World leaders neglected this crisis. Now genocide looms.

Authored by and submitted by _A_Monkey

is a Future Perfect fellow covering global public health, science, and environment. Previously, she worked as an infectious diseases epidemiologist and global health security adviser supporting various US government agencies, multilateral organizations, and private research institutes.

After more than a year of neglect from global leaders and massive funding gaps for humanitarian assistance, the war in Sudan has reached a critical tipping point. Warring parties are waging a deadly battle for control of El Fasher — the capital of the state of North Darfur and, until recently, one of the last safe havens for civilians. If the city falls, experts warn there will be dire human rights consequences, ranging from ethnic cleansing to outright genocide for millions of people.

What’s happening in El Fasher is just the latest in the year-long conflict between two rivaling military groups struggling for power after working together to oust Sudan’s former president and his successor. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the general of the country’s military, known as the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), became the de facto ruler of Sudan in 2021 — but tensions with his temporary ally, the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), soon boiled over as the leaders attempted to integrate the RSF into the SAF. This tension grew into a civil war last year, one that has created the world’s largest displacement crisis: On Monday, the United Nations told the AP that more than 10 million people — about a quarter of the population — have already been internally displaced since the war began.

The SAF and RSF have clashed sporadically in El Fasher, which is the government military’s last foothold in all of western Sudan, but the town has largely been spared the worst of the war until recent weeks. That changed on the morning of May 10, when heavy fighting between the two groups broke out. Near daily bombings, indiscriminate shelling, and airstrikes have rocked the city since. More than 1,000 civilians have been injured and 206 people have died, according to Claire Nicolet, the emergency program manager at Médecins Sans Frontières. Hospitals and camps for internally displaced people have been damaged by gunfire and explosions. Very few aid convoys carrying food and health supplies have reached the estimated 2 million civilians in the city.

As RSF has expanded its control of other towns in Darfur over the course of the war, they have resorted to ethnic targeting and brutal violence against civilians, including raping, torturing, and killing non-Arab civilians and using racial slurs against them, as Human Rights Watch has documented. Human rights experts are concerned that if El Fasher falls to the RSF, it might trigger a new wave of ethnic cleansing, reminiscent of the genocide that occurred in Darfur in the early 2000s when some 200,000 non-Arab civilians were killed by Janjaweed militias and government forces. The RSF evolved from the Janjaweed militia, an Arab-majority fighting force created by the former president to fight Darfuris in the mid-1980s.

Although the current war between RSF and SAF is more of a power struggle than a sectarian one, ethnic tensions have long simmered in Darfur since the genocide, Akshaya Kumar, the director of crisis advocacy at Human Rights Watch, explained. If RSF gains the upper hand, they will control the entire Darfur region where most non-Arab communities reside.

The situation is all too familiar. As it was in 2003, the crisis teeters on the brink of famine and genocide. And as was the case then, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis remains unconscionably neglected by the foreign governments and international bodies that have the power to intervene to push for a peaceful resolution or to urge the warring parties to respect international humanitarian law. In the coming months, the humanitarian and human rights situation in Darfur and across Sudan may be finally too harrowing to ignore, but by that point, it may be too late to do anything about it.

“History is repeating itself in Darfur in the worst possible way,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US representative to the United Nations, remarked during a recent press briefing. “An attack on El Fasher would be a disaster on top of a disaster.”

A 5-year-old girl from El Geneina in Darfur, West Sudan, was shot in the leg by RSF soldiers. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Massive displacement and the brink of famine

This is not the first time El Fasher has seen violence during the war. Aid groups and local media have reported sporadic but deadly clashes between the RSF and SAF since the beginning of the conflict, despite a ceasefire that was put in place in April 2023. There are also local militias working to protect civilians that had initially pledged neutrality in the civil war. In April, sporadic clashes picked up again as militias, alleging the RSF had attacked them, sided with the SAF.

Now, the RSF controls at least three of the four roads into El Fasher, and have pushed their way into town itself. Each of the three remaining hospitals in the city, including a pediatric facility and maternity center, have been hit by mortars and bombs, killing three patients and injuring 11 others.

Since mid-2023, some 500,000 people have fled to El Fasher, crowding into schools and other informal gathering places, as well as nearby ZamZam, a camp for internally displaced people that was created during the genocide of the early 2000s. Those displaced people were reliant on food aid. But now, food markets are becoming bare, and because of the violence, neither aid groups nor commercial trucks can enter the town to replenish stocks or provide food assistance.

Even before fighting intensified in El Fasher, nearly 25 million people in Sudan were in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, and 18 million people were facing acute food insecurity. The United Nations warns that the country is on the brink of all-out famine. Doctors Without Borders reported that a child was dying every two hours due to malnutrition in ZamZam, where Nicolet estimates between 300,000 and 400,000 people are sheltering.

Ethnic targeting, crimes against humanity, acts of genocide

In previous months, as a tenuous peace held in El Fasher, RSF was advancing across the Darfur region, leaving a wake of destruction in their path that many human rights groups are saying amounted to ethnic cleansing and war crimes. At least one investigation has concluded that the RSF is committing genocide in Darfur.

Human rights analysts point to a previous attack on El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, approximately 300 miles from El Fasher, as proof that the RSF is employing ethnic cleansing tactics that are likely to be repeated in El Fasher. Between April and November 2023, the RSF and allied militias “conducted a systematic campaign” to kill and remove Massalit residents, a non-Arab ethnic group, Human Rights Watch reported. During the attacks the RSF told the Massalit “that the land was no longer theirs, and that it would be ‘cleaned’ and become ‘the land of the Arabs,’” according to survivor accounts.

In June, the RSF attacked a medical clinic in El Geneina, killing all but two patients. In total, between 10,000 and 15,000 civilians were killed in El Geneina. The RSF has also razed entire villages, looted villages, and stolen livestock across Darfur. Sexual violence is widespread, with more reports of rape being recorded in Darfur than Khartoum, the country’s capital located toward the center of the country. In RSF-controlled areas of Darfur, girls and women are being sold at slave markets, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and other local aid workers.

International actors fuel the conflict through military support or outright neglect

As alarming as the humanitarian and human rights situation is and will likely become, there seems to be little momentum for global leaders to take action. Despite the massive need, the United Nations has received only 16 percent of the roughly $3 billion it needs to provide humanitarian aid in Sudan in 2024, as of early June. Last year, just under 50 percent of the $2.5 billion the UN requested was donated.

“I think one of the saddest things to see is that the same people who were strong activist voices — for example, current USAID Administrator Samantha Power, or even President Biden himself, who was extremely vocal about Darfur during his time as a senator — have now been largely silent,” Kumar said. “But I think what is inexcusable is the absolute dearth of action, particularly by the UN Security Council, which has both the responsibility and the capacity to act in the interests of international peace and security.”

Thus far, the US has issued sanctions against two RSF commanders for their actions in Darfur while the United Nations Security Council has passed only one resolution calling for a ceasefire during Ramadan. There has been no push from the United Nations and member states to convene and send in an international peacekeeping force that is urgently needed to prevent further atrocities in Darfur, according to David Simon, a senior global affairs lecturer and the director of the genocide studies program at Yale University. The African Union has been altogether silent, pursuing neither a mediator role nor seeking to assemble its own peacekeeping force.

When the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights launched an independent inquiry into RSF’s actions in Darfur, not only did the authors argue that the RSF’s actions qualify as a genocide, they wrote that said genocide is being “directly and indirectly abetted by powerful external stakeholders.”

While the UN and foreign governments largely maintain a position of indifference and neglect, other countries and state actors are actively supporting the warring parties, providing further fuel for the fire.The Russian government has historically been the largest weapons supplier to Sudan, and is currently negotiating an agreement with the SAF to provide guns and ammunition in exchange for access to a port on the Red Sea.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) may be the most significant foreign player supporting the war. The US and the UN have found credible evidence that the UAE is providing military assistance to the RSF, in the form of weekly weapons shipments routed through neighboring Chad. The UAE has consistently denied those accusations. In December, members of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urging them to reconsider its support of the RSF. Only weeks ago did Congress introduce a bill to restrict exports of certain weapons to the UAE. Tensions around the conflict in Gaza may complicate the US’s ability to apply real pressure on the UAE, Simon said.

It is hard to explain what drives some conflicts such as the one unfolding in Sudan to be so overlooked. The ongoing conflict in Gaza, in contrast, has consistently topped headlines and sparked international condemnation and mass protests. Perhaps with so many crises and conflicts taking place in the world, there is simply compassion fatigue or even perhaps a racial dimension that hinders US and European governments from intervening decisively to end conflicts in Sudan and other parts of Africa, Kumar said.

“In the past, publishing proof of a town being razed to the ground was enough to shock and appall people into action,” Kumar said. “And it just doesn't seem like it is anymore, at least for an African conflict.”

Update, June 10, 2 pm ET: This story, originally published June 8, has been updated to reflect new data from the United Nations concerning the number of internally displaced people in Sudan.

TitanicGiant on June 10th, 2024 at 17:16 UTC »

It's absolutely insane how much the world has ignored the plight of the Masalit people, ffs over 200,000 of them have been murdered by the Janjaweed/RSF since 2004 out of a total population of ~500,000. With the resurgence of violence and forced migrations to Chad, they're going to end up being completely removed from Sudan

shadowfax12221 on June 10th, 2024 at 15:16 UTC »

It's a conflict that doesn't touch the vital national interests of any major power and isn't tied up in the nationalism of any ethnic or religious group of geopolitical significance. You could say the same things about Yemen, the CAR, the DRC, and Myanmar, the level of interest in a conflict doesn't scale with the suffering it causes. 

_A_Monkey on June 10th, 2024 at 12:40 UTC »

With all due respect to the auto mod: It’s an open secret that UAE are feeding the conflict.

The US Treasury just blocked 7 Dubai-based companies pending investigation of violating Sudan sanctions violations.

The Africa Report has a comprehensive series detailing the UAE’s heavy involvement and political influence in the Horn of Africa, including their significant control of ports.

However, you don’t permit links to the Africa Report or to many of the sites actually covering this connection, what UAE hopes to gain and/or that comment on the open secret of UAE’s involvement in the conflict or its arms shipments.

The UAE, officially, denies all involvement in supplying arms and support to the RSF.