Ethnic cleansing of West Darfur’s El Geneina culminates in largest massacre since onset of war in Sudan

At least 1,335 Internally Displaced Persons are estimated to have been killed in an attack on a camp near El Geneina. With this attack, all the people displaced during the civil war in Darfur in the 2000s, who are witnesses to the crimes committed then, been driven out of the capital of the West Darfur State by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces

November 14, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
People fleeing the ongoing fighting in Sudan arrive in Eastern Chad's border with Sudan. (Photo: F. Ada Affana/IOM)

Completing the alleged ethnic cleansing of El Geneina, capital of war-torn Sudan’s West Darfur State, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and its allied militias destroyed the city’s last surviving camp for the Internally Displaced People (IDP) earlier this month. 

At least 1,335 IDPs are estimated to be killed in the attack on this camp in Geneina’s satellite town, Ardamata, making it the single largest mass killing since the war between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF started on April 15.

Read more: As Army and Rapid Support Forces battle it out, Sudanese left calls for restoring the revolution 

Set up in 2004, this camp was hosting over 42,000 members of the Masalit, one of the local African farming tribes, displaced during the civil war that erupted in Darfur in 2002. To help put down the rebellion of these local African tribes marginalized under the Islamist regime of former dictator Omar al Bashir, the SAF had created militias of the Arabic-speaking nomadic herders during the civil war. 

These militias — accused of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in coordination with the SAF — were subsequently organized into the RSF in 2013. Ten years later, the SAF and the RSF who were ruling Sudan together, protecting the military regime from the pro-democracy movement which had toppled Bashir in 2019, began fighting each other in April this year in a war for state-power. 

When this war started, there were a total of 135 IDP camps in Geneina, hosting about 220,000 displaced people, according to Mohammed Almaldin, a civil society activist from the city who recently fled with his family to the neighboring state of Kassala amid this war.

These IDP camps in Geneina had been coming under increasing attacks even before the war, when the chiefs of the SAF and the RSF together headed the military junta as its chairperson and the deputy chairperson respectively.

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

The scale and frequency of these attacks rose sharply since. All of the camps in Geneina have been destroyed in the seven months since the war started, Almaldin told Peoples Dispatch, adding that “there are no more IDPs of the civil war left in Geneina. They have all fled across the border to neighboring Chad.” 

Even as the bodies of the killed IDPs reportedly lay unattended around the Ardamata camp, “the RSF is bringing in the Arab tribes which support them to repopulate Geneina. They are being brought in from different parts of Sudan, and also from neighboring Chad, Niger and Central African Republic. All the local African tribes have been forced to flee,” he said.

“Twenty years ago, the world was shocked by the terrible atrocities and human rights violations in Darfur,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned on Friday, November 10. “We fear a similar dynamic might be developing.”

The SAF, whose headquarters of the 15th Infantry Division was located in Ardamata close to the IDP camp, did not even make an attempt to protect the IDPs. “They could not even protect their own headquarters. Their soldiers fled to Chad even before the civilians could flee,” said Almaldin.

Late last month, after defeating the SAF and taking over Zalingei, capital of Central Darfur, and Nyala, capital of South Darfur, the RSF began increasing deployment in West Darfur’s Geneina. 

Mounted on four-wheel drives, horses and camels, the RSF and its allied militias began the attack on the SAF HQ in Ardamata on November 2. Both sides fired heavy weapons, unmindful of the civilians in the area who were being killed and injured, added Almaldin.

While holding the army under siege in their headquarters, the RSF and its militias first entered the IDP camp in Ardamata on November 3 and killed many residents. Then, after breaking into the SAF headquarters on November 5 and taking over the compound from the army whose soldiers fled to Chad, the RSF and its militias went on a killing spree against the IDPs over the following days. 

Community elders, youth leaders and members of the civil administration of the camp were particularly targeted and killed, Almaldin said. Over 2,000 of the survivors of this attack are injured and several women raped.

Geneina was thus rid of its camps for the IDPs, who are the surviving witnesses of the crimes committed during the Darfur civil war, for which the ousted dictator Bashir is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The IDPs have also been forced out of most of the camps in other areas of West Darfur outside Geneina, including the two major ones 70 kilometers east in Krenik. Only seven camps remain in the state — one in Habila, one in Beida, and five in Jabal Moon, which have been surrounded by the RSF-affiliated militias since May 2022.

Many IDPs have already fled these remaining camps. “There is no more food and water supply there. There are no hygiene facilities. The international NGOs that were providing for these camps were operating from Geneina. They have all fled now. Their offices and warehouses have been attacked and looted by the RSF and its militias,” Almaldin said.

Those who remain in these camps are without the essentials for basic survival, and without any defense as the RSF and its militias have taken full control of West Darfur. At least 10,000 people, most of them IDPs, have been killed in this state since the war started on April 15, maintains Almaldin.

In the neighboring states of Central Darfur and South Darfur, where ethnic cleansing has not been as prominent a component of the war as in the case of West Darfur, civilians have allegedly been killed in hundreds, mostly caught in the fighting between RSF and SAF.

With the majority of the population in East Darfur being from the Arabic-speaking herding tribes which exclusively fill the ranks of RSF and its militias, the state was always in de-facto control of the RSF and has not seen much fighting in this war, explained Almaldin.

The RSF thus has almost full control over all the Darfurian states except North Darfur, where the SAF still holds its base in the northern part of the state’s capital, El Fasher. To avoid getting caught in the crossfire, the civilians have vacated the northern part of El Fasher and moved to the south of the city, where the armed rebel groups that had signed the failed Juba peace agreement have promised to protect the markets, NGOs and IDP camps.

In the meantime, the RSF has been concentrating an increasing number of troops around the army base in El Fasher, and have already taken control of some parts of the city, Almaldin said.

El Fasher has the two largest IDP camps in North Darfur, hosting over 500,000 displaced people, including those who have fled from other states of Darfur region which fell to the RSF.

“If the RSF take full control of El Fasher, there will be a major humanitarian catastrophe, including in the areas that are for now considered safe. Hundreds of thousands more are likely to flee, exacerbating the displacement crisis that has already forced nearly 6 million Sudanese from their homes” since April 15, states a field report published by Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker (STPT) on Sunday, November 12. 

“This chaos may then extend north. In part because of the IDPs that it hosts, the city of El Fasher is considered the bridge that connects the states of Darfur with the rest of the states of Sudan, and it has been used as a hub for providing food, medicine and fuel to the states of South, West and Central Darfur. All this stands to be disrupted if the RSF takes the city.”