A UN peacekeeper stands guard in central Darfur. Image: Ashraf Shazly / AFP

‘Methodical’ Mass Killing in Sudan’s Darfur


Ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated in Sudan’s West Darfur by paramilitary groups, and allied militias with the victims of these ‘deliberate’ atrocities predominantly being ethnic Massalit and non-Arab communities.

Between April and November 2023, attacks by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), paramilitary forces, and allied militias in El Geneina, the capital city of Sudan’s West Darfur state, killed at least thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands as refugees, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, including entire Massalit neighborhoods, through looting, burning, shelling, and demolishing, has been methodically carried out.

The comprehensive 218-page report titled “The Massalit Will Not Come Home’: Ethnic Cleansing and Crimes Against Humanity in El Geneina, West Darfur, Sudan” details the systematic attacks on Massalit neighborhoods by the RSF and their allied militias, notably the Third-Front Tamazuj. These assaults occurred in relentless waves from April to June, with a resurgence of abuses in early November.

Alongside killings and forced displacement, the report exposes other shocking acts such as torture, rape, and widespread looting. The dire situation has led to a mass exodus of over half a million refugees from West Darfur to Chad since April 2023, with a significant portion originating from El Geneina.

‘Large-scale atrocities’

HRW report noted that the attackers “methodically destroyed critical civilian infrastructure”, primarily in communities consisting of displaced Massalit. Satellite imagery showed that since June, predominantly Massalit neighborhoods in El-Geneina have been “systematically dismantled, many with bulldozers, preventing civilians who fled from returning to their homes”, HRW said.

“The events are among the worst atrocities against civilians so far in the current conflict in Sudan,” HRW reported. “Sudanese Red Crescent staff said that on June 13, they counted 2,000 bodies on the streets of El Geneina and then, overwhelmed by the numbers, stopped counting.”

“Adolescent boys and men were especially singled out for killings, but among those unlawfully killed were also many children and women,” the report said, adding that RSF fighters and allied militias were using “derogatory racial slurs” during their weeks-long campaign.

In November, the RSF and their allied militias intensified their atrocities, specifically targeting Massalit individuals who sought refuge in the El Geneina suburb of Ardamata. Reports indicate that Massalit men and boys were rounded up, leading to the deaths of at least 1,000 individuals according to UN figures.

Throughout these acts, women and girls suffered rape and other forms of sexual violence, while detainees endured torture and inhumane treatment. The assailants systematically obliterated vital civilian infrastructure, including schools, within predominantly Massalit displaced communities. Their actions encompassed extensive looting and the deliberate destruction of neighborhoods through arson, shelling, and razing, leaving them uninhabitable.

The human rights organization said that targeting the Massalit people and other non-Arab communities by committing serious violations against them with the apparent objective of at least having them permanently leave the region constitutes ethnic cleansing. “The particular context in which the widespread killings took place also raises the possibility that the RSF and their allies have the intent to destroy in whole or in part the Massalit in at least West Darfur, which would indicate that genocide has been and/or is being committed there,” it added.

Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into genocidal intent, targeted sanctions on those responsible, and urged the United Nations to “widen the existing arms embargo on Darfur to cover all of Sudan”.

The rights group also recorded instances where Arab residents were killed and Arab neighborhoods were subjected to looting by Massalit forces. Additionally, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) were found to have employed explosive weapons in populated areas, resulting in unnecessary harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The Proxy war

On 15 April 2023, intense fighting broke out between the Sudanese military and the RSF in Khartoum and across most of Sudan. Since then, the fighting has killed and injured thousands of people.

On one side stand the Sudanese armed forces, largely aligned with Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who effectively governs the country. Opposing them are the paramilitary forces of the Rapid Support Forces, a coalition of militias led by the former warlord Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

Originally established by the former authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir, the RSF emerged as an Arab counterinsurgency militia aimed at quelling a rebellion in the Darfur region, sparked by decades of political and economic marginalization of the local populace. Initially dubbed the Janjaweed, the RSF swiftly gained notoriety for their widespread atrocities. In 2013, Bashir reorganized the group into a semi-structured paramilitary unit, granting its leaders military ranks and deploying them to suppress a renewed insurgency in South Darfur.

Following former President al-Bashir’s deposition in 2019, a power-sharing compromise between military and civilian leaders led to the formation of a transitional government.

According to the Crisis Group, Sudan has become an arena for regional proxy conflict. While Egypt is the army’s main outside backer, Iran provides it with weapons. On the other side, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the major patron of the RSF.

Other regional powers have also taken sides, with Eritrea, apprehensive about the RSF advancing further east toward its borders, generally backing the army, whereas its neighbor Ethiopia, a close ally of the UAE and rival of Egypt, is seemingly friendly to the RSF.

A humanitarian catastrophe

Since the eruption of fighting between rival militaries, Sudan has witnessed shocking levels of violence, plunging the country into a devastating humanitarian and protection crisis. According to the UN, more than eight million people have already been forced to flee their homes and been displaced multiple times, and 25 million – half of the country’s population – are estimated to need humanitarian assistance.

An estimated 18 million people face “acute” levels of food insecurity. According to figures released by the Nutrition Cluster in Sudan, nearly 230,000 children, pregnant women, and new mothers could die in the coming months due to hunger. In January, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) raised the alarm on malnutrition in Zamzam camp in North Darfur, warning that “an estimated one child is dying every two hours.” 

“The situation is dire. People are resorting to consuming grass and peanut shells. If assistance does not reach them soon, we risk witnessing widespread starvation and death in Darfur and across other conflict-affected areas in Sudan,” warned Michael Dunford, regional director for Eastern Africa at the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

The UN estimated that over 3 million women and girls in Sudan faced the threat of gender-based violence. Following the onset of conflict, there have been numerous accounts of armed forces employing rape as a tool of warfare. Clinics and doctors have come under fire throughout the country, putting 80 percent of the country’s major hospitals out of service.

The fighting has also led to massive numbers of unexploded weapons littering Sudan’s towns and cities.

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