Ibegan covering Sudan when war broke out in Darfur in 2003, with the repression of a rebellion among non-Arab citizens by Omar al-Bashir’s largely pro-Arab government. I was blacklisted in 2013 for reasons that were never made clear, though my writing wasn’t friendly to the regime. But in the aftermath of Bashir’s removal from power – his trial for the coup that had brought him to power in 1989 began last year – I found I could travel to Sudan again.
The first person I went to see was Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, better known as Hemetti. I was driven to a large house in downtown Khartoum, once the villa of the vice president. On the lawn, armed guards stood incongruously next to children’s swings and slides. The sofas in the ornate reception room reminded me of the furniture shop in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, where I first met Hemetti, in 2009 – one of his early business ventures. And then he entered, wearing the Sudanese civilian uniform of white jellabiya and turban. He hadn’t changed much. ‘You wrote bad things about me,’ he said, ‘but now we can be reconciled.’
Hemetti is in a mood to make friends. He began his career as a junior leader in the janjawid, the Arab militias which acted as Bashir’s proxies in Darfur, and is now head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and second in command of the Sovereignty Council, the transitional body that is currently ruling Sudan. He made many enemies along the way. Rival militia leaders, army officers and politicians see him as a threat; former regime loyalists see him as a traitor. He is trying to enlarge his support base, internationally but above all in Darfur, where he is working to win over the non-Arab civilians and rebels he once fought.
Before the war in 2003, Hemetti was a camel trader. His family belong to the Mahariya tribe, part of the northern Rizeigat tribal confederation. Muslim, Arab and nomadic, the Rizeigat have traditionally roamed across Darfur and Chad following the seasons: the northerners herd camels, the southerners cattle. When Darfur’s non-Arab population, bitter after long years of oppression at the hands of successive governments, rose up in 2003, they were confronted not only by government forces but also by government-backed militias led by men like Hemetti. Hundreds of thousands were killed.
Hemetti’s story illustrates the complex allegiances that have dictated events in Darfur over the past twenty years. In 2007, disillusioned with the government, he declared himself a rebel, but then the regime began to buy up his men. After six months he changed sides too and was appointed security adviser to the governor of South Darfur. In 2013 a rebel coalition attacked the town of Umm Ruwaba, two hundred miles east of Darfur, on the way to Khartoum. Meanwhile, in Nyala, disgruntled janjawid were openly fighting the intelligence services. Hemetti, now again on the government side, refused to support his tribesmen and was chosen to set up the RSF, operating first under the intelligence service, then under the direct control of the president. It became Bashir’s praetorian guard.
In April 2019, Hemetti says, he refused an order from Bashir to open fire on protesters. Bashir had quoted an Islamic law which supposedly allows a ruler to kill up to half of his people in order to bring stability. Many in Sudan welcomed Hemetti’s stance. But they are less enthusiastic about his apparent ambition to rule the country, even though as a member of the transitional government he is theoretically excluded from running in the general election expected in 2024.
The revolution that brought down Bashir began in 2018 with protests against the high price of fuel and basic goods. The situation has barely improved since then. In Khartoum and on the road to Darfur, I saw long lines of cars waiting for petrol, and people queuing for bread. In El-Obeid, young protesters were burning tyres. At the gates of El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, the white tents that once housed a hundred thousand displaced people have been replaced by solid mud houses. ‘But it’s still a camp, we’re not part of the city,’ Sajo, a tribal chief, told me. ‘The government wants us to be part of the city, but we refused. We’re afraid it could then allow them to give our homeland to the Arabs who occupy it.’
I barely recognised him. Once a colossus, Sajo had become thin. And he didn’t recognise me: he is now blind after three years in prison, detained because he kept speaking out against the government. ‘I brought my people here,’ he said, ‘got them away from the massacres. I haven’t seen my land since 2003.’ A few years ago, some of Sajo’s people returned to their village, hiding in the mountains during the day and scouting out their farms at night. They came back to the camp at El-Fasher, reporting that people were occupying their land; no one has returned since. ‘Weapons are still in the hands of militias,’ Sajo said. ‘When it is safe, we will return to our land.’ But he’s afraid that safety may be a long way off. And after his generation dies, the next one may not be interested in land they have never set eyes on.
Driving west, I recognised villages I had last seen fifteen years ago, their earth and stone houses largely destroyed and covered by high grasses. Ten thousand people still live in Fata Borno in North Darfur, many of them displaced from nearby villages. Every year the non-Arab farmers there negotiate an agreement with the Arab herders. They give the Arabs a share of their harvest in exchange for the janjawid allowing them to farm, although between 2003 and 2020 Fata Borno was attacked four times by its Arab neighbours. Those who leave town to work on their farms or to fetch wood are often beaten up or shot at by janjawid on motorbikes. C., one of the local chiefs, lives in a house made from branches that needs to be renewed annually. ‘We’re surrounded by Arabs,’ he told me. ‘It’s like we’re in an open-air prison.’
On the walls in the town there are murals showing men on motorbikes or horses, turbaned and armed with Kalashnikovs, with red crosses painted on them like huge warning signs. Since July 2020 the people here, old and young, men and women, have been holding a daily demonstration in the centre of town. There have been similar protests across Sudan since the start of the revolution. In Darfur, demands for a civilian government have been accompanied by calls for solutions to more pressing local problems: peace, security, occupied land. A week after the demonstrations began in Fata Borno, the security forces tasked with protecting the protesters were ordered to withdraw. The next morning, Arab gunmen on motorbikes rode into town, pillaging houses and shooting at the demonstrators. Ten people were killed. The gunmen only left after UNAMID – the UN and African Union joint mission in Darfur – and government forces intervened.
After the massacre, a unit made up of army, police and RSF personnel was deployed to prevent further violence. ‘They only keep the janjawid out of town,’ C. said. ‘We still can’t leave to farm. There is no justice, none of the criminals has been caught. They don’t want to arrest their relatives’ – who, C. believes, are usually members of the RSF or other paramilitary groups. ‘There are no Arab civilians,’ he told me. ‘Among Arabs, all males between the ages of seven and eighty are armed and part of militias.’ Protesters in Fata Borno think that Hemetti may be sincere when he says he wants peace, but ‘his tribesmen make trouble and he can’t always confront them.’
UNAMID left West Darfur in June 2019 despite warnings from its own staff that the situation there was unstable. That December, Arab gunmen – with RSF troops among them – attacked Kirinding, a camp of fifty thousand non-Arab internally displaced persons in West Darfur. At least sixty people were killed. This January, gunmen attacked Kirinding again. Most of its residents fled to schools and government buildings in the nearby town of Geneina. But this time, having realised that the government was unable or unwilling to protect them, others stayed behind, armed and ready. Dozens of attackers were reportedly killed – which led to Arabs launching their own demonstration, demanding the removal of IDP camps from the area. In April, clashes resumed in Geneina, with at least 144 people killed and 65,000 displaced.
Before leaving Fata Borno, I overheard a conversation between C. and an RSF officer. ‘I warned you that protesters would be killed,’ the officer said. ‘You can’t get back what you lost in seventeen years in one night, just because there was a revolution in Khartoum. Those guys are armed and they are stronger than you.’ C. agreed, but added: ‘Our young revolutionaries are impatient.’ The RSF officer belonged to the Fur tribe, Darfur’s largest non-Arab community. Everyone knows him by his nickname, Abunduluk, the Arabic word for the ground hornbill. He was given the name as a child because he was small and dark, but he’s now proud of his nom de guerre. He joined the RSF three years ago, but was one of the early members of the original Darfur rebellion in 2003.
Abunduluk’s body, covered with scars, is a map of the Darfur conflict. He rolled up his trousers and showed me marks on both his calves: his older wounds were from 1989, during the first war between Arabs and Fur. A janjawid bullet killed his grandfather and he was hit in the leg. He was fourteen and still at school. Many of his other relatives, including his father, were killed in the following years. A scar on his right leg, from 2000, came from a janjawid ambush on Shoba, where he was visiting relatives. In 2002, sixty people were killed in another assault on the village, and Abunduluk was injured in the left arm. Shortly afterwards he joined the rebellion. The scar on his head is a souvenir of the rebel raid on El-Fasher in 2003. Harassed by aerial bombardment in the mountains where they were hiding, the first Darfur rebels – 317 fighters moving in thirteen pickups – surprised and destroyed two planes and five helicopters at the nearby airfield. After the raid, Abunduluk discovered a man hiding in a fridge in the officers’ quarters. He pointed his gun but his commander ordered him not to shoot. A good call: the man was the head of Sudan’s airforce, and his capture by the rebels completed Khartoum’s humiliation.
The journalist Julie Flint and I first met Abunduluk in 2007, after crossing from Chad to Darfur’s rebel area. At the time, we were interested in the mountain rebel enclave he was commanding, where the fighters were on good terms with the local population and had negotiated non-aggression pacts with the janjawid, bypassing the government. Julie published a piece in the Washington Post provocatively headlined ‘Darfur, Saving Itself’: she was critical of the white saviour complex that lay behind the US Save Darfur coalition, and damning about the push for US military intervention led by then Senator Joseph Biden. But mediation wasn’t working either. Visits by African Union and US envoys, putting pressure on the rebels to sign peace agreements, triggered internal tensions, with hardliners detaining or murdering moderates.
Abunduluk finally decided to negotiate in 2017, when the RSF began manoeuvres for a raid on his mountain enclave. He and 350 of his men were integrated into the RSF. When I asked him how he felt about joining the janjawid, whose fighters had killed his relatives and burned their villages, he said: ‘Yes, I work with former enemies, sleep alongside them, eat with them. There are challenges.’ But he had no choice: the rebels had lost any hope of winning the war, and joining the victors was the only way to protect his community. He also thinks that the RSF has changed. Arab troops are still a majority, but a few thousand non-Arab fighters from across Sudan have enlisted, and their presence has helped alter the mindset of the Arab contingents.
Abunduluk and his crew were nothing like the old-style janjawid, whose presence used to terrify everyone. Among them was a former army driver from the Red Sea coast, who had been shocked to meet the seven-year-old shepherds who live for months in the Darfur desert with nothing to eat or drink apart from camel milk. Another had been a migrant plumber in Libya before travelling the Sahara looking for gold. After five years, his pockets still empty, his family had to wire money for his trip home. Most were young men from poor families in Hemetti’s tribe or other Arab groups from Darfur. They hoped to make some money in the RSF before resuming a ‘normal life’. Inflation was now making their wages less attractive, so many were hoping to be deployed to Yemen as part of the well-paid Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels. Those who had come back alive from Yemen spoke of mass losses to Houthi missiles.
The numbers of RSF deployed in Yemen at one point reached 16,000; they were cut back in late 2019 after intense criticism from politicians, who accused them of running a mercenary operation. Hemetti announced that he would rescue Sudan’s finances with $1 billion of his own money, much of it from his holdings in gold and his profits in Yemen. Accused of a conflict of interest, he also handed over the huge Jebel Amir goldmine to the government, reportedly in exchange for a $50 million tax exemption. When I visited the mine, which the RSF still describes as ‘our factory’, it was at a standstill, waiting for the transitional government to restart operations.
The town of Zuruq, at the edge of the Sahara, is said to be Hemetti’s new capital, but for the moment it’s a collection of huts on a sandy hillside. The market sells camel saddles and military boots. The cars in town are military pickups, apart from the white Land Cruiser that Hemetti gave his father. Most of the men wear khakis, except the chief, Hemetti’s uncle Juma, who wears a jellabiya. It’s difficult to imagine that in the 1980s gazelles were hunted here by lions rather than by men in cars, and that the area was full of giraffes and actual ground hornbills. Drought pushed the desert south, and the nomads too. As Juma told me, his clan had another reason to move: to escape the authority – and the taxes – of their traditional chief in the north. In 1995, the Bashir government made Juma a chief in South Darfur. But it wasn’t enough for him: he resented the fact that in tribal gatherings he was taken less seriously than the paramilitaries. That is his justification for his people joining the militias. Juma has no regrets. ‘The government supported us,’ he said, ‘and now we rule the country.’
The land he and his clan had settled, as Juma acknowledged, belonged to the Fur. The tensions between Fur and Arabs, and successive peace agreements requiring the return of occupied land, convinced Juma to go back north. He claimed that his move to Zuruq was a return to his tribe’s homeland. This is disputed by the non-Arab Zaghawa herders living in the area, who argue that the land was given to their chiefs by Darfur’s sultans centuries ago. This didn’t preclude Arab nomads from living there, but their attempts to claim ownership of the area have long provoked conflict.
Wherever I went – among protesters in Fata Borno, rebels who had joined the RSF, miners in Jebel Amir and IDPs in the camps – Darfurians acknowledged that things had improved since the revolution, and that Hemetti was part of it. But many complain that the pace of change is too slow, and that large numbers of Arabs still haven’t given up the janjawid’s supremacist agenda. They still see the RSF as a tribal militia rather than the ‘national army’ Hemetti claims it to be. They want him to confront his hardline tribesmen. They also warn that if change is confined to the capital it will lead to another conflict. ‘They still look down on us from there,’ a non-Arab RSF member told me. ‘One day there will be war in Khartoum.’