The current conflict in Sudan is triggering an alarming escalation in inter-communal and ethnically motivated violence in various parts of the country, particularly in the Darfur region. Arab affiliated militias, including from the Rizeigat community, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are currently targeting civilians from Massalit and other non-Arab communities in Darfur on the basis of their ethnic identity.
A near shutdown in telecommunications has impeded access to information on the extent of abuses and civilian casualties. However, a growing body of witness testimonies, verified social media videos and satellite imagery now show the scale of horrific events taking place across Darfur, including at least three cities and ten towns partially burned to the ground.
Since late April, shortly after intense fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF first ignited, the RSF and allied militias have rampaged through the city of El Geneina, killing at least 1,100 people. Hospitals and pharmacies have been attacked, looted and destroyed, and there is currently only one water source available for the entire city. In the past month such violence has escalated, severely increasing the risk of civilians being targeted in ethnic-based attacks. Approximately 6,000 people have fled El Geneina and taken refuge in Chad in recent days.
Credible Sudanese sources also expressed grave concern about civilians in the cities of El Fasher, North Darfur, and Nyala, South Darfur being at imminent risk, as RSF and allied militias are reportedly surrounding the cities. Local sources shared that in Nyala armed fighters are going house by house to loot, attack and kill those who refuse to leave.
Various UN officials have published statements raising alarm about the ethnic dimensions of the conflict in West Darfur, alerting that these attacks may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. On 13 June the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Nderitu, warned that if the violence continues “it can develop into renewed campaigns of rape, murder, and ethnic cleansing.”
The current crisis between the SAF and RSF has reignited longstanding ethnic tensions that stoked deadly conflict and atrocities two decades ago. During former President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, the Arab Janjaweed – supported by the government – allegedly committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide against civilians. The UN estimates that in Darfur alone, over 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million forced to flee since 2003. The RSF evolved from the Janjaweed militias, with its forces and many of its leaders, including General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, implicated in atrocities.
Despite Hemedti’s involvement in past atrocities and in the 2021 coup, the international community continued to work with him as a legitimate partner in the political process towards establishing a civilian-led government. In order to maintain and expand military positions against the SAF, General Hemedti and the RSF have relied on their tactics from the past, including attacking, killing and raping civilians, and forcibly driving them out of their properties.
Since the outbreak of violence between the SAF and RSF, international efforts have predominantly focused on establishing a ceasefire. Although important, a potential ceasefire will not necessarily stop the violence in Darfur, as well as attacks in Kordofan and Blue Nile, due to the involvement of a wide range of ethnic-based militias and armed forces. Experts have also raised the question of whether SAF and RSF generals have the full command and control over their forces.
While efforts aimed at establishing a ceasefire should continue, the international community must also assess the situation through the atrocity prevention lens and identify which communities are at imminent risk of atrocities, who is targeting them and why. The UN Security Council (UNSC) should convene an emergency meeting to discuss the escalating situation in Darfur and ask the UN Secretariat, including the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, to brief them on the evolving situation on the ground and the atrocity risks vulnerable populations are facing. The UNSC, together with the African Union and states that have some leverage over the warring parties, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should devise a strategy on how to effectively protect civilians in Darfur and elsewhere.
The situation in Darfur requires an immediate and urgent response before entrenched grievances escalate into a recurrence of past atrocities with civilians once again left in the hands of armed forces and militia groups. This time the international community cannot stand idly by while thousands of Sudanese are killed, raped, displaced and further terrorized and traumatized.