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Imminent Risk of Genocide in North Darfur

By Danica Damplo

In the town of Ardamata alone, in West Darfur, more than 1,000 people were killed in early November by armed groups, according to the European Union. This violence forced more than 8,000 people to flee to neighboring Chad in a week, according to the UN. February 29, 2024—MAXPPP / Alamy Stock Photo

For months, advocates have been warning that an assault on the city of El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan, could happen at any time. That attack would bring a new degree of horror to an already brutal, year-long conflict. Today, the attack appears to be imminent, if not already underway.

Two decades ago, genocidal violence in Darfur killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Today, the Masalit, Zaghawa, and Fur—non-Arab minority groups who survived those attacks—are again at risk. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary group, is likely to target civilians from these communities on the basis of their identity, setting the stage for a genocidal massacre. Speaking on El Fasher, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas Greenfield warned April 29 that “history is repeating itself in Darfur in the worst possible way.”

It appears that previous attempts to dissuade the warring parties have failed, but the urgency of the situation requires a redoubling and re-calibration of efforts. The warring parties should immediately cease attacks on civilians, de-escalate the situation, enable the flow of humanitarian aid into El Fasher, and ensure safe pathways for civilians seeking to leave the city. Countries supplying the RSF or the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) with weapons or financial support must use all available levers to press the groups to halt an assault on El Fasher and should themselves comply with the United Nations Security Council Darfur arms embargo.

The urgency of the situation necessitates that world leaders directly engage the warring parties and their enablers, privately and publicly articulate and enact clear political and economic consequences if they commit crimes, and, in acknowledgement of the dire situation, begin efforts to establish a peace operation for Darfur with a civilian protection mandate.

“Civilians are already being killed in El Fasher, and Darfur has been an epicenter of mass atrocities for the past year. If we want to keep our promise to the people of Darfur from twenty years ago, this is the time for actions over empty words,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “There are still steps policymakers worldwide can take to prevent genocide and save the lives of civilians currently at risk of being murdered on the basis of their identity. We cannot again abandon the people of Darfur, including the many genocide survivors we already failed two decades ago.”


The current conflict in Sudan began in April 2023, when disagreement over power sharing between the leaders of the SAF and the RSF exploded into open warfare in the capital, Khartoum. Almost immediately, the RSF moved to wrest control of the Darfur region from the SAF. As the RSF seized army bases and cities, they, along with local allied Arab militias, targeted non-Arab populations for murder and sexual violence, in a horrifying echo of the Darfur genocide 20 years ago. El Fasher is now the only city in Darfur that the RSF does not completely control. A truce had been brokered by local authorities dividing the city between the SAF, the RSF, and local armed groups. These local armed groups initially pledged neutrality, but have now declared their allegiance to the SAF, citing RSF provocations, including attacks, and restrictions on humanitarian aid and goods to the city.

El Fasher’s civilian population of two million people is now at high risk of mass atrocities if a battle occurs. Both the RSF and SAF have demonstrated a disregard for civilian life and have not taken significant measures to protect civilians throughout the conflict. In December 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken determined that the SAF and RSF had committed war crimes, and that the RSF and allied militias had committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Both the RSF and SAF have already been launching indiscriminate attacks in El Fasher, including firing mortars and rockets into residential areas.

The RSF controls the roads outside El Fasher; if a battle begins, civilians will be trapped. The RSF has been cutting off humanitarian aid, including medicine, food, and water, and the population is already close to starvation. Over five hundred thousand displaced persons, who had been fleeing RSF atrocities elsewhere in Darfur, are presently sheltering in El Fasher and in camps around the city, leaving them particularly vulnerable to violence. The RSF and its allies have slaughtered, raped and tortured civilians, and looted and destroyed homes and hospitals whenever they have seized a city.

Risk of Genocide

If an attack on El Fasher occurs, the RSF and its allied militias are likely to target members of the Masalit, Zaghawa, and Fur communities on the basis of their identity for murder and sexual violence. El Fasher is predominantly inhabited by the Zaghawa community. Several factors point to the risk of genocide in El Fasher. There is a prior history of genocide in Darfur, with many of the same perpetrators among the RSF, and the same communities at risk today. In addition, there is a lack of effective deterrence, including rampant impunity for past crimes, the high capacity of the perpetrators to commit mass atrocities, a record of hate speech against marginalized groups, and the ethnically-charged nature of the targeting of civilians by the RSF over the past year in Darfur.

This risk should not be a surprise to policy makers. The Simon-Skjodt Center warned in June 2023 that this new conflict brought a risk of genocide in Sudan. In January 2024, we issued a policy brief that found that the RSF and its allied militias had reignited a campaign of widespread, systematic, and ethnically-motivated violence in the region of Darfur, targeting non-Arab communities, particularly the Masalit community, and that the risk of genocide remained high. The United Nations has confirmed that in the last few weeks, the RSF has conducted several large-scale attacks on predominantly Zaghawa villages near El Fasher.

Given the recent escalation, the US State Department issued a statement on April 24 expressing alarm and calling on all forces to cease their attacks. The United Nations (UN) Secretary General, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Joint AU/IGAD High-Level Panel on the Situation in Sudan have issued similar statements. On April 27, the UN Security Council called for both parties to de-escalate, and it held a closed meeting on El Fasher two days later. While these statements acknowledge that an attack on El Fasher would be catastrophic for the population, they did not accompany actions that would mitigate the serious risks.

The implications of an assault on El Fasher extend beyond Darfur, raising the risk of intercommunal violence between non-Arab and Arab communities in Darfur and other regions of Sudan, and greater involvement in the war by neighboring Chad (given the country’s links with the Zaghawa community as well as the United Arab Emirates, which has been identified as supporting the RSF). It would also undermine the credibility of the upcoming negotiations with the warring parties for a ceasefire and improving humanitarian access.

Opportunity to Prevent and Protect

The greatest window of opportunity to prevent the horror unfolding in El Fasher has passed. Effective action to protect civilians needed to be taken in 2023, when the city became a haven for displaced populations, and a target for the RSF. Now, there are fewer effective options for prevention but they do exist and there is no time to waste in taking them. The world cannot fail the people of Darfur yet again.

There are urgent steps that can and must be taken by the United States and other concerned states at this late stage to pressure the RSF to refrain from or halt any attack on the city of El Fasher, allow access to humanitarian aid and safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the city, and for all armed actors to take critical steps to de-escalate the situation. In particular, states can:

  1. Engage directly with RSF and SAF leadership in a clear, coordinated fashion; recall the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over Darfur, and credibly threaten economic and political consequences if the RSF or SAF commit mass atrocities in El Fasher.

  2. Engage bilaterally with influential third parties that provide financial, technical, or political support to the RSF (including the United Arab Emirates), to persuade RSF leadership to refrain from or halt any attack on El Fasher, allow humanitarian aid into the city, and enable a safe route for the evacuation of citizens. Press these parties to abide by the UN Security Council arms embargo on Darfur and existing sanctions on the RSF and SAF, and consider issuing new sanctions on third parties, specifically those who continue to violate the Darfur arms embargo.

  3. Begin efforts to establish a regional or sub-regional peace operation for Darfur with a mandate to protect civilians and internally displaced people, and to prevent mass atrocities in El Fasher.