The Kremlin’s Strange Victory
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Rashida and Hawa sift through heaps of ashes that used to be their homes, looking for lost belongings. Broken pots, scorched bricks, a pair of pink baby’s sandals. Hawa breaks down in tears at the sight of the tiny shoes, which belonged to her niece. The girl is safe with her mother in a nearby town, having fled at the sound of the first shots. But both could have easily been among the more than 100 civilians who were killed here in January by Arab attackers.
The two women had been neighbors in the vast Kirinding camp in West Darfur, which until recently housed 50,000 of the roughly three million Darfuris who have been forced to flee their homes in the last two decades. After an initial wave of killing that crested in 2003, the region that is still synonymous with genocide had grown more peaceful in recent years. But then in December 2019, Arab gunmen attacked Kirinding, slaughtering dozens of civilians and burning many of their homes. The attackers returned this past January, leaving still more bodies and torched buildings in their wake. In total, hundreds of non-Arab Darfuris have been killed and thousands displaced in a surge of violent attacks that recalls the region’s previous era of bloodshed.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In late 2018, protesters across Sudan rose up against President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year-old Islamist junta, paving the way for Bashir’s ouster by a military council in April 2019. Under international pressure, a joint military-civilian transitional government was established and general elections are now expected in 2024. With Bashir behind bars and awaiting transfer to the International Criminal Court, many expected the violence in Darfur to cease. Instead, it has flared to a level not seen in years. Nearly 250,000 people were displaced between January and April of this year, about five times as many as in all 2020. Arab gunmen in cars and on horses and camels, some of them members of government paramilitary forces, have carried out a series of attacks on villages and displacement camps housing non-Arab Darfuris, uprooting some for a second time.
But the spiraling cycle of violence in western Sudan is not a redux of the earlier Darfur crisis. Rather, it is a byproduct of the political transition currently underway in Khartoum. Bashir’s ouster in 2019 raised expectations for Darfur’s Arab and non-Arab residents alike, both of whom hoped their interests would be better served by the new administration. Few have seen their lot improve much in the last two years, however, and many have prepared themselves for a fresh wave of violence.
War first broke out in Darfur in 2003, when rebels from the region’s non-Arab communities took up arms against Bashir’s Islamist government. In addition to sending the army to put down the rebellion, the Sudanese government armed some of the Arab communities in the region, creating the infamous Janjaweed militias that terrorized the non-Arab residents of Darfur. Backed by Sudan’s regular army, including its air force, the Janjaweed killed, raped, and looted their way across the region, prompting the United States to declare the war a genocide and the UN to send peacekeepers.
Among those who suffered most were the Masalit, historically the main tribe in West Darfur and the descendants of a once powerful sultanate that resisted colonization into the 1920s. Like Rashida and Hawa, thousands of Masalit ended up in camps for internally displaced people such as Kirinding, around West Darfur’s capital of El Geneina, or in refugee camps in neighboring Chad. Many stayed there for years, raising families in the camps.
The violence began to subside in West Darfur around 2010, allowing some of the displaced people to trickle home. In many cases, the returnees found that Arab nomads had settled on their ancestral homelands. Some of these nomads had come from Chad and been granted Sudanese citizenship in exchange for joining the Janjaweed militias, which were gradually integrated into more official paramilitary forces, including those known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In Nyoro, one village south of El Geneina to which many Masalit returned, the Arabs freely acknowledged that the land was not theirs but said its richness attracted them. “One of them who came in 2007 with 25 cows now has more than 3,000,” a Nyoro chief told me recently. The non-Arab returnees settled into a mostly peaceful coexistence with the Arab newcomers but often had to give land to the Arabs in exchange for tacit protection.
By May 2019, Sudan had begun an uncertain political transition at the national level, but West Darfur seemed stable enough that the UN mission in Darfur decided to withdraw its blue helmets from El Geneina. Six months later, in December, Arab militants attacked Kirinding camp for the first time. The uptick in violence did not prevent the UN from continuing its drawdown in the rest of Darfur, officially wrapping up the mission on December 31, 2020, two weeks before the second attack on Kirinding.
Arab militias attacked the village of Nyoro, too, on three separate occasions between 2019 and 2021. In January 2021, the Masalit villagers asked the local RSF unit for protection, even though members of the government-backed paramilitary had been involved in attacks elsewhere in Darfur. According to the village chief, the local RSF commander told them that he had not been ordered to “protect civilians,” but he nonetheless agreed to escort Nyoro’s more than 300 families to the safer town of Misterei. But the RSF did not protect Nyoro after its inhabitants had left. “After three days, we returned and found Nyoro burned and looted. Even chickens had been taken. In Darfur, the government is not protecting civilians,” the chief told me.
In February, I drove to Nyoro with a joint RSF and police escort. On the rough and stony road, we met cars full of displaced people driving in the other direction, toward the relative safety of El Geneina. Nyoro itself had been destroyed, its houses burned and stripped of doors and windows. Camels wandered through the ruins.
Prior to Bashir’s fall, non-Arab Darfuris could only flee attacks by the heavily armed Janjaweed—but this time, the Masalit are fighting back. From Nyoro we drove to Misterei, where many Masalit from Nyoro still live. The earth along the dirt road was blackened, burned not by Janjaweed but by Masalit farmers hoping to keep Arab nomads away. In Misterei itself, there were no Arabs at all. After the first attack on Kirinding camp in December 2019, a traditional war chief in Misterei told me, the Masalit realized the government forces would not protect them and began arming themselves for battle. They collected funds from Masalit refugees and immigrants in North America and Europe and purchased AK-type rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, some of them from the very Arab nomads with whom they are now locked in conflict.
When roughly 500 Arab raiders attacked Misterei in July 2020, the Masalit were ready. Between 60 and 80 Masalit were killed in the skirmish, but they repelled the invaders and killed many of their fighters. Masalit fighters also defended the Kirinding camp the second time it was attacked, in January 2021. The Arabs succeeded in burning the camp to the ground, but not before Masalit fighters had killed an estimated 200 of their men.
What explains the resurgence of violence in Darfur? The withdrawal of UN peacekeepers surely did not help, even though these forces rarely intervened. More destabilizing has been the political transition in Khartoum, which has emboldened Arab as well as non-Arab Darfuris but has so far failed to meet anyone’s heightened expectations.
Many in Darfur participated in the protests that led to Bashir’s removal. Although the uprising is generally understood to have originated in Blue Nile State and then spread to Khartoum, activists in El Geneina claim to have organized the first protest in December 2018. One of the demonstrators, a 17-year-old by the name of al-Zubeir al-Sikeyran, was shot dead by government forces—likely the revolution’s first “martyr.” He was, incidentally, an Arab.
But whatever feelings of unity the uprising had initially inspired proved fleeting, as the protesters grew disillusioned with the pace of change. Non-Arab Darfuris in particular complained that the revolution had been limited to Khartoum and that Darfur seemed to be stuck in the Bashir era. In fact, at least one striking change had occurred: non-Arab Darfuris were able to express their frustration by continuing to organize sit-in protests, acts of civil disobedience that Sudanese forces would have immediately crushed in the past. With more freedom to speak out, non-Arab Darfuris began to agitate not just for democracy but for the right to return to their ancestral homelands and for the eviction of Arab settlers.
Arab communities in Darfur felt threatened by these demands. They also had heightened expectations of their own. One of the military leaders who ousted Bashir, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known by the nickname “Hemeti,” was a little-known junior Janjaweed leader when the war in Darfur began. Ten years later, Bashir chose him to lead the newly formed RSF, which gradually became the dictator’s Praetorian Guard. Bashir apparently thought a self-taught camel trader in his 40s would be more loyal to him than old army generals. He was wrong.
Hemeti’s role in the 2019 military takeover earned him the second most powerful position in Sudan’s transitional government. Darfur’s Arabs felt emboldened, thinking Hemeti would help them consolidate power over the lands and resources they had obtained thanks to the Janjaweed. But Hemeti has tried hard to downplay his wartime past and present himself as a peacemaker, preaching reconciliation between tribes and even spearheading negotiations with a number of largely non-Arab Sudanese rebel groups, which resulted in a peace agreement in August 2020.
Among the peace deal’s provisions was a commitment by the government to oversee the evacuation of lands occupied during the war, enabling the safe return of displaced people such as the Masalit. This alarmed Darfur’s Arab communities, who participated in the attacks on non-Arab camps and villages and, later, organized a “sit-in of the Arab tribes” in El Geneina, demanding that displacement camps around the town be dismantled.
Throughout this turmoil, the new transitional government in Khartoum has proved ineffectual. It has yet to implement many of the 2020 peace deal’s provisions or to protect non-Arab Darfuris from the escalating violence. It has also yet to surrender Bashir and two other former senior officials to the International Criminal Court, as stipulated in the peace agreement. Part of the problem is that some of those responsible for past crimes are still in charge. In addition to Hemeti, the country’s top transitional military official, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, fought in Darfur and is alleged to have been involved in attacks against non-Arab communities.
Persistent divisions within the transitional government—between its civilian and military components and between the regular armed forces and the RSF—have further impeded its ability to tamp down the violence. During each wave of attacks in West Darfur, for instance, several days passed before the government deployed forces to halt the killing. Officers in the region have repeatedly said they lacked orders from Khartoum to intervene. In the absence of clear guidance from the transitional government, different government forces allegedly supported different sides—many RSF on the side of the Arabs, and some Masalit members of the police and the army on the side of the displaced non-Arab Darfuris. (Although many non-Arabs have been integrated into the RSF, the force remains dominated by Arab combatants, who are often biased when their own kin are involved in attacks.)
Driving through Darfur, I passed many Arab settlements that had essentially been turned into military garrisons. I also passed many villages that had been burned to the ground in the nearly two decades since the war began in 2003. Among them was a ghost village known to have been the target of a merciless government attack in 2004, in which 300 were killed. Later, I met some of the survivors in a displacement camp in Central Darfur State’s capital of Zalingei. They told me that few dared to leave the camp, but those who ventured out to farm had to share their harvest with the Arabs who displaced them. To complain about past crimes or to demand justice for them, the survivors told me, was to risk being killed. After all, among the ranks of the RSF who patrolled the market of Zalingei were some of their attackers. “Peace is meaningless since the criminals are still here [with] weapons in their hands,” one of the survivors said. “We need them to be disarmed and brought to justice, and our land to be given back.”