19.04.2024

Calls for UK to act over violence tearing Sudan apart as mass grave found in Darfur

At least 87 people, including children, have been found buried in a mass grave in Sudan, the UN has said – as calls grow for the UK to act over the violence that has plagued the country for months. Those on the ground and from across the political spectrum believe the situation is comparable to the killings in Dafur that sparked international outcry in 2003.

Ethnically-motivated bloodshed has escalated in recent weeks, in step with fighting between rival military factions that erupted in April and has brought the country to the brink of civil war. Thousands have died and millions have been forced from their homes by the broader conflict between Sudan’s army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by al-Burhan’s former deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, known as “Hemedti”.

The UN Human Rights Office said the dead in the mass grave — some of them from the ethnic African Masalit tribe — were killed by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and an affiliated Arab militia. “According to credible information gathered by the Office, those buried in the mass grave were killed by RSF and their allied militia around 13-21 June…” a UN statement said.

But the RSF has denied being involved in any fighting in West Darfur and says it has “no connection” to events there.

The mass grave is the latest incident to emerge from West Darfur’s capital, El Geneina, where The Independent has heard from witnesses about claims of teenagers being rounded up and shot, while women and girls are raped. People are said to have been told this is to “destroy and change the DNA of the area”. One of those who made it out of the city said they were “running from hell”.

“What is happening in El Geneina is a genocide – we want this said out loud,” said Ibrahim*, who is sheltering in the neighbouring country of Chad, where his family has sought refuge after fleeing the city. They did not want to be named to protect extended family members who are still stranded: “It’s been going on systematically.”

Urging the UK and the wider international community to take action, Lord David Alton, a crossbench peer who is a member of the UK Parliament Human Rights Committee, told The Independent: “There is an unfolding genocide happening in Darfur and the international community is doing nothing.

“Mass graves are synonymous with 20 years ago. It is an appalling indictment of the abysmal failure of the international community that two decades later a commitment of ‘never again’ has been allowed to happen all over again. There is no end to the suffering which the people of Darfur have had to endure. We should hang our heads in shame.

“What started then has been a slow-burn genocide that never ended. The perpetrators were never held to account… and surprise, surprise, it is now happening again on a shocking scale.”

Lord Alton said the UK government’s response has so far been “lamentable”, adding: “I’ve spoken personally to ministers about this – and there is plenty of sympathy, but that is not matched by appropriate action.”

Following the discovery of the mass grave, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk called for “a prompt, thorough and independent investigation into the killings”, with those responsible to be held to account.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating events in Dafur, noting the reports of killings, rapes and crimes affecting children, the top prosecutor told the United Nations on Thursday. “The office can confirm that it has commenced investigations in relation to incidents occurring in the context of the present hostilities,” the ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s office said in a report to the UN Security Council.

ICC prosecutors are “closely tracking reports of extrajudicial killings, burning of homes and markets, and looting, in El Geneina, as well as the killing and displacement of civilians in North Darfur and other locations across Darfur,” the report said. It is also examining “allegations of sexual and gender-based crimes, including mass rapes and alleged reports of violence against and affecting children,” it said.

El Geneina, which has a population of around 250,000, has been under siege for more than two months, shortly after conflict between the military factions broke out. Last month, the West Darfur governor was killed soon after accusing the RSF of carrying out a genocide against the Masalit people.

“The RSF suffocated El Geneina,” said Ibrahim. Describing destroyed water pumps, looted banks, burned food markets and ravaged medical supplies, he told how his 86-year-old diabetic mother has gone six weeks without medicine.

His family of almost 20, with the youngest being just a few months old, said they were sheltering in their homes, afraid to step outside for fear of snipers. “For us, we see that death is moving closer every day,” said one of his brothers, who told of streets littered with bodies, the stench of decomposing flesh hanging heavy over the city.

It was only when Ibrahim’s uncle was killed on 21 June that the family said they made the life-or-death decision to try to escape via the perilous 28-kilometre road to Adre, a town very close to Chad’s eastern border with Sudan, where tens of thousands of refugees are currently living in makeshift camps, seeking humanitarian aid.

The family said they drove through at least 10 checkpoints on the 12-hour journey. ”Every moment, every single second we feel we are going to be killed,” said Ibrahim’s brother. They said they were insulted, pushed around, and robbed of their only remaining money in a “terrifying ordeal” – but they survived.

Ibrahim, who had been working in Khartoum, finally made contact with his family when they got across the border. Weeks without hearing from them was a “feeling that is killing” and led to his being forced to take time off work, he said. He had been about to travel to his family in El Geneina for the holidays when war broke out, and he was evacuated in a UN convoy days later.

Now, he is in a city 100 kilometres inland from Chad’s border, desperately trying to find homes for his family amid rocketing rents and low availability due to the high demand created by Sudanese people seeking refuge, he said.

About 2.2 million people have fled their homes in Sudan, while 25 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, according to Vicky Ford MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan and South Sudan. She said the death toll in El Geneina alone now exceeds 5,000 and the injured surpasses 8,000.

Ibrahim said the lack of support from the international community had caused him to lose hope in it. Like many others, he is calling for the international community to establish a safe passage along that 28-kilometre road to evacuate civilians, or at a minimum the thousands wounded.

Lord Alton travelled to Darfur in 2004 with Rebecca Tinsley, who founded her organisation Waging Peace in response to the horrors she witnessed there, and both took testimonies from survivors. Describing bodies there currently “being used as road bumps”, Ms Tinsley, said: “The situation in Darfur now is possibly as bad as it was during the genocide, if not worse.”

Ms Ford described “civilians facing horror” as they are murdered, disappeared, and raped in Khartoum and parts of Darfur, with lawyers, doctors, and community leaders being targeted. “Again, atrocities are happening at all levels,” she said, adding: “What’s happening in El Geneina has also got an ethnic element – there are systemic ethnic attacks and cleansing of non-Arabs.”

A man who has a leadership role in the El Geneina community told of being “targeted from the moment the war started”. He said he had to make the difficult decision to leave his wife and children at home and go into hiding, where he was stuck for weeks.

He said he finally managed to flee the city and ended up walking all the way from there to Adre, without any resources like water or food, and constantly thinking, “They’re going to catch me, they’re going to get me now.”

Eventually, he said he made it to the temporary camps across the border in Chad. Miraculously, he was reunited with his family there, and they all held each other and wept.

Without an urgent response, Ms Ford fears the violence against civilians will spread into other parts of Sudan or neighbouring countries, because of Sudan’s importance, size, and location “at the crossroads in Africa”. She added: “There are risks instability in Africa leads to more migration then more instability in western Europe – this is important domestically in the UK too.”

The MP for Chelmsford said the UK government is aware of Sudan’s importance to the UK and has been having discussions with many of its international partners. She said the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, “absolutely understands the critical nature of this situation and the risk of it spreading”. Although, she added, “There are more questions about other potential steps the UK government could take, and I hope they could take them as soon as possible.”

Ms Ford said the all-party group will be calling for efforts on asset freezes, an arms embargo and a peacekeeping force. That is in addition to sanctions.

Mr Mitchell said: “The UK’s immediate objective in Sudan is to stop the violence and atrocities being committed, ensure civilians are protected and push for immediate, safe and unfettered access for humanitarian organisations. The UK continues to support local peacebuilding activities in Darfur, working with international non-governmental organisations and civil society actors to end the conflict as soon as possible and support efforts to sustain a ceasefire.”

He said the UK has contributed more than £250 million in humanitarian aid to Sudan in the past 5 years, while it recently announced £21.7 million more, following an earlier £5 million to support those fleeing the country.

*names have been changed to protect identities

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