The kidnapping and execution of a regional governor in Sudan has sparked fears that the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is aiding in an ethnic cleansing campaign, survivors and experts say.
Khamis Abakar, the governor of West Darfur, was killed hours after criticizing the “massacre” of RSF and allied Arab fighters in an interview with a Saudi news channel on June 14.
His body was found in El-Jenina, the capital of West Darfur.
“Civilians are being killed randomly and in large numbers,” he told Al Hadath TV, calling on the international community to intervene to protect people in El-Jenina. We have not seen the army leave its base to protect the people.
The RSF denied any responsibility and blamed the killing on outsiders fighting a “tribal conflict”.
The Sudan Conflict Observatory, an independent monitor funded by the United States, said RSF was responsible for an extrajudicial killing.
“The entire city is under RSF and [Arab] Militias cooperate with them. Today, all of El-Jenina is destroyed,” Abakar told Al Hadath. “There is no protection for us from the central government or the regional government.”
Abakar was an Arab, belonging to the Masalit tribe. According to witnesses and rights groups, Arab militias and the RSF – a group composed mostly of Arab recruits – have targeted Masalit displacement camps, killed people trying to flee to neighboring Chad, kidnapped and raped women, and executed influential figures in the community, such as tribal leaders and human rights activists. Lawyers and monitors.
Witnesses reported bodies lying on the streets for days, and at least 1,100 people are said to have died so far.
Months of simmering tensions between Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF commander Mohammad Hamdan “Hemedati” Dagalo erupted into battle on April 15. Ten days later, they took their armed struggle to West Darfur.
However, the army quickly retreated and left a power vacuum that was exploited by RSF fighters and Arab militias.
“We express our deep concern about these crimes and violations committed by militias against civilians and we demand international protection for the state of West Darfur,” said the Root Organization for Human Rights and Monitoring Violations, a local civil society group in West Darfur.
‘The army is silent’
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 115,000 refugees have fled West Darfur to Chad despite the perilous journey.
Human rights monitors in El-Jenina told Al Jazeera that Arab militias and RSF fighters were guarding all exit points from the city and demanding bribes from families trying to escape.
Ahmed Hagar said on Friday that he paid the equivalent of $500 to the militia so he could flee on May 28 with his wife and five children. He blamed the Sudanese army for failing to intervene to protect the Masalites.
“Arab militias cooperate with the RSF and the army is silent,” he told Al Jazeera.
Army spokesman Nabil Abdullah did not respond to questions about why the army was not intervening to protect civilians in El-Jenina.
Threats of targeted killings prompted influential figures such as the Masalit tribal chief, Sultan Saat, to flee with his loved ones. According to Nahid Hamid, Sultan’s wife and human rights lawyer, they left soon after Arab fighters raided her brother’s house and killed him.
“After killing his elder brother in his house, Sultan and his entire family fled. His children, his brothers and sisters and everyone,” he told Al Jazeera.
Hamid said he was in Khartoum when the civil war broke out. Now in Egypt, he said his brother-in-law’s murder was the result of lawlessness in the region.
“There is no security,” he added.
Several international and local civil society groups published an open letter on Friday calling on regional and international institutions, as well as influential countries such as the United States, to “publicly condemn RSF’s role in the atrocities in West Darfur.”
The letter comes two days after a comment by Sudan’s UN envoy Volker Perthes sparked outrage. He said targeted attacks against civilians on ethnic grounds in West Darfur were “allegedly perpetrated by Arab militias and some people wearing RSF uniforms”.
In Jenina, there is an emerging pattern of targeted attacks against civilians on alleged ethnic grounds by Arab militias and some men in RSF uniforms. If verified, these attacks could amount to crimes against humanity.
See my full statement: https://t.co/Z9jBsS3rDo
— Volker Perthes (@volkerperthes) June 13, 2023
RSF and its lobbyists used similar language to deny their involvement on June 3, 2019, in which 120 pro-democracy protesters were killed.
Despite dozens of eyewitness accounts and hundreds of videos implicating RSF fighters in the attacks, the group blamed impostors wearing RSF uniforms.
When Al Jazeera asked the spokeswoman for the UN mission in Sudan, Florence Marchal (UNITAMS), why Perthes used the words she said, she said, “We are very cautious. We cannot name [the perpetrator] If we can’t verify.”
The US State Department was more direct in its statement, saying that Washington “strongly condemns the ongoing human rights violations and abuses and horrific violence in Sudan, particularly reports of widespread ethnic-based sexual violence and killings in West Darfur.” Rapid Relief Force and Allied Militia.”
According to Emma DiNapoli, an international law expert focusing on Sudan, careful monitoring and evidence gathering is essential to give the survivors of West Darfur a chance for justice.
DiNapoli said Friday that the International Criminal Court (ICC) could be a way to hold criminals accountable because the court has jurisdiction over Darfur due to a UN Security Council resolution passed in March 2005.
Based on that resolution, the ICC indicted former Sudanese ruler Omar al-Bashir – and other members of his regime – in 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Al-Bashir was later charged with genocide
With Darfur now embroiled in yet another civil war, the ICC could theoretically open new cases.
“There is clearly a case [to prosecute perpetrators] For crimes against humanity [in West Darfur] And I would say the same is true of war crimes,” DiNapoli told Al Jazeera.
“Crimes against humanity include deportation through forced displacement and persecution on ethnic grounds and must not occur in armed conflict. But they have to be proven to be part of a larger systematic attack directed against the civilian population,” he added.
Sudanese activists are already advocating for the ICC to investigate Abakar’s killing.
A human rights monitor, who asked that his organization and name remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told Al Jazeera on Friday that any new investigation could act as a deterrent against future human rights abuses.
“I know these people from Darfur,” he said. “If you even mention the ICC, criminals start to tremble.”