Harrowing accounts emerge from refugees who cross the border to escape fierce fighting in Sudan’s West Darfur region.
The late afternoon sun beat down as a boy, barely three years old, picked up a bullet casing from the dusty ground. In his tiny hands, the shiny war remnant looked like the heaviest of toys.
Nearby, a group of women emerged from their makeshift shelters fashioned out of bright garments knotted on wooden sticks. A song blared out in the distance – its lively beat at odds with the harrowing stories of murder, escape and agony that are whispered throughout this remote corner of eastern Chad.
“As the night descended, they came and killed,” said Zara Khan Umar, a refugee from neighbouring Sudan’s Darfur region who is now sheltering at an informal settlement in Borota. “Any men they find on their way, they kill them.”
The 40-year-old is one of the more than 90,000 people who have trekked across the border in recent weeks to escape the fighting that has gripped Sudan. In mid-April, a rivalry between Sudan’s army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the commander of a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, exploded into war. While the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, has been the main theatre of battle so far, the fighting has also spread in cities across the conflict-weary Darfur region.
There, the resurgence of violence quickly took an intercommunal dimension, pitting armed Arab men against fighters from the Masalit ethnic group in confrontations that witnesses and survivors described as ferocious.
‘Looking for him’
While a communications blackout has largely kept cities across Darfur cut off, Al Jazeera spoke to at least a dozen refugees at Borota whose collective account helps shed light on the events of the past month.
The hastily erected settlement just 5km (3 miles) from the border is now home to about 25,000 people, the vast majority of them women and children. Most refugees here escaped from the town of Konga Haraza in the first two weeks of May after local authorities – some described them as the Sudanese army; others referred to them as the local police – abandoned it. In the absence of security forces, Arab armed groups stormed the town, looting houses and killing residents, mostly men, according to accounts by refugees and aid workers.
The testimonies are hard to independently verify due to the blackout, but they are similar to those of refugees in other camps who described the indiscriminate killing of civilians, the ransacking of hospitals and the burning of entire neighbourhoods in different parts of Darfur.
Some Masalit people in Konga Haraza put up a defence despite being outnumbered and having inferior weapons, refugees said. They added that most civilian men stayed behind to try to protect their land or fight.
But as fighting drags on, smaller waves of refugees keep trickling into Borota from Konga Haraza, each bringing the latest news on relatives back home. Last week, a neighbour informed Umar that one of her five children was wounded. “And now? Is he alive or dead? I don’t know,” she said, her face tightening with pain.
A few metres away, Salma Hisen Hasan was not pondering such questions anymore. A day before, news had arrived that her husband had been shot dead in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state.
“I woke up three times in the night,” the 35-year-old said quietly. “[I was] turning my head left and right looking for him,” she added, sitting in the darkness of her shelter, wearing an immaculate white veil.
West Darfur has long been the stage for intercommunal violence between Arab and Black African communities, such as the Masalit. In 2003, what used to be competition over water and land turned into a brutal war as Sudan’s then-President Omar al-Bashir armed Arab militias to suppress a rebellion led by non-Arab communities. Human rights groups have accused the militias – nicknamed the Janjaweed, or “evil horsemen” – of carrying out mass atrocities. Al-Bashir and other Sudanese officials are wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes during the years-long conflict, which killed 300,000 people.
In 2013, al-Bashir repackaged the Janjaweed into the RSF under the leadership of Hemedti. In the years that followed, the paramilitary commander went on to acquire an increasing central role in Sudanese affairs. In 2019, Hemedti collaborated with the military to topple his former boss before orchestrating a coup with al-Burhan two years later that upended Sudan’s fragile transition towards democracy.
While the two generals now fight each other, the RSF denies any involvement in attacks against civilians in Darfur. Yet most refugees who spoke to Al Jazeera said they had seen men wearing RSF uniforms joining the fight alongside Arab armed groups.
Al Jazeera reached out to Sudan’s army spokesperson for comment on accusations that its forces have left civilians to defend themselves. It had not received a response at the time of publication.
Witness statements and human rights groups on the ground indicate that the severity of the latest flare-up of violence is among the worst since 2003. Several accounts suggest that the Masalit now have more weapons than before and are putting up a stronger fight.
In previous bouts of violence, civilians in Darfur would typically flee to safer areas not too far from their villages until local tribesmen restored calm by striking an accord between the warring sides. But this time, things seem different. Workers from both Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee said the duration and the brutality of the fighting has prompted refugees to make the “rare” request to relocate permanently across the border in Chad.
“We are not going back there. We are staying here,” said Kadija Arbab Bilal, a 25-year-old mother of two.
The United Nations refugee agency had initially estimated it could relocate up to 30,000 people from the border by enlarging camps already home to hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who were forced across the border in previous rounds of fighting.
But as the number of new arrivals has tripled, the Chadian government is now working to identify new sites and build additional camps. Idriss Mahmat Ali Abdallah Nassouri, head of the Chadian authority in charge of refugees, told Al Jazeera that the search is ongoing.
Aid groups have already begun moving refugees away from the border, aiming to complete the relocation to existing camps before the start of the rainy season at the end of June. By then, the wadis, or dried-out riverbeds, will fill with water, making it impossible for aid workers to reach refugees sheltering close to the frontier.
Questions loom, however, about what to do if the conflict persists and thousands more people seek to cross the border, particularly from el-Geneina, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting so far. As one UN official put it, once civilians there are able to escape, it will be an “exodus”.
Another concern is security. The fighting is taking place so close to the border that it could easily spill over. Last week, a rocket landed in Koufroun, another informal refugee settlement with about 9,000 people who escaped from Tendelti, a Sudanese village 100 metres (328 feet) away. Refugees there told Al Jazeera that at least three people were shot dead in front of their eyes as they were trying to reach Koufroun.
And then there is the issue of providing enough food and water to the refugees, who fled their homes with almost nothing – maybe a pot and a few blankets.
Some of them survive on the limited food they brought with them after fleeing their homes. Others rely on World Food Programme (WFP) deliveries, food baskets with sorghum, pulses, oil and salt. But many have not received anything and count on neighbours who share what little they have – a few bags of legume, trays of grasshoppers and pots of madide, a mix of boiled water with corn flour, peanut paste and sugar.
The WFP and other UN agencies were already getting low on funding to help the more than 600,000 refugees present in Chad before the latest crisis erupted in Sudan. Now the food agency says it needs more than $180m over the next six months to be able to continue to provide aid.
“We have a lot of concerns and not many solutions,” said Aleksandra Roulet-Cimpric, Chad’s country director for the International Rescue Committee.