Sudan’s war leaves deep scars in Geneina, a city of two massacres

<span>A rainbow is seen over the makeshift shelters of Sudanese people who fled the conflict in Geneina, during sunset in Adré, Chad last July.</span><span>Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters</span>
A rainbow is seen over the makeshift shelters of Sudanese people who fled the conflict in Geneina, during sunset in Adré, Chad last July.Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state in Sudan, can feel like two cities in one. There are mass graves, abandoned armoured vehicles and homeless children, but also newly opened restaurants, bustling markets and factory-fresh Toyotas, nicknamed Kenjcanjia – meaning stolen in the local dialect – owing to their lack of registration plates.

Since war broke out between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in April last year, the city has witnessed two major massacres. Decomposing bodies lay out on the streets for up to 10 days on both occasions, their flesh eaten by dogs and chickens. Residues from the bodies of the dead remain even now, stepped over by people as they go about their daily business.

Some districts in the centre of the city, where people displaced by conflict elsewhere in Darfur used to congregate in government buildings, have all but been abandoned. Buildings bear scorch marks and bullet holes on their walls from the fighting.

For two months from mid-April and then again for a week in early November, Geneina was convulsed by fighting that rapidly developed along tribal lines, pitting Masalit and other non-Arab people in support of the army against the RSF and allied Arab militia.

More than 10,000 people died in the city – mostly from the Masalit population – and thousands more fled west over the border to Chad.

Arab militias allied with the RSF laid siege to the city in May. On 15 June, the torture and murder of the Masalit governor of West Darfur state, Khamis Abbakar, allegedly by the RSF’s allies, prompted the exodus of thousands of people to Chad. By 22 June, the Darfur Bar Association reported that Geneina had fallen. There were further clashes in early November, which ended with the last remaining soldiers from the army garrison fleeing – marking the RSF’s final victory in the city.

In the intervening months, details began to emerge of horrific abuses committed by the RSF and its allies in the city. On 13 July, a UN investigation discovered a mass grave of dozens of Masalit civilians near Geneina, all allegedly killed by the RSF between 13 and 21 June.

Some Masalit people opted to head towards what they perceived as the relative safety of the army garrison near Ardamata instead of Chad. They described being shot at while on the road to Ardamata on 13 June. “Arabs appeared from nowhere and started shooting at us,” said Fatima, who did not want to give her last name. “People were jumping into the river with their children [to dodge the bullets].” Fatima said her son lost his arm during the shooting.

Abakar Haroun, a member of a group tasked with burying the bodies of victims, said the task took days. “One day, I remember working from 8am to 6pm with colleagues burying people in a cemetery in the al-Shati neighbourhood,” he said.

Samia Osman (not her real name) said: “I counted 117 bodies in front of my house. We used to jump over the bodies to reach our homes.”

Arab civilians also died in the violence, many in shelling from army tanks that still stand abandoned in Arab neighbourhoods. A worker at the Sudanese Red Crescent – not an Arab himself – said the number of victims was unknown because Arab communities have their own system of collecting the dead. Emir Massar Aseel, a traditional Arab leader accused of committing crimes against the Masalit people, claimed the toll ran to thousands.

Hundreds of Masalits were also killed in a massacre in Ardamata on 5 November, following the army’s complete withdrawal from the Geneina area. Witnesses said the RSF and allied militia went house to house, seeking out Masalit people.

Jamal Badawi, a Masalit traditional leader from Ardamata, said 236 people were killed in his area alone. Speaking on condition of anonymity, another man who helped with burials said “the bodies were piled over each other like leather of animals”.

West Darfur state is now ruled by an administration close to the RSF. The new governor, El Tijani Karshoum, is trying to appease the population. He has called on those who fled across the Chad border to come back, offering consistent electricity and running water, often lacking in army-controlled areas, and implemented a strict night-time curfew from 7pm to 7am.

An uneasy normality has returned to the city despite its recent horrors. Weddings have resumed on weekends, and houses are being built in Arab neighbourhoods.

The presence of homeless children, however, serves as a reminder of the recent past. A former employee of the child protection unit of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Darfur said most were either orphans who lost their parents last year or the children of families who fled across to Chad but who returned without their parents due to the “terrible” conditions in Chad’s refugee camps.

Last Friday, the UN human rights office said both sides in Sudan’s civil war had committed abuses that might amount to war crimes including indiscriminate attacks on civilian sites such as hospitals, markets and camps for the displaced.

The US has already formally determined that the warring parties have committed war crimes and said the RSF and allied militias were involved in ethnic cleansing in West Darfur. Both sides have said they would investigate reports of killings and abuses and prosecute any fighters found to be involved.

For now, the biggest threat in Geneina comes from the air. As it struggles to stem the tide of RSF advances, the army has launched bombing campaigns on RSF-controlled territory, driving a new exodus of civilian populations.

It was simultaneously preventing humanitarian access to RSF-controlled areas, said Leni Christiane, from the World Food Programme. “The situation in Sudan today is nothing short of catastrophic,” she said. “Millions of people are impacted by the conflict and are struggling to feed their families. We are already receiving reports of people dying of starvation, yet access challenges are making it incredibly challenging to reach areas where people need our urgent help the most.”