How Arab fighters carried out an ethnic massacre in Sudan

STORY: “They were targeting the family. The family of the Sultan were all targeted. They were targeting them because of their Masalit ethnicity. They were targeting the entire family, they left no one.”

Fatma Bahreldin and her family belong to the Masalit tribe, an ethnic African group from the Sudanese state of West Darfur.

A Reuters investigation has found that between late April and mid-June 2023, the Masalit were targeted in an ethnic killing campaign.

The carnage was carried out by an Arab paramilitary, called the Rapid Support Forces – RSF – and allied Arab militias known as Janjaweed.

At least 1,000 victims were buried in a single cemetery in the city of El Geneina in West Darfur.

The full toll, according to a hospital administrator in the city, was more than 4,000.

One of them was Bahreldin’s father, and brother of the Masalit Sultan.

“We tried in every possible way to get people to go and retrieve the body of my father. We went to the tribal leaders, to a large number of the Arab tribal leaders, to help retrieve the body of my father. There were people who refused. There were people who said they can’t because the RSF, the Janjaweed and the Arabs present there were extremely violent.”

Reuters interviewed more than 120 people who fled El Geneina to Chad.

They described unimaginable horrors: children being shot, women and girls raped, people picked off by snipers in the streets, and others slaughtered inside mosques.

Alongside their accounts, Reuters analysed satellite imagery, photographs, social media footage and lists of the dead compiled by local rights activists,

to assemble the first comprehensive chronicle of the violence that consumed El Geneina earlier this year.

The RSF did not respond to questions for this report. Arab militia leaders couldn’t be reached.

In public comments, Arab tribal leaders have denied engaging in ethnic cleansing in West Darfur.

The killings in El Geneina followed days after the outbreak of a civil war on April 15 in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, between the army and the RSF over a plan to integrate their forces as part of a transition to civilian rule.

The campaign had a target: the darker-skinned Masalit tribe, for whom West Darfur is their historical homeland.

Multiple survivors say the Arab attackers often refer to the Masalit as “anbai,” meaning slave.

Survivors say the militiamen were particularly focused on killing Masalit men and boys, seen as potential fighters.

Adam Hassan managed to flee to Chad with some of his children.

"They killed my son and threw him into the fire. They killed my father too, but they did not throw him in the fire. We left the bodies out there, we did not bury them.”

The survivors’ accounts reveal an ethnic killing campaign that was systematic and coordinated.

The killing frenzy reached a climax over several days in mid-June.

The flow of corpses was constant.

The peril was so unrelenting that many survivors say they were unable to give their dead the prompt burial called for by Muslim and local custom.

El Geneina’s Al Ghabat cemetery turned from a small rectangular plot into a sprawling mass grave for at least 1,000 residents.

At the heart of the violence that has plagued West Darfur is a competition for land, water and other scarce resources between non-Arab farming communities and nomadic Arab livestock herders.

Since 2019, hundreds of non-Arabs had been killed in attacks by the RSF and Arab militias. That’s according to the United Nations.

There have been eruptions of ethnic conflict in recent years, but none as protracted and systematic as what unfolded in West Darfur from April to mid-June.

The RSF has said it wasn’t involved in what it described as a tribal conflict.

The Arab leaders said the Sudanese military had colluded with the Masalit, supplying them with weapons to attack the Arab community.

The Sudanese Army didn’t respond to questions for this report, including why soldiers stationed in El Geneina didn’t intervene to protect civilians under attack.