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The Sudanese Commanders Waging War on the Masalit

A Sudanese woman, pictured on Aug. 5, 2023 at her makeshift shelter in Adre, Chad, shows burn scars on her hands that she sustained in April 2023, after Rapid Support Forces and Arab militia forces torched the camp where she was living in El Geneina.
A Sudanese woman, pictured on Aug. 5, 2023 at her makeshift shelter in Adre, Chad, shows burn scars on her hands that she sustained in April 2023, after Rapid Support Forces and Arab militia forces torched the camp where she was living in El Geneina.

Survivors have identified six Arab paramilitary commanders and militia leaders who they say played a key role in directing the ethnically targeted violence in the Sudanese city of El Geneina that killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country.

The commanders and militia leaders directed their forces to shell densely populated displaced-persons camps and districts in the city with rockets and mortars, and were seen giving orders to their forces as the attacks unfolded, according to more than 20 people who survived the assault and are now living in refugee camps on Chad's border with Sudan.

Much of the violence was directed at the ethnic African Masalit tribe, who comprised the majority in El Geneina until the attacks forced their mass exodus from the city. The violence, which began in late April and peaked in June, reignited in early November.

Some of the commanders identified by the survivors are part of the Arab-dominated Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary that has gained the upper hand in a widening war with the Sudanese Armed Forces for control of the country. The others include leaders of Arab militia forces allied with the RSF.

These militias have been involved in multiple rounds of ethnic violence against the Masalit and other darker-skinned African tribes over the past two decades. Earlier this month, the United States determined that the RSF and its militia allies had committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

In hundreds of interviews with Reuters since the purge of the Masalit began in April, survivors have described horrific scenes of bloodletting in El Geneina and on the 30-kilometer route from the city to the border with Chad as people fled for their lives. In attacks by RSF forces and allied Arab militias, survivors said, women were gang raped, babies had their throats slit and were clubbed to death, people were rammed by vehicles, burned alive in their homes and picked off in the streets by snipers.

Among the RSF commanders identified by survivors is General Abdul Rahman Juma, the paramilitary's chief for the Sudanese state of West Darfur, whose capital is El Geneina. Five witnesses in the city placed Juma at the scene of attacks on Masalit civilians between April and June. Separately, the U.S. government said in September that forces under his command were involved in the mid-June killing of the region's governor, a Masalit politician – a charge Juma denied.

Survivors identified several other key players who led RSF and militia operations in the city: Idriss Hassan, a former RSF commander of West Darfur and currently a senior RSF officer; Massar Aseel, a top Arab tribal leader; the deputy of the slain governor, Al Tijani Karshoum; Arab militia leader Moussa Angir; and a militiaman known as Marfaeen, or "the Hyena."

In July, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, told the U.N. Security Council that his office had begun investigating alleged atrocities in Darfur, including sexual violence and crimes against children.

According to a person familiar with the probe, three of the people identified by the survivors for this story are being investigated by the ICC: Juma, Karshoum, and Aseel. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the three men were the subject of allegations, which means ICC investigators have information suggesting they were involved in crimes. That does not mean the three would ultimately be prosecuted, the person said.

Reuters could not independently corroborate all the accounts of the roles played by RSF and Arab militia leaders in the violence. But witnesses were consistent in describing the patterns of violence and sequence of events in the assault on the city. In some instances, multiple people provided similar details about the specific commanders they identified, such as the type of vehicle they traveled in, how they were dressed, the types of weapons carried by their forces, or the districts where they were spotted.

Reuters is not publishing the full names of the survivors interviewed for this report to protect them from possible retaliation. The Chad-Sudan border is porous, and refugees say they have seen members of the RSF in markets on the Chad side of the border in recent months.

The survivor testimonies gathered by Reuters since the purge of the Masalit began this year, indicate the campaign against the tribe has been systematic and coordinated. Masalit men, from infants to adults, were targeted for killing in the attacks. Women who were human rights activists in the city were hunted down and raped. Largely Masalit-inhabited districts and refugee camps were shelled.

FILE - Sudanese women, who fled the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, cook at their makeshift shelters in Adre, Chad Aug. 3, 2023.
FILE - Sudanese women, who fled the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, cook at their makeshift shelters in Adre, Chad Aug. 3, 2023.

In September, the United States imposed sanctions on deputy RSF leader Abdelrahim Dagalo "for his connection to abuses by the RSF against civilians in Sudan, including conflict-related sexual violence and killings based on ethnicity." Dagalo, who has denied the charges, is the brother of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. Hemedti has not been sanctioned.

The conflict in Darfur erupted days after the war broke out in the capital Khartoum between the Sudanese army and the RSF, who fell out over a plan to integrate their forces as part of a transition to democracy. More than seven million people have fled their homes since the war began, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

In Darfur, competition for land and water has fueled years of conflict between Arab and non-Arab tribes. In the early 2000s, the Masalit and other non-Arabs rebelled after enduring repeated attacks from Arab forces. The government of President Omar Al-Bashir armed Arab militias known as the Janjaweed to help crush the uprising.

The RSF evolved from the Janjaweed. And like the Janjaweed, it draws its leaders and many fighters from the Rizeigat, one of the largest Arab tribes in Darfur. RSF leader Hemedti is a Rizeigat. He has said this year's violence in Darfur is the result of a tribal conflict and his forces have no role in it.

Masalit leaders accuse the Arab forces of progressively driving them off their land. Now, they say, the RSF is trying to finish the job and expel them completely.

One of the most influential Arab figures identified by witnesses is Aseel, who is a leader of the Rizeigat tribe. Three witnesses identified him as one of the Arab militia commanders who led the attacks. A Masalit tribal leader in El Geneina said he saw Aseel in a neighborhood called Donki 13 in mid-June, traveling in a land cruiser and checking on the positions of Arab fighters.

In an interview with Reuters in September, Aseel blamed the Masalit for the outbreak of violence and said Arab forces were responding to attacks by the Masalit. The accounts given by the Masalit were "all lies," he said.

Aseel denied he was a militia commander and said he had no relationship with the RSF. "I am innocent," he added.

Aseel didn't respond to follow-up questions for this story.

Weeks after the second round of purges against the Masalit in early November, a video was posted on an official RSF social media channel. Aseel, along with Juma and Karshoum, the deputy governor, are seen addressing an event in El Geneina billed as a "festival for peaceful coexistence."

The Arab tribes had "no enmity" toward the Masalit, Aseel told the crowd. "We forget the past and we are turning a new page with you," he declared in the video, which was identified by the Center for Information Resilience's Sudan Witness project.

Karshoum had a similar message: "War is over," he said. "Now we need societal peace and coexistence."

Abdul Rahman Juma | RSF commander of West Darfur

Juma is the most senior leader placed at the head of the attacks in El Geneina by the witnesses who spoke to Reuters. Five described seeing him with his forces, issuing instructions, at different times and places during the assault on the Masalit between April and June.

The RSF-led attacks began in late April, with the shelling of Masalit neighborhoods. RSF forces under Juma pushed toward the city's Al Madaris area, according to the five witnesses.

Thousands of Masalit sought shelter in the area, which is adjacent to the governor's office, and Masalit fighters gathered there to make a stand. RSF-led forces shelled Al Madaris from surrounding positions, according to multiple survivors.

El Geneina hosted dozens of displaced persons camps that were largely inhabited by Masalit uprooted in earlier violence, and these too came under fire. A number of camps were razed to the ground, according to three witnesses and a review of satellite images of these areas. Two of the witnesses said they saw destroyed camps upon returning to El Geneina, after fleeing to Chad, to look for missing relatives. Bulldozers were used to demolish remaining shacks, several survivors said.

A former policeman who lived in the displaced persons camp of Al Hojaj, close to RSF headquarters in the city, said he encountered Juma three times in late April, shortly after the assault on the city began. After entering the camp with his forces, Juma gave orders to shell the area. "I could see him pointing in different directions to bomb," the man said.

The ex-policeman said he and other men in the camp took up arms to defend their families. "We had nowhere to go. We were trapped." He later fled to Chad.

A satellite image taken on June 21, just days after the violence ended, showed that much of the Al Hojaj camp had been destroyed.

Two other Masalit men who took up arms against the RSF said they saw Juma in another part of the city in mid-May. He was in Al Jamarek, a district in western El Geneina where RSF headquarters are located. Both said Juma was telling his forces where to aim as they were shelling the Al Madaris area, close to where the governor's compound was located.

One of the Masalit fighters, 37-year-old Abdel-Jalil, said he spotted Juma four times in May, dressed in military fatigues and the RSF's red beret. On one occasion, Abdel-Jalil said, Juma was traveling in a convoy of vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns close to the RSF headquarters. "He oversees the assault, but he doesn't engage himself in the fighting," Abdel-Jalil said.

The next month, on June 14, a Masalit activist for displaced persons said he saw Juma dressed in military uniform and carrying an assault rifle. He was giving orders to a large contingent of RSF fighters to target the Al Madaris area with mortars and RPGs, the activist said. Mortars rained down on people sheltering in the area that day, according to multiple survivors who were there.

The same day, West Darfur Gov. Khamis Abbakar, himself a Masalit, publicly condemned the actions of the RSF in the city, accusing the paramilitary of genocide. He was killed by RSF forces that same day, Reuters reported at the time. Footage posted on social media showed Abbakar being led into Juma's office at RSF headquarters in the city. Later, pictures of his body being mutilated also appeared on social media.

In September, the U.S. State Department said the men who killed the governor were led by Juma and announced sanctions against him. In an audio message posted on an RSF social media page, Juma said the governor was killed by an angry mob while trying to escape to Chad. He had tried to help the governor by arranging transport for him to Chad, Juma said.

Juma did not respond to questions for this report sent to him via the RSF. He has denied that the paramilitary was involved in the bloodshed in El Geneina.

Violence flared anew in early November. Hundreds of Masalit men were rounded up by Arab forces, according to dozens of survivors. Some of these captives were executed in the outlying Ardamata district of El Geneina, according to at least 30 witnesses.

After the RSF overran the Sudanese army base in El Geneina in early November, Juma can be seen in a video posted on an RSF social media channel addressing his troops outside the base and hailing RSF leader Hemedti. At the time, dozens of witnesses told Reuters, a killing campaign by RSF forces and Arab militias was underway in Ardamata, the district where the army base is located. Masalit men in particular were targeted. The European Union said more than 1,000 Masalit were killed in the rampage.

Idriss Hassan | RSF Brigadier General

Also spotted in the attacks was Idriss Hassan, an RSF Brigadier General and member of the Rizeigat tribe. Hassan was part of the Arab forces used by former dictator Bashir to crush the rebellion by the non-Arab tribes in the early 2000s. Bashir faces genocide charges by the ICC over his role in the violence.

Three witnesses said they saw Hassan in May directing RSF forces who were attacking civilian areas, largely populated by the Masalit.

El-Tayab, a 34-year-old Masalit who took up arms when hostilities began, said he saw Hassan in the city's Al Jabal district in mid-May. Hassan arrived in a mud-covered white land cruiser mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. "He was supervising the forces" that shelled the district, El-Tayab said.

Mohammed, a construction worker, said he performed work at Hassan's house a few years ago. Mohammed said he was in the city's Abu Zor displaced-persons camp in late May when he recognized Hassan leading a large force that stormed the camp. Hassan, dressed in RSF uniform and wearing a traditional Arab turban, arrived in a convoy of mud-covered land cruisers. Mohammed said he was hit in the arm by shrapnel during the attack and later fled to Chad.

A 39-year-old Masalit doctor told Reuters he saw Hassan in late May leading a convoy of some 30 pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, heading to the Masalit district of Al Thawra in southern El Geneina.

Hassan did not respond to questions from Reuters sent to him via the RSF.

Al Tijani Karshoum | Deputy governor of West Darfur

Karshoum became deputy governor of West Darfur in 2022. Four people said they saw Karshoum – a well-known figure locally – with militiamen as Arab forces moved through the city during the attacks.

Younis, a 43-year-old Masalit resident, said he encountered Karshoum on May 6. Karshoum was riding in the front of a pickup truck, carrying about a dozen Arab militiamen, that pulled up outside Younis' house in the western Al Jamarek district near RSF headquarters. Younis said four of the militiamen stormed into his home, grilling him at gunpoint about his tribal affiliation and whether he was a soldier. "I said I am not Masalit," he told them.

The men searched the house and took all the mobile phones, he said, echoing dozens of other witnesses who told Reuters of militiamen seizing their phones. The men then left and began looting the neighbor's house, Younis recalled.

Days later, Yacoub, a 20-year-old Masalit civilian who took up arms to defend his family, said he saw Karshoum in a land cruiser leading an attack on the city's southern Al Jabal district. Karshoum was with the RSF's Hassan during the attack, he said.

"The fighters were shouting, 'nuba, we will kill you,'" Yacoub said, repeating a term used by Arab tribes in Darfur meaning slaves.

Multiple witnesses told Reuters that the RSF and Arab militias used the Al Jabal district's elevated position to shell displaced persons camps and neighborhoods inhabited by the Masalit.

Two people said they saw Karshoum issuing orders at the Abu Zor displaced-persons camp and in Al Madaris.

Mohammed, a social worker, said he spotted Karshoum on May 20, while sheltering from shelling directed by the RSF at Abu Zor, where his father had been living. From behind a wall where he was taking refuge, Mohammed said, he could see and hear Karshoum directing artillery fire towards the governor's office and telling his forces that they were "getting close." Mohammed said there was heavy smoke from the bombing that provided him with cover as there was nothing separating him from Karshoum but the wall. Karshoum, he said, was dressed in an olive-green outfit.

Sherif, a 40-year-old Masalit man, said he saw Karshoum in June in the Al Madaris district, and heard him instructing troops to direct their fire at the governor's office. That month, Sherif said he twice saw Karshoum traveling in a black land cruiser and directing attacks on displaced-persons camps.

In the camp attacks, "shells wiped out entire families," said Sherif. On June 13, he said he buried dozens of people in the city's Al Ghabat cemetery who had been killed. Four of his cousins were killed by the RSF in the city, he said.

The former policeman who escaped to Chad said he encountered Karshoum while fleeing El Geneina on the morning of June 15, along with thousands of other Masalit. The deputy governor was accompanied by armed men in RSF uniforms and traditional Arab clothing, riding in three land cruisers mounted with machine guns. Karshoum was rallying the militiamen, the ex-policeman said.

Other survivors have told Reuters that the RSF and Arab militias attacked people repeatedly on the route from El Geneina to Chad. Masalit men were shot and women raped at different points along the way, they said.

In an interview with Reuters in October, Karshoum said he supported an "independent investigation" into the violence in El Geneina. He said he had tried to mediate between Arab and non-Arab leaders in the city before the war spilled over from Khartoum to El Geneina in an attempt to prevent violence.

Karshoum didn't respond to follow-up questions about the witness accounts of his role in the fighting.

Moussa Angir | Militia commander

Angir is a commander of the Third Front-Tamazuj, an Arab-dominated militia allied with the RSF that has emerged as a force in the recent violence in West Darfur.

Six people from El Geneina described seeing Third Front-Tamazuj fighters waging attacks side-by-side with RSF forces in the city this year. In August, the group formally announced its alliance with the RSF.

In 2021, Sudan's prosecutor-general charged Angir and more than 30 others with murder, sabotage and looting in connection with attacks on a displaced-persons camp on the outskirts of El Geneina, according to a state prosecutor and four lawyers familiar with the case. Dozens of people were killed in the attacks, which took place in late 2019. The court proceeding against Angir and others was disrupted after the Sudanese military and RSF together seized power in a coup in 2021, the state prosecutor told Reuters.

Three people said they witnessed Angir directing forces during the El Geneina attacks this year.

Faisal, 26, a Masalit shop owner who took up arms to defend his family, said he saw Angir on May 13, leading a convoy of land cruisers carrying militiamen in the Al Madaris district. Faisal said he comes from the same district as Angir and recognized the well-known commander's face. He was watching from a window in a building overlooking a narrow street as Angir's convoy passed through when he heard Angir ordering his men to "move forward."

A 39-year-old doctor said he spotted Angir in the company of militiamen at different checkpoints in the city as he traveled around to treat patients. Throughout the assaults, the RSF and Arab militias set up checkpoints in El Geneina to control people's movement.

The third man, a civilian-turned-fighter, said he saw Angir on June 16, with militiamen at a security installation in the west of El Geneina, where residents trying to flee the city had gathered.

Angir did not respond to questions from Reuters. A spokesman for the Tamazuj declined to comment.

Marfaeen | Militiaman

The militiaman is well-known locally by his nom de guerre, Marfaeen, which means "hyena" in Sudanese Arabic.

Four witnesses described seeing Marfaeen in action in the eastern part of El Geneina.

A Masalit man named Gamal said he encountered Marfaeen while shopping for food at the Aredeba market in northeast El Geneina in late May. Marfaeen and militiamen under his command confronted Gamal and his companions and began questioning them about several individuals, including a Masalit lawyer.

"They made us lie on the ground and they asked us a lot of questions," said Gamal. When he and his companions denied knowing the individuals, he said, the militiamen proceeded to beat them on their feet. They were later let go.

Reuters was unable to contact Marfaeen for this report.

A relief worker with an international humanitarian agency said he came across Marfaeen in the Aredeba market around the same time in late May. The relief worker was moving from one district to another as he tried to evade the RSF's escalating attacks. He said he spotted Marfaeen one day after moving into a house on the edge of the market.

Through a hole in the door, the relief worker said he could see Marfaeen leading a group of nine armed men. The men were in a land cruiser mounted with an anti-aircraft gun and were firing randomly at people, the relief worker said.

People in the streets were shouting, "It's Marfaeen, Marfaeen," as they fled.

During the attack, two people fell to the ground, while the rest escaped, the relief worker said. The militiamen then looted some shops, taking meat from a butchery and cash from vegetable sellers.

"I saw him with my own eyes," the relief worker said of Marfaeen.

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