The Platform

A Sudanese woman displaced by fighting in South Darfur in 2014. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID)

The fighting in Sudan has echoes of genocide in Darfur.

In April, fierce fighting broke out between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), leaving a trail of mass destruction. The Rapid Support Forces, under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemetti, has found support from Russia’s Wagner Group, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The current fighting has resulted in thousands killed with many more thousand injured, with countless others fleeing to neighboring countries for sanctuary. It’s a clear warning sign that the scale of the bloodshed could reach levels seen in Darfur at the height of the conflict that lasted from 2003 until 2020. According to experts and observers, crimes committed in Darfur included mass killings, rape, displacement, and ethnic cleansing. It is estimated that nearly 400,000 people were killed.

Some historical context might be useful. The Rapid Support Forces evolved from the infamous Janjaweed militia. The deposed regime of Omar al-Bashir weaponized it for counterinsurgency operations, and initially, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) administered it. A 2017 parliamentary bill organized the RSF’s activities, now led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

Amnesty International said at the time: “The Janjaweed, armed militias supported by the Sudanese armed forces, are committing massive human rights violations in the Darfur region in the west of Sudan. They are systematically pillaging and destroying the towns and villages of Darfur, forcing the people to flee for their lives.”

In 2004, the Washington Post reported that the scale of violence prompted former Secretary of State Colin Powell to label the level of violence genocide. “Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said for the first time yesterday that genocide has taken place in Sudan and that the government in Khartoum and government-sponsored Arab militias known as Janjaweed ‘bear responsibility’ for rapes, killings and other abuses that have left 1.2 million black Africans homeless.”

And in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Powell said: “We concluded — I concluded — that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility — and genocide may still be occurring.”

Fast forward to the present, the militia is responsible for the killing and unlawful detention, and torture of pro-democracy protestors in Khartoum, looting, and the misappropriation of homes and churches as conflict shields during the current fighting.

The United Nations is ringing alarm bells about ethnic violence in Darfur. While the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces share the same level of blame for the outbreak of violence, the militia is especially brutal. The United Nations reports: “The explosion of ethnic violence in Darfur largely by nomadic ‘Arab’ groups in alliance with the RSF who have been battling national army forces for control of the country since mid-April, has led tens of thousands to flee into neighbouring Chad. Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said interviews with people fleeing the decimated city of El Geneina have revealed ‘horrifying accounts’ of people being killed on foot by the RSF-supported militia.”

Human Rights Watch observes: “[The] Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and allied Arab militias summarily executed at least 28 ethnic Massalit and killed and injured dozens of civilians on May 28, 2023, in Sudan’s West Darfur state…Many of these abuses committed in the context of the armed conflict in Sudan amount to war crimes.”

A recent report by the Sudan Conflict Observatory found that the RSF militia engaged in the systematic destruction of at least 26 communities in addition to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents.

The United Nations has called for immediate action to halt militia attacks on those fleeing the city, and Doctors Without Borders has demanded protection for civilians during the fierce fighting. Vicky Ford, a Conservative member of the UK Parliament, wrote on Twitter: “Systemic ethnic cleansing is taking place in Darfur, Sudan right now. Boys aged over 10 are being murdered. Girls over 12 are being raped. We do not know the death toll, but an eye witness says it’s already in the thousands.”

On July 13, the International Criminal Court issued a public appeal for information about the mass killings, while the U.S. State Department endorsed the Court Prosecutor’s announcement to initiate an investigation.

The world must not stand idly by. The international community and human rights groups should exert pressure on countries supporting the RSF like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, holding them accountable for facilitating the militia’s crimes. The EU must be transparent about its collaborations with the militia on joint immigration efforts which could unintentionally provide funding and logistical support for the militia. Furthermore, the U.S. should be urged to impose more sanctions on the RSF, adding to the ones recently announced.

But most importantly, both sides need to come to the negotiating table and find a resolution to the conflict that has killed far too many Sudanese civilians.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern University and also holds a degree in Engineering form the University of Khartoum.