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The West’s Complicity in Sudan’s Massacres

The U.S. and the EU chose not to bring those involved in the Darfur genocide to justice. Now, one of them is angling for the presidency, and his militia is terrorizing Khartoum.

(Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

Omar Al Bashir had just fallen as president of Sudan when I visited Sarah Abdelgalil at her home in England this April. Abdelgalil is a spokeswomen for the Sudanese Professionals Association, the organization that spearheaded protests that removed Bashir. When there was a statement to make about how to topple Bashir, she was usually involved. When there is a diplomat to harangue in London, Abdelgalil does it. Along the way, she is a pediatrician at the local hospital, head of the Sudan Doctors Union in the United Kingdom, and takes care of her son and her mother.

When protests began in December 2018 over the ongoing economic crisis, Sarah and the Sudanese Professionals Association—a collection of labor unions without a formal leader—insisted on nonviolence, leading to an unprecedentedly peaceful and effective set of protests that astonished the world. When I visited Abdelgalil in April, the association, along with other civilian groups, were about to begin negotiations with the military over the country’s political future. Abdelgalil feared it all could go wrong—that the military might open fire on protestors, as they had done in the past. “We need the international community to be aware that a massacre could happen, and to tell the military they are being watched,” Abdelgalil told me. She has tallied body counts after massacres in Sudan before.

On June 3, members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the new name for the Janjaweed militia group that terrorized Darfur, began a brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Khartoum, the country’s capital. Demonstrators had staged a sit-in outside of the military’s headquarters: After the peaceful and triumphant removal of thirty-year dictator Bashir, who was accused of genocide, stealing billions of dollars, and torture, the military junta that removed him after popular protests refused to hand over power to civilians. The RSF, presumably prompted by the military to disperse the demonstrators, stormed the site, shooting, terrorizing, and torturing. Rape cases were especially prolific. Women’s underwear were paraded around like trophies; a senior U.N. official estimated to me that there were likely over a thousand cases of sexual violence in the ensuing 72 hours. Bodies were dumped in the Nile River. More than 100 people died, according to Sudanese doctors’ unions, but the true number is likely higher: Hospitals have been targeted by security forces and an internet shutdown has stopped the flow of information.

Abdelgalil is once more tracking body counts. When I spoke with her last Wednesday, she was afraid. The RSF now occupy Khartoum, and their relationship with the regular Sudanese military is not stable. Some members of Sudan’s military and intelligence service view the RSF as an untrained militia under the command of a warlord. Experts fear these military factions could fight and turn Sudan into a new Libya. One senior U.N. official told me Sudan could become the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis, while an activist compared it to a “pre-Rwanda moment.”

Hopes for a civilian government are slipping away in Sudan. It is clear that the RSF leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemeti,” is positioning himself to become president. The civilians who captured the world’s imagination this past spring find themselves under siege. One civilian negotiator told me last week he was afraid that if civilian leaders did not sign a deal ceding control to military and paramilitary authorities, more atrocities could follow.

“When blood is spilled,” a New Republic editorial declared twenty-five years ago, “it is the responsibility of those who spill it, and those who could have stopped its spilling.” The editorial was referring to the situation in Bosnia, as the United States watched the country slide into genocide, and President Bill Clinton dithered.

Today, the Trump administration is no longer even trying to stop the spilling of blood. There are too many slaughters across the world to name them all—Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar come to mind. But America’s moral failing is particularly conspicuous in Sudan right now. In Sudan, there is still time to act. And in Sudan, the U.S.-led international community has contributed to the current situation.

After Bashir fell, despite the Trump administration’s talk of supporting democracy in Sudan, the administration made no serious move to ease the transition to a civilian government. Prominent U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates supported the military junta, without any public comment from the U.S. On June 12, the Trump administration announced the reappointment of an old face, Donald Booth, as special envoy to Sudan. His misguided policy in past administrations helped fuel South Sudan’s descent into ethnic cleansing in 2016.

Of course, Sudan’s generals—specifically Hemeti—are the most to blame for the present crisis. But the fact that they were in such a position in the first place is partly the fault of the international community. For years, the West has valued stability over justice in Sudan.

In 2005, the Bush administration pushed to give Southern Sudanese a pathway for independence. This diplomatic push occurred as the U.S. was also acknowledging the genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur. There, some 300,000 people eventually died from the government’s campaign of slaughter. U.S. diplomats involved in the Southern Sudanese referendum told me they had to make an implicit tradeoff: either a pathway for independence for South Sudan, which required Bashir’s blessing, or justice in Darfur, which would cause trouble for Bashir.

The Americans cajoled Bashir to allow the Southerners a referendum and South Sudan became the youngest country in the world in 2011. Meanwhile, justice in Darfur was deferred, with direct implications for Sudan today.

Sudan’s former intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, former U.S. officials told me, had authority in 2005 over units carrying out massacres in Darfur, and could sometimes halt them at Washington’s request. Rather than push for his prosecution, the U.S. collaborated with Gosh, who visited Washington that year courtesy of a CIA jet. With foreign fighters streaming across the desert intent on going to Iraq and Islamist groups growing in Libya and Sudan, Washington’s priority was to fight terrorism, which meant working with Gosh. The relationship seems to have continued on a periodic basis, opportunities to bring Gosh to justice duly passed up. In 2018, Gosh’s intelligence service tried to stop protests against Bashir’s rule, and allegedly arrested and tortured demonstrators. Gosh stepped down the day after Bashir fell.

Hemeti, too, evaded accountability for Janjaweed crimes in Darfur, which is how he and the rebranded RSF, formed out of mainly Janjaweed militias in 2013, were in place to occupy Khartoum and massacre civilians. Hemeti’s brutal history was well known to the EU when it decided to partner with the Sudanese government and the RSF in 2016, to help curtail migration. The plan allegedly included “assist[ing] the RSF and other relevant agencies with the construction of two camps with detention facilities for migrants. The EU will also equip these Sudanese border forces with cameras, scanners, and electronic servers for registering refugees,” advocacy group The Enough Project wrote in 2017. Since then, the forces have faced widespread accusations of torture and attacks on villages in Darfur, the partnership continuing unabated. “We do the job instead of the EU,” Hemeti said at a graduation ceremony for his fighters in 2018, according to Bloomberg.

Now, it appears that Hemeti is intent on becoming Sudan’s president. Violence may follow.

One senior U.N. official I spoke to in the past week warned that Sudan was on the brink of a mass atrocity, but the world was not paying attention. The more troubling possibility is that the world has been paying plenty of attention to Sudan all along, but looking after purely Western interests. “Is the West really all driven by control and fear of migration?” a second senior U.N. official wondered to me. “Is that the only thing that they are about?”