On August 21, the Sudanese army killed about 24 civilians shelling a market in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Residents believe that fighters from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces were nearby, drawing the attack, but none was killed in it.
Two days later, some 30 civilians – mostly women and children – were reportedly caught in a crossfire between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) while hiding under Teiba Bridge, part of which fell, killing everyone underneath.
The armed foes are going toe-to-toe in South Darfur – a traditional RSF stronghold – as they struggle for control of Sudan. The RSF and allied Arab militias control most of Nyala, but the army is relying on its artillery and air force to capture a region it neglected for decades, with civilians and those trying to help them caught in the middle.
Militias, tribes and civilians
The widespread fighting for Nyala has drawn in Arab militias – assumed to be allied with the RSF – that take advantage of the chaos to pillage and loot, residents told Al Jazeera.
Montasser Jamal*, a resident who recently fled to the outskirts of the city, said eight armed men showed up at his home on August 24, trying to drive their four-wheel-drive trucks into his back yard.
“They left when they couldn’t get through the barbed wire. [The next week], I fled with my two wives, siblings, six children and my neighbour,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone.
RSF fighters are also being accused by civilians of storming into people’s homes to loot or turn them into outposts. Similar RSF behaviour has been widely reported in Khartoum, the national capital.
Despite the allegations, the RSF has drawn declarations of support in Nyala from several Arab tribes, the RSF’s traditional support base, exacerbating fears that the conflict could spiral into an all-out, multidimensional civil war across ethnic or tribal lines.
Ahmed Gouja, a human rights monitor from Nyala who escaped to the Kenyan capital Nairobi two months ago, said Arab tribal leaders tend to side with the RSF for financial gain and hope that they will be protected if they are collectively targeted by the army.
At the start of the war, the army arrested hundreds of Arab civilians in Khartoum and Darfur for perceived RSF loyalties, according to Gouja and Mohamad el-Fatih Yousif, a journalist from Nyala also now based in Nairobi.
But ethnicity is not always a determinant of affiliation: The Salamat and Beni Halba Arab tribes have clashed over the RSF, which has young men from both tribes fighting for it.
The Salamat refused to publicly support the RSF and the Beni Halba decided to fight. This drew Salamat and Beni Halba tribesmen fighting for the RSF in Central Darfur back home to fight for their tribe, local monitors told Al Jazeera.
Yousif told Al Jazeera that the Salamat do not have a right to hold land in the tribal system, and were likely using their public approval of the RSF as a bargaining chip to demand that right in return. “But the Beni Halba were angry … so they clashed with Salamat,” Yousif said.
RSF political adviser Yousif Ezat did not respond to a request for comment about accusations that the paramilitary is endangering civilians, while army spokesperson Nabil Abdullah denied all allegations that his forces have indiscriminately shelled and bombed residential areas.
“It’s the Rapid Support Forces that are bombarding people in civilian quarters … [SAF] is a professional army,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera. “When we use artillery, we only do so after examining positions … very accurately.”
However, Bedour Zakaria, a human rights monitor who fled Nyala to Uganda last month and still has family there, told Al Jazeera: “There is a lot of [indiscriminate] shelling by the army … and the RSF are always hiding in residential neighbourhoods.”
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been able to count at least 60 civilians killed and 50,000 people displaced since April 11.
The actual figures are much higher, residents and monitors told Al Jazeera. But the fighting means medics are unable to report death tolls because of destroyed communication infrastructure, and people often have to resort to burying their loved ones wherever they can without reporting their deaths.
Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said none of the hospitals in Nyala is functioning, except for one taken over by an armed group. Al Jazeera was unable to confirm the name of the armed group.
“We heard that … there was one medical doctor only,” said MSF’s emergency coordinator Anna Bylund after speaking to her colleagues in Nyala on Saturday.
According to aid groups, trucks of medical supplies and food have not been able to enter Nyala, remaining in the nearby town of al-Du’ayen in East Darfur to wait out the fighting.
“We need a sustained halt to the fighting so we can safely deliver to those in need,” Clementine Nkweta-Salami, UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, told Al Jazeera.
One Western aid worker, who was not authorised to speak on record, said armed groups are making “financial demands” at checkpoints to let aid convoys into Nyala and insisting on accompanying them as armed escorts. The latter is a red line for relief agencies since it harms the perception that aid is neutral and sets a precedent for armed groups.
“Outside of the pure security challenges … extracting tax … has basically put on hold some of the planned [aid] movements to South Darfur,” the aid worker told Al Jazeera.
Zakaria, the human rights monitor, says the scale of human suffering is shocking and that she hopes the situation will calm down soon so that aid will reach the city.
“When I was there, I saw the army firing artillery shells from inside its headquarters … and I was there for two clashes between the army and RSF,” she told Al Jazeera. “Civilians from the eastern and southern neighbourhoods were most affected. The number of civilian casualties is rising significantly.”
* Names changed for the individuals’ protection