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Abdullah Khatir, 30 from El Geneina in West Sudan whose leg was amputated after he was shot by RSF fighters, walks through Ambelia refugee camp on April 20, 2024 in Adre, Chad. © 2024 Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

1. Human Rights Watch released a new report on abuses by the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan against people in West Darfur’s capital during 2023. What were the key findings?

In its new report, “The Massalit Will Not Come Home,” Human Rights Watch concludes that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an independent military force, and its allies, primarily Arab militias, are responsible for a campaign of ethnic cleansing, targeting the Massalit people and other non-Arab communities in West Darfur’s capital, El Geneina. The apparent objective was to permanently remove them from the city. Many of the abuses documented in this report constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch provided a comprehensive account of the seven-week campaign of attacks and abuses between April and June 2023, during which the RSF and its allies killed and injured thousands of civilians, as well as a later escalation of abuses, in November.

The RSF and allied militias systematically targeted unarmed civilians, especially boys and men, for killings. They also unlawfully killed people who had already been injured, including children and women. The evidence also indicates that the RSF and allied militias sought out prominent members of the Massalit community for abuse, including lawyers, doctors, human rights defenders, academics, community leaders, religious figures, and local government officials.

The RSF and its allies destroyed entire neighborhoods of this multi-ethnic city in relentless waves of attacks. Satellite imagery shows that large swathes of the city have been deliberately burned and subsequently demolished with heavy machinery.

The attacks culminated in days of killings in mid-June, as tens of thousands of civilians attempted to escape to areas north of the city and into neighboring Chad. The wave of attacks in November targeted El Geneina’s suburb of Ardamata, one of the few remaining areas of refuge for the Massalit.

As part of this campaign, the RSF and its allies committed pillage, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, willful killing, extensive destruction and appropriation of property, and unlawful deportation or forcible transfer.

As a result of these heinous crimes, almost half a million refugees from West Darfur have fled to Chad since April 2023, with 75 percent from El Geneina as of late October.

Human Rights Watch identified six leaders who are credibly implicated in this campaign or who hold command responsibility for the abuses, and who should be sanctioned and investigated.

2. How did Human Rights watch conduct its research?

Human Rights Watch carried out 10 months of in-person and telephone research, including six trips to Chad, KenyaSouth Sudan, and Uganda. Researchers interviewed over 220 people, most of them witnesses and survivors of abuses who were forced to flee into neighboring countries. Human Rights Watch also assessed and verified over 120 photographs and videos, analyzed satellite imagery, and reviewed documents shared by humanitarian organizations.

The majority of interviewees were ethnic Massalit or residents of non-Arab communities of El Geneina. Researchers also interviewed 38 Arab residents, as well as international aid workers and analysts. Human Rights Watch could not visit El Geneina, which remains under the control of the RSF and its allies.

The findings also build on previous Human Rights Watch research into abuses in West Darfur since 2019.

3. Did the abuses only occur in one location? 

No, but because of the scale of atrocities, the research focused specifically on events in the city of El Geneina and its suburb of Ardamata.

Human Rights Watch had previously documented attacks on predominantly Massalit civilians and civilian property elsewhere in West Darfur state. At least seven towns and villages of West Darfur have been deliberately destroyed by fire since mid-April 2023. Researchers conducted an in-depth investigation into a large-scale attack on the predominantly Massalit town of Misterei on May 28, 2023. Over the course of 12 hours, the RSF and allied Arab militias attacked the town, killing and injuring dozens of civilians, including women and children. They burned most of the town to the ground.

West Darfur, including El Geneina, has been the epicenter of attacks by the RSF and allied militias since 2019, targeting the Massalit community, and camps and sites hosting displaced people, and non-Arab communities more broadly. Human Rights Watch has previously documented similar patterns of abuse, including deliberate attacks. In early 2021, Arab tribes held a sit-in demanding the removal of camps for displaced people from the city, and the appointment of a non-Massalit governor. With the ethnic cleansing campaign of 2023, much of this agenda was accomplished.

The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced in July 2023 that his office is investigating recent events in Darfur as part of its ongoing investigations in the region, dating back to June 2005. It is important for the ICC and the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission to include the attacks in El Geneina and other places of West Darfur in their investigations.

4. Why were ethnic Massalit the main target? 

The events in West Darfur since 2019 have regularly been characterized by the international community and Sudanese authorities as “intercommunal violence.” This downplays the severity of the events or suggests that not much can be done about it. Such a characterization is also misleading. While it is true that ethnicity plays a key role, describing the events as “intercommunal violence” obscures the involvement of national actors, and the fact that these are not random abuses, but large-scale, coordinated attacks with political and military objectives.

In the case of the recent events of El Geneina, the RSF has been intricately involved in the attacks, in close coordination with the Arab militias. The mostly Arab militias that mobilized alongside the RSF did so along tribal lines and over many weeks, according to witnesses. The magnitude of the attacks in El Geneina indicates a considerable level of coordination, effort, and purpose, as the assailants sought control over land and political power in the federal state of West Darfur. This does not support the idea that the violence was simply “intercommunal.”

5. How do these crimes fit into the broader conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF in Sudan?

Since its founding in 2013, the RSF has overwhelmingly recruited from sections of Darfuri Arab communities, through its officers’ tribal networks and by rewarding with money, cars, and military ranks, the traditional Arab leaders who enlist their kinsmen. The RSF has mobilized and fought alongside Arab tribal militias during attacks in West Darfur since then.

As the conflict between the Sudan military (known as the Sudanese Armed Forces, SAF) and the RSF unfolded since April 2023, the local agendas of Arab militias in West Darfur converged with the Rapid Support Forces’ attempt to establish military superiority over the SAF throughout key parts of Sudan. The November 2023 wave of attacks in Ardamata, during which the UN estimated that at least 1,000 people were killed, culminated in the RSF posting celebratory videos of its capture of the military garrison in the town, in the presence of deputy RSF commander Abdel Raheem Dagalo. This confirms that the RSF leadership was implicated in the abuses.

The ethnic cleansing of the Massalit population of El Geneina has left the RSF, and its allies from local Arab communities, in control of El Geneina and West Darfur.

The research indicates that the RSF and its allies did not just target fighters from Massalit armed groups, they targeted the general Massalit population: men and boys in particular, but also women, girls, injured people, and older people. Prominent figures of the Massalit community, including traditional leaders and human rights activists, were also targeted. The abusers used racist slurs, which testified to their intent to remove the Massalit population as a whole from El Geneina. During these attacks, the military, even though it was present in the region, was unable or unwilling to intervene to protect civilians.

6. What does ethnic cleansing mean?

While a policy or practice of ethnic cleansing violates international law, ethnic cleansing is itself not a discrete crime, and as such the term does not have any formal definition under international law. However, the United Nations Commission of Experts mandated to examine international law violations committed in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1994, defined ethnic cleansing as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means, the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

Human Rights Watch used that widely adopted working definition for the characterization and found considerable evidence that the grave abuses that the RSF and its allies carried out against the Massalit population of El Geneina fall within this definition. Ethnic cleansing can be prosecuted as the crimes against humanity of persecution and deportation or forcible transfer of a civilian population, involving the discriminatory targeting of particular groups, including on an ethnic basis, for serious violations.

7. What are crimes against humanity?

The Rome Statute of the ICC defines crimes against humanity as specific criminal acts – including murder, rape, torture, apartheid, deportations, and persecution, etc. – that are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population according to a state or organizational policy. These are among the gravest offenses under international law.

Many crimes Human Rights Watch documented in this report formed part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against the Massalit and other non-Arab civilian populations of Massalit-majority neighborhoods, and as such constitute the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, and forcible transfer of the civilian population. The evidence also indicates the RSF, and allied militias committed the crime against humanity of persecution of the Massalit and other non-Arab civilian populations in El Geneina and its surroundings.

8. Do the crimes documented in the report have any link to what happened in Darfur 20 years ago?

Beginning in 2003, Sudan’s government forces (SAF) and allied militias known as the “Janjaweed,” committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, including sexual violence, in Darfur, as part of a counterinsurgency campaign against opposition armed groups who recruited from local non-Arab communities. Government forces and the Janjaweed – primarily recruited among local Arab communities – targeted not only fighters but also non-Arab communities more generally in direct attacks from land and air in which the forces carried out abuses such as summary executions, rape, torture, and pillaging of their property. Ethnic Massalit communities of West Darfur were among those targeted in that campaign.

The Janjaweed were later integrated into formal government structures, ultimately leading to the emergence of the RSF in 2013. The RSF then committed further abuses during other counterinsurgency campaigns in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile in the 2010s.

The situation at the national level has changed; the RSF, since April 2023, is no longer part of the government but is now against the government, fighting the military. But the experience of victims and survivors in West Darfur echoes what survivors went through 20 years ago. Some of the survivors of the atrocities since 2023 were among those displaced 20 years ago, and many again in the 2019-2021 period, when the RSF and allied militias carried out attacks against these communities in and around El Geneina.

For some, it is the third time they are being displaced. Their description of how the attacks were carried out was eerily similar to what happened in the 2000s: forces attacking residential areas using explosive and automatic weapons, looting and burning, and targeting civilians for killings, rape, and other abuses.

Some of the people carrying out the abuses today were actively involved in the atrocities of the 2000s. The RSF commander, General Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, known as Hemedti, was implicated in grave crimes by the RSF against civilians in DarfurSouthern Kordofan, and Blue Nile, including killings, mass rape, the burning and looting of villages, and mass displacement of civilians. The SAF leader, General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, reportedly oversaw Janjaweed militias from 2002 to 2005, in his previous role as commissioner of Jebel Mara.

9. Where are members of the affected communities now?

Since April 2023, over half a million people have fled into eastern Chad, which borders West Darfur. Most fled directly because of the horrific abuses Human Rights Watch documented in this report. Over 65 percent are ethnic Massalit.

Chad has allowed the refugees to enter its territory, and international aid organizations have been responding to the incredibly dire needs of this vulnerable population, but aid groups have repeatedly raised the alarm about severe funding shortages.

10. How have regional and international actors responded since these abuses began over a year ago?

The United States has been the most vocal and has taken some concrete measures against those responsible for these crimes. The US ambassador to the UN Security Council visited eastern Chad to meet with refugees and has spoken out against obstructions to the delivery of aid by the warring parties. The US government announced a so-called “atrocities determination” in December 2023, concluding that the RSF and allied militias are responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in West Darfur.

It also imposed asset freezes on Abel Raheem Hamdan Dagalo, the RSF deputy commander and brother of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, in addition to imposing visa restrictions on Abdul Rahman Joma’a, RSF commander for West Darfur state. Canada imposed sanctions against Abdel Raheem Hamdan Dagalo, on April 15.

The European Union has repeatedly condemned violations committed by warring parties in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, but has so far not used its Sudan sanction regime to impose targeted measures on individuals responsible for grave human rights violations.

At the UN, Security Council members have willfully failed in their responsibilities to prevent further atrocities. The UN panel of experts on Sudan submitted a damning report, presenting strong evidence on individuals responsible for atrocities in West Darfur. But the Security Council failed to sanction these individuals, and to name those responsible for violating the arms embargo on Darfur.

The ongoing conflict in Sudan underlines the limits of continental responses to African conflicts. The African Union (AU), especially the AU Commission and the Peace and Security Council (AUPSC), has failed to end the conflict, protect civilians, and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance. The relationship between the Peace and Security Council and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) has been obscured by a subsidiarity principle, according to which African regional economic communities and regional mechanisms such as IGAD share responsibilities with the AU on peace and security matters, which has led to confusion and even policy paralysis in dealing with the conflict.

The AU Peace and Security Council has only recently asked the AU Commission to present options for the investigations of atrocities and accountability, but it has otherwise failed to consider options to protect civilians or to denounce abuses by the warring parties.

In November 2023, despite ample evidence of the serious crimes underway in Darfur and other parts of Sudan, members of the Security Council acquiesced to the request of the Sudanese authorities – aligned with SAF – to close the UN political mission in the country.

There have been no substantive discussions at the UN on how civilians could be protected in the context of grave abuses across the country.

11. What are Human Rights Watch and the survivors asking the international community to do?

Human Rights Watch is asking the AU, in collaboration with the UN and in consultation with IGAD, to urgently address the need to protect civilians. The UN Secretariat should develop options for a new mission to be deployed to areas where civilians are particularly at risk of attack, notably in West Darfur, with a mandate to protect civilians, monitor violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and aid access, and pave the way for the return of those displaced.

The UN Security Council should sanction the six leaders named in the report, as part of a broader strategy to halt atrocities and prevent these leaders from being in positions where they can continue to oversee abuses. In the meantime, individual states and government bodies should also sanction these leaders in a coordinated manner.

The international community should actively assist the ICC with its investigations, and ICC state parties should ensure that the court’s office of the prosecutor has the financial means within its regular budget to conduct its investigations into events in Darfur and across the court’s docket.

The findings highlight the urgency for states, at the level of the UN Security Council, to establish an arms embargo on all of Sudan, not just Darfur. In the meantime, individual states should halt the sales of weapons to states, such as the UAE, which are known to be providing weapons to the abusive warring parties.



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