Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces Militia Must Be Stopped: A Brief History of Atrocities

The conflict that erupted in April between the Sudanese National Army and the Rapid Support Forces wreaked havoc on Sudan, and has ultimately taken an appalling toll. Thousands were killed and millions displaced. Buildings were burned and infrastructure lay in ruins, instilling fear of a spiraling descent into a full-scale civil war.

Even before the warfare began, the RSF militia committed numerous atrocities and massacres against civilians. These atrocious acts lay bare the ruthless and violent nature of the militia, discrediting its claims of advocating for peace and democracy.

Originally formed in 2013 to revamp the notorious Janjaweed militia, the Rapid Support Forces, now under the leadership of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, were intended to support counterinsurgency operations in Darfur and South Kordofan. In 2017, the Sudanese parliament passed legislation organizing and legitimizing the militia’s activities. More recently, an order from the Army’s chief was issued to dissolve the militia.

The militia resorted to unlawful detention of activists and human rights groups to silence them. For instance, a news report in July 2023 revealed the militia’s inhumane detention of some 5,000 Sudanese in Khartoum. This was a continuation of previous practices criticized by numerous international rights groups. It’s been reported that the militia now operates 44 detention centers in Khartoum.

In addition to the detentions, militia members engaged in widespread looting of residential homes. Images of militia-occupied houses have become commonplace in this conflict. There’s even a marketplace named after the militia’s leader, Dagalo’s market, dedicated to the sale of stolen goods.

In recalling the 2003 atrocities in Darfur, investigations revealed that the Rapid Support Forces, alongside Arabic militias, engaged in the ethnic cleansing of African descent tribes, resulting in the deaths of thousands buried in mass graves.

The militia also used sexual harassment and mass rape as intimidation tactics. In September 2019, a news report exposed the militia’s rape of peaceful protesters in Khartoum. Women were also reportedly held captive and subjected to sexual assault during the ongoing conflict.

Disturbingly, the militia recruited children as soldiers. Reports from The New York Times in December 2018 revealed children were sent to Yemen to fight on the front lines. More recently, the Darfur Network for Human Rights raised concerns over confirmed reports of 15-year-olds joining the militia.

Humanitarian agencies suffered under the militia’s coercion. In June 2023, Doctors Without Borders reported the militia forcing their team to create a propaganda video in support of the militia’s agenda.

In a further violation, the RSF militia seized control of broadcasting headquarters from the outset of the conflict, prompting the Sudanese journalist syndicate to demand their withdrawal.

Religious sites were also not spared, being repurposed as military bases. For example, the All Saints Cathedral in Khartoum was attacked and seized by the militia.

The militia targeted dissidents and human rights defenders who spoke out against their crimes and massacres. In June 2023, three human rights defenders were killed, one of whom had filed a case against the militia for attacking internally displaced people in the region.

In various regions of Sudan, the RSF militia perpetrated massacres and crimes, even targeting civilians and peaceful pro-democracy protestors. For instance, in 2019, the militia soldiers attacked a Khartoum sit-in, its dispersement resulting in numerous deaths. More recently, ten civilians were killed in Omdurman due to militia shelling.

The RSF militia persistently denies and conceals these crimes and violations. Attempts at damage control, such as a mission to Europe, aimed to portray the militia as protectors of citizens. While under media pressure, the RSF militia admitted to violations and established a court, which proved to be a mere public relations move with no tangible effect.

Various organizations — including the Sudan Conflict Observatory, the Sudanese Observatory for Human Rights, women’s rights groups, the Combating Violence against Women unit, SIHA Network — as well as ordinary citizens are documenting and monitoring these violations. And the International Criminal Court has initiated an investigation into the militia’s actions in Darfur.

The global community must exert more pressure to halt the militia’s crimes and massacres, particularly targeting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the militia’s primary sponsor supplying arms. Efforts should focus not only on financial aid, but also on disbanding the militia and preventing its resurgence in Sudan’s future. And at a bare minimum, European countries and organizations should cease collaboration in immigration matters and refrain from hiring companies affiliated with the militia to provide security services.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior disinformation researcher at Northeastern University’s Civic AI lab (Boston), who also holds an Engineering degree from the University of Khartoum.

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