Sudan: Ethnic cleansing in West Darfur

Attacks by the Rapid Support Forces and allied militias in El Geneina, the capital of Sudan’s western Darfur state, killed at least thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands as refugees.

Committing grave violations that were directed at the Massalit population and other non-Arab communities with the ostensible goal of at least having them permanently leave the region constitutes ethnic cleansing.

The United Nations and the African Union should immediately impose an arms embargo on Sudan, sanction those responsible for serious crimes and deploy a mission to protect civilians.

Attacks by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and allied militias in El Geneina, the capital of Sudan’s West Darfur state, from April to November 2023, killed at least thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands as refugees, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today . The crimes against humanity and widespread war crimes were committed in the context of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Massalit and other non-Arab populations in and around El Geneina.

The 218-page report, “‘The Massalit Will Not Come Home’: Ethnic Cleansing and Crimes Against Humanity in El Geneina, West Darfur, Sudan,” documents that the Rapid Support Forces, an independent military force in armed conflict with Sudan’s military, and their allied mainly Arab militias, including the Third-Front Tamazuj, an armed group, targeted the predominantly Massalit neighborhoods of El Geneina in relentless waves of attacks from April to June.

The abuses escalated again in early November. The attackers committed other serious abuses such as torture, rape and looting. More than half a million refugees from West Darfur have fled to Chad since April 2023. At the end of October 2023, 75 percent were from El Geneina.

“As the UN Security Council and governments wake up to the looming disaster in El Fasher, the great atrocities committed in El Geneina should be seen as a reminder of the atrocities that can come in the absence of collective action,” said Tirana Hassan, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “Governments, the African Union and the United Nations must act now to protect civilians.”

Attacking the Massalit people and other non-Arab communities by committing grave violations against them with the ostensible goal 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 intend to completely or partially destroy Massalit in at least West Darfur, which would indicate that there has been and/or will be genocide . committed there.

Between June 2023 and April 2024, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 220 people in Chad, Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan, as well as externally. Researchers have also reviewed and analyzed over 120 photos and videos of the events, satellite images and documents shared by humanitarian organizations to confirm accounts of serious abuses.

The violence in El Geneina began nine days after fighting broke out in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), Sudan’s military and the RSF. On the morning of 24 April, the RSF clashed with a Sudanese military convoy traveling through El Geneina.

Then the RSF and its allied groups attacked the majority of Massalit neighborhoods and clashed with predominantly Massalit armed groups defending their communities. Over the following weeks – and even after Massalit armed groups lost control of their neighborhoods – the RSF and allied militias systematically targeted unarmed civilians.

The violence culminated in a large-scale massacre on June 15, when the RSF and its allies opened fire on a kilometer-long convoy of civilians desperately trying to escape, escorted by Massalit fighters.

The RSF and militias pursued, rounded up and shot men, women and children who ran through the streets or tried to swim across the fast-flowing Kajja River. Many drowned. Elderly people and the injured were not spared.

A 17-year-old boy described the killing of 12 children and 5 adults from several families: “Two RSF forces … grabbed the children from their parents and when the parents started screaming, two other RSF forces shot the parents and killed them .Then they piled the children and shot them into the river and their belongings after them.

That day and in the days that followed, attacks continued on tens of thousands of civilians trying to cross into Chad, leaving the countryside littered with corpses. Videos released at the time show crowds of civilians running for their lives on the road linking El Geneina to Chad.

Human Rights Watch also documented the killing of Arab residents and the looting of Arab neighborhoods by Massalit forces and the use of explosive weapons by Sudanese armed forces in populated areas in ways that caused unnecessary damage to civilians and civilian objects.

The RSF and allied militias escalated their abuses again in November, targeting Massalit people who had taken refuge in the El Geneina suburb of Ardamata, rounding up Massalit men and boys and, according to the UN, killing at least 1,000 people.

In the course of these abuses, women and girls were raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence, and prisoners were tortured and otherwise ill-treated. The attackers methodically destroyed critical civilian infrastructure, targeting neighborhoods and sites, including schools, in primarily Massalit displaced communities. They plundered on a large scale; and burned, shelled and razed neighborhoods after emptying them of residents.

These acts were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack targeting Massalit and other non-Arab civilians in Massalit-majority neighborhoods and as such also constitute the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, persecution, and forcible transfer of civilians, Human Rights Watch said .

The possibility that genocide has been and/or is being committed in Darfur calls for swift action by all governments and international institutions to protect civilians. They should ensure investigation into whether the facts show a specific intent on the part of the RSF leadership and its allies to destroy, in whole or in part, the Massalit and other non-Arab ethnic communities in West Darfur, i.e. to commit genocide. If so, they should act to prevent its further perpetration and to ensure that those responsible for its planning and conduct are brought to justice.

The global community should support the investigations of the International Criminal Court (ICC), while States Parties to the Court should ensure that it has the necessary financial resources in its general budget to carry out its mandate in Darfur and across its files .

Human Rights Watch identified the head of the RSF, Mohammed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, his brother Abdel Raheem Hamdan Dagalo, and West Darfur RSF commander Joma’a Barakallah as those with command responsibility over the forces that carried out these crimes. Human Rights Watch also named RSF allies, including a commander of the Tamazuj armed group and two Arab tribal leaders, as responsible for fighters who committed serious crimes.

The UN, in coordination with the African Union, should immediately deploy a new mission to protect civilians at risk in Sudan. The Security Council should impose targeted sanctions against those responsible for serious crimes in West Darfur and individuals and companies that have and violate the arms embargo. It should extend the existing arms embargo on Darfur to cover all of Sudan.

“The global inaction in the face of atrocities of this magnitude is inexcusable,” Hassan said. “Governments should ensure that those responsible are held accountable, including through targeted sanctions and by intensifying cooperation with the ICC.”

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