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Sudan: RSF accused of targeting atrocity witnesses in Darfur

Lawyers, activists and others tell MEE that the Sudanese paramilitary and its allies are deliberately killing witnesses to its crimes
An armoured vehicle moves past covered bodies in the streets of el-Geneina, West Darfur, June 2023 (AFP)

Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces and its allied militias have been accused of a series of killings targeting witnesses of its crimes in the Darfur region. 

Human rights activists, lawyers, local leaders and the families of victims of a series of attacks on a camp for internally displaced people are among those allegedly murdered by the paramilitary, which has been at war with the Sudanese army since 15 April.

According to human rights monitors and witnesses who spoke to Middle East Eye, the murders took place before, after and during the RSF-perpetuated massacre at the army’s Ardamata military camp, which sits on the northeastern outskirts of West Darfur state’s capital, el-Geneina.

Around 1,300 people, mostly civilians belonging to the black African Masalit tribe, were slaughtered by the RSF and its allied Arab militias over three days at the beginning of November, local activists and human rights defenders told MEE. 

The massacre was part of a wave of attacks that has seen the RSF take control of almost the whole of Darfur, the vast western region that serves as the paramilitary’s heartland and power base. 

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Witnesses and human rights monitors believe that the practice of targeting witnesses to atrocities has been used as a tactic by militias in Sudan since 2019 as a way of hiding evidence, escaping accountability, and cementing control. 

More specifically, witnesses told MEE that they believe the RSF has exploited the recent violence in el-Geneina, which the paramilitary took full control of in early November, to hide evidence of atrocities committed in 2019 and 2021 at the nearby Krinding IDP camps.

The Rapid Support Forces had not responded to MEE’s request for comment at the time of publication.

Targeted killing

In 2019 and again in 2021, Arab militias – some wearing RSF uniforms – stormed Krinding, which is populated mostly by Masalit people.

The attacks left hundreds of people dead. Lawyers and human rights activists told MEE that activists and lawyers investigating the atrocities had been targeted, with four of them killed in the last month and others pursued on earlier occasions. 

“Every single one of the 16 lawyers and human rights defenders investigating the cases at Krinding has been targeted by the RSF and its allied militias,” Ahmed Hajar, a lawyer and activist, told MEE. “Four of them have been killed in recent attacks.”

'Every single one of the 16 lawyers and human rights defenders investigating the cases at Krinding has been targeted by the RSF and its allied militias'

Ahmed Hajar, lawyer

Hajar said he had been attacked himself by an “unknown militia in front of my office” after the war in Sudan began in April this year. “I know that this was intentional because of my role in the investigation and the trial of the 2019 massacre,” he said.

Two other lawyers confirmed that revenge attacks and killings had taken place against anyone who had evidence of what happened during the massacres at the camp.

“Around 40 lawyers have been attacked in and around el-Geneina and have fled to Adre in Chad, being tracked until they crossed the border,” one of the lawyers, who cannot be named for security reasons, told MEE from the town on the Chad-Sudan border. 

“The offices of some lawyers in el-Geneina have been burnt down, while their houses, cars and other properties have been looted.

"The lawyers who were part of the committee in the Krinding incident have been intentionally targeted,” he said. 

Other human rights defenders, who asked for anonymity, also stressed that they and their colleagues had been targeted. Mohammed Ahmed Kodi, an activist, burned to death inside his office, they said, while another lawyer, Khamis Algalla, was abducted from his home. Alsadig Mohammed Ahmed, also a lawyer, was killed. 
“The lawyers and witnesses of the Krindiag attacks are in a very dangerous situation currently, even inside the refugee camp in Adre in Chad, because a number of those accused in the Krinding cases have escaped from prison with the help of the RSF following the invasion of West Darfur state,” one of the activists said.

In a letter submitted to the British parliament in early 2023 and seen by MEE, Human Rights Watch, which has also this week documented the targeted killing of local leaders and other civilians in Ardamata, said that reprisals had “chilled the appetite” of the local community in West Darfur for seeking justice. 

Inflicting silence

Adam Rigal, a spokesperson for displaced people and refugees in Darfur, said that the tracking and assassination of witnesses by militias responsible for crimes in the region has become systematic.

“There are wide and systematic intentional killings by the militias including of witnesses, local leaders in the IDPs camps and human rights defenders. We have seen this not just in West Darfur but also in Nyala and other parts of North and South Darfur,” Rigal told MEE.

“One of the clear and recent cases of the targeting of witnesses is the tracking and killing of those who witnessed the massacre that took place in Masteri village in West Darfur state, who were selectively killed in the November attacks,” Rigal said.

'The humanitarian situation in some areas is even worse than 2003 and 2004'

Adam Rigal, IDP spokesman

At least 60 people, most of them Masalit, were killed when Masteri, a village near el-Geneina, was attacked by Arab militias in the summer of 2020.
“The breaking open of prisons by militias recently has become one of their repeated violent tactics, aimed at avoiding accountability for past and recent crimes,” Rigal said. “The criminals are even targeting the IDPs in general because those there – who currently number more than five million – are potential witnesses for international courts in future investigations.” 

In his interview with MEE, Rigal went further, accusing the RSF of repeating the genocide and war crimes committed in Darfur in 2003 and 2004. He said that the situation had gone from bad to disastrous and warned of a total collapse and imminent famine in the region.

“The humanitarian situation in some areas is even worse than 2003 and 2004 as there is no access for aid to come in, international organisations have been forced to stop providing assistance and the health system has totally collapsed,” Rigal said. 

“Children are dying because of hunger and disease. The authorities are not present, leaving millions of people in IDP camps at the mercy of the militias.”

According to Unicef, "at least five million" children are now "at the brink" in Darfur, where they are "living in hell". 

Untold atrocities  

As the world’s eyes have turned to the ongoing Israel-Palestine war and the bombing of Gaza, atrocities have continued in Sudan more or less unchecked, with the RSF now in all but total control of Darfur. 

Human Rights Watch has reported hundreds of violations by the RSF and allied militias in early November in Ardamata and el-Geneina, including killing, rape, looting, burning and ethnic cleansing aimed at the Masalit and other black African communities.

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“Satellite imagery captured on 6 November shows what could be fresh graves on the northeastern side of Ardamata cemetery,” HRW said in a 26 November report.

“Satellite imagery taken the first week of November shows the impact of the shelling on civilian and military infrastructure as well as looting and arson in and around the Ardamata displaced people’s camp. Satellite imagery also shows possible new graves and bodies in the street,” it said.

The human rights group called on the UN Security Council to “act to protect civilians” and punish “abusive RSF commanders”. Sudan’s army-led government recently asked the UN to terminate its mission to the country.

In July, the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, told the Security Council that current crimes committed in Darfur are encompassed in his office’s ongoing investigation into the situation in Darfur, which opened in 2005. 

The UN Human Rights Council established the Independent International Fact-Finding Mechanism on Sudan during its session that ended in October, though it has yet to be staffed.

For the moment, as the war rages on - with over six million people now displaced - and the RSF secures its grip on Darfur, the prospect of justice seems a long way away. 

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