Darfur massacres mark a grim turning point in Sudan's war

10 min read
15 November, 2023

The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have in recent weeks achieved significant military victories in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, injecting momentum into their war against the Sudanese Armed Forces and cementing the division of the country into two main areas controlled by each warring side.

Since late October, the RSF has effectively secured control of five of the six states that make up Darfur as the SAF retreated with little to no resistance from the few positions it held to their last remaining stronghold in north Darfur.

The new campaign in the region has again seen widespread atrocities at the hands of RSF and allied groups, including the killing of hundreds of civilians, and has left thousands displaced.

“The war in Sudan had become a war of attrition, so the RSF decided to expand its control in their hinterland of Darfur while attacking strategic military bases in Khartoum,” Jihad Mashamoun, a researcher and a political analyst on Sudanese affairs, told The New Arab.

"The RSF's new campaign in Darfur has come hand in hand with widespread revenge attacks, targeted killings, rapes, detentions, and looting, as well as new accusations of ethnic cleansing"

The RSF achieved its most significant military victory on 26 October, when it captured the SAF’s last holdout in Nyala, the capital of south Darfur and Sudan’s second-largest city, after a final four-day push that followed a siege on the strategic location started in August.

Just five days later, the paramilitary force took effective control of all of Zalingei, the capital of central Darfur, after seizing the army’s last division in the city in a rapid and fierce attack launched from several directions that was met with little resistance.

Then, on 4 November, the RSF further strengthened its position in El Geneina, the capital of west Darfur, by capturing the last SAF position in the city following two days of fighting that ended with the army retreating, partly towards Chad, without any major final defence.

El Daein, the capital of East Darfur, has remained largely spared from this last round of fighting, just as it has almost since the outbreak of the war in April, due to the intervention of local leaders and their mediation with the RSF to prevent attacks on positions held by the SAF, which mainly integrates local members that have avoided engaging in combat.

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Military implications

The latest RSF victories strengthen the group’s position in its traditional stronghold of Darfur, which is the birthplace of its precursors, the feared Janjaweed militias used by the regime of former dictator Omar Al Bashir to outsource its war against local armed rebel groups who rose up against the longstanding neglect and repression of their lands.

From a military perspective, the RSF takeover of the last SAF positions in south and west Darfur, along the porous borders with Libya, Chad, and CAR, further consolidates the paramilitary group’s control over supply lines coming from these countries to maintain or expand its military operations.

“The RSF could not capture the entire of Khartoum - and the SAF’s leadership - as they wanted to in the first phase, so they moved into their hinterlands in Darfur and along their strategically important supply lines, in Chad, CAR, and Libya,” Mashamoun said.

However, the potential benefits for the RSF could be rather limited. Sudanese analyst Mohanad Elbalal noted on X that the army had lost control of Darfur’s borders to the RSF months ago and that holding their last isolated positions in the area meant having to keep long supply routes. He also observed that it will now be the RSF that will have to operate along much longer supply lines with a resulting lower concentration of forces.

Darfur refugees
Over 1,300 people, including children and the elderly, were killed after the RSF took control of the El Geneina suburb of west Darfur's Ardamata. [Getty]

“The SAF withdrawal can be seen as a result of the lack of supply lines,” Mashamoun said. “The RSF doesn’t usually launch an attack on someone unless there is a big concentration of numbers, so they have been attacking bases in Darfur in waves, in order to deplete the SAF’s resources, including ammunition, or cut their supply lines,” he added.

The implications for the stability of Darfur also remain to be seen. The RSF, an irregular force without a rigid chain of command, are not organised to maintain the security of the territory and has a long track record of atrocities. There are also large areas of the region still controlled or with the presence of rebel movements and remnants of the SAF.

Politically, several local media reports and rights groups have stated that the RSF is trying to establish or promote security-centred local authorities to administer some of the towns and areas that have recently come under its control. Yet it is still unclear how far they will be able to go, and it is feared that this move will further fragment the state.

“The RSF does not have total control over areas in Khartoum and other areas in Sudan. It’s widely spread, which is different from being in total control,” Mashamoun noted.

"The EU described the atrocities as 'seemingly part of a wider ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by the RSF with the aim to eradicate the non-Arab Masalit community' from west Darfur"

Widespread atrocities

Successive military victories by the RSF and allied Arab militias in Darfur have brought a cessation of armed clashes, which had been particularly intense in Nyala, and there have been attempts to restore a degree of normalcy to key services such as hospitals, schools and markets.

But their expansion in the face of the SAF’s withdrawal has also come hand in hand with widespread revenge attacks, targeted killings, rapes, detentions, and looting, as well as new accusations of ethnic cleansing against members of non-Arab African tribes.

The worst atrocities have been documented in the El Geneina suburb of Ardamata, where a new massacre of people from the Masalit ethnic group occurred. According to initial tallies by the Roots Organization for Human Rights, over 1,300 people, including children, and the elderly, were killed after the RSF took control of the army division in the area.

More than 2,000 people were also injured, 500 were detained, and more than 300 are missing, according to the same organisation, which has also documented cases of rape, torture and targeted killings, including of respected and prominent leaders of the Masalit community.

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“Many in Ardamata were killed based on their ethnic and tribal background; we are now trying to get accurate figures by collecting information from those displaced to Chad,” Hafiz Mohamed, director of the human rights group Justice Africa Sudan, told TNA.

The massacre was widely condemned. The officer-in-charge of the UN mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), Clementine Nkweta-Salami, said she was “profoundly disturbed” by “serious human rights violations” committed by Arab militias allied with the RSF in El Geneina.

The EU described the atrocities as “seemingly 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 UN refugee agency stated that the escalating violence across Darfur “has sparked fears that atrocities committed two decades ago could be repeated”.

The advance of the RSF and allied Arab militias through Darfur has also prompted a new mass exodus of people, especially in El Geneina, which has resulted in a surge of refugee arrivals in neighbouring Chad, according to groups such as Doctors Without Borders.

Over 4.5 million people have been internally displaced and 1.1 million have fled to neighbouring countries since Sudan's war began earlier this year. [Getty]

Since the start of the war on 15 April, more than 500,000 people have crossed Sudan’s border into Chad, the country that has taken in the most refugees so far, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Other non-Arab ethnic groups, such as the Fur community, have also been targeted by RSF and allied Arab groups in Central Darfur, particularly in IDP camps, where numerous killings and cases of rape have been documented.

“It is hard to get information about the situation in Nyala and Zalingei as communication is very difficult, but according to the latest information we have from Nyala, things are [rather] calm, although no government institutions are present,” Mohamed said.

"The war in Sudan had become a war of attrition, so the RSF decided to expand its control in their hinterland of Darfur while attacking strategic military bases in Khartoum"

New fronts

With the entire southern half of Darfur under full RSF control, much of the focus has now turned to Al-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, home to the last major SAF stronghold in Darfur and the site where many civilians fleeing the violence elsewhere retreated to.

El Fasher, home to more than a million people, had maintained a tense calm since shortly after the war broke out in Sudan in April thanks to the intervention of respected local figures who managed to forge a truce between the RSF and SAF, whereby the former held the eastern part of the city and the latter the western, according to the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker. Police and rebel movements were deployed in the centre.

Although the truce was occasionally breached, it was only from 26 October, after the fall of Nyala, that the most violent clashes since the start of the war took place in El Fasher, according to the STPT. These included artillery, heavy weaponry, and warplanes.

In Khartoum, the RSF has held control of most of the city for months while the SAF holds multiple strategic positions. In recent weeks, however, fighting has also intensified in some army-controlled locations, including the Armoured Corps base in the southwest of the capital, which came under renewed assault by paramilitary forces in early November.

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The most significant development in the capital since late October has been the controlled destruction of the strategic Shambat bridge that connects Omdurman to Khartoum North (Bahri) and was one of the most important supply routes for the RSF in the capital. Both warring sides have blamed each other for the action.

The strategic city of El Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan and crucially located midway between Darfur and Khartoum, remains nominally under SAF control but has long been surrounded and besieged by the RSF.

The RSF have also made inroads in recent weeks into previously untargeted oil fields, capturing the Balila oilfield in West Kordofan and attacking the Zarga Um Hadid oilfield in East Darfur. It is not immediately clear what effect this has had on their operations.

Local oil and transit fees paid by South Sudan for the use of pipelines are a vital source of revenue for the military-controlled Sudanese federal state.

Despite recent RSF advances, the SAF retains firm control over most of the middle, east and north of Sudan, including the strategic city of Port Sudan, which has been turned into a sort of administrative capital following the devastation of Khartoum. It also holds the country’s main agricultural lands, some of its largest mining areas, and several oil fields.

Diplomatic track stalled

The rapid advances of the RSF in Darfur have also served to boost the figure of Abdul Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, the second-in-command of the paramilitary group and brother of its leader, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

In recent weeks, Abdul Rahim Hamdan, who was sanctioned by the US in September, has led the RSF in its offensive in Darfur and has appeared in numerous videos addressing its forces after claiming victories such as the one in Nyala.

Hemedti has appeared much less in public since the outbreak of the war for reasons that remain unclear, but in early November the RSF released a video of him of nearly half an hour that included a long speech in front of tens of new members of the group.

SAF commander Abdel Fattah Al Burhan paid in turn a quick visit to the Wadi Saidna base, north of Khartoum, at the end of October, to meet and boost the morale of his troops.

"Neither the SAF leadership nor the RSF were interested in the Jeddah negotiations; [that] is why we all [saw] them fighting in parallel"

The changes in control of the territory in recent weeks have coincided with a new round of negotiations between the warring parties in Jeddah brokered by Saudi Arabia and the US. However, diplomatic efforts again failed to achieve any significant breakthrough.

The RSF and SAF pledged to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid into the country and to adopt confidence-building measures, including the establishment of channels of communication between the leaders of the two forces and the reduction of war rhetoric. Yet no cease-fire was achieved, and the effects of all these measures remain doubtful.

“Neither the SAF leadership nor the RSF were interested in the Jeddah negotiations; [that] is why we all [saw] them fighting in parallel,” Mashamoun said.

“Each one is trying to gain the upper hand in the battlefield and use that in the table in order to maximise their diplomatic gains on the [negotiation] table,” he concluded.

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