“Driving through the Hay El Jebel neighbourhood of El Geneina is like driving through a ghost town,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) wrote on Wednesday. Most residents have left, and many houses and huts have been torched as violence swept through the West Darfur capital twice this year.
It has been over a month since the last wave of violence engulfed El Geneina. In April, at least 144 people died and over 233 were wounded when violence erupted after two Masalit tribesmen were killed by Arab tribesmen.
The failure of authorities to investigate the murders or hold the perpetrators to account led to retaliatory violence and armed groups from both tribes took to the streets. The day after, armed groups from Arab tribes and other militias resumed in civilian areas, targeting Masalit without any intervention from the security forces.
Many people fled the violence and houses were torched and looted. “When the fighting started near our house, we all fled to Abu Zur camp with our children and only our clothes on and some small things. We ran for our lives as there was a heavy shooting,” Sarah (not her real name), a 25-year old resident of Hay El Jebel neighbourhood, told OCHA near her torched house.
She explained the extent of the violence: “we lost everything, everything was burned down, the sacks of millet and other food we had, even our kitchen utensils were either taken or burned”. Her house was in a part of the neighbourhood inhabited mainly by members of Massalit, Zaghawa, and Bargo tribes.
Sarah and her family arrived there in 2003 when the conflict started in Darfur. At the time, they were displaced from an area outside of El Geneina and now, after 18 years, they are displaced again.
The parts of the neighbourhood where people of Arab descent live were also affected by fighting. “An RPG rocket landed just near our house and bullets were flying around, while we tried to keep the children and women deeper inside the house,” said Muntasir (not his real name), a father of five who has over 10 people in his household, including his five grandchildren.
“When the people with arms came over, we managed to hide our Massalit neighbours and protect them,” he said. “We have been living here for more than 20 years with our Massalit, Zaghawa, and Bargo neighbours without any problems but now our area looks like a war zone," Muntasir told OCHA.
Darfur has a long history of strife between Arab herding tribes and non-Arab African herders or sedentary farmers, including the Masalit in West Darfur. Arab tribesmen were recruited by the previous regime of dictator Omar Al Bashir to join the Janjaweed militias. Al Bashir employed these Arab militias to repress a revolt over ethnic marginalisation in the region, mainly targeting non-Arab African farmers.
During the war that followed, at least 300,000 people were killed and over 2.5 million were displaced according to the UN.
The end of 2019 also saw violence at the Kerending camps in which more than 80 people were killed and at least 47,000 were displaced. The violence was linked to the previous regime as well and many militant herders who committed the violence drove in Rapid Support Forces* (RSF) vehicles.
In July 25, an attack by armed men on the West Darfur town of Misterei left at least 60 people dead, a third of the town was burned to the ground by gunmen affiliated with the previous dictatorship of Omar Al Bashir.
Following the recent wave of violence in El Geneina, there is an increased tension and deep polarisation. Now, people of visibly Massalit appearance do not go to areas inhabited by Arabs and vice versa out of fear of being attacked.
Meanwhile, all parts of Hay El Jebel are suffering from a severe lack of water and electricity. OCHA explains that, during the violence in early April, the water pumps and generators powering the electricity and water systems were damaged and the people who were operating them fled.
“We just came back to try and salvage whatever we can, but as you see nothing is left, only ashes,” said Sarah. "How can we live here, without water and with no roof over our heads? We don’t even have a kas [cup] to drink from.”
Muntasir faces the same problems. “We have not had running water for almost a month", he explained. "We buy one and a half of barrels of water delivered by water cart sellers for 3,000 SDG [about US$7.7], which lasts for only one day as we are more than 10 people in the household. We have to buy bottled water for drinking as the water delivered by water carts is too salty.”
Sarah and her family approached the Abu Zur camp officials for help but were told that they are not officially registered as IDPs (Internally Displaced People) in the camp and that aid workers would come and assist them in their neighbourhoods. “So far, nobody has come and asked us what we need,” she said.
Earlier this month, Radio Dabanga reported that residents wanted to return to their homes and that a West Darfur government team inspected the affected neighbourhoods.
The team noted that the electricity poles were damaged and that the water network does not work but promised to repair the electricity within three days and to also provide water collectively.
Despite police presence and the promises of the local government, many residents are still not convinced it is safe to return to their homes.
We want to be sure of our safety before we return, that is the first thing. Then what do we return to? There is nothing left, no food, nothing to cook in and keep supplies, not even a sareer [traditional bedframe] to sleep on. We need help so that we can start going back,” Khadija, another resident in her 30s, told OCHA.
*Officially, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, set up by the ousted Al Bashir regime in 2013, was integrated into the Sudan Armed Forces in August last year, however, the militia remains a force unto itself, commanded by Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’, who also is Deputy President of Sudan’s Sovereign Council.