Amna Daoud Morsal has worked in Nyala’s main market for decades. At 55, she has developed a well-established market stall in Sudan’s third largest city – a city whose name means the “place of chatting” in the local Daju language. But few have time to chat when the sun starts to set, despite a challenging economy where Amna struggles with less and less customers, she must pack her wares hurriedly and rush home. “Ten years ago, you could walk around Nyala till morning time and nobody would ask you anything, there was no danger, no one to steal your things –the situation was safe but now, when the sun is setting, you cannot set foot inside Nyala,” Amna Daoud told Ayin.
Nyala, like most of the towns and villages in Darfur, have struggled with the presence of pro-government militias for decades, but the heaviest presence to date has been the Rapid Support Force. “To live in any area controlled by the RSF (Rapid Support Forces), Nyala included, is to live in a constant state of fear,” says Nyala resident Abu Al-Bashir Adam. Anything could happen while working in the market, Daoud says, “Even daytime is dangerous, they [RSF] start fights with people, steal money and mobile phones, and if you try to say this is wrong they can shoot you.”
More RSF than ever
Nyala residents have grown accustomed to the heavy presence of the RSF militia –but now even more have trickled in since the revolution started last December calling for civilian rule. Nyala residents believe the additional RSF forces came in an effort to consolidate power and ensure authority during this political transition period.
The deputy head of the military council, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka “Himmedti”) leads the RSF which until recently took direct orders from former president Omar al-Bashir, terrorizing citizenry and rebels alike in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile States.
“Himmedti and his gang [the RSF] have always had a presence in Nyala,” said Ahmed Abdallah* a recent university graduate living in Nyala. “But once the revolution started and people called for civilian rule –they started to be deployed in all public areas across the state.” As one of the main recruiting areas, Nyala hosts ten RSF training camps alone. But it’s not only Nyala. “It’s true that the RSF increased dramatically recently, with the idea to show power and control,” a UN worker based in West Darfur State’s capital city, El Geneina, told Ayin. “Now they drive around here at high speeds, if you don’t get out of their way, you’ll be beaten. As a woman, after 7 pm, there is no way I can walk the streets.”
The RSF have always had a heavy, deadly presence in Darfur to date. According to the 2017 UN Panel of Experts report the RSF militia are the main perpetrators of abuses against civilians in Darfur including looting, rapes and torching of homes. An Amnesty International June report says they have satellite imagery and testimonials that show the RSF and other government forces continue to commit war crimes and human rights violations in Darfur –including the partial or complete destruction of 45 villages, unlawful killings, and sexual violence. “In Darfur, as in Khartoum, we’ve witnessed the Rapid Support Forces’ despicable brutality against Sudanese civilians – the only difference being, in Darfur they have committed atrocities with impunity for years,” stated Amnesty Secretary General Kumi Naidoo.
Kidnapped, tortured and thrown in jail: my 70 days in Sudan https://t.co/98J74zkHHG
— The Guardian (@guardian) April 5, 2017
A convenient black hole
The RSF have enjoyed total impunity for years in Darfur partly due to the ousting of international NGOs and local and foreign journalists effectively banned from the region. Phil Cox, a photojournalist and filmmaker, is possibly one of the last foreigners to venture into Darfur in December 2016 when RSF forces kidnapped, tortured and jailed Cox and his colleague Daoud Hari for 70 days. At the time, the Sudanese government issued a massive bounty for their capture, indicative of their deep determination to keep the world’s eyes away from Darfur and what future investigations might reveal, Cox told Ayin. “Darfur has gone from being the focus of global attention and international condemnation that mobilized activists, celebrities and world leaders alike, to a forgotten conflict smothered by an information black hole,” Cox said. “No media team or investigators have had independent access there for years –yet rumours of atrocities and ethnic cleansing have persisted.”
The law = RSF
Darfur Bar Association lawyer, Abdel-Basset Al-Hajj, says the RSF enjoy “official immunity” and no accountability for their actions. “The RSF have no legal justifications to carry out law enforcement, arrest, imprisonment –they enjoy being the police, prosecutor and judge all in one,” Al-Hajj told Ayin. While they enjoy these powers, Al-Hajj said, they carry out these duties with no recourse to the law or training. “They don’t know how to investigate a crime, they simply rely on torture and somehow think this is the rule of law.”
In July 2017, the RSF raided Nyala’s second largest police station in the Al-Masan’i neighbourhood with four heavily armed Land Cruisers, threatening the police officer in charge of the station to leave within 48 hours, according to a police officer from the station preferring anonymity for his security. The RSF order to evacuate the station was made on the pretext that Himmedti purchased the land where the police station was based. A lawyer working for the local land registry who also requested anonymity for security reasons, said the land allegedly purchased by the RSF leader was government-owned property. Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Hamden Daglo did not present any documents regarding the purchase, the lawyer said, and suspect the RSF leader seized the land by force.
Nyala-based Police Officer Ali Osman* remembers the raid well. “Of course it was not legal but nobody from the local government can talk to them, they may shoot you,” the officer said. Well-equipped and paid salaries five times that of a regular Nyala police officer, Officer Osman told Ayin he is powerless to stop them whenever they steal from the public. “I can’t do anything –those people are outside the law and can kill me.”
El Geneina, Daein
Since the revolution started, the RSF also increased their presence in other Darfur capitals cities such as El Geneina and Daein in West and East Darfur, respectfully -targeting and terrorising civilians with the same impunity. There are roughly 200 RSF armed four-wheel drive vehicles (commonly referred to as ‘technicals’) patrolling West Darfur State, lawyer and El-Geneina resident Ibrahim Shamou told Ayin. “They have made the security situation more precarious here,” Shamou said, “crime, murder and theft have increased –[it’s] a state of terror and chaos.” Even farmers outside the city are not safe from the RSF, the lawyer said. With no one to protect them while working in the fields, RSF have been looting farmers of livestock and money since June.
RSF have arrested local government members in Daein during the state of emergency imposed by the former president back in February with no real recourse to the law, according to Daein resident Maala Awad al-Karim. RSF have also imprisoned a large number of citizens arbitrarily, al-Karim adds, some of which still remain there since February. Many people have ran away from Daein and have attempted to eke out a living in outside villages to avoid the RSF, according to Daein resident and lawyer Mohamed Abdallah. “These militias don’t follow any rule of law,” Abdallah added, “even the courts look at them like people who took the authority of the court without any permission.”
RSF as a regional force
While the RSF have increased their presence in the Darfur region, there are signs the militia could become more of a regional force. According to Officer Osman, RSF are already recruiting from outside Sudan, particularly via Chad and receive Sudanese identity cards in Nyala. Osman said he could identify them as foreigners from their features and the fact they do not speak Arabic. “We must remember RSF is a tribal militia and Himmedti has influence with his ethnic extensions in bordering countries like Chad where they are coming from,” Osman said. Well funded by exploiting Darfur gold reserves independently of the state and as a parallel budget, the RSF are well placed to become regional mercenaries in East and Central Africa, Nyala lawyer Al-Hajj told Ayin. The RSF can “carry out criminal acts internally and externally,” Al-Hajj said, “and will provide those with interests with all the necessary components to continue and control the reins of the state.”
Future of RSF, future of Sudan
The question still remains if the RSF will continue to control large swathes of the country and whether this influence will expand further both nationally and cross borders during the transitional period. The Transitional Military Council’s deputy leader Himmedti will, after all, likely be part of the ruling sovereign council during this stage. A constitutional declaration agreed upon by the Military Council and opposition on Sunday also ensures the sovereign council to be lead by a military general for the first 21 months of the transitional period. Nevertheless, the parties also agreed that sovereign council members would not be immune to prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to the recently penned constitutional declaration, the RSF are meant to be under the command of the Sudanese army and stipulated that citizen’s rights are to be free from arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment. There are signs of more accountability within the RSF ranks –military authorities allegedly detained and dismissed nine RSF soldiers last week, implicated in the killing of six protestors in El Obeid. But the fact that security forces killed four more protestors in Omdurman just a day prior to the prosecution of the RSF soldiers hardly imbibes confidence for reform within Sudan’s security sector and the RSF militia in particular.
While much-needed RSF reforms may not emerge from the political negotiation process-taking place in Khartoum, the people of Nyala may induce change themselves. Despite the daily intimidation by RSF forces, Nyala residents conducted three separate demonstrations last month to condemn the ongoing detention of Nyala citizens, the attack on protestors in El Obeid, in solidarity with rape survivors across the country and to call for the revival of independent trade unions. “We don’t know what will happen in Khartoum,” said one Nyala activist, “but we will continue to struggle here no matter the outcome.”
* Names changed to protect their security