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‘They Keep Killing Us’: Violence Rages in Sudan’s Darfur Two Decades On

KRINDING, Sudan — A soot-streaked shell is all that remains of Awatif Fadl’s house, destroyed a year ago when gunmen riding camels, horses and motorcycles stormed through Krinding, a remote camp in Darfur, western Sudan, firing their weapons and burning every home in sight.

Dozens of people were killed, including nine members of Ms. Fadl’s family. Thousands fled, some across the border to Chad. “Nobody came to save us,” she said.

Now, Ms. Fadl, 54, has returned to the camp, where her family has built a rough shelter in the ruins of their old home. But they feel no less vulnerable. If the gunmen return, she added, “there will still be nobody to save us.”

This is not what was supposed to happen in Darfur, a region tormented by two decades of genocidal violence that began in 2003 and led to the deaths of as many as 300,000 people. In 2019, a popular uprising ousted Sudan’s longtime ruler, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and many Darfuris participated in that revolution, hoping it would finally bring peace to their region.

Instead, the situation has only deteriorated. Violent attacks against largely ethnic African communities have surged in the past year, with more than 420,000 people forced to flee their homes in 2021, up from 54,000 a year earlier, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office in Sudan.

The atrocities in Darfur once drew international attention. Celebrities organized marches and fund-raisers and even went on hunger strike, the United Nations repeatedly denounced the violence and sent in peacekeepers, and the International Criminal Court opened investigations into accusations of genocide and war crimes.

But this time, few people are paying attention.

“The world has forgotten about Darfur once again,” said Rebecca Hamilton, an associate professor of law at the American University in Washington and the author of “Fighting for Darfur.”

Aid agencies are struggling to raise funds for Darfur as the world’s attention turns elsewhere, said Duncan Riddell, the Darfur area manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council. Last year, the crises in Ethiopia and Afghanistan dominated the concerns of Western donors — both now eclipsed by Ukraine.

Among the reasons for the escalating violence: The United Nations-backed peacekeepers withdrew from the Darfur region 15 months ago.

At least 700 people were killed or wounded in armed attacks in Darfur last year, the United Nations estimates, though other organizations say that figure drastically undercounts the real toll.

The troubles are partly driven by continuing turmoil in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where a power-sharing deal between civilian and military leaders collapsed last fall when the army seized power in a coup. Since then, demonstrators have mounted rolling protests in Khartoum and other cities, often clashing with the security forces who have killed 87 people, according to a doctors’ group.

Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan is the main winner from the chaos. Back in the 2000s, he was a notorious figure in Darfur as a commander of the Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, which perpetrated some of the worst attacks against ethnic African communities — violence that earned Mr. al-Bashir an indictment at the International Criminal Court.

Now General Hamdan is the second most powerful leader in Sudan, a position he acquired as leader of the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group that is part of the government forces. Most recently, he appeared in Moscow on the first day of the war in Ukraine seeking aid from the Russian government.

Since coming to power, he made some efforts to forge peace in Darfur, his home region, most notably through a peace agreement in October 2020 that saw an alliance of rebel factions in Darfur lay down their weapons. But as the political struggle in Khartoum deepened, the violence in Darfur resumed, sometimes driven by General Hamdan’s own men, according to interviews with almost a dozen witnesses, as well as U.N. officials.

General Hamdan’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The violence has been most serious in West Darfur, one of the five states that make up Darfur. In areas like Kereneik and Jebel Moon, where dozens of people have been killed since November, including 17 people on one day this month, insecurity is preventing aid agencies and journalists from gaining access — making it difficult to get firsthand accounts of the crisis, or to bring it to the world’s attention.

The most vulnerable locations are camps in places like Krinding, where ethnic Africans like Ms. Fadl’s family have been living since they were displaced in the first wave of state-sponsored genocidal violence in the 2000s.

In interviews, members of a dozen families in Krinding said that the camps were attacked last year by hundreds of Arab gunmen whom, they asserted, had the backing of plainclothes paramilitary officers from the general’s Rapid Support Forces.

Others said that the military and the police watched and did nothing as the gunmen wreaked havoc.

After the attack, members of the Arab community blocked roads in the region, demanding the camps be dismantled — an effort, the families said, to seize the land for themselves. Tensions have been running high since the October 2020 accord, which stipulated that refugees had a right to land they lost during the conflict in the early 2000s.

Some of those interviewed said that they continue receiving calls warning them not to return. Arab gunmen, they said, also convey threats through youngsters fetching water or firewood. Others said that foreigners from Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic had been moved onto their land.

“They want to finish us,” said Ahmed Suleiman, 45, who said that 20 relatives were killed in attacks in the past two years.

People in the camps are being expelled to make room for a free-trade zone that would serve Darfur and neighboring countries, which General Hamdan and state officials are spearheading with financial backing from the United Arab Emirates, according to a senior aid official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Other factors are at play, too. Age-old grievances between African farmers and nomad Arab herders center on natural resources as well as land. Herders say that the routes they traditionally used during the seasonal migration of animals have been converted into agricultural land, resulting in clashes over access to water and ever-smaller parcels of drought-prone pastures.

“The Arabs are not all Janjaweed,” said Hamid al-Nadir, an Arab leader in West Darfur, adding that clashes had led to the slaughter of thousands of their goats and camels.

The violence is also driven by a recent influx of fighters and funds from Libya, where many Darfuris have fought as mercenaries in recent years, U.N. officials said. Non-Arab communities have begun forming self-defense militias to repulse attacks. And the federal government seems helpless to stop the violence, with small altercations at markets often snowballing into huge attacks.

“Even the most petty of infractions or disagreements are now sorted out with a round of warfare,” said Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, a research group.

In West Darfur, those fleeing attacks have mostly sought refuge in the state’s capital, El Geneina, camping in whatever open space they can find in schools, hospitals and government buildings.

Ibrahim Mohamed’s family was one of dozens squatting in the headquarters of the regional education ministry. The conditions were tough, with limited food and clean water, and filthy latrines, Mr. Mohamed, 55, said. But his main concern was another attack on El Geneina itself.

He pointed to a group of children, playing in a corner. They rarely left the compound, he said, because they were so traumatized by previous armed raids that left mental and physical scars. “They don’t trust anyone,” he said.

Sudan’s rulers in Khartoum are “relaxing and enjoying themselves,” Mr. Mohamed said. “But we have nothing.”

The departure in December 2020 of the joint United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force left a security gap, too. Local leaders and human rights organizations cautioned against the force’s withdrawal and argued that civilians remained in danger. But the Security Council maintained that Sudan’s transitional government was capable of taking over security duties in the region.

The local leaders were right. Now the United Nations has been left calling on Sudanese authorities to stop the fighting — but that call has come too late, Ms. Hamilton of the American University said.

Looting and violence have continued in recent weeks and months, even as the army chief, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and General Hamdan, both visited Darfur.

Sitting in her desolate compound on a recent afternoon, Ms. Fadl explained her decision to return, despite the risks.

She was tired of being on the run, she said, and of the “humiliation” brought on by displacement, like waiting in line for water to perform the ritual washing before the five daily Islamic prayers. Now, although her family was struggling to get by — they lacked even warm clothes to brave the chilly nights — they felt a sense of purpose.

“They keep killing us,” she said. “But we are one people and we can live together.”

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