Adre, Chad – The plan was clear. Ousman*, his wife, and their six children would flee as soon as the paid smuggler showed up to drive them out of el-Geneina. The capital of Sudan’s West Darfur state was the scene of intense fighting since war had erupted in the country in mid-April.
The family’s goal was to cross into neighbouring Chad, but the days went by and the smuggler was nowhere to be seen. With the sound of gunfire echoing all around them, Ousman and his wife decided to split the family in two – him in one place with four of their children and her in another with the other two. This, they thought, would increase the chances for at least some members of the family to survive. They would reunite only when it was time to leave the city.
But on May 19, the already poor communications network in el-Geneina shut down completely. Unable to reach his wife, Ousman was faced with a torturous take-it-or-leave-it offer when the smuggler finally appeared the next day: Stay put in a city engulfed by fighting or leave his wife and two of his children behind and attempt to save the others.
“They don’t know I have left,” Ousman, 52, said, his hand clenched in a tight fist, tapping his chest anxiously as tears streamed down his bony cheeks. “They might be dead now.”
‘How did we survive’?
The silence surrounding the fate of loved ones trapped in el-Geneina, as well as in other parts of Darfur, is a heavy burden for those who have managed to escape. The communications blackout adds to a litany of concerns for the more than 90,000 people who have settled so far in the several informal settlements dotting the Chadian side of the border, mostly women and children.
Those who made it out provide chilling accounts that help paint the picture of what is happening in the cut-off region.
“The shelling is just …,” a United Nations official paused, searching for the right words to describe the situation in el-Geneina, from where he had escaped the previous night. “It was so noisy … millions of bullets; I am not exaggerating this,” added the official, who spoke to Al Jazeera in Farshana, a town along the border, on the condition of anonymity. “The whole day, you just run between rooms to hide.”
For more than a week, the UN official was sheltering with dozens of others in an apartment in the city’s el-Jabal area. Every three days, volunteers from the group would take turns to go out and look for food – each attempt, a gamble with their life.
“I am just amazed we survived,” he said.
Sudan has been gripped by war since April 15, when clashes broke out between the country’s army and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Amid the chaos, fighting was also reignited in Darfur, a vast region in the west of the country still haunted by 20 years of conflict between Arab militias and non-Arab groups – including members of the Arab Rizeigat tribe and the non-Arab Masalit – fuelled by competition for dwindling resources.
At least 500 people died across Darfur in the first weeks of fighting, according to Sudan’s health ministry, while more than 250,000 people in West Darfur were displaced – the figures are likely to have increased since they were reported before the total communication blackout in el-Geneina.
The city has suffered two waves of violence – one at the end of April and one at mid-May. They both started when Arab militias stormed it exploiting the army’s non-interference, witnesses said.
Residents who spoke to Al Jazeera at the refugee sites said snipers perched on top of buildings targeted members of non-Arab communities. People fetching water were shot at, hospitals were looted and camps hosting internally displaced people were burned down, they said.
The Arab fighters are said to be better equipped with heavier weapons and machinery, but the Masalit are also putting up a fight. Refugees said that most civilian men stayed behind to try to protect their land or fight.
The journey from el-Geneina to Adre, the first Chadian city on the other side of the border, takes about 45 minutes by car. Several witnesses said armed Arab men were preventing civilians from leaving el-Geneina, either by shooting at those venturing outside or by stopping them at checkpoints set up along the route. As an aid worker who asked to stay anonymous put it, “That’s the most dangerous route in Sudan.”
Ousman, a member of the non-Arab Bargo tribe, witnessed it firsthand.
Al Jazeera spoke to him inside a clinic in Adre where his niece, who was also in the car that slipped out of el-Geneina, was receiving treatment for a bullet wound on her upper leg. The incident occurred near the border, when two armed men at a checkpoint ordered everyone out of the vehicle. The driver decided instead to speed away. They made it to safety but the 25-year-old was hit in the hail of bullets that was unleashed upon them.
‘They first arrived with camels, then with vehicles’
Survivors recounted harrowing stories from other parts of West Darfur, too. The husband of Maryam Abdalla Awad, 22, was lying in bed with malaria when Arab armed men raided their village of Masteri. Two of them entered the house and shot him dead.
“They didn’t steal anything – just shot him,” said Awad. She said she was allowed to grab a bag and leave with her three children. As she stepped outside, the body of her husband still warm on the bed, she saw the attackers dowsing fuel all around, lighting a match and letting it drop. Her home was swallowed by flames. All that Awad owns now is two blankets, a shawl and one T-shirt for each of her children.
Many refugees confirmed that the attackers primarily targeted men. Hamat Yousuf Adam, a 42-year-old father of six, said he left Masteri on May 14 after it was attacked for a third time. “They first came riding camels, then they came with vehicles, motorbikes and weapons,” he said.
In a worrying sign highlighting the security gap in the region, Minni Minawi, a rebel leader-turned-governor of Darfur, urged residents on Sunday to pick up arms to defend themselves.
Almost every refugee Al Jazeera interviewed in camps along the border hailing from el-Geneina, Masteri, Tendelti and Konga Haraza said violence erupted after the army or the local police left, creating a power vacuum that was filled by Arab militias. Not a single resident said the army offered any protection. The UN official said both the RSF and the Sudanese army were present in el-Geneina, but did not take part in the fighting.
A local official in Tendelti, a town some 300 metres (1,000 feet) from the border with Chad, said that early in the conflict, the army advised the population to evacuate as it planned to withdraw from the area. The official spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. Their account was corroborated by at least five residents.
Chadian authorities confirmed to Al Jazeera that at least 500 Sudanese soldiers had been arrested and disarmed after crossing into Chad since April 20 – just five days after the outbreak of fighting in the capital, Khartoum, and other parts of Sudan.
Al Jazeera reached out to the army spokesperson for comment on the reason behind abandoning its position in several areas of West Darfur, but had not received a response at the time of publication.
“The army is not in a state to get involved in a peripheral activity that might weaken the fight in Khartoum,” said Walid Madibo, founder of the Sudan Policy Forum NGO and a Darfur expert. “Also, they know that if they ever start a war in Darfur it is not going to be in their advantage,” he added.
The RSF has repeatedly denied involvement in the fighting in West Darfur, instead accusing the army of instigating the violence. Last week, RSF head Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo released an audio message calling on residents in el-Geneina to “reject regionalism and tribalism. Stop fighting amongst yourself immediately.”
Yet, nearly every refugee interviewed by Al Jazeera along the border said uniformed RSF members were fighting with the Arab militias.
“We can’t ignore that some RSF elements side with their tribal affiliates. So it may not be an order from the leadership, but rather a personal inclination,” said Madibo.
Darfur has long been seen tensions between Arab and non-Arab communities fighting over disputed land and water resources, among others. The divide deepened in 2003, when mostly non-Arab rebels rose up against the central government in Khartoum, accusing it of political and economic marginalisation. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president at the time, sought to suppress the rebellion by arming non-Arab militias, nicknamed the Janjaweed – a feared force accused of carrying out mass atrocities.
The conflict killed more than 300,000 people in the first five years and displaced 2.5 million, UN figures show. In 2013, the Janjaweed were reorganised into the RSF under the leadership of Hemedti, who belongs to the Rizeigat tribe.
Al-Bashir was removed in 2019 following a popular uprising that set in motion a challenging process towards civilian rule. The next year, the signing of a peace agreement between Darfuri rebels and the government raised hopes of improved security in the region.
However, the situation worsened. Certain aspects of the deal and the withdrawal of an international peacekeeping mission from the region reinforced feelings of marginalisation among both communities. The Arabs were apprehensive about the agreement’s promise to return lands taken during the war to the internally displaced people, while the non-Arab community feared that the departure of the peacekeepers would leave them further exposed to attacks.
Although the UN-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, or UNAMID, was not highly effective in protecting civilians, its monitoring mechanism for tracking the violence had a deterrent effect, said Mohamed Osman, West Darfur researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Observers also say the complete lack of reporting due to the absence of international monitoring groups and an overall degree of impunity has made the situation worse.
In 2021, the violence displaced some 442,000 people, a fivefold increase compared with the previous year.
“The triggers are there and no one dealt with them,” Osman said. “The recruitment, the proliferation of arms. No deployment of trusted forces to protect them. No political process to address reconciliation, no accountability,” he added. “The grievances remained.”
*Name changed to protect their identity