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Darfur in Flames with Janjaweed's Return
New Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) images from March 17, 2014 show approximately 150 recently destroyed homes on the western side of the Darfuri town of Saraf Omra,* where Janjaweed fighters are once again wreaking havoc. The patterns of destruction to separate areas lead DigitalGlobe imagery analysts to conclude that the damage to Saraf Omra was intentional—not accidental.
Darfuri civilians are once again suffering as militias vie for control of territory and resources. Attacks in Saraf Omra killed 19 people and injured 60 according to news accounts, and displaced almost 65,000 according to international humanitarian groups. Deadly attacks on areas surrounding Saraf Omra are escalating as leaders vie for control of North Darfur, infighting among competing government-backed forces intensifies, and intercommunal clashes erupt. Khartoum’s long-time counter-insurgency strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ is evident in the recent violence. The Sudanese government’s financial support for armed groups that attack civilians indicates its tolerance and accommodation of criminal conduct by the militias that it pays. The culture of impunity has emboldened all armed actors across Darfur—including those who are loyal and disloyal to the government.
Image 1: Overview of Saraf Omra
Musa Hilal spotted in Saraf Omra attacks
Eyewitnesses say the deadly attacks in Saraf Omra that began the morning of March 3 were led by militia forces loyal to influential Darfuri leader Musa Hilal, whose recent return from Khartoum and bid for power in North Darfur had stoked fears of renewed violence. In late February, Hilal’s militias advanced toward the Saraf Omra, clearing local roads and driving government-aligned militias toward nearby Jebel ‘Amer in a bid for control of the area. Upon reaching Saraf Omra on March 3, Hilal’s fighters attempted to unseat the local state-appointed commissioner, who escaped during the ensuing clashes that resulted in the deaths of several of Hilal’s fighters.
Sources tell the Enough Project that the deaths of Hilal’s fighters and the resulting discord over retribution payments ultimately sparked heavy intercommunal clashes among the Abbala, Gimir, and Tama groups in Saraf Omra. Several neighborhoods were damaged and burned, and the market was looted in fighting on March 7. Combatants cut access to the town’s only source of water, forcing the flight of thousands, many of whom sought refuge at the nearby African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) compound. UNAMID forces evacuated several of those who had fled, including the commissioner, to the North Darfur capital of El Fasher.
Image 2: Huts burned in Saraf Omra, North Darfur State, Sudan
Hilal now says he has seized Saraf Omra and three other nearby towns; he has dismissed local authorities and announced his establishment and leadership of a new administration in these areas, with a council of 100 people from local tribes. The North Darfur governor has criticized “uncontrolled groups” for destabilizing western parts of the state. Khartoum vows that Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) will soon recapture Saraf Omra and other areas. Conflicting reports, however, allege that Hilal militias have left Saraf Omra.
There are multiple interpretations of Hilal’s actions and the intercommunal clashes to which his forces have been tied. Power struggles among leaders for control of North Darfur is evident amid intercommunal clashes. Sources say that there was an assassination attempt by the North Darfur governor on Hilal in Saraf Omra on March 6, and there are reports that the governor himself survived an assassination attempt on March 16, though he has denied these accounts. Some say Hilal is consolidating power in a bid to increase his leverage when bargaining for greater political influence with Khartoum. Others say he is deeply dissatisfied that Khartoum can no longer fulfill his financial incentives for his forces.
Image 3: Tents destroyed in the marketplace, Saraf Omra, North Darfur State
Reconstituted Janjaweed torching villages across Darfur
Hilal’s relationships with local and Khartoum-based power brokers is unpredictable as violence in Darfur escalates rapidly and the overall landscape of armed actors in Darfur grows more complex, particularly with the emergence of a reconstituted Janjaweed group loyal to Khartoum. The 6,000-strong Rapid Support Forces (RSF), or the Rapid Response Force (RRF), had initially served in the government’s heavy military offensive in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Killing civilians and leaving a trail of burned homes in its wake, the RSF then advanced into North Kordofan before moving into Darfur. In late February the group attacked more than 35 towns in South Darfur, killing and raping civilians and burning homes to the ground. A string of RSF attacks in North Darfur within the past week has destroyed 16 villages west of Mellit town and 25 towns north of Kutum. Humanitarian organizations estimate 215,000 people are newly displaced in Darfur’s violence since the beginning of 2014.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay have all expressed concern over intensifying violence and deteriorating humanitarian conditions in North and South Darfur as peacekeepers and humanitarian aid providers struggle to access and care for those in need.
Image 4: IDPs gathered outside the UNAMID camp, Saraf Omra, North Darfur State