At least 17 people have been killed and four villages burned down this week in the gold-rich Jabal Moon mountain area of Sudan, after attacks by what is believed to be the government-linked militia known locally as the Janjaweed, witnesses told Al Jazeera.
Among those killed on Monday were three workers with Darfur-based Human Rights Monitors who had been on a mission assessing the human rights situation in the area after similar incidents in the past.
The area, near the western border with Chad, is inhabited mostly by agrarian non-Arab communities who have, for years, witnessed repeated attacks by predominantly Arab armed groups.
All these groups are believed to be affiliated with the Janjaweed, a name that persists when people speak of the group that is now the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The group of fierce Arab fighters rose to prominence in 2003 during the Darfur War, mobilised by former strongman President Omar al-Bashir to fight non-Arab rebels.
In 2013, al-Bashir renamed the group the RSF under the leadership of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, or Hemeti, who is now deputy head of the country’s transitional military government.
Some residents say authorities have been involved, cutting off communications across West Darfur capital el-Geinana during every attack on Jabal Moon. Other observers say they believe the armed groups might be operating without the knowledge of high-ranking government officials like Hemeti.
Gunmen on pickup trucks
There have been seven attacks in the area by armed groups since last November, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people.
“The repeat of the incidents shows that the government do not care about the people here, there’s a lack of will to implement the law and to stop the perpetrators,” Abdallah Sageron, a West Darfur-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“There are now economic and security consequences – all roads leading to Jabal Moon are closed down for security reasons, and people are really struggling, many of them have become refugees,” Sageron said.
According to witnesses to Monday’s incident, Jabal Moon was attacked by gunmen in 10 pickup trucks with RSF plates. Some gunmen came on horses and motorbikes and “were carrying artillery and anti-aircraft weapons”, said Abdellateef Adam, a 32-year-old tech worker and head of the youth organisation in Selaa County.
Adam, who spoke to Al Jazeera from the teaching hospital in el-Geniana, where he had taken four injured people from Jabal Moon for treatment, said three had been shot by snipers and one had man died from head wounds while the others are still being treated.
He told Al Jazeera most residents the violence was caused by militias and corporations trying to subdue local resistance to mining projects they wanted to set up in the area.
“Normally, there would be exploitation for the land and the resources without the benefit of the people,” he told Al Jazeera. “We do not want that to happen here.”
Racial tensions in a resource-rich state
In 2003, an uprising by armed groups complaining of political and economic marginalisation by the Bashir administration led to the Darfur War. More than 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced from their homes, according to the UN.
Many displaced people from the non-Arab communities later returned from their displacement to other parts of Darfur or Chad and tried to reclaim land they said had been taken from them during the war.
Their campaign resumed after the 2019 toppling of al-Bashir – who was accused of supporting the Arab armed groups in taking the land – but their attempts were met with waves of more violence by armed groups.
“The polarisation between Arabs and non-Arab communities is rising dangerously in both west Darfur and eastern Chad,” said a researcher with an international NGO who preferred to remain anonymous, citing a lack of authorisation to speak on the matter.
“Each side’s armed men do not appear controlled by their supposed political, militia or rebel leaders,” he said. ” And while Arabs are superiorly armed thanks to their proxy role for the Bashir regime, non-Arabs are ready to fight to return to the land where they were living before 2003 and, for some, to get back their historical land rights.”
Sudan ranks third in gold production in Africa, but its reserves are still largely untapped, including those in areas like Jabal Moon.
The RSF, which is in control of most of Darfur and other areas with gold deposits, is courting Russia as a potential export destination. Already, media reports estimate annual exports of 30 tonnes of gold to Russia.
In mid-February, Hemeti – who returned from an official visit to Moscow a day after the invasion of Ukraine – told local media that Sudan is willing to give Russia a naval base on the Red Sea coast.
Historically, Russia has also often backed Sudan at the UN Security Council.
In 2019, following the June massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters by security forces after the overthrow of al-Bashir, Russia used its veto power to overrule a motion to condemn the massacre that had been reportedly orchestrated by the generals.