Darfur Still Bleeds, With or Without al-Bashir
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the conflict hasn't stopped.
Sudan’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir is expected to meet his long-awaited fate. For more than a decade, the man who spearheaded three bloody wars evaded an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. This week, Sudan’s transitional government finally announced that it intends to hand him over. Problem is that the violence he unleashed will carry on anyway.
Al-Bashir is charged with committing crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Sudan’s western province of Darfur. That conflict is rooted in climate change and an unequal power structure inherited from colonialism. Since the 1980s, worsening drought meant that the once fertile land could no longer support the needs of mainly African farmers and ethnically Arab nomadic herders (ethnic labels are slippery). And with Khartoum long discriminating against non-Arabs, African farmers in Darfur became increasingly marginalized.
By 2003, a rebellion was brewing. But with the Sudanese army still fighting separatist rebels in the south, al-Bashir chose to train a new force called the Janjaweed — or devils on horseback — composed of ethnically Arab fighters from Darfur.
The Janjaweed killed more than 400,000 civilians and displaced millions. Women and girls were raped, villages were burned to the ground and summary executions were common. By 2004, U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled the mass killings a genocide.
Nearly two decades later, survivors of the genocide are finally witnessing a semblance of justice. But even though al-Bashir is reportedly heading to the Hague, the Janjaweed continues to terrorize civilians in Darfur.
Those languishing in internally displaced persons camps are most at risk.
Nowadays, the group is called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). It is headed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is better known as Hemedti. And just three years ago, al-Bashir’s parliament passed the RSF Act, which put the force directly under his control. From then on, al-Bashir sometimes referred to Hemedti as Hemeyati, which means “my protector.”
African Darfurians, however, still see Hemedti as the source of deplorable violence. In 2019, the RSF continued to employ scorched-earth tactics to destroy or damage some 45 villages in the region, according to Amnesty International. Armed men also stormed a former United Nations camp just before the new year. And sexual violence and unlawful killings further persisted at a time when the UN and African Union were considering ending their joint peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
Luckily the mission was extended for another year in October. But rights groups believe that there will be a sharp increase in human-rights abuses once peacekeepers leave. Those languishing in internally displaced persons camps are most at risk. Many tell reporters that raids are imminent, while others note that their villages have been seized by Arab clans.
The tensions have resulted in violent episodes. Just last December, Arab gunmen stormed an internally displaced persons camp in west Darfur over a local dispute. More than 50 people were killed and some 40,000 uprooted. Many fled to neighboring Chad.
Hemedti, for his part, denies that the RSF is committing crimes with impunity and instead attributes the violence to local clashes between rival tribes. Rights groups say that isn’t true. But Hemedti’s power and status — he is currently the deputy of Sudan’s 11-member ruling sovereign council — means that civilian and military officials have little power to rein him in.
Worse still, Hemedti has powerful backers. He has recruited thousands of mercenaries for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to deploy in Yemen and Libya.
The RSF is also destroying the environment through its gold mining operations, which quickly became the most lucrative industry in Sudan after the south seceded with oil fields in 2011. The use of cyanide and mercury — harmful substances used to dig up and process gold — have devastated communities in areas like South Kordofan.
The RSF controls Jebel Amer gold mine in Darfur. And operations there risk destroying the little fertile land available while creating a public health crisis.
Sending al-Bashir and his cronies to the ICC is a good start to pursue justice. But full justice won’t be served until the RSF is reined in, while those displaced are given land rights, compensation and dignified livelihoods.
That’s hard to envision as long as the devils on horseback keep tormenting Darfur.