In 2003 a militia drawn from ethnic Arab tribes in Darfur known as the Janjaweed partnered with the government of Sudan in a genocidal campaign against non-Arab tribes in the region. An estimated 300,000 people were killed in the 2003-2004 Darfur genocide. The Janjaweed have since rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces, the RSF. And in August 2023, there is mounting evidence the RSF is embarking on a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is warning that there is risk of a full blown genocide.
“What we are seeing now is the RSF and allied Arab militias beginning a campaign of extreme violence and even ethnic cleansing, certainly in parts of West Darfur largely targeting Masalit communities there.” Cameron Hudson, a former CIA Intelligence Analyst and State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells me in a podcast interview. “We’re hearing reports of destruction of villages, seeing satellite imagery again of burning villages. We’re discovering mass graves to the extent that people have access to the region…villages being entirely wiped out by these militia attacks…A lot of the same elements that we saw 20 years ago are replicating themselves again — the same victims in many cases and the same perpetrators”
We kick off discussing the available evidence we have that there is an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing underway in Darfur. Cameron Hudson then explains how the genocidal Janjaweed militia became the Rapid Support Forces, which are carrying out these atrocities while battling for control of the whole of Sudan in a full blown civil war that began in April. We discuss how the Rapid Support Forces funds its operations, and the support it is receiving from the United Arab Emirates.
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Evidence of Ethnic Cleansing and Crimes Against Humanity in Darfur
Cameron Hudson: I think we’re back to the point of having a full blown war in Darfur, not dissimilar to what we saw nearly 20 years ago when the Darfur crisis came onto the international agenda for the first time. We are seeing attacks by the Rapid Support Forces, the militia group that’s fighting the south in Khartoum. Their stronghold has always been in Darfur. And what we are seeing now is the RSF and allied Arab militias beginning a campaign of extreme violence and even ethnic cleansing, certainly in parts of West Darfur, largely targeting Masalit communities there. But I think also a generalized violent campaign against civilians across the board. We’re hearing reports of destruction of villages, seeing satellite imagery again, of burning villages. We’re discovering mass graves to the extent that people have access to the region, a number of mass graves of villages being entirely wiped out by these militia attacks. Obviously, there’s a heightened amount of sexual violence associated with this. We’re seeing children targeted, we’re seeing elderly targeted. And of course, we’re seeing widespread looting associated with all of this violence. And I guess the last element is the sort of cleansing part of it, where we’re seeing now over 100,000 people leaving Darfur in west Darfur, primarily for Chad. So a lot of the same elements that we saw again 20 years ago are replicating themselves again, the same victims in many cases and the same perpetrators.
Mark Leon Goldberg: You mentioned the SAF. This is the Sudanese armed Forces that is the other protagonist in the Sudanese civil war that’s fighting the RSF, the Rapid Support Forces. I’d like to dive a little deeper into the ethnic element of this. You mentioned that the Masalit community is primarily the victims thus far of this incipient ethnic cleansing campaign that we are seeing. Who are the Masalit? And can you describe more broadly like the ethnic dimensions of this and why it is important to understand what’s driving this conflict?
Cameron Hudson: The Masalit are one of the principal tribes in Darfur. They are on the western side of Darfur. And so there are many Masalit in Chad as well. Again, there’s no real national boundary to tribal disbursement in this area. Interestingly, we are not seeing attacks on the Fur population, for example, or some of the other African populations targeted 20 years ago when the Janjaweed were originally activated. But again, I think that we are seeing some elements of parallels here in the sense that it is Arab tribes that are committing much of the violence against these communities right now in Darfur. [00:08:47][42.0]
Mark Leon Goldberg:And the Masalit are not Arab. The RSF is the successor to the Janjaweed, which was an ethnic Arab militia that was tapped by the former government of Sudan to kind of do the dirty work on the ground, resulting in the genocide that we saw 20 years ago. What are you hearing from your contacts, your interlocutors on the ground in Darfur, in terms of who is perpetrating these assaults? And is it the RSF directly? Is it groups affiliated with the RSF? What’s the general conflict dynamic that you’re seeing in Darfur right now?
Cameron Hudson: Certainly, it’s hard to say. There’s a great deal of access issues that we are facing right now in terms of getting real eyewitness accounts. And there’s been very little effort, I think, internationally, to document the crimes that are occurring there, certainly not like we saw 20 years ago. So there is certainly a kind of fog of war that pervades this conflict. That being said, there are some eyewitness accounts that have been taken by human rights groups on the Chadian side of the border which confirm that some of the perpetrators are wearing uniforms and so have been identified as such. But there are also many perpetrators not in uniform and who are associated with the RSF tribally. But again, we don’t have right now the same kind of awareness of the perpetrators. Like we did 20 years ago. And I think that’s primarily because 20 years ago this was a state directed assault on this population. It wasn’t an indigenous war in Darfur. It was being directed by central government authorities in Khartoum. and so there was a pattern to the violence in Darfur because it was instigated in the first part by Sudan’s army, by the Sudan Armed Forces. And it was done in conjunction with and they directed the activities of the Janjaweed on the ground. And so there was a pattern of violence that we could map and discern in ways that allowed us to document more easily, understand the perpetrators more easily. And of course, the central government was making statements about what they were doing. They didn’t see it as genocide. They saw it as putting down an armed rebellion. And so there was just a lot more documentation about what was going on…So it’s a very different set of facts surrounding the violence. And that makes it harder, I think, to pinpoint exactly who was doing what to whom and for what motivation right now.
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