yet to be organized as a paramilitary force, it was Burhan who was coordinating the attacks with him as the commander of the SAF’s operations in Darfur.

A decade-long collaboration

After the organization of the Janjaweed into the RSF in 2013, the partnership between the two continued for a decade. After the war broke out in Yemen in 2014, the RSF was also deployed alongside the SAF to fight on the side of the US-backed Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE. The RSF was further legitimized by the international community when it was tasked with border control to check immigration by the European Union (EU) in 2017 under a program involving millions of euros.

In the meantime, consolidating a near-monopoly over mining in Darfur, which has much of the gold deposits of Sudan, Africa’s third largest producer of the precious metal, Hemeti had also built a vast international financial network by the time the December Revolution began in 2018. Burhan, on the other hand, had risen to become SAF’s chief of staff.

When the mass pro-democracy protests that had begun in December 2018 against Bashir’s dictatorship consolidated in the form of a sit-in occupation of the square outside the SAF’s HQ in the capital Khartoum by April 2019, the duo removed Bashir and formed a military junta.

Bashir’s trusted generals, Burhan and Hemeti, appointed themselves as the chairman and deputy chairman of the junta respectively. When the protesters continued to occupy the square, insisting that the generals cede power to a civilian authority, the RSF cleared the occupation on June 3 that year with a massacre of over 100, as the army watched over from the SAF’s HQ.

In the aftermath of this massacre, the junta agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with the right-wing parties of a coalition called the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) which had come forward to negotiate by compromising the radical demands put forward by the revolution.

After the joint civilian-military transitional government was formed in August 2019, the SAF and the RSF began negotiating with the rebel groups, including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) in Darfur.

Their leadership signed the Juba peace agreement in 2020 in exchange for a share in state power, and even went on to support the coup by Burhan and Hemeti in October 2021 when they removed the civilian representatives from the joint government and reinstated open military rule.

However, with the question of the return of the IDPs, disputes over land and other key problems left unresolved, the Juba agreement proved to be a mere power sharing agreement, which has brought no peace to Darfur. In 2021 alone, 430,000 people were displaced due to violence in the region.

Only a year ago, in the last week of April 2022, another hundred thousand people were displaced in the state of West Darfur due to attacks by RSF-backed “Arab” militias, killing at least 200 people, most of whom were IDPs belonging to what are identified as “African” tribes.

Adam Rojal, spokesperson of the General Coordination of Displaced and Refugees, told Peoples Dispatch that what appears to be a tribal conflict on the surface is essentially a state-backed attempt “to kill the surviving victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity” in order to seize their mineral rich lands. In all these attacks backed by the RSF, the SAF has been accused of standing by, and at times even of helping the RSF.

A fight to control resources

With the RSF and SAF now fighting each other after the failed international attempt to secure a return to some version of the pre-coup power-sharing arrangement between the junta and the FFC’s right-wing parties, the plight of the IDPs has gone from bad to worse, Rojal said.

“The fighting between RSF and SAF is mainly about who gets to control the national resources,” the head of the Darfur Bar Association, Saleh Mahmoud, told Peoples Dispatch. The mineral-rich Darfur region, with an area comparable to the size of Spain, has become a key battleground in this conflict.

With both the SAF and the RSF trying to woo different regional and international powers to their side, Darfur, in whose mineral wealth countries across the world have a stake, is increasingly becoming an “international battlefield,” he warned.

“While the international and regional bodies were quick to penalize the post-coup military authorities in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, they did not do that in Sudan, because they have interests here that may get adversely affected,” added Mahmoud, who is also the Foreign Relations Secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP).

If the war is not brought to a stop, Rojal warned on April 27, when the militias began fighting in West Darfur, the “coming days will be catastrophic.” Geneina Teaching hospitals and four private healthcare centers in the city have been looted and burnt in the fighting between Arab and Massalit militias,” Almaldin said. “All health facilities,” including the only kidney center, “are still out of service in the city of El Geneina” Sudanese Doctors Union said on May 11.

An additional threat to security in the Sahel and East Africa’

At least 60,000 refugees — 90% of whom are children and women, many of whom are pregnant — had crossed over West Darfur’s western border into the neighboring country, Chad, according to the UNHCR. The agency estimated on May 12 that nearly 200,000 people, including refugees from neighboring countries residing in Sudan, have fled the country since April 15.

“Without a resolution to the crisis,” UNHCR projects that as many as 860,000 — including over 250,000 foreign refugees already hosted in the country — may flee Sudan by October to the seven neighboring countries. These include the Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea and Libya.

“This is a tragedy for the people of Sudan — and an additional threat to security in the Sahel and East Africa. More than 100,000 people have fled — and 800,000 people could leave the country in the days and weeks to come,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said at the press briefing in Burundi last week.

“The fighting must end immediately, before this conflict turns into a civil war that could destroy the country and disrupt the region for years to come,” he warned.