No less than 470 people were killed in an explosion of violence between Arab and non-Arab tribes last month in Darfur.
The bloodletting stoked fears that Darfur, scene of a vicious war in the 2000s, could slide back into conflict and raised questions over the government’s efforts to implement a peace deal and protect civilians.
The lethal clashes were reminiscent of the days in 2003 and 2004 when militias known as janjaweed became notorious for their terror campaigns, killing and raping civilians, when the Khartoum government unleashed them to put down an insurgency by Darfur’s residents. Some 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were displaced, before the violence gradually declined.
Sudan is now on a fragile path to democracy after a popular uprising led the military to overthrow longtime autocratic President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. A transitional military-civilian government is now in power, trying to end decades-long rebellions in various parts of the country.
The latest burst of violence came just two weeks after the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force that had been in Darfur for a decade ended its mandate, at the request of the transitional government. It was replaced with a much smaller, political mission.
“Anyone could have predicted that as soon as the UN troops departed, some of these militias would begin attacking,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of The Sentry, an organisation that tracks corruption and human rights violations in Africa.
The bloodshed followed a familiar scenario: a dispute between two people or a minor crime turning into all-out ethnic clashes. It first grew out of a fistfight on January 15 between two men in a camp for displaced people in Genena, the capital of West Darfur province. An Arab man was stabbed to death. The suspect, from the African Massalit tribe, was arrested, but the dead man’s family, from the Arab Rizeigat tribe, subsequently attacked people in the Krinding camp and other areas across Genena.
Three days later, clashes renewed in South Darfur province between Rizeigat and the non-Arab Falata tribe over the killing of a shepherd in al-Twaiyel village.
VIDEO: Hundreds of refugees have trickled back to their remote village in South Darfur nearly a decade after fleeing war there. Now, they think they rushed the decision following attacks by local nomads pic.twitter.com/5HkqVARdkL— AFP News Agency (@AFP) February 8, 2021
The fighting in the two provinces killed around 470 people, including three aid workers, according to the United Nations and local officials. More than 120,000 people, mostly women and children, fled their homes, including at least 4,300 who crossed into neighbouring Chad, the UN said. The transitional government deployed additional troops to West Darfur and South Darfur to try to contain the situation.
Mohamed Osman, a Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said witnesses said the government forces’ response was too little, too late. “The government repeated promises of protecting civilians and holding perpetrators accountable,” he said.
War first erupted in Darfur in 2003 when non-Arab Africans rebelled, accusing the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of discrimination. Bashir’s government is accused of retaliating by arming local nomadic Arab tribes and unleashing the janjaweed on civilians — a charge it denied.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Bashir with war crimes and genocide over Darfur, but it remains unclear whether the transitional government will hand him over to face justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
In December, the joint UN-African Union envoy for Darfur, Jeremiah Mamabolo, cautioned that mistrust still runs deep in Darfur.
The people of Darfur “have been betrayed,” Mamabolo told The Associated Press. “A lot of crimes and injustice have been committed against them, so they feel insecure.”
Last year, the transitional government struck a peace deal in October with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of several armed rebel groups — including from the Darfur region.
The government and rebel groups have said they will deploy a 12,000-strong Civilian Protection Force to the region. But some worry it could include former militia members who may have taken part in atrocities.
General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which grew out of the Darfur militias. Rights groups say his forces burned villages and raped and killed civilians during a series of counterinsurgency campaigns over the last decade.
A report by UN experts covering March to December said tribal clashes and attacks on civilians increased sharply “in both frequency and scale,” particularly in South Darfur and West Darfur. Acts of sexual and gender-based violence continue to be committed daily and go unaddressed, the report found.
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