LONDON: Concerns are increasing over the scale of violence unfolding in Sudan after evidence emerged suggesting it has descended into ethnic cleansing in the western region of Darfur.
Citing analysis of the conflict conducted by the Centre for Information Resilience, a research body partly funded by the UK government, the BBC reported that satellite and social media data revealed “at least” 68 Darfur villages had been set on fire by armed militias since fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces broke out in mid-April.
Minister for Africa Andrew Mitchell said it bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing,” the first time a British minister had used the term in reference to what is unfolding in Sudan.
Ben Strick, director of investigations at the CIR, told the BBC: “The scale of what we’ve been able to document is bigger than what we’ve ever seen before. We’ve documented 89 fires, which damaged 68 villages since 15 April, which is a huge amount.
“In some, it is small buildings that have been targeted. But in some, whole villages have been wiped out. That scale is enormous when we think upon the impact on civilians.
“What we’re seeing is a pattern of abuses, a pattern of villages being burnt, one after the other, specifically in Darfur, which is where we’re seeing some of the heaviest violence outside of Khartoum.”
The CIR utilizes NASA satellites with heat-recognition technology to identify the emergence of burn marks across the region, then scours social media for images and videos of militia groups torching villages to determine which group the fires are linked to.
Satellite imagery shows that the latest fires occurred in Amarjadeed in southern Darfur as recently as Oct. 9, but a more thorough analysis has suggested that the Bani Halba group, which is loosely affiliated to the RSF, set fire to at least nine villages in a single day on Aug. 16.
Denying any involvement with the fires, the RSF has called for an independent international investigation, while SAF leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan told the BBC that he would cooperate with the International Criminal Court to bring guilty parties to justice.
“We feel responsibility towards the Sudanese wherever they are, be it in Darfur, in Khartoum or any place where they were exposed to the aforementioned crimes,” he said.
“We have the desire to co-operate with all, even the ICC. We can co-operate to present these perpetrators of crime.”
According to the CIR, the fires have been part of infighting between rival Arab groups, but it has also included the targeting of non-Arabs such as the Massalit — the largest local ethnic group in west Darfur’s capital El-Geneina — with survivor Amin Yakubu recounting an attack.
“We were together one morning in my home, we had just left the mosque, when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded. My friend’s neck was broken, and he lost his life,” Yakubu told the BBC from a refugee camp in eastern Chad.
“The conflict has become an ethnic one. But everyone is equally affected. No-one sleeps at night. Everyone has to lie flat on the floor all night long, because of the gun battles. Right now, everyone has left our little town. No-one is left there as far as I know.”
Both Mitchell and the UN have raised concerns that the region may be descending into the ethnic violence of 20 years ago.
Clementine Nkweta-Salami, UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, said as the fighting has spread, so too have reports of atrocities.
“We are receiving reports of increasing cases of sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and grave violations of human and children’s rights,” she added.