Sudan satellite images show hundreds of new graves across Darfur city of El Fasher

Analysis by Yale researchers indicates Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group targeting districts inhabited by ethnic Africans

A fire rages at a livestock market in El Fasher, capital of Sudan's North Darfur state, after a bombardment by the Rapid Support Forces in 2023. AFP
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Hundreds of fresh graves have been discovered in the Darfur city of El Fasher, where Sudan's army and its enemy the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces have been locked in a weeks-long battle that has taken a heavy toll on civilians and destroyed large swaths of the city.

The graves were identified in an analysis of satellite images by Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab. They are part of evidence that points to the large-scale of suffering and destruction in city, the capital of North Darfur state in western Sudan, and surrounding areas.

At least 150,000 residents have been forced to flee El Fasher, already home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese escaping violence elsewhere in the vast and mostly desert region that has been mired in violence, including ethnically motivated killings, since the 2000s.

The satellite images showed significant war-related damage to the city’s southern and south-eastern neighbourhoods where a significant number of members of the ethnic African Zaghawa tribe live, Yale HRL said.

“The clear evidence that Zaghawa neighbourhoods in El Fasher are being destroyed by RSF confirms our worst fears,” said Nathaniel Raymond, executive director.

“For over a year, Yale HRL, among others, have been warning that if RSF enters El Fasher it would ethnically target non-Arab populations. Now we know they are.”

The RSF is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for its role in ethnically motivated attacks last summer on members of the African Masalit tribe in West Darfur. Thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee across the border into Chad.

The RSF's forerunner is the notorious, Arab-led Janjaweed militia that fought on the government’s side against mostly ethnic African rebels in Darfur in the 2000s.

That conflict, which left some 300,000 people dead and displaced another 2.5 million, led to the indictment of former Sudanese leader Omar Al Bashir and others by the ICC for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

The Yale HRL report was released on the same day reports emerged that the RSF killed at least 100 civilians in a village south of Khartoum on Wednesday. The paramilitary maintains it was attacking troops and allied volunteers assembled in the village in preparation for an assault on its positions.

The army branded the killings a massacre and vowed to exact a “harsh” revenge on the RSF.

“We will fight the terrorist Rapid Support militia till the end; till the last soldier standing,” Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, the army chief, said during a visit to army units in Kosti, south of Khartoum, on Thursday.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk said on Friday that he was “profoundly shocked” by reports of the killings.

“These killings add to my existing, serious concerns about the adherence to the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution under international humanitarian law by those involved in the fighting,” he said.

“They also raise questions about the ongoing arming of local groups in the context of continuing hostilities,” he added, calling for those responsible for the “unlawful killings” to be held accountable.

The Yale HRL analysis also suggests the RSF razed eight villages north-west of El Fasher in arson attacks, as evidenced by thermal scarring between May 26 and June 4. This spike in arson activity, it said, indicates significant RSF presence and control in areas west and north-west of the city.

Satellite images also show significant munitions damage to El Fasher’s main market.

El Fasher is the only major Darfur city that is not under the control of the RSF. Its capture would be a devastating blow to the army and allied former rebels, and constitute a defining turn of events in Sudan’s 13-month-old war.

The war broke out after weeks of tension between the army and the RSF over details of the country’s transition to democracy. About 150,000 people have been killed, according to US estimates.

The UN-related International Organisation for Migration recorded 9.9 million people internally displaced across Sudan this week. Prior to the war, there were already 2.8 million internally displaced people, according to the IOM, out of a total population of about 47 million.

Ceasefires brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia in the war’s early days collapsed soon after they came into force or were completely ignored. Gen Al Burhan has rejected recent calls to return to negotiations sponsored by Washington and Riyadh, saying there will be no talks with the RSF until it is defeated.

The army has recently gone on the offensive after making a poor start to the war, having lost much of Khartoum and its twin cities of Omdurman and Bahri in the opening few weeks.

The RSF later captured a string of major cities in Darfur, made inroads in the central region of Kordofan and seized Wad Madani, capital of the central Al Jazira region that is the country’s breadbasket.

Iranian-made drones recently delivered to the army have been instrumental in its recent battlefield successes, which include retaking Omdurman’s old quarter across the Nile from Khartoum.

Thousands of volunteers have also joined the army in recent weeks, partially compensating for its lack of manpower.

Al Shafie Ahmed contributed to this report from Kampala, Uganda.

Updated: June 07, 2024, 3:13 PM