Fears have been raised following the kidnapping and killing of a regional governor in Sudan that the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are supporting an ethnic cleansing campaign, according to eyewitnesses and experts.
The governor of West Darfur, Khamis Abakar, was assassinated just hours after accusing the RSF and its allies of “genocide” in an interview with a Saudi news outlet on June 14.
In el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, his body was discovered.
“Civilians are being killed randomly and in large numbers,” he said in an interview with Al Hadath TV, pleading with the international community to act to defend residents of el-Geneina. “The army hasn’t left its base to defend people,” someone said.
The RSF denied any involvement and attributed the murder to criminals engaged in a “tribal conflict”.
The RSF was cited as being responsible for what it called an extrajudicial death by the Sudan Conflict Observatory, an independent watchdog supported by American funding.
“The RSF controls the entire city, and the [Arab] militias work with them. El-Geneina is completely devastated as of right now, Abakar said in Al Hadath. “Neither the national government nor the regional government can offer us any protection.”
Abakar came from the Masalit tribe, a non-Arab people. Arab militias and the RSF, a predominantly Arab recruiting group, have allegedly targeted Masalit displacement camps, killed people trying to flee into neighbouring Chad, abducted and raped women, and executed influential members of the community, including tribal leaders, human rights lawyers, and monitors.
At least 1,100 people are said to have been killed so far, and witnesses have described seeing bodies lying on the ground for days.
The RSF commander, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, and Sudan’s army head, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, had been at odds for months before war broke out on April 15. They moved their violent uprising to West Darfur ten days later.
The army, however, rapidly withdrew, leaving a power vacuum that RSF militants and Arab militias seized upon.
The Roots Organisation for Human Rights and Monitoring Violations, a local civil society organisation from West Darfur, said, “We express our deep concern over these crimes and violations committed by militias against civilians, and we demand international protection for the state of West Darfur.”
The military is quiet.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 115,000 refugees have managed to flee from West Darfur to Chad despite the dangerous route.
Arab militias and RSF fighters were monitoring all city departure points and demanding money from families attempting to evacuate, according to human rights monitors in el-Geneina who spoke to Al Jazeera.
Ahmad Hagar claimed on Friday that he paid militiamen the equivalent of $500 so that he, his wife, and their five children could flee on May 28. He charged that the Sudanese army should have stepped in to protect the Masalit.
He told Al Jazeera that “Arab militias work with the RSF, and the army is silent.”
In response to questions about why soldiers weren’t intervening to defend residents in el-Geneina, army spokesperson Nabil Abdullah remained silent.
Influential people, including Sultan Sa’at, the tribal chief of the Masalit, have fled with their families due to the danger of targeted killings. According to the sultan’s wife and human rights attorney Nahid Hamid, Arab warriors attacked his brother’s house and assassinated him shortly after they left.
“The Sultan and his family fled after his elder brother was murdered in his home. His children, his siblings, everyone,” she said to Al Jazeera.
Hamid claimed that when the civil war started, she was in Khartoum. She said that since she is currently in Egypt, regional lawlessness is to blame for her brother-in-law’s murder.
“There is no security,” she continued.
apathy on a global scale?
A number of local and international civil society organisations published an open letter on Friday requesting prominent nations, including the US, regional and international institutions, and organisations to “publicly denounce the RSF’s role in committing atrocities in West Darfur.”
Two days had passed since Volker Perthes, Sudan’s UN representative, made an offensive remark. He claimed that men wearing RSF uniforms and Arab militias had allegedly carried out targeted attacks on civilians in West Darfur based on their ethnicity.
The RSF and its lobbyists denied any involvement in the June 3, 2019, sit-in that resulted in the deaths of 120 pro-democracy protesters by using similar rhetoric.
Despite hundreds of recordings and dozens of eyewitness accounts linking RSF fighters to the attack, the group placed the blame on imposters wearing RSF garb.
When Al Jazeera questioned Florence Marchal, the UNTAMS spokesman, about why Perthes used the language he did, she responded, “We are exceedingly cautious. If we can’t verify, we can’t identify the offender.
In a more direct statement, the US Department of State stated that Washington “condemns in the strongest terms the ongoing human rights violations and abuses and horrific violence in Sudan, especially reports of widespread sexual violence and killings based on ethnicity in West Darfur by the Rapid Support Forces and affiliated militias.”
Going after justice
According to Emma DiNapoli, an expert on international law who specialises in Sudan, careful monitoring and evidence collection are necessary to give survivors from West Darfur a chance to pursue justice.
DiNapoli stated on Friday that since the ICC already has jurisdiction over Darfur as a result of a UN Security Council Resolution issued in March 2005, it may be a way to hold offenders accountable.
Based on that resolution, the ICC accused Omar al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, and other members of his dictatorship of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2009. Later, Al-Bashir was charged with genocide.
The ICC might theoretically take on fresh cases given that Darfur is involved in yet another civil war.
“There is clearly a case [to prosecute perpetrators] for crimes against humanity [in West Darfur], and I would say the same is true for war crimes,” DiNapoli said to Al Jazeera.
Deportation by forceful transfer and persecution on the basis of ethnicity are both crimes against humanity that can happen without there being an armed conflict. But it must be demonstrated that they are a part of a larger, organised assault against the civilian population, she continued.
Sudanese activists have already pushed for the ICC to inquire into Abakar’s murder.
A human rights monitor told Al Jazeera on Friday that any new probe might serve as a deterrent against future human rights breaches but asked that his organisation and identity remain nameless out of fear of retaliation.
“I know these people in Darfur,” he remarked. “Victims start to tremble in fear if you even bring up the ICC.”