Army bombings sow more terror in Darfur as rival force cements control

<span>The bombing raids are causing people to flee across the border to Chad.</span><span>Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters</span>
The bombing raids are causing people to flee across the border to Chad.Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

The bombing started at midnight. According to local residents, Sudanese army aircraft hit an industrial area in El Daein, the capital of East Darfur state, then the city’s main market and at least two other neighbourhoods.

In total at least 10 people died in the attack in the early hours of Tuesday morning, including two refugees from South Sudan and six people displaced from elsewhere in Darfur. Dozens were injured, and hundreds of homes reportedly destroyed.

Yagoub Siddig, a resident of one of the bombed neighbourhoods, said: “It was very scary, we lost people … an entire family died in the east. A lot of houses were destroyed, especially those built with local materials. It feels like they [the army] want us to flee.”

This week’s raid was the third by the army since its rival, the Rapid Support Forces, took control of the city in late November. The RSF said civilians had been killed. The army said it had destroyed an RSF weapons depot and that several “field commanders and Dagalo terrorist mercenaries” were killed, referring to the RSF leader, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

Internet and mobile networks have gone down in the city, hampering detailed, independent assessments of what happened.

The deadly bombing raid was yet more evidence that Sudan’s 10-month conflict, pitting the army against the RSF, shows no sign of abating. Millions of people have been displaced by the fighting, and malnutrition is rife. Earlier this month the UN warned of an “epidemic of suffering” in the country.

In recent months, El Daein’s population has swollen with people displaced by fighting from elsewhere in Darfur, a vast region in west Sudan where the RSF is cementing its hold.

Some have come from Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, itself subjected to repeated bombing raids by the army. Attacks from the air on RSF-controlled territory appear to be the army’s only option as it struggles to stem the tide of RSF gains. For those living in affected areas, conversations are dominated about how to get out, and where to go.

On a recent visit by the Guardian to the village of Ardamata, situated on the road linking Geneina to its airport, a crowd of people were trying to sell their furniture in order to finance an escape to neighbouring Chad. Recent airstrikes had hit the airport and the village, sowing terror among residents.

“Some people I know urinated on their beds when they heard the sound of explosions,” said Rimah Mohamed Abdullah, a 25-year-old university student. “Some nearly went crazy.” Abdullah said that after one raid there was an exodus of people from her neighbourhood towards Adré, a town just over the border in Chad.

Fighting between the army and the RSF late last year in Geneina and its surrounding villages was brutal. As the RSF attacked, its fighters and allies from other Arab militia targeted men and boys from the Masalit community, an African ethnic group.

Many Masalit people fled west to Chad during the worst of the fighting. Although the fighting itself has subsided, a fear of getting bombed by the army, a lack of food, and the threat of looting have put people off returning, according to Jamal Badawi, one of the few traditional Masalit leaders who have stayed in Geneina since the war began.

Four of Darfur’s five states are now in the hands of the RSF, which also took control of most of the capital, Khartoum, its sister cities Bahri and Omdurman, and most of the territory in the western Kordofan in the first weeks of the war.

Last week the army claimed its first significant advance in 10 months of fighting, regaining control of part of Omdurman. The army said late on Friday that it had succeeded in connecting its two main bases in the city, prompting celebrations among soldiers and local people. The RSF denied the army had advanced. “The army has turned to propaganda as it is on the verge of defeat,” its media office said in a statement.

Not long after the Geneina airport bombing, a family from the Habaniya tribe living in Ardamata decided to leave. They packed two cars stuffed with their belongings but said that as they started the engines they were stopped by RSF fighters. The family said the soldiers told them they were not allowed to go to Chad, though they could go anywhere else in Darfur. It is not clear if the fighters were following an official RSF policy.

The RSF commander in West Darfur, Abdulrahman Guma, acknowledged that army bombing raids were an issue for the paramilitary group, which lacks anti-aircraft weapons.

Meanwhile, sources close to the military said RSF fighters had seized some anti-aircraft weapons when they captured Geneina’s garrison in November, but that the weapons had been disabled by army soldiers before they withdrew.