A month after the deadly armed attacks which started in West Darfur’s Kereinik town and spread to the State’s capital El Geneina, killing at least 200 between April 22 and April 30, the security situation in the Sudan’s Darfur region “remains very dangerous,” according to Adam Rojal, spokesperson of the General Coordination of Displaced and Refugees.
The UN estimated that 85,000 to 115,000 people were displaced in the violence and have been unable to return as “their homes, their livelihood in markets and the local institutions have all burnt down,” he told Peoples Dispatch in an interview.
With an uncertain future ahead, they live in the fear that “another attack will happen and the security forces present there will withdraw and leave the civilians and the displaced at the mercy of the Janjaweed militias, like on April 24, when Kereinik was attacked from all directions.”
The road linking this town to El Geneina “is still closed by the Janjaweed militias who loot, kill and rape civilians trying to pass through,” he added. “Supplies of food, water etc. get into Kereinik only twice a week when the security forces provide escort.”
Rojal maintains that at this point, there is no alternative to a UN-backed “international force under Chapter 7 to protect the citizens and displaced people in the Darfur region. Without this, violence, attacks and killings will continue until there is a civilian government made up of independent professionals who have a record of confronting this military junta and its generals.”
The army, he argues, cannot be relied upon to defend the civilians as it collaborates with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was involved in the attack on April 24. The RSF, which was formed from the notorious Janjaweed militias in 2013, is led by the military junta’s second-in-command, General Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti.
These militias of nomadic herdsmen were armed and trained in the early 2000s under the regime of former dictator Omar al-Bashir to suppress the rebel groups of the marginalized sedentary communities of farmers and pastoralists. Even after the integration of many of these militias into the RSF, those that remain outside are not disbanded and disarmed. RPGs and other weapons used by these militias in the attacks were owned by the RSF, Rojal claimed.
While the media had widely reported the massacres last month as “tribal violence,” Rojal asserted that the “massacres were carried out in a very orderly and systematic manner, using weapons and vehicles from the state’s warehouses. No citizens own these hundreds of large vehicles equipped with the modern weapons that were used in the attack. This is not a tribal war. It is the state which kills, rapes and displaces its citizens and cloaks it as a tribal conflict.”
He argues that the characterization of the violence in Darfur as a tribal conflict is the state’s attempt to conceal “the truth of the matter” that “an attempt is underway to kill the surviving victims of genocide and war crimes, with the aim of eventually seizing their lands” that are “rich in mineral wealth.”
At least 300,000 have already been killed and over 2.5 million displaced in this conflict in Darfur which is nearing two decades. The violence has intensified since the military coup in October 2021. The Janjaweed militias, Rojal said, “have been reassured and further emboldened, because the generals, under whose supervision they had carried out the campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, are the ones who seized power.”
Only four months before the coup, by the end of June 2021, the withdrawal of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), which had begun at the start of last year, was complete. Its mandate, which ended in December 2020, was not renewed because the military and the armed rebel groups had signed a peace agreement in South Sudan’s capital Juba by October that year.
“The government had claimed they would form a joint security force including even the rebel fighters who had signed the Juba peace agreement. UNAMID accepted this and left. But this joint force is totally incapable of acting to protect civilians. So civilians, including those displaced, are left at the mercy of the Janjaweed militias. This is one of the great crimes that happened at Juba,” Rojal said.
Those displaced in the war and the organization representing them “were never consulted when the agreement was signed in Juba. We had said at the time that this Juba agreement – like the agreements in Abuja, Tanzania and Qatar – will only bring more killing, bloodshed, destruction and displacement. But UNAMID and the sponsors of the agreement brought people from the cities to represent our will and speak on our behalf.”
Rojal argued that for “a comprehensive peace process that addresses the roots of this historical Sudanese crisis, the putschists must be overthrown – forced to submit to the demands of the Sudanese people and hand over power to civilians.” He insists that only a civilian government “made up of independent professionals who have a record of confronting this military junta and its generals” can lead a genuine peace process inclusive of all sections.
Peoples Dispatch: Following the massacres in West Darfur in the last week of April, killing at least 200 and displacing about a 100,000, incidents of armed robberies, rapes and murders continue to be reported from various parts of Darfur. What is the current security situation in the region?
Adam Rojal: The security situation in Darfur remains very dangerous – to the extent that you could be walking in the street and be hit by a bullet, because the government has left the citizens and the displaced at the mercy of the Janjaweed militias and Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Killings, rapes, displacement and looting, torture, arbitrary detention and other human rights violations continue in all of Sudan, especially in the states of West Darfur and South Darfur.
PD: What is the situation in El Geniena and Kereinik that witnessed much of the killings last month?
AR: In Kereinik and El Geneina, where more than 200 were killed and 136 wounded, we lost scholars, government employees, health workers, religious elders and others. All local houses, markets and police stations were burnt. The situation in these cities is still frightening. The road linking Geneina and Kereinik is still closed by the Janjaweed militias who loot, kill and rape civilians trying to pass through. Supplies of food, water etc. get into Kereinik only twice a week when the security forces provide escort. We need international protection under Article 7 of the Charter of the United Nations, not by the Sudanese government forces which have failed and appear unable to carry out its primary and first duty, which is to protect civilians and defenseless citizens.
PD: UN OCHA had said at the start of this month that anywhere between 85,000 to 115,000 people were displaced in the violence in the last week of April. How many of them, by your estimation, have been able to return since?
AR: No, the victims have not returned to their areas or to their homes because they have lost everything. How can people return when their homes, their livelihood in markets and the local institutions have all burnt down? How can they return when there is no longer any shelter? To help their return, the state needs to provide them with care and emergency services, food, water, medicine and other daily humanitarian needs. Until now, what has been provided is insufficient, since their number is very large. People are still afraid that another attack will happen and the security forces present there will withdraw and leave the civilians and the displaced at the mercy of the Janjaweed militias, like on April 24, when Kereinik was attacked from all directions. All trust between the people and security forces is lost.
PD: You have pointed out that the heavily armed men in the uniforms of Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is led by the military junta’s second-in-command General Hemeti, were involved in these attacks. This has been well-established in several video footage and eyewitness accounts also. But you have also accused the army and the military junta, which is de-facto the state, of being complicit.
AR: The accusation is 100% correct. The RSF is central to these attacks. There are also indications that the RPGs and many other weapons used by the other Janjaweed militias (not formally integrated into the RSF) were also owned by the RSF. The army and the other Sudanese security forces are also complicit. If there was no complicity and coordination, they would not have withdrawn just as the attack started, leaving the citizens at the mercy of these militias. The massacres were carried out in a very orderly and systematic manner, using weapons and vehicles from the state’s warehouses.
No citizens own these hundreds of large vehicles equipped with very modern weapons that were used in the attack. This is not a tribal war. It is the state which kills, rapes and displaces its citizens and cloaks it as a tribal conflict. From central government to local governments, from the de-facto head of state, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy Hemeti to West Darfur’s governor, Khamis Abdallah Abkar – all of them bear responsibility.
PD: Much of the media continues to report on these massacres as “tribal violence.” UN bodies also refer to it in their official statements as conflict between “Arabs” and “non-Arabs”. But you have been arguing that what is unfolding is a state-led depopulation campaign on mineral-rich lands. Can you elaborate?
AR: Yes, the current violence in Darfur has nothing to do with tribal conflicts. The state gives that characterization to the violence in order to divert attention, because the truth of the matter is that an attempt is underway to kill the surviving victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, with the aim of eventually seizing their lands. And these lands are rich in mineral wealth. For the state to benefit from these resources, the indigenous population must be evicted, especially because they object to excavation. So civilians in these areas are targeted in order to force them to flee.
PD: Armed attacks and consequent displacements had never really stopped in Darfur despite the short-lived joint civilian-military government or the Juba peace agreement it signed with most rebel groups. But specifically, since the coup last October, has there been an observable deterioration in the security situation in Darfur?
AR: The joint civilian-military transitional government that was formed after the remarkable overthrow of Omar al-Bashir never really accorded us our natural rights as victims in refugee camps. But it was still better than what we are facing now. When there were attacks by RSF and Janjaweed militias, they were at least documented. But after the coup, these militias have been reassured and further emboldened, because the generals, under whose supervision they had carried out the campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur under Bashir, are the ones who seized power.
PD: Only months before the coup, by the end of June 2021, the withdrawal of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), which had already begun since January, was complete. Its mandate ended in December 2020 and was not renewed. You were among the people who had strongly warned against the withdrawal. An estimated 430,000 were displaced last year alone. Looking back, do you believe the continued presence of UNAMID would have served to deter any of the violence that followed?
AR: We continue to warn about the security consequences even after the withdrawal of UNAMID. There is no longer an alternative to UNAMID protecting the displaced and citizens in the Darfur region. UNAMID was something better than nothing. Although it did not have the ability to use force to protect the victims, it was standing with the victims and submitting periodic reports to the UN Security Council. And these were neutral reports. But after the exit of UNAMID, there was no longer an independent body capable of reporting these violations to international bodies. The government had claimed they would form a joint security force including even the rebel fighters who signed the Juba peace agreement. UNAMID accepted this and left.
But this joint force is totally incapable of acting to protect civilians. So civilians, including those displaced, are left at the mercy of the Janjaweed militias. This is one of the great crimes that happened at Juba. That is why we renew our demand to the United Nations, the Security Council and all free people that there should be an international force under Chapter 7 to protect the citizens and displaced people in the Darfur region because violence, attacks and killing will continue until there is a civilian government, made up of independent professionals who have a record of confronting this military junta and its generals.
PD: A year before the coup, in October 2020, the Juba peace agreement was signed between the armed rebel groups and the military. While no peace followed in Darfur, the rebel groups which were offered a share in state power, went on to support the military coup in October 2021. How do the victims of the war, especially the IDPs, perceive this peace agreement?
AR: We, as the displaced and the general coordination acting on their behalf, were never consulted when the agreement was signed in Juba. We had said at the time that this Juba agreement – like the agreements in Abuja, Tanzania and Qatar – will only bring more killing, bloodshed, destruction and displacement. But UNAMID and the sponsors of the agreement brought people from the cities to represent our will and speak on our behalf. Despite our respect for the state of South Sudan, which is assisting the displaced Sudanese who were forced by circumstances to migrate there, we have to say that this agreement that was negotiated there is not valid. It does not meet the aspirations of the victims, refugees and displaced persons. Rather, it was an agreement to achieve the individuals’ aspirations for power.
PD: When this agreement was signed, it was a joint civilian-military transitional government where state power was shared between military and the civilian representatives chosen by the centrist and right-wing political parties in the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition. This civilian presence in the state had given a certain legitimacy to the agreement, in Sudan and also internationally. How do you assess the conduct of these political parties and their representatives vis-a-vis the IDPs?
AR: These traditional parties, which have existed since 1956, have often shared power to form joint civilian-military transitional governments. Every time, this is followed by a coup in a couple of years or so. The FFC never considered us as victims. After they formed a government with the military, the civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok had come on a visit to the Abu Shouk camp on his Darfur trip. At the time, we had put forth more than 13 demands. These included provision of security, disarming and disbanding the Janjaweed forces, expelling new settlers the regime had brought in to occupy the lands and buildings of the displaced people, and the hand over to International Criminal Court of Omar al-Bashir, his former defense minister Abd al-Rahim, and all the other perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
We had also demanded compensation – both individual and collective. Individual compensation is necessary for the displaced to have something in hand to start restoring a normal life upon returning to their villages. Because all the wealth we had, all our inheritance from our ancestors, were plundered when the Sudanese army, RSF and the Janjaweed militias displaced us. As for collective compensation, we demanded the construction of model schools and provision of water, electricity and other basic services that the Sudanese people and the people all over the world should have. We had also demanded that the Prime Minister should visit the other camps. But our demands were not implemented. The Prime Minister never returned for a second visit.
PD: Let’s talk about the December Revolution. People of Darfur took a very active part in these protests which led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Given that the core circle of Bashir’s generals had managed to hold on to power despite his own overthrow, the nature of the state and its policy in Darfur may not have changed significantly. But has the revolution, particularly as a result of the formation of Resistance Committees in neighborhoods, had an enduring impact on conduct of popular politics and resistance in Darfur?
AR: Of course we, as victims in the camps, have resisted al-Bashir for more than 18 years. Although the Resistance Committees are not in the IDP camps but in the cities, we communicate and closely coordinate with them. Their appearance in Darfur with the December Revolution has indeed brought about a political change in that the people learnt how to confront the regime through peaceful organization of sit-in protests. Even after Bashir’s overthrow in 2019, there were four or five more sit-in protests organized in Darfur. The demands of most of them had to do with security. I will never forget the revolutionary slogans that resonated in these protests. I salute everyone involved in organizing these.
PD: Going forward, what would be a realistic plan to bring peace in Darfur? Are you hopeful about the future of Darfurians?
AR: Existence of a civilian government is essential for peace. In order to reach a comprehensive peace process that addresses the roots of this historical Sudanese crisis, the putschists must be overthrown – forced to submit to the demands of the Sudanese people and hand over power to civilians. After this a government should be formed of independent professionals known for fighting al-Bashir and his military elite now in power. This government should oversee a Sudanese-Sudanese dialogue that brings together all the Sudanese people without exclusion – including nomads, farmers, displaced persons and all other Sudanese people. This government should also undertake a restructuring of state’s institutions.
As for our optimism about the future of Darfur, there will be a beautiful future, but it will take many sacrifices to get there. Because we are now in a situation where the original landowners, forced to flee from their homes only three years ago, are not recognized anymore as the owners because these areas are controlled by militias. But in the end, we will definitely win. Because this is a legal issue, the law must take its course and those behind the horrific crimes must be brought to justice. Then there can be social peace and tolerance.
But at the present time and in the near future, if these things that I have explained are not achieved, it is very difficult to reach common ground. With the current economic and security situation, violence could escalate further, threatening also other of the regions in Sudan and even the other East African neighbors.