Ripples of a Massacre: Militiamen, European border externalisation and Revolution in Sudan
On the 3rd June 2019 there was a massacre in Khartoum, Sudan that saw at least 128 people killed, hundreds wounded, and dozens raped at a sit-in protest outside the military headquarters. I, a non-Sudanese person, had been living in Sudan since before the Revolution began, and I was there on that day, too. I was constantly in awe of the strength and fortitude of the people of Sudan. I believe in the Revolution, and I believe in the Sudanese people.
Unfortunately, 3 June is not just a day which can be mourned and remembered, but it is one that is laden with politics. Aside from being a turning point in the Sudanese Revolution, this event was also significant to the EU’s migration strategy in the Horn of Africa, as well as to the rise to power of a militia group called the Rapid Support Forces.
Act 1: The Khartoum Process
The European Union’s migration strategy in the Horn of Africa is centred around a ‘cooperation platform’ known as the Khartoum Process, which was created in 2014. The guiding document of the Process is deeply, righteously boring. It is full of meaningless buzzwords and vague rhetoric about improving ‘migration management’ in the region. Underneath all the purple prose, the essence of the policy is quite straightforward: to externalize the borders of Europe into Africa in order to stop ‘irregular’ migrants long before they reach European waters. This avoids politically difficult questions, like why so many people are dying in the Mediterranean and what to do with any boatloads of migrants and refugees that manage to make it across. The management of these external borders is shifted to local actors. Through Khartoum Process, Sudan was offered about $160 million, mostly for improving the border management, including the provision of technological support and training, as well as for several development projects.
The Process focuses specifically on the East African migration route and involves 16 regional nations, including Sudan. Sudan is an important transit country for Ethiopians, Somalians, Eritreans and other East Africans. Many Syrian refugees, who do not require a visa to enter the country, go to Sudan to try the East-African route. In addition, many Sudanese people flee the country for Europe, especially from Darfur, the region worst affected by conflict. Sudan also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees, and millions of internally displaced people (IDPs).
Criticism of the Process began before the ink on the document was dry. Many took issue with the idea that Sudan, a noted producer of refugees and violator of human rights, would be in charge of preventing migrants and refugees from entering Libya, as well as, apparently, protecting their rights as human beings and as refugees. It was pointed out by many NGOs, reporters and activists that Omar al Bashir, the then-President of Sudan, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes no less than genocide and because of that, he might not be the most trustworthy leader to partner with.
However, the liveliest fly in the ointment was the fact that parts of the Sudanese border are guarded by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia that arose from a reorganization and rebranding of the Janjaweed. The Janjaweed are infamous for their role in the genocide in Darfur where the Bashir government used them as the infantry in a counter-insurgency campaign that led to the deaths of 300,000 people, the displacement of over 3 million, as well as countless rapes. Led by the feared Mohammed ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo, the RSF have been implicated in similar crimes, including the burning of villages and rape of women not only in Darfur, but in several other Sudanese states. That they were also guarding the Sudanese border is undeniable – there is a great deal of evidence for this, including posts of the RSF’s Facebook page about rounding human traffickers and smugglers. Yes, the RSF has a Facebook page.
In addition, several reports found that the RSF were also human smugglers, both before and after the Khartoum Process. There is a whole market of buying, selling and enslaving migrants along the Libya-Sudan border, of which the RSF are willing participants. If they were not doing the smuggling, they often took bribes from smugglers, rather than arresting them. When they did take migrants into custody, they abused them, often raping women and torturing men. They also rounded up Ethiopians and Eritreans, and just dumped them back over the border. One report called them the ‘Border Control from Hell’.
Now, the EU strenuously denied working directly with the RSF or providing them with resources. However, in a country as corrupt as Sudan, it is hard to tell where resources actually go. Many in Sudan also claim that the Khartoum Process emboldened the RSF and that their operations increased after it was put into place. Not only that, but some worried that in cooperating on migration issues, European powers were helping to legitimize both the Bashir government, and the RSF.
Despite this criticism, the EU continued its cooperation with Sudan.
Until 3 June 2019 when the RSF massacred 128 people at a peaceful sit-in.
Act 2: The Sudanese Revolution
Protests began in Sudan on 19 December 2018 over an increase in the price of bread, but as many in the movement were quick to point out, they kept going because of anger over not only the economic situation, but the oppressive regime of President Omar al Bashir, who had been in power some 30 years. The demand was simple: ‘Tasgut bas’, ‘Just Fall’. After ‘The Fall’, the hope was for democracy, economic recovery and an end to violence and oppression.
I personally saw little of these protests. In the news, protests always ‘erupt’, but in the real world, they are generally planned in advance and fairly easily avoided. I was once teargassed while eating a shawarma, but that was about it. Mainly, I watched, and hoped. The feeling in the city was electric – sometimes, other times it seemed like everything was about to fizzle out and be over. It was during one of these quiet periods that a friend told me that she had snuck out to participate in the protests. I was surprised, she was outgoing and vivacious, but always a dutiful daughter. When she showed me how she pulled over the corner of her hijab to cover her face, she had this fierce look that I will never forget.
‘I felt so angry,’ she said, smiling. ‘I felt like they had to listen to me’.
And eventually, they did listen. After weeks of protests that were frequently violently suppressed by security forces, Omar al Bashir was forced to resign by the military on 11 April.
However, it quickly became clear that the military would not meekly hand over power to a civilian-led transition team. They wanted a military majority council to run the country for a three-year transitional period before elections would take place. In fact, as soon as Bashir was deposed, they formed the Transitional Military Council of which Hemedti, the leader of the RSF, was the Vice Chairman. The protestors wanted a civilian majority council. So, the people of Sudan again took to the streets – and stayed there, camping around the military headquarters for weeks. While the leaders of the movement held discussions with the Transitional Military Council, at the sit-in there were daily marches and speeches from people all over the country, describing what they had suffered at the hands of the old regime. In a country with a deeply unfree press, this may have been the first time many had ever heard these stories – although they likely had their own. Everyone I knew did, from being denied entrance to public buildings for wearing trousers, to seeing members of their family murdered by the Janjaweed.
Just before the massacre, talks broke down completely and military rhetoric shifted dangerously to denouncing the protestors as ‘making the country unliveable’. Then, on 3 June, RSF units entered the sit-in area and forced people out of it, in much the same way they had been forcing people out of their homes for years. About 128 people died, hundreds were injured and at least 70 were raped. Dozens of bodies were dumped in the Nile. Much later, I found out that one of those killed was the son of a woman I knew, a handsome man in his mid-twenties, who had the same warm smile as his mother. She talked about him often; about his studies, how smart he was and how proud he made her. When I think about the Massacre, she is what I remember.
As I have said, my own experiences of the protests were largely second-hand. Not so with the Massacre. I did not witness the actual event, but I was caught up in the aftermath of it. The usually lethargic heat of Khartoum came to a sudden and violent boil as barricades of bricks, palm trees, and, in one memorable instance, car windshields were hastily thrown up in protest of the Massacre. Through this prowled security forces, the most dreaded of which were the RSF, in their technicals (pick-up trucks with machine guns mounted to the bed).
Though they denied it – and still, to this day, deny it, everyone knew that the RSF were the ones who had done the killing earlier that morning. The RSF had played a role in the protests from the beginning. When the protests began, they were called to Khartoum from every corner in the country, where they were tasked with helping to suppress the protests, along with the police and the army. President Bashir placed great faith in the RSF, referring to its leader Hemedti as ‘Hemayti’, which means ‘My Protector’. When not terrorising protestors, they (and the army) parked their technicals in strategic places around the city. I saw them every day, sitting in their trucks or leaning against the hood, guns slung rakishly across their backs.
I realised then how much looking at the RSF through an academic lens had distanced me from the reality of their existence. Before I arrived in Sudan, they had been a concept – indicative of this theory or that one, nothing more. But now they were men drinking tea at tea stands or eating ful (fava beans) together, as cheerful and convivial as any group of young men could be. But they were also a direct threat to the safety of many people I cared about.
The only time I ever felt directly threatened by them was on the day of the Massacre. I was stuck in a neighbourhood far from where I lived, picking my way through the mess of barricades and burning tires with a teenage girl that I had met earlier in the day. We were walking back and forth up the street, trying to get a cell phone signal, when I saw a technical coming toward us. Usually, technicals are painted in the colour of whichever force they belong to. This one was unpainted. As it drew closer, I realized that none of the men riding in it wore uniforms. That was a not a good sign. The only reason to not wear a uniform is to hide your identity, and the only reason to hide your identity is so you have plausible deniability for whatever you’re about to do.
By this point in the day, I had heard exactly what happened at the sit-in and, in that moment, I realized that I was in a rather strategically significant part of Khartoum. The kind that you might want to clear out, if you were trying to secure the city.
There were two men in the front of the technical, and another five in the back. One was holding on to the machine gun mounted to the truck bed with one hand, his other arm thrown back behind him as he leaned into the wind. He wore mirrored aviator sunglasses and grin so wide it nearly split his face. He was laughing, as if someone had just told him a joke about how we all expected to live out the day.
Any remaining distance dissolved and, at least in that moment, I understood something of the power of the RSF. The power of the man who was going to do whatever he wanted to do, because he had a machine gun, and we did not.
But all he wanted to do was drive by, so we were fine. The teenager’s relatives came to save us shortly after. They treated me like I was their long-lost daughter; even in a nation as hospitable as Sudan, the kindness that they showed me was extraordinary.
Although the military cut off the internet in the entire country, many videos leaked out into the wider world. In addition, a campaign called #BlueforSudan was started by the friends of one of the victims, both of which kept the story of the Massacre alive on social media and international news channels.
The protest movement continued, first with strikes and then with marches. And eventually, they got what they wanted. The Transitional Military Council agreed to form a civilian majority Transitional Council. The Council has repealed many unpopular laws, is trying to get Sudan off the terror list and has even agreed that the former President Bashir should be tried by the International Criminal Court. The transitional Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok seems genuinely committed to building a better Sudan. But don’t get too excited, there are fears of a ‘deep state’ loyal to Bashir, the economy is still in shambles and violent conflict continues to plague parts of the country.
And Hemedti, the illustrious leader of the RSF, is the Vice Chairman of this Council, too.
Act 3: The RSF
While the reports of what the RSF did to migrants, as well as their role in ongoing conflicts in Sudan, are deeply disturbing and worthy of all the criticism they received, how powerful the organization was (and is) was usually not well described in reports critical of the Khartoum Process. One notable exception was a report by the Enough Project published in 2017.
To begin with, the RSF are heavily involved in the Sudanese gold industry, which is one of the most important economic sectors in the country. Hemedti personally owns several gold mines, including the Jebel Amer mine, one of the largest in the country, which he stole from the former leader of the Janjaweed. Hemedti and his relatives also own several shell companies that trade in gold and other goods. The gold was often bought by the Sudanese government for more money than it was worth, so desperate were they to exchange it for foreign currency.
Some of this gold was smuggled across the border into Chad, where it was exchanged for vehicles. Many in the organization, including Hemedti, have family in Chad and the RSF have political relationships with armed groups there as well. Most are herders, who range across borders with little care for which nation they are in. For the RSF, the border is a resource to be harnessed, perhaps by smuggling gold, people and also weapons, not an impediment to free movement. This is true of the Khartoum Process as well; mastery of the border lands allowed them to carry out EU directives, and the country to reap the benefits of partnering with the EU.
All this gold and smuggling has given the organisation, and Hemedti in particular, a sizeable nest egg. In fact, Hemedti claimed to have deposited $1 billion into the Bank of Sudan to stabilise the currency. Whether or not this is true, the very fact that he could so easily make such a claim means that he has some serious resources. This means that, despite the RSF being officially absorbed into Sudanese military, they can finance themselves, which effectively renders them an independent fighting force. This could have dire implications for both democracy and security.
The EU was just one of the RSF’s many clients. Aside from fighting for the Sudanese government, the RSF also do the dirty work of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There were thousands of RSF soldiers fighting for them against the Houthi Rebels in Yemen; a conflict which is part of the regional power struggle which pits the Saudi-led coalition against Iran. Not only that, but many of the soldiers sent were children. RSF units have also been sent to fight on the side of General Haftar in Libya, who is allied with Saudi Arabia.
Not only were these military campaigns very profitable, but they made Hemedti some very powerful friends in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These relationships are particularly important for understanding the current international position of Sudan, and the RSF, in the region. Former President Bashir played the great regional powers off of each other and maintained relationships with Iran (until 2016), Qatar and Turkey, as well the Saudis and Emiratis.
Not so anymore: almost as soon as Bashir was deposed, all of the agreements with Qatar and Turkey were dead in the water. Sudan is firmly in the Saudi camp now; Saudi Arabia and the UAE even pledged the country $3 billion worth of aid. While there are many in the Sudanese Army with connections to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the RSF are clearly an important part of this alliance because of the troops that they provided for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Hemedti certainly seems friendly with Saudi Arabia, even meeting with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. If the Saudis decide to meddle in Sudanese politics for their own political ends, there could be disastrous consequences for the country. There is disturbing evidence that this has already happened: leading members of the Sudanese Army had meetings with top officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the days before the Massacre. One wonders what they could have been discussing.
Right now, Hemedti is embarking on a campaign of image rejuvenation. No longer content to be a shadowy warlord reliant on the might of machine-guns, he seeks greater influence, and to wield soft power, as well as hard. A few weeks after the Massacre, Hemedti hired a Canadian PR firm and paid them $6 million to help him polish his image. He has also been wandering the country, handing out money to policemen and tradesmen. He even agreed to hand his most profitable gold mine over to the state, although how transparent this process will be is yet to be seen. He has continued to deny the culpability of the RSF in the 3 June Massacre, despite the mountain of evidence put forward by Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights as well as the army admitting that it ordered the crackdown on protestors. The Sudanese people, are, of course, not so easily fooled. When an RSF representative attended a memorial for victims of the Massacre a few months ago, he was jeered at by those present.
Act 4: The Future
Assuming that adequate research was carried out, the EU must have been aware of most of what has been stated above. Yet, it was not until after the Massacre that they suspended their border control cooperation with Sudan. Alex De Waal, one of the world’s leading experts on Sudan, called this ‘…basically an admission of guilt.’. There were no new facts, and no change in the amount of evidence; what changed was the visibility of the RSF themselves. Suddenly, their violence was splashed across newsfeeds around the world, not just confined to nameless villages in the middle of nowhere. That visibility was the tipping point, not anything else.
It is clear that while the Khartoum Process may have been profitable, and even provided some legitimacy for the Sudanese government and for the RSF, it was a small part of the RSF’s operations. The EU was just one of the RSF’s many clients – one of the minor ones, at that. Them withdrawing their deal meant almost nothing on the ground in Sudan: migrants are still being abused, and the RSF have more power – and more powerful friends, than ever.
And what was Massacre, the event which inspired the writing of this article? For dozens of families in Sudan, it was the day they lost someone they loved. It was also a day to draw strength from; a day after which the struggle had to continue. Even now, the work of the Revolution goes on.
But for both the EU and the RSF, it has been reduced to a PR blip. Hemedti is working his way towards legitimacy; although he will always be an outsider among the Khartoum elites and few are likely to forget the role of the RSF in the Massacre, his power and influence are immense. In addition, the EU continues to support similar policies in other parts of the continent, with as little regard for the lives of migrants and the internal politics of the region as they showed with Sudan. Even the Khartoum Process continues; it still fosters ‘migration management’ cooperation between the EU and countries like Eritrea and Djibouti – it just no longer cooperates with Khartoum.
This article is published anonymously to protect the author's identity.