By Eric Reeves
March 1, 2014 - There have in the past been various tendentious claims made about "peace" slowly settling over Darfur, about the end of the terrible predations of 2002 – 2005, about a status quo having settled over the region, if perhaps rather grim. But this has never been the case, violence never ceased, and has accelerated rapidly over the past two years and more. One need only ask the relentlessly bombed people of Jebel Marra, or the tens of thousands of victims of rape, or those who have been killed trying to return to their lands, or children dying for lack of medicine because of restrictions on aid access. Inevitably, the emphasis has shifted to the problems of security for displaced persons, and the millions in need of humanitarian assistance. But the violence continues
As a direct consequence, the space for relief aid has steadily contracted, and the danger is so great that personnel from many organizations, including those of the UN, rarely leave the capital cities of Nyala, el-Fasher, and el-Geneina. Capacity is so stretched that the UN’s World Food Program has been obliged to hire food traders to distribute food in a number of camps, a development that has left displaced Darfuris furious. Camps housing over 2 million people are dangerously at risk of extortion, violent attacks, and arson. Disease, malnutrition, and death are constants. While the UN has released figures showing that the rate of Chronic Malnutrition among the Children of Darfur is approximately 40 percent, they have so far refused to release the more telling figures for Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) and Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) (see February 10, 2014 analysis at http://wp.me/p45rOG-1aK). Most children with SAM will die without medical and nutritional intervention.
The UN peacekeeping force UNAMID (UN/African Union Mission in Darfur) continues to fail abysmally in taking on its mandate of civilian and humanitarian protection mandate, and indeed is increasingly unable to protect itself: more than fifty troops and personnel have been murdered since the force took up its mandate. A recent report by a re-vitalized UN Panel of Experts on Darfur, based on highly detailed investigations of the deadly ambushes, found clear and compelling evidence that the attacks on Khor Abeche and Muhajeriya were carried out by regime-allied militias, using weapons provided by Khartoum:
A United Nations committee that is tasked with monitoring compliance with Sudan-related sanctions has pointed fingers at Khartoum for attacks that took place on African Union-United Nations peacekeepers in Darfur (UNAMID) in the towns of Muhajiriya and Khor Abeche last year. "Janjaweed groups almost certainly played a leading role in the most prominent attacks against UNAMID (in Khor Abeche on 13 July 2013 and in Muhajeriya on 18/19 April 2013); the attackers fit the profile of some well-known Janjaweed elements. These groups have also been behind violent crimes against internally displaced persons, tribes and even, in some instances, the Government itself," reads the report prepared by the UN Panel of Experts on the Sudan established pursuant to resolution 1591 and transmitted to UN Security Council this week. (Sudan Tribune, February 16, 2014; http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article49984)
Earlier attacks have also clearly been carried out by these same brutal militias at Khartoum’s behest, including the deadly attack on a large UNAMID convoy near Hashaba, North Darfur (see "Violence in Hashaba, North Darfur: A brutal portent, another UN disgrace," 30 October 2012 at http://wp.me/p45rOG-UR). The evidence of militia involvement has in fact long been substantial, but the UN prefers not to offend Khartoum with accusations, despite Ban Ki-moon’s repeated, if perfunctory, demands that investigations be carried out and perpetrators brought to justice. To date not a single arrest has been made for any of the fatal attacks on UN-authorized forces. (See "Killing UN Peacekeepers: A Ruthless Proclivity of Khartoum’s SAF, Militia Proxies," 9 May 2013; http://wp.me/p45rOG-11S)
The relentless, massively destructive bombing campaign against civilian targets—in violation of international law and UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (March 2005)—is reported almost exclusively by Radio Dabanga. UNAMID has neither the will nor the access to investigate what are virtually daily war crimes, as defined by the Rome Treaty that serves as the statutory basis for the International Criminal Court. Indeed, for decades the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime has been able to engage in the deliberate bombing of civilians, civilian targets, as well as international relief operations—with complete impunity. It is is a measure of how skewed international priorities are that Syrian bombing attacks against civilians, the focus of so much news and diplomatic attention, pale in number and consequence compared with Khartoum’s conduct of aerial warfare in greater Sudan over the past 25 years (see "’They Bombed Everything that Moved’: Aerial military attacks on civilians and humanitarians in Sudan, 1999 – 2013," http://www.sudanbombing.org/).
At the same time, Khartoum continues to harass, obstruct, intimidate, and expel non-Sudanese humanitarian organizations, even as all data for many years have shown that the regime is quite unwilling to meet the most basic needs of the people of Sudan’s peripheral and marginalized areas. Khartoum’s recent shutdown of the International Committee of the Red Cross—an outrage that has received far too little news attention—was in the end little more than another extortion scheme, meant to divert the ICRC’s funds to the Sudanese Red Crescent, an exceedingly poor idea and a disastrous precedent (see "Khartoum’s Suspension of Activities by the International Committee of the Red Cross," February 1, 2014 at http://wp.me/p45rOG-1aH). Here we should recall the massive "asset stripping" Khartoum engaged in during the March 2009 expulsions of thirteen of the world’s finest relief organizations from Darfur. The money went, of course, to the regime itself and its political cronies. Many tens of millions of dollars desperately needed for other humanitarian crises around the world were quite simply extorted.
Agence France-Presse recently obtained UN data indicating "insecurity doubled for Darfur aid groups last year." "Carjackings and robberies drove a doubling of security incidents involving foreign aid groups in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur last year, UN data show, reflecting the worsening unrest there during 2013" ([Khartoum], 5 February 2014)
The "New Janjaweed"
As if security issues for civilians and humanitarians were not already overwhelming, Khartoum has deployed a new force, reporting not to local Sudan Armed Forces commanders or political leaders, but to Khartoum—and undoubtedly to SAF Central Command and Military Intelligence. This "Rapid Response Force" grows out of President Omar al-Bashir’s declaration last November (2013)—and intimated as early as last August—that the approaching dry season would see a final crushing of rebel insurgencies in South Kordofan, Blue Nile—and Darfur. This was of course in part a response to the very serious demonstrations in various cities and towns throughout Sudan in late September and early October; hundreds of civilians protesting fuel and price hikes were killed by security forces with "shoot to kill orders. Whatever propaganda value al-Bashir’s declaration of final conquest may have had, it was of course wildly impracticable as a course of military action in the "new South Sudan." Plans for a campaign against South Kordofan and Blue Nile were quickly put on hold, in part because of the complex political and military dynamic generated in the oil regions of Unity and Upper Nile states in South Sudan, now obliging tasks of protection that commandeer considerable military resources. Production from Unity fields has already shut down, and foreign technical experts and engineers have all been withdrawn.
The even more productive oil fields of Upper Nile are also evidently in the process of shutting down. Reports are conflicting, but accounts from the ground strongly suggest the withdrawal of international technical staff, who are critical in the complex and substantial task of shutting down the oil pipeline infrastructure without damage. Notwithstanding the denial of the Government of South Sudan, the geography and military situation on the ground in this northern part of Upper Nile—Melut and Paloich—strongly favor the rebel groups (also known as the "Sudan People’s Liberation Army/In Opposition").
The economic consequences of such a shutdown, and corresponding loss of oil revenues to Khartoum, would be catastrophic for an economy that already suffers from an almost complete lack of foreign exchange currencies (Forex). Even it the status quo were somehow to hold, as oil expert Luke Patey points out in a February 4, 2014 "Tweet," Khartoum would be denied almost US$1 billion per year in revenues—a blow the northern economy, already imploding, could not withstand. High inflation (perhaps 75 percent), high unemployment, a Sudanese Pound in free-fall against the dollar, an agricultural sector that is in terminal decay, massive emigration by professionals, especially medical professionals, and acute shortages of medicines (over 50 percent of Sudanese have no access to basic medicines (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2014; http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article50075). Coupled with the lack of Forex with which to purchase food and other critical goods from abroad (including medicine), these are the ingredients of a popular uprising, and no doubt propagandizing about a "final military victory" must have seemed an irresistible temptation to a president with few other options.
[In a telling sign of the most acute economic distress, Radio Dabanga reports (February 27, 2014):
Saudi Arabia and some European banks will halt their transactions with Sudanese banks from 28 February onwards, according to economic sources in Khartoum. "Some banks in Europe and Saudi Arabia have announced suspension of their dealings with Sudanese banks," the Central Bank of Sudan stated in a press release on Wednesday.]
But in Darfur there are no such obstacles, military or economic, to the deployment of the "Rapid Response Force," and its very large presence in a number of locations portends increased fighting with rebel elements, but more consequentially, a resumption of wholesale violence against civilians. The lack of news and human rights reporters in Darfur continues to mean that we are dependent on Radio Dabanga and Sudan Tribune, almost exclusively, in gathering a current sense of what al-Bashir’s November declaration of a "final campaign" means. Coupled with the massive humanitarian shortfalls and insecurity for relief operations so diligently chronicled by Radio Dabanga, this newest instrument of genocidal destruction should be terrifying. The UN is silent.
The "Rapid Response Force" (RRF) was created to assist the military campaign in South Kordofan and Blue Nile (the RRF is also referred to as the Rapid Support Force, RSF, but I will consistently use the acronym RRF). While mobilizing in North Kordofan, the force attacked civilians, markets, and acted without restraint in an area that has seen very little of the consequences of the Darfur conflict. Having aborted the assault on the Nuba—most likely because of the many stinging defeats at the hands of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/North, and consequent loss of equipment, arms, and ammunition—Khartoum shifted gears and order the Rapid Response Force (RRF) back into Darfur, where most had originated, although Arab militia forces from a number of other countries have been consistently reported, including Chad, Niger, and Central African Republic.
Here is the thumbnail history offered by Radio Dabanga (February 24, 2014):
Radio Dabanga reported in December last year that Border Guards Commander, Mohamed Hamdan, better known as Hemeti, recruited large numbers of Darfuris to be trained as Rapid Support Forces, in order to fight along with the Sudanese army in South Kordofan. Large numbers of these militiamen were stationed in the area near El Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan. After fierce protests of the population against their assaults, they were expelled from North Kordofan mid-February. They reportedly went to North and South Darfur.
Having been sent back to Darfur, with no military mission, the RRF soon became involved in a series of attacks that have only grown, and threaten to produce violence on a greater scale than we have seen since 2003 – 2005.
The Sudan Tribune has also provided useful information, translating the Arabic term for the force as the "Rapid Support Force":
The commander of Sudanese troops known as Rapid Support Force (RSF) Maj. Gen. Abbas Abdulaziz said that troop movements in operation zones and other areas is not a mandate of the governors stressed but is under the purview of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) General Command. RSF were formed to help SAF in its military campaign which began last August through recruitment of troops from several states. Abdulaziz emphasized in an interview with pro-government Ashorooq TV that RSF are present in the field to finish up the summer plan in Darfur states to crush the rebels and then return to complete the remaining tasks assigned to it by SAF in coordination with other military divisions.
The presence of Janjaweed militias incorporated in RSF in North Kordofan state capital of El-Obeid drew widespread condemnation from residents who accused it of spreading terror. These forces were blamed earlier this month for looting commercial markets and killing of a merchant in El Obeid leading to massive protests across the city. (Sudan Tribune [Khartoum], February 26, 2014)
The purpose of the RRF was made explicit by Yahiya al-Sheikh, commander of the 20th infantry division in El Daein:
[Al-Sheikh] said the arrival of the rapid support forces would enhance efforts made towards maintaining security and stability, adding they offered a rare example for sacrifice and tenacity. Residents of North Kordofan state capital of El-Obeid said the presence of the rapid support forces have spread terror among citizens and asserted that authorities were unable to curb them. Earlier this month, the rapid support forces were accused of looting commercial markets and killing of a merchant in El-Obeid leading to massive protests across the city. (Radio Dabanga [Khartoum], February 22, 2014)
What has deployment of the Rapid Response Force meant in fact? The massive assault on civilians described today by Radio Dabanga has the typical features of the most violent phase of the genocide in Darfur, and could not be more ominous:
More than 35 villages burned to ashes, and dozens of civilians were killed in attacks by troops of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the area of Hijer Tunjo, southeast of Nyala, South Darfur, on Thursday and Friday. Thousands of villagers found refuge in camps near Nyala, thousands of others are still trapped in the desert. A sheikh who fled Hijer Tunjo told Radio Dabanga, that he, together with about 5,000 "extremely exhausted" villagers, had arrived in Kalma camp for the displaced in Nyala locality on Friday.
"At least 4,000 "Hemeti militiamen" (RSF) in Land Cruisers approached the area of Hijer at about 1.30pm on Thursday. They started to shoot, killing about 31 villagers instantly, and wounding 23 others, as far as I could count them. The real death toll is unknown, because all the people fled, leaving Hijer Tunjo village completely deserted. So far 53 names are known of the people killed in Hijer on Thursday." "Those militiamen looted the houses and set fire to them. They seized more than 20 women and girls, and raped them. The women and girls are still missing. Also there are thousands of villagers still trapped and hunted down in the desert, after they had been robbed of all their belongings, and fled. Large numbers of people sought refuge in El Salam camp in Beilel locality. Others fled to Kalma camp in Nyala locality."
"After those Rapid Support Janjaweed burned down 35 villages in the area of Hijer Tunjo on Thursday, they continued on Friday, and set fire to the villages of Um Gounja, Tani Deleiba, Tukumari, Himeida, Barka Tuli, Afouna, and other villages."
As for the reasons for the attacks, the burning of the villages, and the raping of women, the sheikh pointed to what the militiamen shouted at them when they arrived at Hijer Tunjo. "They called us Tora Bora, which means that we are supporting and sheltering the rebels." He stressed that the people of Hijer, and the villages in the neighbourhood have nothing to do with the armed movements. "There are no rebels stationed in our area." The village sheikh urged the international community to "immediately intervene and save civilians from genocide, theft of their property, the burning of villages, and forcible displacement from their villages."
The Secretary-General of Kalma camp, Dr Saleh Eisa Mohamed, told Radio Dabanga that about 5,000 people from the area of Hijer had arrived on Friday, including women and children "who are in a state of shock and in very bad health conditions." The newly displaced reported to him that about 11,000 people who fled from the burned villages were trapped by the RSF in the desert, and denied access to Nyala locality. Dr Mohamed appealed to the UN and the UN Security Council to "act as soon as possible, and start an urgent investigation into the attacks on civilians, and bring the perpetrators who committed these heinous crimes to trial." He also urged humanitarian organisations to "help out and provide emergency relief for the newly displaced who arrived at Kalma camp after losing everything they had."
In South Darfur’s capital of Nyala, multiple sources related to the opposition as well as to the government said that the attacked area is located "southeast of Nyala, starting from Hijer Tunjo in the east to Tani Deleiba in the west. It concerns a wide area belonging to Beilel locality and El Salam locality." The attacks were carried out by the RSF militias evicted from North Kordofan lately, according to the sources. "They were supported by Sudan Air Force’s fighter jets, and on the ground by government-backed militiamen on camels and horses recruited from the areas of Bulbul, Abu Ajoura, Tullus, Ed El Fursan, and Um Dawanban, as well as from places in North Darfur. [An attack eerily similar to those that defined the early years of the genocide—ER]
"Those government forces and militias already destroyed agricultural areas with vegetables and fruit at Wadi Beilel. Almost every donkey or horse cart, on its way with vegetables to Nyala, or returning from Nyala to the villages, was assaulted." The sources described the situation as "a real chaos." "There is no protection at all. Anyone with a rifle has the power to rule over the place he is in." They confirmed that a large-scale wave of newly displaced from the villages southeast of Nyala moved towards South Darfur’s capital on Thursday and Friday. (Radio Dabanga, "Thousands displaced in attack on more than 35 villages in South Darfur" [Nyala/Bielel, South Darfur], February 28, 2014)
In fact, there seems to be very little difference in the make-up of the "earlier" Janjaweed and the "Rapid Response Force," including their ethnic character. We have for many years seen Arab Janjaweed militia members recycled into the Border Guards, the Abu Tira (Central Reserve Police), the Popular Defense Forces, and even the Sudan Armed Forces. But the RRF appears to be a new, much more aggressive deployment of Arab militia forces, particularly in North Darfur and South Darfur (including areas that have been made into a factitious "East Darfur"). Certainly the response of Darfuri non-Arab civilians is unambiguous, as the attacks of today were explicitly anticipated:
The residents of the camps for the displaced in South Darfur have expressed their great fear of new and increased attacks by the so-called Rapid Support Forces, locally known as Janjaweed militias, under the command of Hemeti. A large group of the forces arrived on Sunday at Bielel locality in South Darfur. The Secretary-General of the Kalma camp for the displaced in Bielel locality, Dr Salih Eisa, told Radio Dabanga that large numbers of Rapid Support Forces arrived in Bielel locality on Sunday evening.
The gunmen, in 400 Land Cruisers mounted with Dushka machineguns and loaded with various types of light and heavy weapons, settled in the areas of Um Kurdus and Marla. Eisa noted that a large group of Rapid Support Forces in approximately 100 Land Cruisers arrived two weeks ago to the region. Since then, he said, the displaced in the South Darfur camps are living in intense fear. These militiamen have already assaulted many displaced and threatened to enter the camps. (Radio Dabanga, "Fear among South Darfur displaced as Rapid Support Forces arrive," Bielel [South Darfur], February 24, 2014)
That the new militia forces are not intimidated by local authority has been made brutally clear:
A policeman was shot dead on Monday, and four others were injured in an attack by militiamen on the police post of El Salam camp for the displaced in South Darfur.
Sheikh Mahjoub Adam Tabaldiya, sheikh of the El Salam camp, told Radio Dabanga that on Monday at about 12am "government-backed militiamen" wearing military uniforms approached the camp in two Land Cruisers mounted with Dushka machineguns. They opened fire at the police post, located in the northwestern part of the camp. One policeman died immediately, three others were wounded, as well as camp resident Abdel Rahman Abdel Moula (47). Tabaldiya added that the gunfire led to the burning of two houses and six shops at the camp market. The losses, which he described as "huge," are still to be inventoried. (Radio Dabanga, "One dead, four injured in attack on South Darfur police post" [el-Salam camp, South Darfur], February 24, 2014)
Khartoum has also recently increased military recruitment efforts as part of an attempt to end its "Darfur problem":
The Sudanese authorities are reportedly recruiting young men in Darfur. Sheikh Matar Younis, Koran scholar in Zalingei, [formerly West] Darfur, and chairman of the Young Rebels for Freedom and Democracy told Radio Dabanga that "the authorities started a new mobilisation among the citizens of South, Central, and West Darfur, in order to recruit between 4,000 to 5,000 troops."
He commented that the mobilisation contradicts with the peace posed by the Sudanese government, and demanded from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to strive for a "real peace, not a fake one." The sheikh criticised "those who talk in El Geneina, Zalingei, or El Fasher about resolving the Darfur issue," referring to the Social Peace Conferences organised by the Darfur Regional Authority. He stressed that "the real problem is the Khartoum government because it is the one that distributes arms, Land Cruisers and seduces young men to fight." (Radio Dabanga [Zalingei], February 18, 2014)
As indicated above, the presence of the RRF in Darfur began to be reported earlier this month (February 2014), and the force described is massive, comprising more than 500 Land Cruisers, heavy weaponry, and thousands of undisciplined militiamen. There can be no doubt about the purpose of the presence:
[Camp leader] Abu Sharati explained that those militiamen, known as Janjaweed, are led by militia leader "Hemeti." "They were mobilised by the ruling National Congress Party to fight the armed movements in South Kordofan. They returned from South Kordofan and settled in the vicinity of El Obeid in North Kordofan. There they caused so much havoc that they have been sent away by the Governor." The "Hemeti militias" at Wadi Beleil were joined by militiamen from South Darfur, Abu Sharati added.
The presence of huge numbers of militiamen near the camps is affecting the displaced daily live, Abu Sharati explained. "They cannot leave the camps anymore to fetch firewood or to cultivate their farmlands." "The militiamen have already committed various crimes including robbing displaced and other citizens of their belongings, and their livestock. They stole three motorcycles, one of them belonging to Kalma camp resident Abakar Adam. They have taken many donkey carts too."
While it is not possible to determine precisely Khartoum’s military designs for the remaining months of the dry season, the consequences of such a large and potent paramilitary force in proximity to camps for the displaced, as well as tenuously surviving villages, are now all too clear. We may expect to see an increasing number of reports such as Radio Dabanga offers from Nyala/Beilel in South Darfur, as well as the following dispatch, which appeared earlier today (February 28, 2014):
Kass locality in South Darfur is witnessing tension between citizens and local Border Guards, due to the placement of tents "for the Rapid Support Forces" in large tracts of villages and farms near Kass town. A number of the citizens of the region told Radio Dabanga that the commander of the Border Guards, Maj. Mohamed Saleh Younis, has set up tents in Lauri Fifil, Terkenj, Dwair, and Gummayzat El Lalobh areas, north of Kass, during the past few days. "When people asked him to remove the tents, he threatened to beat and kill them," the listeners told. When the commander of Kass’ army garrison intervened and asked Maj. Younis to remove the tents and leave, Younis refused. He told the commander "he doesn’t receive instructions from him." The setting up of tents was permitted by Khartoum, he said, to receive the Rapid Support Forces, according to the citizens.
Other sources said "these tents are for receiving the new settlers who have not yet been identified." The Rapid Support Forces are locally known as Janjaweed who have been expelled from El Obeid in North Kordofan mid-February. The Commander of the Rapid Support Forces stated they are in Darfur to fight the armed opposition movements on Tuesday. The citizens have expressed their concern of being subjected to attacks and abuses by the forces of the government security apparatus. They are also concerned about losing their villages and lands in Kass.
Abu Sharati stressed that the concentration of these militias in areas nearby camps for the displaced and their entering of these camps threaten the security of the displaced. "In fact, they are a threat to the safety of all the citizens in South Darfur." (Radio Dabanga, "Militias expelled from North Kordofan arrive in South Darfur [Nyala, South Darfur], February 18, 2014)
This new military reality seems not to have caught the interest or even attention of the international community, or the UN in Darfur; but these developments augur an extremely violent and dangerous new phase of Khartoum’s genocidal ambitions. Such large numbers of heavily armed and unsalaried RRF (Janjaweed by another name) are not present without reason: displaced persons camps are terribly endangered; villages have been and will continue to be destroyed wholesale, as they were in the early years of the genocide; already rampant sexual violence will surely escalate dramatically, with terrible consequences for the well-being of girls, women, and whole families. Humanitarian reach will be further restricted, and major shutdowns may be in the offing, given the violent actions of the RRF. Civilian bombings will continue—uninvestigated, unreported, unrebuked—by a paralyzed UNAMID. The violence that has now continued for more than ten years, with a sharp escalation beginning in 2011-2012, is poised to explode in ways that imperil all lives and livelihoods in Darfur. The sedentary farming of African tribal groups in rural areas will become impossible, and with the growing economic collapse of Sudan as a whole, there will be no humanitarian assistance from Khartoum, which has always been negligible in any event compared with international efforts.
Darfur is on the very brink of collapse into uncontrollable, chaotic violence and destruction, and still there is no meaningful international response. The people of Darfur have never been so comprehensively abandoned.
Dr. Eric Reeves is professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is researched Sudan and South Sudan for many years.