Opinion | Death and Displacement Return to Darfur

ADRE, Chad — The janjaweed are back.

The Arab militiamen who some call by that fearsome name — a term that loosely translates as “devils on horseback” — stopped Adam Abakar Mahmoud and his cousin Siddig Abdulrahman at a checkpoint on the perilous road to Chad earlier this month. They were in a truck fleeing fierce attacks in El Geneina, a city in Sudan’s Darfur region, by militiamen just like these.

The Arab fighters ordered Adam and Siddig, the only two men in a truck otherwise full of women and children, to get out of the car. It was the moment both had feared. The militiamen demanded to know their ethnic background.

Siddig, the fairer skinned of the two, thought fast and named a small tribe that spoke only Arabic, not a regional dialect. Adam tried a similar trick, Siddig told me. But his darker skin and accent betrayed him.

“No. You are Masalit,” the gunman shouted back at him, correctly identifying his ethnic origin. The fighter ordered him to the ground.

First came the blow from the butt of a rifle, smashing into the back of his head. Adam toppled to the ground, stunned, then scrambled back to his feet. “Why are you trying to escape,” the gunman demanded. “You must stay here and die!”

He aimed at his rifle at Adam and pulled the trigger twice.

Adam crumpled to the ground, blood pouring from his face and arm. The gunmen hopped back into their truck and sped away, leaving him for dead.

As I wrote last month, since April Sudan has been wracked by a wave of horrific violence between forces loyal to the two men, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his former deputy, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, who four years ago helped depose the nation’s longtime dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The savage fighting first erupted in the country’s capital, Khartoum, but has since spread to unlucky Darfur, hundreds of miles away. About 2.5 million Sudanese have fled their homes, and at least 1,000 people have been killed. The violence has raised the specter of a civil war that could engulf a region spanning some of the most volatile parts of Africa and the Middle East.

The stakes in Sudan were already high, but they have grown still higher in recent days as diplomatic efforts by a range of actors have foundered, unable to break a deadlock between the generals. Much attention to date has centered on Khartoum, where street fighting has left civilians caught in crossfire between combatants. But a new and equally deadly front is opening in Darfur.

This month I traveled the borderlands between Sudan and Chad to try to understand how the crisis has ricocheted into this new bloodletting. It was not my first time in the region, nor the first time I had witnessed terrible violence there. As a young foreign correspondent in Africa in the 2000s I spent a great deal of time documenting the attacks of government-backed Arab militias on Black civilians in Darfur, interviewing victims of war crimes and the militia leaders accused of committing those crimes. That conflict sent hundreds of thousands of Black African refugees spilling into Chad, running from the militiamen they called the janjaweed.

Back then, refugees from Black tribes told me the same story over and over again: Militiamen largely drawn from local Arab tribes had surrounded their villages, raped women and girls, gunned down men and boys and torched homes and crops, a cycle of ethnic cleansing that many have called the 21st century’s first genocide.

Now, in interviews in makeshift refugee camps strung along the border I heard story after story that echoed that brutal past. “What we are seeing now is an attempt to exterminate my people,” Mogeib Al Rhaman Mohammed Yagoub Rezig, a Masalit community leader, told me. “We are headed for another genocide in Darfur. The world must act.”

The conflict has reached a new pitch with the assassination of the governor of West Darfur, apparently at the hands of Arab militiamen on June 14. He had just given an interview to a Saudi Arabian television channel denouncing the violence in Darfur as genocide. I was told that other civic leaders, lawyers and activists have been targeted for assassination as well. People fleeing El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, have reported seeing bodies strewn on the city streets, including those of women and children.

In remarks on Monday, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said “targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnic identities could amount to crimes against humanity.”

As the violence spreads and takes on a familiar and frightening sectarian character, there are growing fears that Sudan could collapse into anarchy and warlordism. “The stakes here are one of the biggest state collapses in recent history,” said Murithi Mutiga, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. “It’s a country at the crossroads of so many parts of the world which are already troubled.”

The roots of the conflict run deep, right into the bedrock of modern Sudan, which was created almost 70 years ago by foreign rulers, who cobbled together a nation from far-flung and ethnically diverse regions that made little sense as a single, centralized state. It included the swampy south, which was populated by dark-skinned Christian and animist peoples who had more in common with neighboring countries like what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, and the Darfur region, which was populated by a mix of Muslim tribes. Darfur was loosely and sometimes imprecisely divided between Black and Arab communities, many of whom had deeper ties with the Sahelian peoples of Chad and Niger. This jigsaw nation has since been ruled by an Arab elite drawn from tribes along the Blue and White Nile Rivers near Khartoum — an elite that the British favored, and that under both military and civilian rule, has resisted giving power to local authorities, instead collecting hefty taxes and sending almost nothing in return.

These ill-fitting parts have formed a kind of booby trap, plunging Sudan into cycles of violent strife. Rebels in the south fought two civil wars against the Khartoum government. At least two million people died in those wars. The region seceded by referendum in 2011, becoming the Republic of South Sudan, generally considered the most recent widely recognized nation on Earth.

Like their southern countrymates, armed groups made up primarily of Black African rebels rose up in Darfur in 2003, demanding greater autonomy and a share of the nation’s wealth. The government in Khartoum responded as it always has. Rather than negotiate or even fight the rebels on the ground with its own troops, it supplied weapons to Arab militias in the region, giving them free rein to terrorize rebels and civilians alike. Hundreds of thousands of people would die in that war; millions would flee their homes. Twenty years later, many of them are still in camps inside Sudan and in Chad. Ultimately Sudan’s president, al-Bashir, would be charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court for his role in the slaughter.

But the very Arab militias on which al-Bashir relied to wage a “counterinsurgency on the cheap,” in the words of the Sudan scholar Alex de Waal, that proved to be his undoing. Al-Bashir folded these militias into the armed forces as a new paramilitary called the Rapid Support Forces and placed a Darfuri Arab leader, Mohamed Hamdan, also known as Hemeti, in charge of it. When a powerful civilian protest movement rose up against al-Bashir in 2019, Hemeti and the army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, joined forces to topple and arrest al-Bashir.

But any hope of re-establishing democratic government in Sudan was quickly dashed when the military massacred protesting civilians and pushed out a fragile transitional civilian government in a coup. Now, the two generals who overthrew al-Bashir have turned their guns on each other, with the Sudanese people caught between them.

Hemeti has become a powerful regional warlord, who reportedly controls gold mining interests in Sudan and a lucrative trade in mercenaries whose clients include Russia’s Wagner Group. He has deep ties to Arab militias that have remained active in Darfur, and they have seized the opportunity provided by the conflict to settle scores and grab land, animals and other property from African tribes in the region, witnesses and analysts told me. Indeed, the line between tribal militia and the Rapid Support Forces is often hard to determine: Many people told me that men bearing the insignia of Hemeti’s troops were among their attackers.

These militias are rampaging through West Darfur, killing with impunity. More than 100,000 Darfuris, most of them Masalit, have poured across the Chadian border, according to Doctors Without Borders. Talking to those who have fled, it is not hard to understand why.

In one such camp I met a woman named Salma Malick Adam. She is 27 years old and most of her short life has been shaped by bloodshed and chaos. When the Darfur crisis first began in 2003, she remembers being chased as a child from her hometown, Mistariha, by a marauding band of janjaweed fighters. Though her family soon returned, the conflict in Darfur never truly ended, and a new wave of violence again pushed them out of Mistariha in 2020. They abandoned their fields of sorghum and peanuts to live in a displaced persons camp in El Geneina.

Even there, safety proved elusive. In April, militiamen attacked the camp. “These men, they loot, they kill, they torture, they burn,” Salma told me. The family moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, trying to stay ahead of the fighting. But soon, nowhere in El Geneina was safe and they fled once again. The road to the Chadian border was thick with militiamen who extracted bribes from Black civilians like Salma’s family.

“All of our savings we paid on the road to get here safely,” she told me. “This is all we have left.” She swept her arm across the bare plastic mat where she and her sisters sat under the cruel blaze of a June afternoon. Salma had started to build a makeshift shelter out of sticks, leaves and a tarp in preparation for the fast-approaching rain. “We cannot sleep in the rain,” Salma said. “Even if no one comes to help us, we will help ourselves.”

The prospects for a near-term end to this brutal conflict seem bleak. Saudi Arabia and the United States tried to facilitate talks between the combatants aimed at securing a durable cease-fire and allowing for the provision of humanitarian aid. But the talks fell apart, and there has been little progress since. A 72-hour cease-fire that was supposed to begin on June 18 was almost immediately broken in Darfur.

Sudanese leaders told me that they have grown increasingly frustrated by the failure of the United States to name a high-level envoy with close ties to the president, as it has in past crises in Sudan. Meanwhile the civilian groups that led to the toppling of the al-Bashir regime say they have been largely sidelined amid negotiations between the deadlocked generals. “The big powers keep trying to tell us there is a dichotomy between stability and democracy,” Amjed Farid, a former official in the transitional civilian administration, told me. “But there is nothing that can bring stability to any country — especially this country — other than democracy and civilian rule.”

And so, the bloodshed continues.

The fighters who shot Adam Abakar Mahmoud on the road to Chad thought they had added him to Darfur’s growing body count. But his cousin Siddig gathered up Adam’s limp, bleeding body and put him in the back of their truck. “We drove so fast, and I paid so many bribes along the road,” Siddig told me. “Finally, we made it to the border.”

At the hospital in Adre, surgeons were able to save Adam’s life. He was lucky: The bullets had passed through his nose and cheek, shattering a tooth but hitting no vital organs. The wound in his arm was nasty, but it would heal. “I thought I was going to die,” Adam told me from his hospital bed.

Adam will survive. But Sudan itself is in critical condition. This crisis is decades in the making, and there are no easy answers. But the past few years offer a clear lesson: There is no path to peace and stability in Sudan that depends on the temporary benevolence of generals and warlords. The heroic civilians who took to the streets in 2019 to end three decades of military rule — however temporarily — offer the nation’s only hope of a peaceful future. They deserve the support of free people everywhere.

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Lydia Polgreen has been a New York Times Opinion columnist since 2022. She spent a decade as a correspondent for The Times in Africa and Asia, winning Polk and Livingston Awards for her coverage of ethnic cleansing in Darfur and resource conflicts in West Africa. She also served as editor in chief of HuffPost. @lpolgreen

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