KHARTOUM: Sudan’s war has brought painful memories back to the troubled Darfur region where armed groups are accused of ethnically targeting civilians, sparking fears of a new “genocide.”
“They burned every house in the neighborhood and killed my brother in front of me,” recounted one survivor, Inaam, who fled the western region for neighboring Chad.
Her harrowing escape took her through streets “littered with bodies,” said the human rights defender who, like others interviewed by AFP, used a pseudonym for fear of retaliation against relatives.
Such testimonies have sparked alarm about a repeat of the bloody history of Darfur, where former strongman Omar Al-Bashir in 2003 unleashed Arab tribal militia in a scorched-earth campaign to quash a non-Arab rebellion against perceived inequalities.
The unrest killed at least 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million, according to the UN, and sparked international charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against Bashir and others.
The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) later emerged from the notorious Janjaweed militia which spearheaded Bashir’s deadly onslaught.
Against that background, Darfuris watched with terror when the RSF went to war in mid-April with the Sudanese army and fighting quickly spread from the capital Khartoum back to their home region.
Inaam said that, nine days after hostilities erupted, the RSF and allied Arab militias descended on her hometown of El Geneina, capital of West Darfur state.
After they torched her neighborhood, she fled on “detours to avoid RSF and Arab tribal fighters” and managed to cross the border to Chad about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away.
Another refugee, who asked to be identified only as Mohammed, also recounted passing through terrifying checkpoints.
At every stop, “Arab militia fighters asked us our names and our tribe,” he told AFP. Depending on the answers, he said, some “were executed.”
The RSF and their allies, Mohammed charged, “are specifically targeting Massalit,” a non-Arab ethnic minority whom he said “the army has supported” in the current round of fighting.
“An old conflict is re-awakening in El Geneina.”
Sudan’s war has killed nearly 2,800 people nationwide and uprooted roughly 2.8 million as battles rage between the forces of army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and his former deputy, RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.
Much of the worst fighting has hit Darfur in unrest that Washington has labelled an “ominous reminder” of the past “genocide.”
The Massalit are one of the major non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur, which is also home to Arab tribes such as the Rizeigat, the pastoralist camel-herding people from which Daglo hails.
Volker Perthes, head of the United Nations mission to Sudan, warned in mid-June that “there is an emerging pattern of large-scale targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnic identities, allegedly committed by Arab militias and some armed men” in RSF uniform.
“These reports are deeply worrying and, if verified, could amount to crimes against humanity.”
On Tuesday, the United States, Norway and Britain said targeted ethnic violence and other abuses in Darfur are “mostly attributed” to RSF and allied militias.
Power blackouts and severed phone and Internet access have severely hampered reporting from the region the size of France that is home to about a quarter of Sudan’s 48 million people.
The UN has also said that “RSF and allied militias are reportedly surrounding the cities” of El Fasher in North Darfur and Nyala in South Darfur.
Amnesty International warned of “terrifying similarity with the war crimes and crimes against humanity” perpetrated in Darfur since 2003.
According to the US State Department, up to 1,100 people have been killed in El Geneina alone, but the Massalit tribal leadership says the real toll is even higher.
They charged in a statement that more than 5,000 people were killed, 8,000 injured and hundreds of thousands displaced by June 12.
People have suffered “the worst crimes against humanity, murder, ethnic cleansing and looting,” they said, reporting that “snipers have spread out on rooftops” and police “have joined RSF ranks.”
Mohammed said families quickly learnt that “only the women could go out to fetch water, because the snipers would target every man.”
Army soldiers meanwhile “have not left their bases since the war began,” he said, echoing the situation in much of Khartoum.
A tribal leader told AFP that “the RSF and the Arabs have killed, looted and burned” everything in their path.
In El Geneina, “the house of the Massalit sultan” has been under “constant attack,” he said.
Tribal leaders and activists have been killed in their homes, according to the West Darfur lawyers’ union.
In mid-June, the sultan’s brother Tarek Bahr El-Din was killed, as was West Darfur Governor Khamis Abdullah Abakar, who had hours earlier accused the RSF of “genocide” on Saudi television.
The RSF denied killing Abakar and blamed forces it said were acting “against the background of an old tribal conflict.”
RSF general Abdel Rahman Gumma Barak Allah accused the army of having armed minority groups, including “1,000 Aringa men and 1,500 Massalit” and charged they had attacked police in El Geneina.
The fighting has deepened a long-running humanitarian crisis, say aid groups, after clinics were raided and food warehouses ransacked in Darfur.
“The conflict has not only endangered lives through direct violence but has also severely hindered access to health care,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told AFP.
Another refugee, teacher Ibrahim Issa, told AFP he had made it “out of the hell” of El Geneina, where the fighting had brought back dark memories “of 2003 and 2004, when you were killed for your ethnicity.”
Mohammed said the conflict between the army and RSF “has turned into a civil war and a genocide.”
MSF medics in Chad reported treating refugees with bullet wounds who were targeted “as they tried to leave the city.”
The group also reported sexual violence including the rape of a 15-year-old girl by “six armed men in a bus” while she was fleeing to Chad with her 18-year-old sister.
Alice Nderitu, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, also warned of the threat of “renewed campaigns of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing.”
The latest Darfur violence has again raised the question of whether those responsible will one day face justice.
“In principle, many of the crimes documented to date in Darfur likely constitute at least crimes against humanity, if not war crimes,” human rights lawyer Emma DiNapoli told AFP.
But proving them will depend on what evidence activists can gather while dodging bullets and arson attacks.
“Activists on the ground should be documenting evidence to the highest standard possible, particularly taking the details of eyewitnesses to violations and documenting evidence of command and control or perpetrator information,” DiNapoli said.
Since the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court with no end date, the court “in theory” has “jurisdiction over crimes committed in the present day,” she added.
But Sudan’s past does not offer much hope. Khartoum never handed over any suspects wanted by the ICC, and some have escaped prison since the new war broke out.
Four suspects including Bashir remain at large. One, who voluntarily surrendered elsewhere in Africa, is on trial in The Hague.