When you enter El Geneina Secondary School for Girls on a school day you will see anything but students. The normally lively school in West Darfur, Sudan, has a more sombre air these days. Cooking pots pour smoke into the windows, salvaged livestock pick at shreds of grass around the compound and families squat, listless, in the classrooms.
The conflict-displaced Darfur people are displaced again, this time with no Internally Displaced Persons [IDP] Camps to return to. Just before the new-year in the evening of 28 December, members of the paramilitary militia, the Rapid Support Force [RSF] and related family members launched an attack targeting Kerending IDP Camp. The fighting was purportedly linked to several inter-ethnic disputes, including the killing of one youth from the Arab pastoralist community by a youth from an African tribe. The victim’s family from the pastoralist community gathered with more than 24 4X4 vehicles and raided Kerending Camp, burning a market to the ground, according to eyewitnesses.
The following day, early in the morning, RSF members convened at the former governor’s headquarters in Geneina town under the direction of the West Darfur RSF commander, Colonel Musa Hamid Ambello. “First we remove Rugu Rugu Market and we catch the people who committed this crime and we kill them. We do this in 24 hours,” announced Ambello’s personal lawyer, Salah El Nur Al Dawi, to the crowd. “We will remove every IDP camp!” RSF members within the crowd can be heard chanting in exclusive footage of the meeting. As directed, IDPs reported seeing over 200 vehicles owned by the RSF raid the camp, eventually destroying and looting two IDP camps, Kerending Camps 1 and 2 along with neighbouring villages.
Local authorities did not take any actions to protect civilians, eyewitnesses told Ayin. The whole region devolved into a street war with gunfire on going for a total of three consecutive days. “We have not seen this kind of violence, guns shooting everywhere […] it was like the worst days of the conflict in Darfur all over again,” said Ishag Ahmed Mater, one of the displaced from Kerending Camp, now residing in Geneina town.
The attacks by the armed group took place in the town as well as the camps. “I was shot twice in front of the campus dorms at the University of Geneina, in the front main entrance,” said first-year university student Muhadeen Abul Gasim. “In the morning I went to the University to attend the first lecture. When I returned back to the dorm, suddenly armed men came and shot us –no tear gas, just shot us with live bullets for no apparent reason.” Fellow students carried Muhadeen Abdul to hospital to treat two bullet wounds in his leg.
Humanitarian crisis – half still in need
The International Organization for Migration estimates the attack displaced 41,672 people, including 5,500 that crossed over the border in to neighbouring Chad. The UN says 2,303 homes were burnt down within the camps and 801 looted. So far, the World Food Programme has delivered food and nutrition assistance to 22 locations where the displaced people are currently taking shelter. WFP managed to deliver 111 metric tons of food aid, enough to feed around 24,500 people for 15 days. The challenge is in the numbers. There are now 44 temporary shelters for the IDPs and the UN agency has been able to reach roughly half the displaced population.
“So far the response of international organisations is weak and does not meet the needs of half the number, despite their efforts and [those of] volunteers in the emergency rooms,” says Faisal Salah Abdullah, an activist and volunteer aid worker in Geneina. “We appeal to humanitarian organisations to come as quickly as possible, since the possibility of IDPs returning from where they came is not possible due to the presence and cause of their displacement – the militias.” Faisal Salah is helping mobilise convoys of supplies from local volunteers to provide ready-made meals and cooking facilities for the 44 displacement shelters.
The Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation said they have enough medical stock to support those in need, but gaps in healthcare provisions for children under five years exist. While medical supplies may be sufficient to treat injuries, El Geneina Hospital is still severely under-stocked in basic medicines such as anti-malarial treatments, Dr. Yusuf Omar Adam told Ayin. “Besides this, we are also lacking medical personnel,” Dr. Yusuf Omar said, “the displaced are everywhere and it needs many more medical actors to reach them.” Cramped living conditions and limited access to safe water is starting to take its toll, according to Dr Hoda Atta, acting Sudan WHO representative. “The risk of vector and waterborne infectious diseases is spreading is high,” Dr Atta said, “Immunization remains a gap that needs to be urgently addressed.”
There are over 10,000 displaced women in need of sexual and reproductive health services, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported, expecting around 119 women to give birth last month. But finding a safe place for deliveries remain few and far between. No one feels safe enough to return, IDPs told Ayin.
“Up to now, no one from the 44 centres sheltering those who fled the violence have returned,” says teacher Osam Bushara. “They have announced they are not going to return until certain conditions are met, including those who attacked them to be held accountable.” IDP camp and religious leaders for the displaced demanded on 20 January that the RSF leave Geneina and their huge arsenal of weapons be collected –a tall order that may be challenging to implement given the RSF’s influence in the region.
Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Saleh said in a press conference that the Attorney General had formed an investigative committee to hold those responsible for the violence culpable. But holding an armed militia who can seemingly act with impunity is no easy feat, Bushara said. “The government did nothing, they were aware and knew what was happening –you have the police force there, even with arms, but they fear these militias.” Saleh attributed the escalation of violence during the same press conference to the politicisation of the tribes in Darfur, along with the ease of spreading weapons.
Local Geneina residents believe the fighting cannot be simply labelled a tribal dispute and suspect members of the former ruling party, the National Congress Party, may be behind the violence. “How can this incident simply be considered a tribal problem?” queries local activist Ibrahim Shomo. “There is no tribe possessing such weapons and bullets to continue attacking the camps for more than 13 hours with continuous shooting. I have no doubt that politicians have a role in provoking the situation in Darfur in order to achieve the agenda of the military to rule the state.”
More than simply a tribal flare up
The El Geneina Crisis Committee was formed after the violence by local volunteers and accuses the local West Darfur government of complicity in the attacks. The Committee called the events in El Geneina “no ordinary clashes,” but described them as a planned scheme to block “the road to a peace agreement and peaceful coexistence among the people living in the state.” So far a government committee set up to investigate the violence in Geneina, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and the Darfur Bar Association have all concluded that the event was political in nature and not, as some have characterised it, a tribal rift whereby one side vastly out-gunned the other.
One potential motive central to the Darfur conflict may be land. According to the king of the Masalit tribe, Assad Sultan, the RSF attacked the Kerending IDP camps with intensity to clear the land for themselves. The camps are located on choice land neighbouring Geneina town, a river and the airport that the RSF believe traditionally belongs to them, he added. In fact, the Arabic pastoralist community resides directly next to where the Kerending Camps are based.
A traditional Arab leader who requested anonymity for his own security told Ayin they had made a request to the local government to remove the IDPs from the area since the land, in his view, originally belonged to his community. Indeed, one of the main demands to the state government by the Maharia family whose son was killed was the transfer of Kerending Camp to another location, the independent Sudanese news site Darfur24 reported. So far, however, the Kerending Camp area remains deserted while the displaced IDPs remain huddled together in makeshift shelters.
The atmosphere remains tense. On 20 January, rumours emerged that a mass demonstration would take place to protest the local government’s handling of the situation. Security forces were deployed across the region, even armoured vehicles and tanks were seen on the roads and outside government institutions, eyewitnesses said, but no demonstration occurred. Authorities relieved the former West Darfur Governor, Major-General Abdel Khaleq Badawi of his position whom they accused of complicity in the attack, with his successor, Major-General Rabie Abdullah Abduallah. But this has done little to restore confidence amongst the IDPs. The newly appointed governor attempted to pay condolences to some of the displaced at one of the temporary shelters –but the IDPs attempted to attack the government delegation after seeing the RSF leader Col. Musa Hamid accompany the state actors, news reports said.
But something must be done. The IDPs are wary of future insecurity and remain displaced, scattered across the area while the humanitarian needs are growing. “If they expect us to go back, they can think again,” Ahmed Mater said, “we have seen all of this before.”