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Sudan: RSF massacres in Darfur 'possibly genocide', says HRW

Rapid Support Forces and their allies accused of killing thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands in El-Geneina
Sudanese children, who fled the conflict in Darfur, ride a cart while crossing the border between Sudan and Chad, 4 August 2023 (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)
Sudanese children, who fled the conflict in Darfur, ride a cart while crossing the border between Sudan and Chad, 4 August 2023 (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

Attacks by Sudanese paramilitary forces in West Darfur against Massalit people and other non-Arab communities constitute ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and its allied militias are accused of killing thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more during their onslaught on el-Geneina, the state capital of West Darfur, between April and November 2023.

In its report, HRW has documented “relentless” attacks by the RSF and their allied militias, including the Third-Front Tamazuj, against predominantly Massalit areas of el-Geneina from April to June 2023. The rights group said the assailants committed other major abuses including torture, rape and looting. 

HRW said that targeting the Masalit and other non-Arab populations with the aim of at least displacing them permanently from their region amounts to ethnic cleansing. It also said the atrocities, if committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part the Massalit in at least West Darfur, would indicate that a genocide has also taken place there.

In one large-scale massacre committed on 15 June, the report said RSF and its allied militants opened fire on a convoy of civilians trying to flee the city, escorted by Massalit fighters.

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“The RSF and militias pursued, rounded up, and shot men, women, and children who ran through the streets or tried to swim across the fast-flowing Kajja river. Many drowned. Older people and injured people were not spared,” HRW said.

The report cited the testimony of a 17-year-old boy describing the killing of 12 children and five adults from several families during the massacre.

“Two RSF forces … grabb[ed] the children from their parents and, as the parents started screaming, two other RSF forces shot the parents, killing them. Then they piled up the children and shot them. They threw their bodies into the river and their belongings after them,” the boy said.

sudan map mee

A Massalit local leader, speaking to MEE from a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad, said the atrocities in West Darfur are more brutal in type and scale than those committed in 2004-2005 in Darfur. 

“There is huge evidence that what has happened is an intentional genocide based on our colour and race as Massalit,” he said.

“This includes the way of killing, the mutation of corpses, the torture, killing of children, the verbal assaults, among others.”

Three senior members of the RSF declined to comment when approached by MEE.

HRW has named RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, his brother Abdel Raheem Hamdan Dagalo and West Darfur commander Jomaa Barakallah as individuals with command responsibility over the militias that perpetrated the crimes, along with a commander of the Tamazuj armed group and two Arab tribal leaders.

The report called on the UN and African Union to deploy a new mission to protect vulnerable civilians in Sudan.

It also called on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on suspects, including individuals and companies that have violated the arms embargo on Darfur in place since 2004.

The rights group added that the arms embargo should be extended to cover all of Sudan.

hemeti in darfur 2023
A grab taken from a handout video posted on the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) page on X (formerly Twitter) on 28 July 2023 shows its commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo addressing RSF fighters at an undisclosed location (AFP)

The RSF has been at war with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, since 15 April last year.

The hostilities, which began over plans to fold the RSF into the regular military, killed thousands of people, with 10,000-15,000 killed in el-Geneina alone, according to UN experts.

In June and November, Middle East Eye reported on mass killings by the RSF and allied Arab militias targeting members of the Black African Massalit community in el-Geneina and el-Fasher cities.

An investigation by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre, which cited MEE’s reports on multiple occasions, concluded last month that there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the RSF and its allied militias “have committed and are committing genocide against the Masalit”.

'Looming disaster' in el-Fasher

The RSF has seized all areas of Darfur except for el-Fasher, the state capital of North Darfur, which is controlled by the Sudanese army but currently besieged. An estimated one million civilians are blockaded in the city as Sudanese and international observers have warned of an imminent massacre.

“As the UN Security Council and governments wake up to the looming disaster in El Fasher, the large-scale atrocities committed in El Geneina should be seen as a reminder of the atrocities that could come in the absence of concerted action,” said Tirana Hassan, executive director at Human Rights Watch.

“Governments, the African Union, and the United Nations need to act now to protect civilians.”

The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the atrocities in West Darfur. HRW called on state parties to support the investigation. 

The Massalit leader in Chad, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said he was dismayed by the “inaction of the international community” towards the abuses against his community. 

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“The ICC should start the procedures to bring the perpetrators to justice and issue an arrest warrant against RSF leaders,” he told MEE.

Sudanese human rights defender Jamal Abdullah Khamis called on activists and journalists to continue documenting the abuses to shed light on the Darfur case.

“We have to see the killers behind bars in order to begin any steps towards real peace,” he said.

Before the war, Hemeti and Burhan were allies. In 2019, they ousted longtime president Omar al-Bashir from power after mass protests against him, then jointly led a military coup against an interim civilian-military government.  

The curent conflict has displaced at least 10.7 million people, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the second highest number this century after the Syrian war.

Around 1.7 million of those are in neighbouring countries, particularly Chad and Egypt. HRW said more than half a million refugees from West Darfur, most of them from el-Geneina, have fled to Chad since April.

The Raoul Wallengerg Center said in its April report that Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Russia via the actions of the Wagner Group were “complicit in the genocide”. 

MEE has reported on a network of supply lines that funnel arms and other goods from the UAE to the RSF, via allied groups and governments in Libya, Chad and the CAR.

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