Bullets collected from the ground in Rounyn in North Darfur. This was in 2011. Sadly, the situation has not improved. UN Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED
19 Jan 2024

A plea for Darfur

Young men are forced to join the war. Young women are raped and abducted. War crimes on an unthinkable scale are taking place without the world even raising an eyebrow. Musa Abdul-Jalil urges the international community to turn its eyes towards Darfur.

Professor Musa Abdul-Jalil is Director of the Peace Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Khartoum. With PRI being one of our long-standing partners in the Sudan-Norway Academic cooperation (SNAC) we have met and talked many times over the years. Always in Khartoum, and always in a setting with room for both academic discussions and informal conversations about Sudan and Darfur, the immense region in the West of Sudan that he comes from and where many of his family members still live. But things have changed. Last time we met, in early October, it was in Cairo where he is currently a guest researcher at CEDEJ. The war has forced him to stay away from his country, like so many of his colleagues not only at the University of Khartoum, but also from our partner universities in other parts of Sudan. Nyala University in Darfur has been one of the regional partners in the SNAC project. But Nyala is burnt, looted and is completely ravaged by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and bombed by Sudan’s army at the same time. The same goes for Dilling in South Kordofan and the university there where SLA-North has also joined the fight.

The war in Sudan makes it into all conversations we have during our meetings in Cairo. How can it not, when it is always there in the back of your mind? During lunch at CEDEJ, Abdul-Jalil mentions that he has not heard back from his brother in Khartoum for several days. His brother insisted that he would go back to Abdul-Jalil’s house in Abuseid neighborhood in Omdurman to try to salvage his two cars and other belongings.

-I told him not to go, that it wasn’t worth risking his life. But he was sure he could make it, he says.

Darfurians have lived with violence and conflict for over 20 years. They have developed a resilience against the feeling of fright. But the April 15 war has wreaked havoc and terror once again. The immense region in the far western part of Sudan is now largely controlled by soldiers from  RSF.

The most pessimistic commentators are concerned Sudan might not survive this war and come out as a unified country. Except for El-Fasher (the headquarters of North Darfur State) the rest of Darfur has fallen into the hands of RSF. People have been asked to accept that the RSF are now the de facto state authority in the area or simply leave.

A people revictimized
According to a recent UN-OCHA statement, more than 7.3 million people have been displaced inside and outside Sudan since fighting broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and RSF on 15 April 2023. With nearly 25 million people in need of aid, Sudan is facing a humanitarian tragedy. Sudan now has the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the entire world. About 2.5 million IDPs live in camps scattered all over Darfur. Since early October conditions in Darfur have just been getting worse. The situation is worsening by the hour, with reports of terrible human rights violations taking place. Yet, the world seems to have turned its back on the suffering of the people there.

-The stories from Darfur have not been listened to. Khartoum has had the stronger voice in this war, says Abdul-Jalil.

Yet, when it comes to Ukraine and Gaza, there is an overwhelming sense that the Sudanese people are all invisible to international news media and the international community at large. Which seems illogical, given that the suffering and loss of lives is no less. But logic has nothing to do with war or the level of suffering, nor the attention any given crisis or war is given.

The people of Darfur know this first-hand, and the seeming indifference from the outside world is enhancing a feeling of abandonment according to Abdul-Jaili. The region has been prone to violence and conflict ever since 2003, when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups took up arms against the government. The Sudanese government launched a counterattack, and hundreds of thousands were killed and even more forced to flee in the fighting that followed. Prolonged rounds of negotiations followed, and two peace agreements were signed in Abuja, Nigeria (2006) and Doha Qatar (2011). But the relative and largely unfulfilled peace did not give the people of Darfur much breathing space. With the April 15 war taking a heavy toll on Darfur, people are reliving their worst nightmares.

-Some of them are entering a new level of victimization, says Abdul-Jalil.

The fighting shows signs of having turned into ethnic cleansing, especially in West Darfur where militias raid and loot towns and villages and kill entire families. RSF is now closing in on El-Fasher, Darfur’s biggest city and the last one to still be under control of SAF and the Darfur armed movements that signed the Juba peace agreement in 2020. 

A war within the war
The situation in Darfur is complex, with several groups fighting. Not only SAF and RSF, but also the Joint Protection Forces constituted of by the aforementioned Darfur armed movements that took it upon themselves to provide security in the region after the UN-African Union peacekeeping forces left in 2021 – are now involved, especially in North Darfur. The fact that some RSF related tribal groups (notably the Habbania and Salamat) in South Darfur have also started fighting in between themselves shows how volatile the situation is.

-It is a war within a war, says Abdul-Jalil. Given the fact that ethnic identification and allegiance are high in Sudan there is a real chance that this war will take the country in the path of civil war with the consequent fragmentation of the state. Contrary to the perception of many Sudanese from central Sudan, Darfur itself is not one ethnic block. The fragmentation of Darfur may even precede that of the rest of Sudan, he says.

Uprooting families
At dinner the evening before I left Cairo, I asked him if he had heard back from his brother. It was with great relief he replied yes. Luckily, he had managed to move the cars to an open square near the strong army garrison in Almuhandiseen near Alfitaihab bridge.

But a lot of time has passed since early October. By now, it is hard to tell if anyone still living in Darfur is safe. The experiences of Abdul-Jalil’s closest relatives illustrate how dramatically life has changed for the people not only of Darfur, but for everyone. They have been uprooted. His younger brother who lives in Nyala traveled to Khartoum when the RSF took over the city to join his wife and kids in Omdurman. A month later he moved back to Nyala to see what was left of his house and business. His sister who lives in Kutum (North Darfur) has been forced to move for the third time now.

-My sister and my elderly mother sought refuge in the nearby Kutum town when our village was ravaged in 2003. When the April 15 war started Kutum was shattered by RSF, and she had to relocate to El-Fasher joining my younger sister who has been taking care of our mother for the last three years. When RSF threatened to enter El-Fasher three weeks ago, many civilians left the town and took refuge in villages in the surrounding rural areas. My mother and my two sisters had to relocate to our natal village outside Kutum town, completing a full circle, says Abdul-Jalil.

Ironically, RSF is controlling these areas, but they have made a local peace agreement which seems to be holding up, at least until now.

- I am told that no violent incidents have been reported during the past few weeks. Peace agreements work well, it seems, when politicians do not interfere. The ongoing war is a stark reminder of the failure of the Sudanese political elite to further the cause of peace and stability in the country, says Abdul-Jalil.