Sudan's RSF leaves trail of terror in Darfur

Graphic scenes of violence against civilians circulate widely after the assassination of one of the country’s longest-serving and most respected leaders

Chadian cart owners transport belongings of Sudanese people who fled the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region
Chadian cart owners transport belongings of Sudanese people who fled the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region

Sudan's RSF leaves trail of terror in Darfur

West Darfur has witnessed some of the most contentious fighting in Sudan’s civil war, and as the conflict rages, the Rapid Support Forces militia now stands accused of committing fresh atrocities in the state.

The RSF launched a fresh offensive on the Ardamata area, to the east of El Geneina, earlier this month, where they had previously captured the local headquarters of Sudan’s regular army, their enemy in the conflict.

When they took the base, there was minimal resistance from the 15th Infantry Division. Its troops withdrew from the region after a mediation led by local leaders, leaving the RSF unchallenged in the area.

On 4 November, RSF members went on to assassinate a highly respected tribal leader, Mohamed Arbab Mohamed Neel[WS1] , who was also one of the longest serving and most respected civil administrators in the country. He was 85 years old and had held his position since 1958.

He was not the only person to die in the assault, which took place in Masalit, on that early November Saturday. Neel’s son – and eight of his grandchildren – lost their lives. Neither was it the first attack on this family. Human rights activists had previously accused members of the RSF of murdering another of Neel’s sons, Mohamedein Mohammed Arbab, and other family members in June.

The RSF’s November offensive went on. It included an aggressive advance through areas to the northeast of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur State. Credible reports, supported by authenticated videos widely circulated on social media, vividly portrayed raids on the homes of civilians.

Read more: In Africa, war takes time and life is short

Heart-wrenching photographs depicting the dead of Ardamata – where the RSF’s victims were strewn across the streets – circulated widely. At the same time, the militiamen celebrated at the army HQ, claiming to bring democracy and a civil state through the barrels of their rifles.

It was not the first day of atrocity committed by the RSF in West Darfur. At the beginning of this conflict, they carried out similar massacres in the city of El Geneina, the state capital. On 15 June, they invaded the city, assassinated Governor Khamees Abakar, and mutilated his body before proceeding to kill his father.

Wave of killing

The RSF then unleashed a wave of violence against the Masalit community, orchestrating a large-scale campaign that targeted numerous prominent figures within the tribe in Darfur.

Among the victims was Prince Tariq Abdel Rahman Bahr al-Din, the brother of the Sultan of Dar Masalit, along with other members of his family. The violence extended to the humanitarian coordinator in the state, Sadiq Mohamed Ahmed, a renowned lawyer and human rights activist.

The RSF assassinated Tariq Malik, the head of the sub-office of the Bar Association Steering Committee in West Darfur. They also attacked government officials and notable members of the Masalit community and killed them within their homes, as reported by human rights activists and eyewitnesses.

A man stands by as a fire rages in a livestock market area in al-Fasher, the capital of Sudan's North Darfur state, on September 1, 2023

These attacks and other were carried out by RSF mercenaries recruited from various West African nations, bringing politics from over the border into Sudan’s civil war.

Volker Perthes, the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sudan, noted in a report presented to the Security Council that foreign elements actively participated in hostilities alongside the RSF.

News reports documented the killing in Sudan of Mohammed Abu Bakr Musa, a prominent figure from the opposition in Chad, on 6 November.

Amid this violent and complex picture, an apparent absence of explicit condemnation of the Darfur atrocities from Sudan’s civil and political groups stands out.

The country’s alliance of such organisations – the Forces of Freedom and Change – has done no more than issue routine statements detailing the harassment and constraints faced by their members, including violations such as travel restrictions and entry denials.

The violence extended to the humanitarian coordinator in the state, Sadiq Mohamed Ahmed, a renowned lawyer and human rights activist.

Silence and self-interest

El Hadi Idris – the leader of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, which includes a significant number of movements in Darfur – did speak out. But he did so to decry his own dismissal from the country's ruling Sovereign Council at the behest of the leader of the commander of the regular army, Abdul Fattah Al-Burhan.

Others chose to remain silent and indifferent, while spokesmen from the Forces of Freedom and Change actively attacked anyone who pointed out these crimes or criticised the RSF for committing them.

It all amounts to what looks like an effort to divert attention away from the Darfur atrocities and shift the focus to other matters.

And that adds to a sense that there is an implicit alliance between the RSF and some groups within the Forces of Freedom and Change. And that comes as another sign that Sudan's politicians and military leaders are keener on reaching deals between themselves – struck behind closed doors ­– than they are at representing the needs of their long-suffering people.

Even human rights violations on the scale of massacres do not seem enough to get the politicians and generals to set aside their own self-interest. The lack of concern for the people and the country they aspire to lead is widespread.

Read more: How much longer can Sudan's 'war of miscalculation' continue?

The RSF and the business of war

Human rights activists point out that the RSF operates as a coalition of militias and mercenaries. The group has been implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes across Sudan since the civil war broke out on 15 April. But it has been particularly active in Darfur.

Observers suggest that the RSF needs conflict and war for its livelihood, and that as a group, it was set up for that purpose.

Its founder and leader – Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti – set it up along those lines. He was able to increase the RSF's numbers swiftly, when he was supporting the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the military council and head of paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), greets his supporters

During that time – and before he worked with the regular army to oust al-Bashir – Hemedti made it clear where the loyalties of the RSF lie. He referred to the group  as "my protection" during the Bashir era.

Hemedti attracted fighters with the promise of easy and swift gains. Those who joined his forces received a fixed salary and were allowed to keep any spoils they looted, incentivizing unruly behavior and a constant pursuit of battle.

He did not prioritize training or experience when recruiting fighters. The primary objective was to assemble combat-ready members to strengthen their dominance and influence, without imposing a heavy ideological burden.

The RSF needs conflict and war for its livelihood, and that as a group, it was set up for that purpose.

True motivations

The RSF operates purely as a military instrument driven by its owner's aspirations for power and influence. Its politics have always been flexible to suit those ends.

During moves toward democratic rule the RSF cloaked themselves with slogans promoting civilian governance and proper economic development. Throughout, they carried on as before in terms of recruitment and behaviour.

And the RSF's political influence within the Forces of Freedom and Change means there has been little criticism of the latest looting and killing, in contrast with the strong words over the same kind of crimes when committed in the the al-Bashir era.

Back then, there were demands that looted assets be recovered and that the military's significant presence in the economy was dealt with. Now, there is a failure among civil groups to call for the same action to be taken against the RSF.

Some have even called for the preservation of these irregular forces. Former Sovereignty Council member Mohamed Alfaki Suleiman, advocated this, saying they were set up with funds from Sudanese taxpayers.

Others justify the silence over the RSF's growing economic heft by claiming the wealth is actually the personal assets of Hemedti and his family and that it does not come from sources relating to the Islamist era, corruption or tyranny.

But according to its opponents, the RSF has enriched itself at the direct cost of much of the country, especially Darfur.

Read more: What does "victory" look like in Sudan's ongoing conflict?

Origins and economic power

Conflicts between herders and farmers, which intensified since the 1980s, caused social disruption in the state.

It escalated along ethnic lines in the Darfur War of 2003, involving predominantly Arab herders and farmers of African origin. Opponents of the RSF say it was involved in this since its early days as the Janjaweed militia. And they point out that the war made bearing arms one of the most lucrative ways of earning a living in the region.

Sudanese women who fled the conflict in Geneina in Sudan's Darfur region, line up to receive rice portions from Red Cross volunteers

And then there is gold. The RSF used its growing influence and power to become the guardians of Sudan's resources of the precious metal. The group is directly involved much of the industry, from prospecting to protection rackets and even partnerships with traditional mining companies.

The country's annual gold production is estimated at 100 tons, yet proceeds that make it into the state treasury only account for about 30 tons.

Recent research reports suggest that ambitions related to gold play a significant role in the ongoing conflict in Sudan. In parts of Sudan, this has made the RSF the primary employer, especially given the breakdown of traditional livelihood systems such as agriculture and herding.

This rising economic power could help explain why the RSF feels strong enough to carry out its atrocities and why the response from political groups is so muted.

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