By Afp<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Days of inter-ethnic fighting in Sudan's Darfur region leaving almost 140 dead and 50,000 people displaced have cast shadows over hopes the war-ravaged region was heading towards peace.Days of inter-ethnic fighting in Sudan’s Darfur region leaving almost 140 dead and 50,000 people displaced have cast shadows over hopes the war-ravaged region was heading towards peace.
While the ex-rebel forces who signed an October peace deal have condemned the violence — two separate clashes in South and West Darfur states — the fighting shows that signing an agreement is only the first step towards ending conflict.
What caused the recent surge of violence, and what does it mean for ending the conflict?
– What is the background? –
Fighting first erupted in Darfur in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, which responded by recruiting and arming notorious Arab-dominated militia known as the Janjaweed.
A total of 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced, according to the United Nations.
It left the region awash with weapons with the multiple ethnic groups divided by bitter rivalries.
Fighting has subsided over the years, but tribal and ethnic violence periodically occur between Arab pastoralists against settled ethnic farmers over land ownership and access to water.
Hardline ruler Omar al-Bashir — wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and other alleged crimes in Darfur — was deposed in April 2019, paving the way for the rebels and the new transitional civilian-majority government to sign a peace deal in October.
A long-running peacekeeping force, the joint United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), ended 13-years of operations in December, with a phased withdrawal of its approximately 8,000 armed and civilian personnel over six months.
– What happened now? –
On Saturday, residents of the West Darfur state capital El Geneina, close to the border with Chad, woke to the sound of “intense gunfire”, one told AFP.
“It started as a quarrel between two people, one from the non-Arab ethnic Massalit tribe and another from an Arab tribe on Friday,” Adam Hussein, a local farmer from El Geneina, told AFP by phone.
“The dispute occurred in a restaurant, and ended with one stabbing the other.”
Police arrested the suspected killer, but “armed militias took advantage of the incident and attacked El Geneina,” said the Darfur Bar Association, a local civil society group.
“These militias spread panic … and carried out all forms of human rights violations, including pillage and plunder,” it said in a statement.
Fighting persisted until Sunday afternoon, including in a camp hosting some of the thousands of Darfuris displaced by decades of conflict.
“We lived in horror for those two days,” said resident Om Kalthoum Mohamed.
Khartoum’s government said it was sending reinforcements to tackle the situation.
Then on Monday, a separate outbreak of fighting erupted in South Darfur state, with Arab Rizeigat men in pickup trucks flanked by riders on motorcycles and camels sweeping to a village home to the Fallata tribe.
At least 55 people were killed, and homes were torched, in an attack which tribal leaders said was to avenge the death of a Rizeigat member by the Fallata last week.
Aid workers fear the violence could drag Darfur backwards into further conflict.
Save the Children country director Arshad Malik pleaded with all “to lay down their arms immediately, before the situation gets out of control.”
– Does it threaten the peace deal? –
The violence was between heavily armed rival ethnic groups and militia gunmen, not the groups who signed the deal.
Former rebel commander Gibril Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), called the violence a “tragedy”, while Minni Minawi of the Sudan Liberation Movement stressed the need for “implementing the peace deal”.
But the clashes underscore “the state of relations between communities on the opposing fronts of the unresolved civil war in Darfur,” said Magdi El-Gizouli, an analyst with the Rift Valley Institute think-tank.
Tackling the legacy of war to rebuild peaceful ties between rival communities takes more than putting pen to paper.
Jonas Horner, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), said it was “unlikely” the peace agreement could have helped avoid the latest violence — and the deal had not been aided by the failure to involve local communities.
The virtual absence of consultation around the agreement “with conflict-affected communities means there is little sense of impending address of the root causes of Sudan’s conflict,” Horner said.
– Will peacekeepers’ departure make it worse? –
In December, residents of displacement camps protested against the departure of UNAMID peacekeepers citing fears of violence.
When it was operating, UNAMID was spread thinly across the vast region and struggled at times to quell fighting — but its presence did have “a dissuasive effect,” said Horner.
The government is taking over the job of security in Darfur, but Horner warns it is “ill-equipped” and faces a tough challenge.
Sudan’s security forces include the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which grew out of the Janjaweed militia accused of committing atrocities in the 2003 conflict.
“Darfuris have suffered extreme violence and atrocities for many years at the hands of the same military and its paramilitary forces — that are now tasked with keeping them safe,” Horner said.