Sudan refugees detail second wave of bloody ethnic purge by Arab forces

Arab-led RSF forces have pressed ahead this month with their expulsion of Sudan's ethnic-African Masalit tribe from West Darfur

By MAGGIE MICHAELRYAN MCNEILLReuters
Published : 22 Nov 2023, 05:09 PM
Updated : 22 Nov 2023, 05:09 PM

Earlier this year, Arab forces waged a campaign of killing and rape that expelled most of the ethnic-African Masalit tribe from the Sudanese city of El Geneina. This month, they returned to finish the job.

In early November, fighters led by Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) sought out members of the Masalit community for killing, dozens of survivors told Reuters. The focus: Ardamata, an outlying district in El Geneina, capital of West Darfur state.

RSF forces overpowered a Sudanese army base in Ardamata, using drones to attack the soldiers there, survivors said. Sudanese army commanders abandoned their troops during the fighting, said 11 people present at the base.

The RSF and its allied Arab militias then intensified their attacks on civilians living in a camp for internally displaced people in Ardamata and in surrounding neighbourhoods, launching an assault on many of the tens of thousands of people living there, most from the darker-skinned Masalit tribe.

Dozens of survivors of this month’s attacks spoke to Reuters. Many of them described seeing Masalit men rounded up and shot. Some said they saw people being hacked to death with axes and machetes. Hundreds were taken to a football field in the area, where two eyewitnesses said they saw people being executed by Arab captors. Bloated corpses lay in the streets of Ardamata for days. Homes were burned and looted, some stripped bare as looters made off with TVs, kitchenware, and even doors and windows.

The attack on Ardamata comes after the RSF, a paramilitary force drawn mainly from Arab tribes, and allied Arab militia forces earlier this year drove hundreds of thousands of El Geneina’s former Masalit majority out of the city. In a campaign that lasted almost two months, Arab forces killed hundreds of residents of El Geneina, most of them members of the Masalit tribe. Many of the survivors fled to Chad.

It’s unclear how many Masalit remain in El Geneina. In 2022, the multiethnic city had a population of 540,000, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency. In the wake of this year’s fighting in Darfur, almost half a million Sudanese refugees now live in camps on the Chad side of the two nations’ border.

Ardamata represented one of the last pockets of the Masalit’s presence in the city. In the days after the recent attacks, Reuters journalists saw dozens of people, some of them injured, crossing into Adre, a town on Chad’s border with Sudan.

Reuters spoke to more than 70 people for this report, including civilians and Sudanese army soldiers who survived the carnage and made it to Chad. The interviews took place in Adre, at a border crossing as escapees entered Chad, and at refugee sites in the area. This account of the latest phase of the Arab forces’ purge of the Masalit is based on their testimony, as well as on Reuters analysis of satellite images, photographs and social media footage of the violence.

The European Union estimates that more than 1,000 Masalit were killed in Ardamata. Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said earlier this month that the “latest atrocities” in Ardamata were part of “a wider ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by the RSF with the aim to eradicate the non-Arab Masalit community from West Darfur.”

The Sudanese army did not respond to questions about the RSF’s advances or the conduct of its forces.

The RSF and Arab militias didn’t respond to questions about the witness reports of killings and looting in the latest fighting.

In a statement on Nov. 13, an RSF spokesperson blamed the Sudanese army for the fighting. The group’s commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, had ordered a probe into what happened in Ardamata, and would “not provide any protection to any individual proven to be complicit in any violations of innocent civilians’ rights,” the statement said.

Dagalo, known as Hemedti, has made similar statements before. After the earlier violence in El Geneina, he said the RSF would investigate.

The bloodletting in Darfur erupted days after war broke out in April in the capital, Khartoum, between Sudan’s regular army and the RSF over a plan to integrate the two forces as the country transitioned to civilian rule. The war has displaced more than 6 million people, including the nearly 500,000 who have crossed into Chad, mostly from West Darfur, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

West Darfur is the Masalit’s historic homeland. Violence in the region has long been stoked by competition for land and water between non-Arab farming peoples like the Masalit and nomadic Arab herders.

The RSF has gained ground in recent months. After seizing swathes of Khartoum, it has forced retreats by the Sudanese army in parts of the Darfur and Kordofan regions. In late October, the RSF overran army headquarters in Nyala and Zalingei, two of the five state capitals in Darfur.

The group has said it wants to bring democracy to Sudan. Diplomats say it is seeking to expand its access to resources including gold, which it has used to help build a financial empire, and to secure its role in any political settlement after seven months of fighting. The RSF has vowed to reach the nation’s economic hub of Port Sudan on the eastern coast. Its advances have raised fears that Sudan could suffer another split, 12 years after losing South Sudan.

In early November, the RSF turned to its next target in El Geneina – the army base in Ardamata, which served as the Sudanese military’s central command for all of West Darfur.

‘The defeat was swift’

The Sudanese army had done little fighting in El Geneina until this month. When the RSF and allied militias began rampaging in the city in late April, army forces largely remained in the Ardamata base, dozens of witnesses told Reuters in July.

By Wednesday, Nov. 1, the RSF and allies had surrounded the base, located on the far northeastern edge of the city. Inside were several thousand Sudanese army troops and allied fighters from the Sudanese Alliance, a group of armed factions that have fought in previous wars in Darfur. Civilians were sheltering there as well.

Army officers now had a decision to make. Local authorities in El Geneina aligned with the RSF had sent envoys to the base to propose a deal, according to soldiers and local media reports: If the troops surrendered and left, a war could be avoided.

When the army didn’t comply, the RSF began shelling the base on Nov. 2, according to eight soldiers and Sudanese Alliance fighters who were there. The army returned fire, shelling RSF positions.

The defenders were no match for the RSF, which deployed drones for surveillance and to strike targets inside the base. Abdullah Omar Abdullah, a 32-year-old soldier, said drones dropped munitions on tanks and armoured vehicles. At least six colleagues were killed, he said.

Civilians also were dying. Al Fadhl Abdullah, 22, said his mother, two sisters and grandmother were all killed in the shelling of the base. In the rush to flee, he had to leave their bodies behind. “I couldn’t bury them,” he said.

On Nov. 4, two days after the fighting began, soldiers at the base awoke to discover they had been abandoned by their Sudanese army commanders. The officers quietly pulled out during the night, according to 11 soldiers and allied fighters who fled to Adre.

“The forces inside had no clue” about the leadership’s sneak retreat, said Khamis Hassan, a senior commander of the Sudanese Alliance. “The defeat was swift.”

Ibrahim Youssef, a Sudanese army soldier, said he was in the base when the commanders disappeared. “They left the junior ones without telling them anything,” he said. “We suddenly found the RSF in front of us.”

The Sudanese army did not reply to questions about the commanders’ conduct.

Youssef said he was in the base’s medical facility being treated for a shrapnel wound when the clinic came under attack. RSF and allied militiamen stormed the facility, shooting the wounded, he said. He managed to escape by crawling behind walls and through bushes. He eventually made it to the displaced persons camp in Ardamata, where he briefly found refuge.

As the attackers poured in, Sudanese soldier Gamareldin Mohammed said he lay down, pulled the corpse of a comrade over him and played dead. “I covered myself with the dead body and his blood,” he said. He later fled to Adre.

Upon learning their commanders had deserted them, soldiers and Sudanese Alliance fighters hurriedly hatched an escape plan. They shed their uniforms and split into three groups. A contingent of about 2,000 soldiers and fighters fled with civilians through the mountains to the west of El Geneina, heading for Chad.

Many didn’t make it.

Mohammed Ahmed Goma, a grocery shop owner from Ardamata, was among the fleeing civilians. He rode in a landcruiser with dozens of people piled in and atop the vehicle. When they were ambushed by Arab militiamen and came under fire along the route, the vehicle’s occupants scattered.

“Everyone ran for their lives,” he said. “If someone was injured, you didn’t have time to help them up.”

Goma said he spent four days hiding in the mountains as RSF and Arab forces hunted for Sudanese soldiers and civilian Masalit men. To keep alive, he drank juice from raw sugar cane. He raised his lip to show red bumps that formed from sucking on the cane.

Since reaching Adre, Goma said he has been at the border crossing, hoping to get news of the people who fled with him in the landcruiser. He knows of only one other person who has made it to Chad.

Two senior commanders of the Sudanese Alliance told Reuters they were keeping a record of how many of the 2,000 soldiers and fighters who fled through the mountains had reached Adre. By mid-November, they had counted 340.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, the deputy leader of the RSF, Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo, stood in front of the conquered army base and congratulated his forces. Standing next to him was Abdul Rahman Juma, the RSF commander in West Darfur. Both men are under US sanctions, imposed in September, for alleged human rights abuses. Dagalo, brother of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, called the US move “unfair.”

“This is a great victory,” Dagalo said in comments posted on an RSF social media account. “God is great.”

Targeting the Masalit

Once the base fell, a killing spree ensued.

RSF and Arab militia forces focused their operations on the largely Masalit civilian population in the nearby displaced persons camp and surrounding neighbourhoods of Ardamata.

After the base was overrun, tribal leaders in Ardamata negotiated a deal with the RSF and Arab militias, according to five residents. All assault rifles in the displaced persons camp would be surrendered, the sources said. In return, the Arab forces would guarantee the safety of the camp’s occupants and allow safe passage out of El Geneina for those who wanted to leave.

But as soon as the weapons were handed over, RSF and Arab militiamen began killing people and looting homes in Ardamata, targeting the Masalit in particular, according to dozens of survivors.

“They ordered all men out of the houses and all the women to remain inside,” said a local government employee, who is a Masalit. He said he watched the Arab forces from his hiding place behind a wall at his home.

“Slaves, get out,” the man recalled RSF and Arab militiamen saying. “Then they started shooting.”

Some civilians were targeted even before the base fell.

Hussein Fayez, an 18-year-old Masalit, said he and his twin brother Hassan were having tea with family on the morning of Friday, Nov. 3. RSF forces in uniform and militiamen on horseback and motorbikes pulled up outside their home, Hussein said.

Hassan rushed to hide his father’s old army uniform: His father had served in the Sudanese military and Hassan wanted to keep the militiamen from finding it.

Hassan was too late. The militiamen shot him in front of his mother and then looted the home, taking money, phones and other valuables, Hussein said.

Hussein’s aunts quickly surrounded him, shielding him from the militiamen and dressing him in an abaya, the full-length robe worn by some Muslim women. As he stepped outside in the abaya, Hussein said he saw the bodies of young men, many his age, lying in the street, some with their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head.

Hussein fled to Adre with his family, still in the abaya. The female members of his family formed a tight ring around him along the way, distracting militiamen who stopped them at several checkpoints so he wouldn’t be found out. His father is still missing, he said.

At least 30 survivors told Reuters they saw groups of men being rounded up and executed during the assault in Ardamata.

Yassin Ahmed, a 23-year-old Masalit man, said he saw uniformed RSF fighters and Arab militia members hacking more than two dozen Masalit men with axes and machetes on a bridge that spans a ravine in Ardamata.

Three social media videos reviewed by Reuters show scores of men and boys held on the same bridge by armed fighters. Some were whipped.

Two survivors said they witnessed large-scale killings at a football field.

Abdu Mohammed Ibrahim said he was at his home, which overlooks the field, around midday on Nov. 4. He heard gunshots, he said, and saw RSF members in uniform and Arab militiamen leading a group of young men, numbering in the low hundreds, to the field. They divided the captives into groups and sent them to different corners of the field, before opening fire on them. Some were killed and some wounded, he said.

Ibrahim said he knew seven of the victims. “There were youth among them,” he said, as young as 12. “I know them by name.”

A shopkeeper who also lived near the football field said he saw Arab militiamen bringing groups of as many as 150 men there that same day. He said he heard some screaming “don’t burn us,” before gunshots rang out. The UN’s human rights agency said on Nov. 17 that some victims of the Ardamata attack had been burned alive, without saying where the killings happened.

Reuters couldn’t independently determine the number of men taken to the football field.

Adam Mohammed, 38, said he escaped from Ardamata on Nov. 4. As he fled, Mohammed said he counted dozens of bodies with gunshot wounds near the main Ardamata market and in several neighbourhoods. Near the Al Mashtal neighbourhood, he said he saw militiamen flogging a group of young men while shouting, “This is our country, not yours.”

Some survivors said the RSF and its allies took hundreds of captives to El Geneina’s airport, as well as to detention centres.

Ibrahim Youssef, the soldier who escaped the clinic at the military base, said he was among the airport captives. After reaching what he thought was a safe haven at the displaced persons camp at Ardamata, he said he was captured by RSF forces. Along with hundreds of others, he was taken to the airport. Many of the captives were interrogated there, he said. Some were executed.

“They torture and question you,” grilling the captives about whether they are in the army or an army-allied force. “Some deny, and some confess and get killed. In front of me, there were many shot dead.” He didn’t put a figure on the killings he saw.

Youssef said he ultimately escaped from the airport under cover of night, spending six days on the road before making it to Adre.

“I left many people dead behind me,” he said.