Surging numbers of Sudanese civilians fleeing El Geneina, a city in Darfur hit by repeated militia attacks, have been killed or shot at as they have tried to escape by foot to Chad since mid-last week, witnesses say, Reuters reports.
The violence in El Geneina over the past two months has been driven by militias from Arab nomadic tribes, along with members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a military faction engaged in a power struggle with Sudan’s Army in the capital, Khartoum, witnesses and activists say.
A large number of people tried to seek protection near the army headquarters in El Geneina on 14 June, but were blocked, said Ibrahim, a resident who made it to the Chadian town of Adre, about 27 km (17 miles) from El Geneina.
“All of a sudden, the militias came out and sprayed people with gunfire,” he told Reuters by phone, asking to use only his first name. “We got surprised by thousands of people running back. People were killed, they were trampled.”
Reuters spoke to three witnesses who sustained gunshot wounds as they tried to flee El Geneina and to more than a dozen witnesses who said they had seen violence on the route from the city. It was not clear how many people had been killed in recent days while leaving.
Medical charity, MSF, said on Monday that some 15,000 people had fled West Darfur over the previous four days, and it said many arrivals reported seeing people shot and killed as they tried to escape El Geneina. MSF also reported cases of rapes.
“It was a collective decision of the people of El Geneina to leave,” one resident told MSF from Chad. “Most of them fled on foot heading north-east of El Geneina, but many of them were killed on this route.”
The decision to flee El Geneina came after the State Governor of West Darfur was killed on 14 June, hours after he accused the RSF and allied militias of “genocide” in a TV interview, said Ibrahim.
“After people found out that the Governor was kidnapped and killed, people decided to leave the city,” he said. Ibrahim later found out that eight of his family members had been killed, including his grandmother, and that his mother had been beaten.
The war that erupted in April has uprooted some 2.2 million people, according to UN data, mainly from the capital and from Darfur, which was already suffering from two decades of conflict and mass displacement. Over 500,000 have crossed into neighbouring countries, including more than 115,000 who have fled Darfur for Chad, the data says.
A 72-hour ceasefire brokered by Saudi Arabia and the US, due to expire early on Wednesday morning, has brought a lull in fighting in Khartoum, though residents report that looting has spread.
Unrest in Darfur has escalated and taken on a more overtly ethnic nature as war in the capital has intensified, with assailants targeting non-Arab residents by their skin colour, witnesses said.
The violence has brought warnings of a repeat of the atrocities perpetrated in Darfur after 2003, when “Janjaweed” militias, from which the RSF was formed, helped the government crush a rebellion by mainly non-Arab groups in Darfur.
More than 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced, according to UN estimates.
RSF leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, said on Tuesday his force would investigate events in El Geneina. He accused the Army of fomenting unrest by arming tribes, while the Army has blamed the RSF for the Governor’s death and other violence in the region.
Sultan Saad Bahreldin, leader of the Masalit tribe, the largest bloc of El Geneina residents, said there had been “systematic” killing in recent days.
“The road between El Geneina and Adre has a lot of bodies, no one can count them,” he told Al Hadath TV. “Only God can protect people on their way (to Chad).”
One activist who left El Geneina on Sunday told Reuters that Arab militias and the RSF had reinforced their presence in the city since the Governor’s killing, adding that Arab groups controlled the route to Chad.
Eyewitnesses had reported cases of rape, murder and enforced disappearance along the route, said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fears for his safety.
Competition for land has long been a driver of conflict in Darfur. Villages on the road from El Geneina to Adre used to be Masalit, but had been settled by Arab tribes since 2003, Ibrahim said.
Several witnesses from El Geneina, largely cut off from phone networks for weeks, said darker skinned non-Arabs were being targeted, especially the Masalit.
One resident who arrived in Chad on 15 June, Abdel Nasser Abdullah, told Reuters his house was one of many in his neighbourhood that was stormed, and that his cousin was killed while he hid on the roof.
“They are not only looking for the Masalit, but anyone Black,” he said, adding that the streets of the city were strewn with bodies, including those of women and children.
“I faced many problems – beating, shooting and humiliation,” he said of his journey by foot to Chad. “It’s the Janjaweed, wearing RSF clothes, and others plain clothes. All have their faces covered.”