Between mid-April and July 2023, civilians who mostly belong to the Masalit tribe were terrorized out of Al-Geneina, the capital and main town of West Darfur state. The conflict in West Darfur had a strong ethnic dynamic, as testimonies by survivors told the tale of how they were targeted based on their ethnic background, and many were killed, robbed, and raped on these grounds. If one of the main objectives of the RSF is to change Sudan’s demographics and take over territory, their plan was effective in Al-Geneina—but what really happened there?
“They burned our house and killed my uncle and his son; they tortured,” said my friend T.A.*, a lawyer who used to live in Al-Geneina with her family. This was her first response in a month: she had disappeared from Whatsapp in mid-May only to reappear as she was in the town of Abeche in eastern Chad. T.A had fled there with her remaining family, carrying nothing to their name. She comes from a relatively middle-class family; she and her family found themselves in a refugee camp, and some family members then headed to the Chadian capital N’Djamena to seek work. Her story is similar to that of many survivors from Al-Geneina and West Darfur in general. Homes were burned to the ground in an effort to make people forget that they once had a home and a life, that they belonged somewhere. Based on the scarce testimonies that were collected by news organizations just a few weeks after armed confrontations between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF started in April 2023, an ethnic cleansing campaign ensued in Al-Geneina and quickly spread to neighboring towns.
Homes were burned to the ground in an effort to make people forget that they once had a home and a life, that they belonged somewhere
The attacks and the devastation were largely caused by the RSF and their allied nomadic militias in the region; some of the forces wore official uniforms and were joined by armed men from nomadic groups that live in the Darfur region. These groups attacked the indigenous tribes in the Al-Geneina and the Masalit, the largest ethnic community, bore the brunt of the attack. By the time T.A fled the city, over 115,000 refugees had already fled to Chad despite facing more death and armed robbery on the way.
In order to understand the overall context under which land is being claimed and contested in Darfur, one needs to understand the history of the region, known locally as Dar Andoka.
Dar Andoka and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
Although much of present-day Sudan was subjugated by the British Empire in 1899, the then-independent Darfur Sultanate was violently incorporated to the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in 1916. At the time, Dar Andoka—or the Masalit Sultanate, named after the Masalit who represent the largest ethnic group and the rulers of the Sultanate—was an independent political entity that fought bitter battles against the Sultanate of Darfur to oppose its annexation into the larger Darfur region or into present-day Chad, wanted by the French. Dar Andoka became the only region to join the condominium by choice following the Gilani agreement signed by the French, the British, and the Sultan of Dar Andoka in 1919. The agreement also largely determined the border between Chad and Sudan. It was set to expire in one hundred years but brought devastation to Dar Andoka as it continued to be the site of conflict during most of Sudan’s post-independence history. This led current Sultan of Dar Andoka, Sultan Saad Bahr Al-Deen, to state during a 2021 BBC interview that he wanted to reconsider: “I wish we could have joined Chad instead of Sudan.”
Nomads in Darfur are divided between Baggara (those who herd cows) and Abbala (those who herd camels). One of the characteristics of these nomadic groups is their disregard of colonial borders, moving freely between territories to seek pastures for their livestock and to find new economic opportunities. Although their presence dates back to many centuries, the 2003 conflict which began as armed groups from the region took up arms against the central government in Khartoum, citing marginalization and underdevelopment, corresponded with the arrival of more nomadic groups from the Sahel belt due to drought and insecurity. The 2003 conflict sounded like one between the central government and local armed groups, but it also had different levels of internal and ethnic-based implications, with different groups—especially farmers and pastoralists within Darfur itself—fighting over land and resources.
There were two main factors that made the nomadic groups ally themselves with the central government during the 2003 conflict. First, the nomadic groups were seeking to expand their territory and to take over more fertile land in response to the livestocks’ growing needs in a region devastated by droughts. This gave them a motive to fight in 2003, and when they were able to connect their struggle with the needs of the central government, they secured funds and weapons to fight their own conflicts under the cover of fighting the rebellion and subjugating the armed groups who rebelled against the central government. The central government funded and equipped the Janjaweed—armed fighters from nomadic groups—and did the same with the RSF, who were initially a more modern Janjaweed repurposed with four-by-four Toyota trucks and more advanced ammunition. Second, the central government struggled to win the battle against the Darfuri armed groups due to the ethnic composition of the army, which relies heavily on recruitment from African farming communities in the periphery of Darfur and other regions to fill its junior ranks. In a country with a low sense of belonging due to poor governance coupled with inherent problems in the makeup of the state, ethnic loyalties are key and the army found itself hostage to them.
Throughout Omar al-Bashir’s rule, and especially after 2003, the nomadic communities sided with Bashir and continued to penetrate the region and establish more homelands, taking over more territories such as Zurrug, a functioning town with a small military airport a few hours from Al-Fashir, the capital of North Darfur state. Juma Dagalo, the area’s chief and Hemedti’s uncle, claimed that the land was empty when they arrived, but this claim continues to be contested by many ethnic groups. These nomadic militias took over the territory by attacking the local population and by controlling the key water plants, forcing people to flee, and then they changed the towns’ name so that the displaced community would not be able to make any claims for their homes and would be forced to settle elsewhere. In an interview, leftist thinker and politician Mohamed Jalal Hashim talked about this process used by the RSF, and said that Umm Al-Qura, which Hemedti claims as his town right now, was not historically called that. Jerome Tubiana, a researcher on Sudan and Chad, said that the town was originally called Dogi, a name in the language of the Fur, one of the main ethnic communities in Darfur.
A 2020 UN report noted that less than 1 percent of land in Darfur was registered
These changes in ownership are further abetted and made easier by the way land is managed in Sudan. Land ownership is largely communal and is managed by customary laws, but in areas of interest for authorities such as major cities and towns, the land is re-distributed, allowing private ownership in urban areas. The land management process in some parts of Sudan took place during the Sennar Sultanate (1503-1821) through the authority of the sultans and this was reiterated through the Land Ordinance work between 1898 and 1914, the 1925 Land Registration Law, and the 1930 Land Acquisition Ordinance. Moreover, the 1970 Land Act gave the government more right to land on “developmental grounds,” and communal land remained unregistered. In fact, a 2020 UN report noted that less than 1 percent of land in Darfur was registered. In general, land is managed by tribal leaders—referred to as the Sultan, Nazir, Omda, or Shartay—but since the land is not officially registered, the Janjaweed have stated that these territories were no man’s land.
This is no longer Dar Masalit
The ethnic targeting of the Masalit, who represent 60 percent of the population of West Darfur, is not a new occurrence and did not begin in April 2023. It increased after the 2019 revolution that ousted Bashir’s government, mainly because the presence of the RSF was legitimized through the August 2019 Constitutional Declaration that ushered in the transitional period. This rise of the RSF and its leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, had only emboldened the nomadic groups in West Darfur and other parts of the Darfur region, who continued to expand into new territory, leading to mass displacement of farming groups. In April 2022, the RSF with other militias attacked the Masalit in the town of Kreinik, killing at least 200 people in just a few days; the attacks led to a displacement crisis in the state.
The RSF and their allied militias continued targeting Dar Masalit, as there was a national political vacuum, and only increased after the April 2023 war. One explanation for this is that the RSF wanted to control West Darfur for its strategic location and its long and volatile border with Chad, which would make it easier for them to mobilize and bring in fighters from nomadic groups in the Sahel area to continue fighting in Khartoum and beyond. This was confirmed by the United Nations as well as by the SAF as they accused the RSF of recruiting fighters from Chad, Niger, and Mali.
The Masalit population continued to be displaced and their territory subjugated for years. Between 2020 and 2023, entire communities were displaced several times as nomadic militias supported by the RSF looted markets, burned houses, and killed civilians. What is happening now in West Darfur is a continuation of this, but the militias have grown bolder now. In several videos and pictures, we can see that militia men had written “this is no longer Dar Masalit, this is Dar Arab” on the market’s walls.
Dar Masalit, now contested for the first time in centuries, no longer has a functioning hospital due to looting, its market has been partially burned down, and most of its infrastructure is now in shambles.
Dar Masalit, now contested for the first time in centuries, no longer has a functioning hospital due to looting, its market has been partially burned down, and most of its infrastructure is now in shambles. Seventy percent of its population has fled, mostly on their feet. The streets are littered with bodies that are now functioning as pavements or barriers to stop cars from entering certain areas. The lush Al-Geneina—meaning the garden in Arabic—is now rotten and smells of death.
In June 2023, the state’s governor Khamis Abakar was abducted and tortured to death by forces affiliated with the RSF after he spoke about the tragedy unfolding in Al-Geneina and named it a genocide. Around the same time, the house of the Sultan was raided, his brother was killed, and the Sultan disappeared before resurfacing in Port Sudan city, in an attempt to plead on behalf of his community. The departure of the Sultan from the region is significant because just like his community, he too was driven out of his house where his forefathers established their rule.
T.A re-appeared on Whatsapp in mid-August only to tell me that she had to travel to the border to work in the camps and help more family members flee Murnei, another town in West Darfur. “The attacks [have reached the town] and my relatives had to flee; they are now finally safe in Adre [in Chad],” she wrote in a Whatsapp message.
On September 9, over three months after fighting began in Al-Geneina, a picture circulating on social media showed that power was finally back after nearly five months of complete darkness. It did not matter anymore: homes were burned and its residents were displaced. Bringing a city back to life is impossible without its population, and as long as the town’s people continue to flee to Chad every few weeks, Al-Geneina will not return to life. In a recent statement, Hemedti threatened to form a government in his areas of control—Khartoum and West Darfur, among other areas. The formation of a government in Khartoum will be impossible due ongoing fighting there, but it could be possible in West Darfur as there is no active fighting there for the moment. And Dar Andoka has lost its people, taken over by the RSF in a town they control.
Reem Abbas is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on land, conflict, and resources in Sudan. She is also the institute’s first Mohamed Aboelgheit Fellow.