By Mahamat Ramadane and Nafisa Eltahir
ADRE, Chad/CAIRO (Reuters) – When war engulfed Sudan’s capital last month, it quickly spread to the western Darfur region, reigniting an old conflict and sending a wave of refugees over the border into Chad.
Nasr Abdullahi sent his wife, sister and five children to Chad last week, staying behind to wait for news of a 17-year-old son in the capital Khartoum. But when his neighbour’s house was burned down and gangs took over the streets, he fled too.
“I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to leave on foot,” the 42-year-old said after arriving exhausted on Wednesday in the Chadian town of Adre, about 27km (17 miles) from El Geneina, the main city in West Darfur State.
“I crossed through the bush and walked west all night.”
Residents link the resurgence of violence in El Geneina and other parts of Darfur to the power struggle between Sudan’s army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Khartoum, which has allowed militias in the area to go unchecked.
Those interviewed by Reuters said the attacks since late April in El Geneina were carried out by “Janjaweed” militias, armed men usually thought to come from Arab nomadic tribes riding trucks, motorcycles and horses – the same militias from which the RSF was born.
The RSF denies instigating violence in Darfur, instead blaming the army.
The attacks in El Geneina have razed its markets, power grid and medical facilities, witnesses say, reviving memories of the atrocious violence that erupted in the early 2000s.
Sudan’s health ministry says up to 510 people have been killed in the city of about half a million. At least 250,000 people in West Darfur have been internally displaced while another 90,000 have fled to Chad.
With El Geneina’s communications now cut off, Abdullahi’s account offered a rare glimpse of the chaos.
“Heavy weapons and machine guns are being fired everywhere. When you go out in the morning, you see new bullet holes in the walls,” he said, adding that water supplies were cut and food was running scarce in the city he left.
The feared Janjaweed militias first gained power as the government used them against rebels in Darfur two decades ago. More than 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced.
The RSF emerged from them and grew into a large paramilitary force with legal status. Its commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, became deputy head of Sudan’s ruling council after helping topple former leader Omar al-Bashir during a popular uprising in 2019.
Though conflict in Darfur is often described along ethnic lines pitting Arab tribes against non-Arabs, it is also rooted in a struggle for land, intensified by climate change.
“This is between the herder and the farmer. It’s about resources and land,” said Sultan Saad Bahreldin, leader of the Masalit tribe, the largest bloc of El Geneina residents.
Arab livestock herders migrated to less arid areas during droughts in Darfur in the 1970s and 80s, causing tensions, said Jerome Tubiana, a researcher on the region.
They gained more land as the Janjaweed helped government forces drive back rebels in the conflict from 2003.
But they felt a 2020 peace deal with some rebel groups, which promised the return of displaced people to their land, ignored their needs. Attacks increased as international peacekeepers withdrew.
Five El Geneina residents, most preferring to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, said by telephone – before lines went down – that they thought the militias aimed to empty the city and that the army had done little to offer protection.
‘THEY COME INTO HOMES AND SHOOT’
Instead, armed Masalit men and members of the Sudanese Alliance, a group that signed the peace deal, fight from within the neighbourhoods they live in.
“The militias attacked anyone present in the city, even if they initially targeted Masalit tribes. Even Arab residents were not safe,” said Mohamed Aldouma, former governor of the state and member of the Darfur Bar Association, a human rights group.
Lawyer Jamal Abdallah said that witnesses had told him of one incident in El Geneina where seven people were killed in one home, and another in a makeshift clinic where 12 already injured people and a doctor were gunned down.
“The Janjaweed come into homes and shoot,” Abdallah added, saying he could see dead bodies and dead animals strewn in the street.
Three people living in El Geneina told Reuters that they saw attackers wearing the RSF’s beige uniforms.
The RSF has in the past rebuked individual soldiers for involvement in Janjaweed attacks, but it accuses the army and allied militias of being behind the latest Darfur violence.
Hemedti, who hails from an Arab tribe, called on people in El Geneina in an audio message earlier this week to “reject regionalism and tribalism. Stop fighting amongst yourselves immediately.”
An army spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Representatives for the Janjaweed militias could not be reached. Attempts to contact leaders of Arab tribes living in the city failed due to the blackout.
Enaam Alnour, a local activist, said her brother and several male relatives were killed and her neighbourhood was “completely destroyed, burned, looted”. She told Reuters from El Geneina that she documented from doctors and witnesses the rape of nine female university students by armed men.
Reuters could not verify those incidents.
The Sudanese Doctors Union said that all of the city’s hospitals were destroyed, as well as its blood bank. Photos shared by a local journalist with Reuters showed drip bottles punctured, rendering them useless.
Government buildings, the main market, and aid agency offices were looted, witnesses and aid groups said.
Though West Darfur is the nation’s hungriest state, many farmers are unable to access land or supplies to prepare for the rainy season.
At least 85,000 people who had sought refuge after previous attacks inside El Geneina’s now-destroyed schools, municipal buildings and mosques are displaced again, said Mathilde Vu, of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
It is dangerous for aid workers to deploy, Vu said. “We are looking at a very bleak future.”
(Additional reporting by Mai Shams El-Din, Khalid Abdelaziz and Eleanor Whalley; Writing by Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Andrew Cawthorne)