Clashes In West Darfur, Forces Thousands To Seek Refuge In Chad

Nearly 2,000 people in Western Darfur have fled for their lives into neighbouring Chad this week, following renewed clashes in the region. The recent eruption of violence between the Masalit and Arab communities began on April 3rd, when unknown assailants shot at a group of Masalit men, killing two and injuring a third. Armed elements from both groups mobilized in the wake of the attack, with the UN’s Human Rights Office reporting that the streets of West Darfur’s capital, El Geneina, were “strewn with bodies” by April 12th.

Several structures were destroyed or damaged, including a hospital and a UN compound, and at least one ambulance was attacked. The UN Refugee Agency reported that 1,860 people have sought refuge in Chad in the past week, primarily women, children, and the elderly living in villages near the Chadian border. Humanitarian agencies are still trying to determine the number of IDPs within West Darfur, but they are estimated to be in the thousands.

The Darfur region of Sudan has suffered from conflict for decades as the previous regime led a campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2003, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians. One of the main culprits was the Janjaweed, a Sudanese militia group whose members were mostly recruited among Arabized indigenous Africans. The African Union and the United Nations established a joint peacekeeping mission in the region, named UNAMID, to monitor levels of unrest in Darfur. The Janjaweed morphed into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by the Sudanese Armed Forces, who have allegedly been complicit in the current violence in West Darfur.

In 2019, the populist Sudanese Revolution resulted in the ousting of Omar Al-Bashir, an authoritarian dictator of the country for over 30 years and a figure indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The August 2019 Draft Constitutional Declaration was signed by military and civilian representatives, requiring a peace agreement in Darfur within the first six months of the 39-month transition period to democratic civilian government. UNAMID withdrew in December 2020 after 13 years in Sudan, with clashes renewing two weeks later. The current unrest indicates an escalation in violence across Darfur and has resulted in almost unprecedented levels of displacement.

There are several potential drivers of the current clashes in West Darfur: the tension from an October 2020 peace agreement, polarization and elite grievance from Sudan’s fraught political transition, and militia are emboldened by UNAMID’s withdrawal. According to the Governor of West Darfur Mohamed El Doma, what is clear is that “[the violence] is not tribal, it is political.”

Sudan’s democratic transition has empowered Masalit leaders, who call for compensation, justice, and the return of land forcibly taken by militias in past conflicts. The recent peace agreement calls for the land to be returned to the original occupants, a stipulation that threatens Arab communities who currently occupy the land.

Elites who were part of the National Congress Party (NCP), Al-Bashir’s ruling party, have been widely accused of exacerbating community tensions to undermine Sudan’s democratic transition. Governor Doma removed many NCP members from power following the 2019 Sudanese Revolution. He claims that the former party members “want to destabilise the situation,” and believes they are responsible for the recent violence.

Though new freedoms are being enjoyed throughout Sudan, the militias that terrorized Darfur in 2003 still exist, only now without the supervision of UNAMID. The RSF is particularly feared as one woman says she “saw the RSF shooting, killing, and burning” the homes of refugees. In camps, humanitarian aids claim newly displaced women fear sexual violence from the group as they collect firewood from outside the sites.

The UN Human Rights Office calls for “independent, impartial and thorough investigations into acts of violence” and “effective accountability processes” in West Darfur. It is difficult to imagine how this could be possible when the RSF is a “third pole of power” in Sudan, according to Mossaad M. Ali, executive director of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies. In fact, the militia is commanded by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti’, deputy president of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, considered ‘the guardian’ of a democratic transition in Sudan. With Chad’s border province already hosting 145,000 Sudanese refugees and the UN only making 16% of its $141-million appeal for humanitarian operations in Chad this year, it is more important than ever for Sudan to resolve its internal power struggle and establish lasting security.