What began as a violent altercation between two men in a displaced persons camp in El Geneina, the capital city of Western Darfur, quickly spiraled out of control over the weekend of January 15-17. According to current reports, the violence spread to militias–described by many survivors as Janjaweed–who then attacked at least 13 neighboring villages, where citizens were brutalized, murdered, and their homes burned. While information has slowly trickled out in the days since, estimates are now hovering around 250 dead and 100,000 displaced. The United Nations is reporting that at least 10 of these deaths were children, and three were humanitarian aid workers.
This outbreak of violence comes just two weeks after UNAMID’s last patrol. Their withdrawal from Darfur has been controversial to say the least. The hybrid mission is being phased out of the region and is set to be replaced by a transitional force, created in coordination with the new government of Sudan. While many, including the people of Darfur, have long critiqued the failings of UNAMID, the mood on the ground is that they would prefer the troops stay. Among other reasons, there is a definite lack of trust in the new United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS).
According to a report from Al Jazeera, UNITAMS includes “the police, the military, and the paramilitary rapid force.” While Sudan is working hard to build toward a stable democracy, these factions of government have historically given citizens reason to be wary, often being the ones most responsible for the violence rather than the protectors from it. Our friends on the ground shared their concerns, noting that “I listen to many refugees but they are saying nothing has changed because the same person who killed you, he is protecting you.” They see in the transitional government as well as UNITAMS members of the Janjaweed who helped former president Omar al Bashir carry out his genocide in the country. “Today the same janjaweed who commit[ed] all the [crimes] in Darfur are in Sudan. They become in the head of country and know [each] day they are more strong than the last.”
Beyond the lack of trust in UNITAMS, the Global Centre for R2P notes that the new mission “will have no uniformed personnel to protect civilians from the growing threat of militia attacks.” This begs the question, who will be there to protect the people of Darfur? This concern grows as the number of displaced persons grows. According to Radio Dabanga, gunmen have even been attacking the displacement camps. The United Nations and the government of Sudan cannot just leave the safety of Darfuris up to chance, especially knowing full-well that this sort of violence is on the rise. Recent reports show that, “incidents of inter-communal violence in Darfur doubled during the second half of 2020 as compared to 2019.”
Complicating matters even further, the world is still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The United Nations reports that those who are fleeing to eastern Chad are finding themselves in quarantine at a transit site along the border. One also wonders what sort of precautions are being taken for those seeking refuge within the borders of Western Darfur. The pandemic will surely serve to further exacerbate the violence inflicted on these communities.
There is an urgent need for the international community to take seriously the efforts of the people of Sudan to rebuild their democracy. This doesn’t just mean highlighting their successes, but also offering support where needed. As we listen to our friends in Darfur, they are calling out for help. “We [need] your support. We are suffering too much. We need organisations and agency of UN. We need security forces from UN.”
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