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By Pavan Kulkarni
At least 132 people were killed and 208 wounded in the armed communal clashes which erupted once again over the weekend in El Geneina, the capital city of Sudan’s West Darfur State. These casualty figures were announced by the State’s governor, Mohamed Abdallah Al-Douma, at a press conference last Thursday, April 8.
The ill-equipped and under-staffed hospitals in the city had been reportedly struggling to cope with the casualties. Some of the more grievously injured, requiring complicated surgeries, had been transported to Sudan’s capital Khartoum for medical care.
António Vitorino, the head of the International Organization for Migration, said on Thursday that the victims also include women and children. Humanitarian facilities run by international agencies have also been attacked.
On Wednesday, the UN had said that as a result of the violent situation, it had been forced to halt operations for delivering humanitarian aid. This might affect up to 700,000 people in this region which has been wracked by civil war for almost two decades.
Thousands are reported to have been displaced by the violence in this city. In mid-January, 163 people were killed and over a 100,000 were forced to flee from their homes after fighting erupted in El Geneina.
Escalating violence since UNAMID withdrawal
This fighting was triggered less than half a month after the mandate of the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) to protect civilians ended on December 31, by Resolution 2559 adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council.
This premature withdrawal of UNAMID was on the assumption that the power sharing agreement between the government and the armed rebel groups will end the fighting in the Darfur region. However, it has only succeeded in creating a security vacuum. Due to this, violence has been flaring up frequently in the states of North Darfur, South Darfur and West Darfur. El Geneina in the latter is among the worst affected areas in this western region of Sudan.
The latest spate of violence began “on the evening of 3 April 2021 after two Massalit tribesmen were killed on the road separating the residential area of the Arab tribes and the Masalit tribe,” reported the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS).
The Arab tribes in this region, who are largely nomadic herdsmen, were heavily armed and organized into militias equipped with pick-up trucks by the former regime of Omar al-Bashir. These militias were allegedly used to commit the genocide in Darfur to subdue the economically and socially marginalized African tribes, including the Massalit.
The two main armed rebel groups – the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) – largely comprise members of the Massalit tribe. Members of this tribe are either sedentary farmers or are living in IDP camps, having been displaced from their lands in the course of the civil war which began in the Darfur region in 2003.
After al-Bashir was overthrown by the Sudanese Revolution which began in December 2018, making way for the formation of transitional government in August 2019, peace negotiations to end the civil war began. A majority of rebel groups in the country, including in Darfur, eventually signed a peace deal.
The peace deal, however, has not addressed some of the issues that have led to violence in the region. For instance, the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – made up of the same Janjaweed (Arab) militias used by the previous regime to commit the alleged genocide – has not been dissolved. It has instead been incorporated into the country’s security forces, along with the police and the military. This is due to the continuing influence of the military in the post-Bashir establishment and transitional government.
Those Janjaweed militia members who were not incorporated in the RSF have not been disarmed, and continue to maintain close tribal bonds with the RSF, whose members, immune from prosecution, have themselves been accused of being the perpetrators of the January massacre in this city. On the other hand, the armed rebel groups have been sucked into and armed by the conflicts in the neighboring countries.
It is under such volatile circumstances that the UNAMID is withdrawing. Its role of providing security to the civilians, particularly those in the IDP camps, is to be undertaken by a joint force comprising of 12,000 men. 6,000 of them are to be from the military, police and the RSF, and another 6,000 are to be from the armed rebel groups which have made peace with the government, Mohammed al-Sadiq, a journalist with a expertise on the Darfur conflict, told Peoples Dispatch.
Security forces blamed
However, such a joint force, including members of the armed rebel groups, is yet to be formed. The government’s security forces which are currently in charge are not regarded as a neutral entity when such clashes erupt.
The “failure” of these forces to investigate the murders of the two Massalit members on April 3 “led to retaliatory violence,” the ACJPS added. “Armed groups from both sides spread out on the streets and began heavy indiscriminate fighting. Civilians stayed at their homes while markets and schools remained closed.”
The fighting continued the next day in two southern neighborhoods of the city, Hay al-Jabal and Hay al-Jamarlk. The security forces, posted in the city with over 300 vehicles according to the governor, did not intervene to save the civilians. That evening, an ambulance carrying medical personnel of the El Geneina teaching hospital, where the wounded are being treated, was fired upon. Two lab specialists were injured.
Plumes of black smoke rose from the affected neighborhoods in the city throughout the two days. Residents heard sounds of heavy gunfire and shelling “from the southern, eastern, and western areas of the city… [H]ouses are burnt in the areas around the Kerending (IDP) camps,” Radio Dabanga reported.
It was only on Monday, April 5, that a state of emergency was declared by the Sudan’s Security and Defense Council. However, security reinforcements to impose the emergency were yet to arrive and the violence continued.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday, April 6, that at least 56 people had been killed and 132 injured. Following another attack that day on the camps of Internally Displaced People (IDP) by hundreds of heavily armed militants, killing an additional 37 people and wounding at least 59 more people, the West Darfur Doctors Committee had counted a total of 87 dead and another 191 wounded.
Thousands of IDPs in these camps have been forced to the streets with no shelter. Drinking water is reported to have become scarce in this region. Blaming the “leniency of law enforcement” agencies, the Darfur Bar Association (DBA) said the violence amounted to “war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
“The military, security and justice component is responsible for the continuation of these events,” the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) said in a statement on April 7, reiterating its call for the “restructuring of the regular and military apparatus” to ensure their neutrality during such conflicts.