To gain insight into possible war crimes in the Darfur region, researchers in Chad speak with Sudanese refugees. The refugees themselves are also trying to save crucial information about massacres and mass graves from oblivion. But their hopes for a prosecution of the war criminals are dwindling by the day.
In the photos that Faheem shows, his slaughtered fellow citizens appear to have been burned, their skin looks so black. But if bodies are left in the scorching sun long enough, they will automatically start to look like this, the aid worker from the Sudanese Crescent now knows. He quietly swipes through the seemingly endless stream of photos and videos stored on his phone.
Faheem shot most of the images himself. Then he tilts his screen and shows a video that one of his colleagues made. Clearly filmed surreptitiously, partly from under a piece of clothing, the footage shows a load of bodies being dumped like waste into a mass grave from a truck bed.
De Volkskrant speaks to Faheem in September 2023. He stays in Adré, a small village in Chad located a few kilometers from the border with Sudan. He and his refugee colleagues do not feel safe: their movements are skittish, their eyes cloudy. They are afraid to tell their story: what if they are not safe in Chad either?
He took the photos he shows a few months earlier. In June, the capital of West Darfur, El Geneina, was attacked by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and their affiliated Arab militias (also known as the Janjaweed). The attack turned into a massacre.
Ten to fifteen thousand people were murdered during the storming and the months that followed. This is evident from a report by the United Nations, which was published last month and will soon be submitted to the UN Security Council. The investigators concluded that attacks “were planned, coordinated and executed by the RSF and the Arab militias with whom they collaborate.”
In particular, men from the Masalit community, a black African group that consider El Geneina their capital, were targeted and massacred by the militias. Nearly half a million people fled to Chad, more than a hundred thousand are staying in the temporary reception camp Camp École, which is located next to the border village of Adré.
The return of ethnic violence is reminiscent of 2003, when then-dictator Omar al-Bashir paid ethnic Arab militias to suppress a rebellion by African populations. In the massacre that followed, 300,000 people were murdered. The militants were not prosecuted for the war crimes, on the contrary: Bashir actually recruited the fighters in 2013, thus giving birth to the RSF.
Thanks to lucrative deals with Gulf states, among others, the paramilitary army grew into a successful armed force. An attempt to merge the RSF into Sudan’s regular army failed, prompting the two armies to go to war against each other in April last year. Since then, a largely invisible war has gripped the country.
Search for evidence
Now that the same perpetrators as 20 years ago are once again responsible for bloodshed in Darfur, human rights organizations are extra motivated to expose possible war crimes. But the RSF does not tolerate prying eyes. To get a picture of what is happening in the region, researchers spent months gathering information in the refugee camps in eastern Chad.
“The RSF must pay for the mass murder of our community,” Abdo Ashraf (not his real name) says firmly. He prefers to talk about what he has seen in the shade of one of the sparse trees just outside the camp. As he moves his tall body, dressed in a white suit, past the last row of makeshift houses, his fellow refugees greet him exuberantly; most seem to know him.
“I was one of the community leaders of El Geneina,” he explains a little later, when he is sure that the other Sudanese can no longer hear him. “That’s why I’m on the militia’s murder list. If they had caught me at a border checkpoint, they would have executed me without mercy.”
He also fears for his life in the refugee camp near the Chadian village of Adré, where Ashraf fled at the end of June. Every day he sees members of the Arab militias crossing the border, albeit unarmed. “They hang out in the markets in the nearby village,” says Ashraf, “gathering information about those who have fled El Geneina.”
In August, an acquaintance of Ashraf was stabbed to death in Metche, another camp on the border. Although the case is being investigated by the UN refugee agency (the camp’s administrator), Ashraf is certain that the man was killed by the Janjaweed. “There are 40,000 people living in that camp,” he says, “but it is guarded by only two soldiers with Kalashnikovs. We are still in danger.”
Ashraf still tries to do something for his community in the camp: he runs an information network with spiritual leaders, university teachers and other prominent members of the city’s elite who are also staying in the camp. Together they collect data on human rights violations. “In our fight for justice, information is our only weapon,” says Ashraf. “That is why it is vital that we bundle our stories, to prevent them from being lost over time.”
Just about every resident of Camp École has a story about human rights violations on the other side of the border. This is how seven men spoke independently of each other de Volkskrant that they buried bodies in mass graves. One of them is Mustapha Mohamed Ahmed, an older man with a white kufi on his head.
“We buried the first bodies in the regular cemetery,” says Ahmed, who now sells onions to fellow refugees – he was also an onion seller in El Geneina. “But soon there was no room left in the cemetery.” In the sand he draws lines of how he placed bodies in shallow graves: each line is a corpse. “There was no end to it,” he says. “We have made extra graves on all sides.”
Most of the dead were young men, Ahmed explains – some of them executed before his eyes. “I saw teenagers tied up on the ground on the asphalt,” he says. “They were each stabbed in the back with knives. They were all young people from the Masalit tribe, my son knew them from our neighborhood.”
Testimonies like these are indispensable for Mohamed Osman of Human Rights Watch (HRW). He and his team of human rights researchers also visited the camps in eastern Chad several times in recent months to speak extensively with refugees there. A complicated job, says Osman, because the testimonies are not always reliable.
“The people we meet there are often traumatized,” says Osman on the phone from Berlin. “As a result, their memories sometimes get mixed up, or the dates or locations mentioned are not correct.” The more time that passes, says Osman, the greater the risk that valuable information is lost. “Time, but also trauma, clouds their memory.”
Details from testimonials
The researcher explains that even small details in the testimonies of refugees can be of great importance. “We pass on all information about possible war crimes to our colleagues who specialize in collecting and analyzing data and information from open and publicly available sources,” says Osman.
The information from the testimonies can be compared with collected information from photos and videos, as well as satellite images, for verification. “This is how we ensure that our findings are accurate,” Osman continues. “We can particularly verify attacks, arson and other material damage on the basis of publicly accessible photos taken from space.”
In the refugee camps on the border with Darfur, the members of Abdu Ashraf’s information network are pleased with the international interest in the stories of refugees. “Recently, a team from The Hague even came by,” says Ashraf, “which is investigating what happened in El Geneina on behalf of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Yet Ashraf doubts whether justice will finally be achieved thanks to the evidence collected. A criminal case has been ongoing at the ICC for years to prosecute both the leaders and the dictator for the war crimes committed in 2003. However, so far no one has been prosecuted for the ethnic cleansing. Bashir and three other suspects have never been extradited to the ICC, and it is questionable whether that will ever happen given the course of the current war in Sudan.
However, a verdict could be reached early this year in the case against Arab militia leader Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, better known as Ali Kushayb, who was taken into custody by the ICC in 2020. If Kushayb is convicted in The Hague for war crimes committed in Darfur, this could also lead to a case being built against the other suspects.
Although Ashraf would welcome a conviction of the possible war criminal, he believes the ICC case could also lead to new violence. “The Janjaweed want to avoid persecution at all costs,” Ashraf explains. “They have previously murdered witnesses who might be heard by the ICC.” If a verdict in the case against Kushayb prompts more investigation, he fears the Janjaweed will kill even more potential witnesses.
Analysts and security experts also say that everything indicates that the RSF is winning. For example, at the end of last year the large Sudanese city of Wad Madani fell into the hands of the paramilitaries. “If the RSF takes control of the country, the Masalit will never be able to return to Darfur and no one will ever be convicted for the atrocities,” Ashraf concludes somberly. “Then all our current work will be in vain.”