Sudan’s Hotel Rwanda: the man who saved scores of people during Darfur violence

<span>Women from Geneina in a refugee camp in Adré, Chad in November.</span><span>Photograph: El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters</span>
Women from Geneina in a refugee camp in Adré, Chad in November.Photograph: El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters

Every night, for weeks at a time last year, Saad al-Mukhtar put a small group of people in the back of his Toyota Land Cruiser and drove them under the cover of darkness from his home in the Sudanese city of Geneina across the border and into Chad.

The operation was an extraordinary act of bravery and selflessness: Mukhtar is an Arab, and the people he was smuggling to safety were members of the darker skinned Masalit community who were being targeted in a vicious wave of ethnic violence perpetrated by Arab militias.

“I helped everybody who knocked on my door,” Mukhtar said. “I didn’t know the majority of them.” The name is a pseudonym – he said if his real name was used his life and those of his relatives would be in danger.

Over the course of last year, after the outbreak of war in Sudan in April, hundreds of thousands of Masalit people fled from Geneina and the wider West Darfur state into Chad. The war, pitting the Arab paramilitary group the Rapid Support Forces against the regular army, began in the capital, Khartoum, but soon spread around the country. In the western Darfur region, an RSF stronghold, ethnic violence against the Masalit people flared up again 20 years after the start of a genocide perpetrated by Janjaweed militias, which later morphed into the RSF.

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Word soon spread around Geneina that an Arab man was willing to shelter and take Masalit people to safety, and scores of people turned up at his house, sometimes staying there for weeks on end. Mukhtar lives in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood, which is rare for the city, and made it easier for Masalit people to enter and move freely.

The journey across the border was fraught with risk, as it meant passing checkpoints between non-Arab and Arab neighbourhoods manned by Arab militiamen. As Mukhtar put it in an interview with the Guardian, “only Arab drivers were allowed to pass through”.

On occasion, when the Arab militias were distracted by particularly fierce fighting, he would ask Arab friends to help smuggle people out past the checkpoints. “On really busy nights I sent four batches of people across the border,” he said.

Mukhtar’s mother cooked meals for the people he sheltered, as did other women from his neighbourhood who came from communities that were neither Arab nor Masalit. Sometimes he drove around and picked up Masalit people who he feared were particularly vulnerable to the militias. “I just knew that they would kill them if they found them,” he said.

Geneina was the scene of two rounds of mass killings and rape last year. The first took place between April and June last year, as the RSF and allied Arab militias battled Masalit fighters. A second wave of killings happened in November, after the RSF and its allies captured a Sudanese military base.

Mukhtar’s protection of Masalit people has echoes of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier who sheltered refugees during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and whose actions were later documented in the film Hotel Rwanda.

“What we saw in Geniena was the Doomsday, exactly like the Doomsday,” Mukhtar said. “There was nothing worse than what we went through.”

As the fighting worsened, Mukhtar learned how to use an AK-47 rifle. “I had to do it,” he said. “Everybody was armed – thieves, killers and looters from both sides.”

He said he rescued 25 rape victims, taking some to a clinic and transferring others to Chad. “Some of them were in a shocking shape, completely naked,” he said. “One woman told me that she was raped by 15 men, she wasn’t able to walk. Some of them were unable to speak even.”

Related: Increasing number of villages torched across Sudan shows conflict is intensifying - report

Some of the women told him they had been locked in a shop for days on end and subjected to sexual slavery – an account that tallies with other reports from the city last year. His own story was corroborated by Masalit refugees in the United Nations camp in near Adré in Chad, who were keen to find out what had happened to the “Arab knight” who had brought them across the border.

“I really hope those who went to Adré can come back,” he said. “I miss my friends among them.”

On a tour of Geneina with Mukhtar it became clear that he was a well-known and charismatic presence in the city. Tea ladies and shoe sellers in the city’s famous leather shoe market stopped to say hello, as did RSF fighters.

Mukhtar said he was not sure when exactly he was born, but thinks he is in his 40s. A father of three, he has worked as a driver for local government officials all his adult life.

One of the many ironies of his clandestine smuggling operation is that his father had been killed by Masalit people in the 1990s while undertaking a mission to solve a tribal issue.

Unlike many of his relatives, he had no interest in signing up to join the RSF as a fighter. “I enjoy my simple and normal life,” he said. “I hate taking advantage of innocent people, as those [who] carry arms do.”

Mukhtar grew up in the countryside, where – like many boys and young men in his community – he took care of his father’s camels, travelling for months at a time on camel-back from Darfur to Libya to trade goods. “Looking after animals teaches you a lot in life,” he said. It makes you more humane.”