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Sudan's rival generals share a troubled past: genocide in Darfur

Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan (left), the head of Sudan's ruling military council, greets supporters near the capital Khartoum in 2019. Sudanese paramilitary commander Gen. Mohammed Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, is shown on the right, in the capital earlier this month. The generals have been fighting for control of Sudan for nearly two weeks, leaving more than 400 dead.
YASUYOSHI CHIBA
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AFP via Getty Images
Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan (left), the head of Sudan's ruling military council, greets supporters near the capital Khartoum in 2019. Sudanese paramilitary commander Gen. Mohammed Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, is shown on the right, in the capital earlier this month. The generals have been fighting for control of Sudan for nearly two weeks, leaving more than 400 dead.

The two generals waging a bloody power struggle in Sudan actually share a long history of working together — and it began 20 years ago when both were key figures during a genocide waged in the country's Darfur region.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, now the commander of the military, and Gen. Mohammed Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, have been fighting each other for the past two weeks in the capital Khartoum, leaving more than 400 dead.

They're fighting for military and political power, and also to maintain control of their extensive business interests, according to Alex DeWaal, an expert on Sudan who heads the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.

"Essentially, what we are seeing is a mobster shootout. We're seeing two gang bosses shooting it out for control of the terrain in which they make their illicit money," said DeWaal.

Both generals also held key military positions during the darkest days in Darfur, said Nicole Widdersheim, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

She said her group "has been documenting crimes and abuses by both of these leaders and the militaries and paramilitaries that they control for decades. They go all the way back to Darfur."

"If we keep empowering bad actors who have a long list of atrocities and war crimes and abuses on their record, and there's nothing to block them from continuing to use the same tactics, they will continue to use the same tactics," said Widdersheim, who spoke during an online panel discussion hosted by The Atlantic Council.

The Darfur genocide

Back in 2003, rebels in Darfur, a poor, remote region in western Sudan rose up against the authoritarian rule of President Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir dispatched his security forces, which ruthlessly crushed the rebellion over the next several years. Darfur remains a fragile, deeply scarred region to this day.

An estimated 300,000 people were killed, many of them civilians, and some 2 million people were driven from their homes. Former U.S. president George W. Bush and other international leaders declared Sudanese military actions in Darfur a genocide. The International Criminal Court subsequently charged Bashir and four of his allies with genocide and crimes against humanity.

Burhan and Hemedti, have not been charged, though their deep involvement in Darfur is beyond dispute, said DeWaal, who has worked in Sudan and followed it closely for nearly 40 years.

"Both Burhan and Hamedti were part of the counterinsurgency, and I'm sure in one way or another they could have been charged by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. He didn't make it a priority to go after either of them for reasons I don't know," said DeWaal, who's written extensively on Sudan.

Hemedti is from Darfur. But he sided with the central government and became a leader in a local militia, called the Janjaweed, which did much of the fighting and is blamed for many of the atrocities in Darfur.

The Janjaweed evolved into the paramilitary force Hemedti leads today, the Rapid Support Forces. This group is not considered as powerful as the army, but is still a large, well-armed force with extensive battlefield experience. Group members fought in Yemen's civil war in recent years.

Meanwhile, Gen. Burhan was sent to Darfur in the 2000s as the overall army commander for the region. This is believed to be where he first came into contact with Hemedti as the two men worked together to suppress the uprising.

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Rising through the ranks

After the events in Darfur, Burhan and Hamedti rose through the military ranks by remaining closely allied with Bashir.

But in 2019, amid widespread protests against Bashir and his 30-year rule, the two generals turned on the president. They refused to crack down on the demonstrators and helped drive Bashir from power.

Bashir, now 79, has been jailed in Sudan. But on Wednesday his whereabouts were not clear amid conflicting reports about whether he was still in jail, possibly at a military hospital, or perhaps was no longer in custody.

In the four years since Bashir's ouster, Burhan and Hamedti have been the most powerful men in Sudan. But they've rejected proposals to turn over power to civilian leaders, and their strained partnership fell apart earlier this month, igniting bloodshed in the streets of Khartoum.

DeWaal believes there's a small window for the international community to pressure the two generals to pull back from the brink.

The United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all have influence and could potentially keep events from spiraling out of control, he said.

Yet the current ceasefire — the fourth in recent days — has not completely halted the shooting, according to reports from Khartoum. And both leaders control large numbers of well-armed troops, raising fears that the conflict could escalate rapidly.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.