Sudanese civilians killed and shot at as they flee Darfur city by foot
Tue, June 20, 2023 at 6:16 PM GMT+1
CAIRO (Reuters) – An increasing number of Sudanese civilians fleeing El Geneina, a city in Darfur hit by repeated militia attacks, have been killed or shot at as they tried to escape by foot to Chad since last week, witnesses said.
The violence in El Geneina over the past two months has been driven by militias from Arab nomadic tribes along with members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a military faction engaged in a power struggle with Sudan’s army in the capital, Khartoum, witnesses and activists said.
A large number of people tried to seek protection near the army headquarters in El Geneina on June 14, but were blocked, said Ibrahim, a resident who made it to the Chadian town of Adre, about 27 km (17 miles) from El Geneina.
“All of a sudden the militias came out and sprayed people with gunfire,” he said by phone, asking to use only his first name. “We got surprised by thousands of people running back. People were killed, they were trampled.”
Reuters spoke to three witnesses who sustained gunshot wounds as they tried to flee El Geneina and to more than a dozen witnesses who said they had seen violence on the route from the city. It was not clear how many people had been killed in recent days.
Medical charity MSF said on Monday that some 15,000 people had fled West Darfur over the previous four days, and it said many arrivals reported seeing people shot and killed as they tried to escape El Geneina. MSF also reported rapes.
“It was a collective decision of the people of El Geneina to leave”, one resident told MSF from Chad. “Most of them fled on foot heading northeast of El Geneina but many of them were killed on this route.”
People decided to flee when the state governor of West Darfur was killed on June 14, hours after he accused the RSF and allied militias of “genocide” in a TV interview, said Ibrahim.
Ibrahim later found out that eight of his family members had been killed, including his grandmother, and that his mother had been beaten.
The war that erupted in April has uprooted more than 2.5 million people, according to U.N. estimates, mainly from the capital and from Darfur, which was already suffering from two decades of conflict and mass displacement. Nearly 600,000 have crossed into neighbouring countries, including more than 155,000 who have fled Darfur for Chad.
A 72-hour ceasefire, brokered by Saudi Arabia and the U.S., due to expire early on Wednesday morning, has brought a lull in fighting in Khartoum though residents report looting has spread and the army said the RSF had caused a huge fire at the intelligence headquarters late on Tuesday.
The RSF said the army was responsible for targeting the building, which is in an area near the defence ministry, army headquarters and airport that both sides claim to control.
The violence in Darfur has increased and taken on a more overtly ethnic nature, with assailants targeting non-Arab residents by their skin colour, witnesses said.
There are warning signs of a repeat of the atrocities perpetrated in Darfur after 2003, when “Janjaweed” militias from which the RSF was formed helped the government crush a rebellion by mainly non-Arab groups in Darfur.
More than 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced, according to U.N. estimates.
RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, said on Tuesday his force would investigate events in El Geneina. He accused the army of fomenting violence by arming tribes, while the army has blamed the RSF for the governor’s death and other violence in the region.
Sultan Saad Bahreldin, leader of the Masalit tribe, the largest bloc of El Geneina residents, said there had been “systematic” killing in recent days.
“The road between El Geneina and Adre has a lot of bodies, no one can count them,” he told Al Hadath TV.
One activist who left El Geneina on Sunday told Reuters that Arab militias and the RSF had reinforced their presence in the city since the governor’s killing, adding that Arab groups controlled the route to Chad.
Eyewitnesses had reported cases of rape, murder and enforced disappearance along the route, said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fears for his safety.
Competition for land has long been a driver of conflict in Darfur. Villages on the road from El Geneina to Adre used to be Masalit, but had been settled by Arab tribes since 2003, Ibrahim said.
Several witnesses from El Geneina, largely cut off from phone networks for weeks, said darker skinned non-Arabs were being targeted, especially the Masalit.
One resident who arrived in Chad on June 15, Abdel Nasser Abdullah, said his house was one of many in his neighbourhood that was stormed, and that his cousin was killed while he hid on the roof.
“They are not only looking for the Masalit but anyone Black,” he said, adding that the streets of the city were strewn with bodies, including those of women and children.