The fragile peace that quieted years of genocidal violence in Darfur is at risk again.
After a cease-fire faltered in Sudan’s capital, two weeks of fighting between the country’s army and a paramilitary group have reignited violence in Darfur, a region scarred by two decades of genocidal conflict that left as many as 300,000 people dead.
A cease-fire scheduled to end on Sunday night fell apart on Saturday as the capital Khartoum came under artillery fire and airstrikes. But attention has now focused on the Darfur region, where a security vacuum has emerged that diplomats and other observers fear may lead to civil war.
Armed groups in Darfur have looted health care facilities and burned households, while marketplaces have gone up in flames. Civilians there have begun arming themselves against marauding militias and against the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary group fighting the Sudanese Army.
“The tensions and the fighting we’re facing, they could lead to a civil war,” said Ahmed Gouja, a human rights monitor based in Nyala, Darfur’s largest city.
The broader conflict in Sudan between the two warring factions has left more than 500 people dead and 4,500 wounded since fighting erupted in Khartoum on April 15. Tens of thousands more have fled the country, an often perilous effort to reach safety in neighboring countries like Egypt, Chad and Ethiopia.
On Saturday, a bus convoy carrying American citizens from Khartoum reached the city of Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. Countless other civilians have remained trapped in Khartoum and other areas of violence, often in proximity to the feared Rapid Support Forces.
But in Darfur the fighting has also created a security vacuum that militias and armed tribes have exploited, raising fears of a widespread conflict and brutality in a region that has faced a surge of indiscriminate attacks against civilians in recent years.
In West Darfur in recent years, Arab communities have mobilized alongside the Rapid Support Forces and carried out attacks against non-Arab African groups, including the Masalit group, said Mohamed Osman, a Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. In return, the Masalits have accumulated weaponry and organized themselves in self-defense militias, he said.
Tensions have simmered for decades among Arab and ethnic African groups in Darfur, a region the size of California. But the more recent instability dates to the early 2000s, when the country’s former dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and the Sudanese military recruited Arab fighters, known as the Janjaweed, to crush mostly non-Arab groups rebelling against the state.
A widespread campaign of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing followed. As many as 300,000 people died and 2.7 million others were displaced, according to the United Nations. The International Criminal Court opened investigations into the genocidal violence, indicting Mr. al-Bashir on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2009.
The Janjaweed was transformed in the 2010s into the Rapid Support Forces, the group that is now fighting its former ally, the Sudanese military.
The group’s leader, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, mostly known as Hemeti, hails from Darfur, and analysts fear that he may try to seek refuge in his native region if the Sudanese military defeats his forces in Khartoum.
The scale of the violence has varied across Darfur since the conflict erupted this month. Nyala, in South Darfur, and El Fasher in the north were hit by heavy fighting in the first days of the conflict. But in recent days, the fighting has receded in both areas and in Nyala local civilian committees have sprung up to enforce the cease-fire, Mr. Ahmed said.
“The dynamic in Nyala and El Fasher is the same as in Khartoum,” said Mr. Mohamed of Human Rights Watch. “The Rapid Support Forces are fighting against the Sudanese Armed Forces, and civilians get caught in the crossfire.”
The situation is more alarming in West Darfur, particularly in the city of Geneina, where the United Nations and aid groups have reported the killings of at least 100 civilians.
On Thursday, the Sudanese Army fought with the Rapid Support Forces and militias attacked several neighborhoods in the city, according to Idriss Hassan al-Zahawi, a local civil society observer. “The conflict there has taken a social dimension,” Mr. al-Zahawi said in a voice message, referring to the growing tensions between Arab and ethnic African groups.
One of the main hospitals in the area has been looted, and staff from Doctors Without Borders, who work at the hospital, have been unable to reach it. The group has had to cut off most of its activities in West Darfur, it said in a statement.
More than 20,000 people have crossed from Darfur to neighboring Chad since the beginning of the conflict, according to the United Nations, and 3,000 more have sought refuge in the Central African Republic.
But humanitarian organizations predict an even sharper influx of refugees in coming weeks, with the United Nations saying that as many as 270,000 people could cross into Chad and South Sudan if the violence and fighting continue.
“The families who have fled have taken everything with them — furniture, beds — as if there was no return possible, at least in the short term,” said Jérôme Merlin, a deputy country director for Chad at the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the body’s refugee agency, who visited the border area earlier this month.
Aida Alami and Declan Walsh contributed reporting.