EL FASHER: Beware of the men with the hard faces. Look at them the wrong way and you might end up dead, residents of the besieged capital of Sudan’s North Darfur state say.
The arrival of government-linked militia more than a month ago has gripped El Fasher with fear, residents say, as Sudan’s western region experiences its worst violence in a decade.
“They are uncontrollable,” and have a heavy presence on the city’s east side, said a man who gave his name only as Mustafa, 52.
“They start shooting for no reason, especially in the evening and early morning. We stopped going to the mosque for dawn prayers because if you go out, you might get shot.”
With ammunition belts strapped to their waists and their heads swathed in traditional cloth, the uniformed men speed through the streets in pickup trucks mounted with machine-guns.
They blare their horns and shout, but what they are saying is unintelligible.
“They even target the police. Two days ago a policeman was shot and killed,” Mustafa said.
Some of the militias carry the insignia of regular paramilitaries but residents say others are from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
The RSF is a counter-insurgency unit that has “perpetrated attacks on communities”, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who heads the African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), told the United Nations Security Council last week.
He said the RSF is of particular concern but other factors have also contributed to an alarming escalation in violence in Darfur this year.
Rebel attacks, criminal activity and inter-communal fighting over access to resources have also increased, said Chambas, whose mission is based in El Fasher.
Ibrahim Ghandour, chief assistant to President Omar al-Bashir, has dismissed as “nonsense” suggestions that government-linked forces were behind the abuses.
He told the RSF is a component of the Sudan Armed Forces tasked with protecting Darfur’s major cities.
Unrest and a soaring number of displaced have evoked comparisons with the early stages of the Darfur war, which shocked the world more than a decade ago.
The conflict led to arrest warrants for Bashir and his Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein. Both are wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
The UN says close to 200,000 people have been displaced this year, on top of about two million who had already been uprooted during years of unrest.
– ‘Worse’ than Janjaweed –
Thousands have converged on Zam Zam camp for the displaced on the outskirts of El Fasher, where they shelter in the desert sand under shacks built of sticks and strips of cloth.
A tribal leader, who asked not to be named, told AFP that militiamen looted two villages just outside El Fasher on Friday.
He introduced a reporter to one victim with a leg wound who, the leader said, had been shot when militia opened fire at random during their thieving. The victim declined to comment.
“I believe these militia are worse than what the Janjaweed did in the old days,” the tribal leader said.
“They are well-equipped with fast vehicles and heavy weapons. The Janjaweed only had horses and camels.”
Rebels from Darfur’s black tribes rose up in 2003 seeking an end to what they said was the domination of Sudan’s power and wealth by Arab elites.
In response, government-backed Janjaweed, recruited among the region’s Arab tribes, shocked the world with atrocities against civilians.
Since then the dynamics of the conflict have changed.
Analysts say the government can no longer control its former Arab tribal allies, whom it armed against the insurgents.
A February report by UN chief Ban Ki-moon said some paramilitaries whose salaries were disrupted because of Sudan’s economic crisis have sought “alternative sources of revenue”.
Reports said dozens of militia gun-trucks moving about the city, each with several men standing in the back.
A more formal security presence is also felt, with armed police and national intelligence agents stationed outside banks, after rebel attacks in the state’s southeast.
The Central Reserve Police, a paramilitary unit, has set up tented posts around the town, but a prominent local businessman said the regular forces are no match for the less-disciplined militia.
“These militia are stronger than professional soldiers,” he said, declining to be named. “These people can kill you just for your mobile phone.”