By Michelle Nichols
N’DJAMENA (Reuters) – The United States envoy to the United Nations arrived in Chad on Wednesday to meet Sudanese refugees who have fled ethnic and sexual violence in Darfur, which she described as “reminiscent” of atrocities 20 years ago that Washington declared a genocide.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, is due to visit Chad’s border with Darfur in western Sudan to highlight the worsening conflict and growing humanitarian crisis.
War broke out in Sudan on April 15 – four years after former President Omar al-Bashir was ousted by a popular uprising. Tensions between the army (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which jointly staged a coup in 2021, erupted into fighting over a plan to transition to civilian rule.
“We certainly have reached a level of serious atrocities being committed and it is very reminiscent of what we saw happening in 2004 that led to the genocide determination,” said Thomas-Greenfield before arriving in Chad.
“We’re hearing from women who are being brutally gang raped over and over again, villages being raided, there are aerial photos showing mass graves. Signs are there,” she said.
In the early 2000s the U.N. estimates some 300,000 people were killed in Darfur when “Janjaweed” militias – from which the RSF formed – helped the army crush a rebellion by mainly non-Arab groups. Sudanese leaders are wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“Once again, Darfur is descending into an abyss without mercy or hope,” U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said in a statement. “Civilians have been trapped, targeted, raped and murdered. It is unlawful and it is outrageous.”
Thomas-Greenfield first visited Chad’s border with Darfur in 2004 as a senior State Department official – the same year Washington described the violence there as a genocide.
“I went before the genocide was declared, but saw all of the evidence that a genocide was happening,” she said. “I had witnessed that before, having gone into the refugee camps in Goma (Democratic Republic of Congo) after Rwanda and seeing the tortured look on people’s faces, the terror on their faces.”
A genocide was committed in Rwanda in 1994 when ruling Hutu majority extremists killed more than 800,000 minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates in 100 days.
‘RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK’
The United Nations says that since the start of the Sudan war in April some 380,000 refugees – mostly women and children – have fled to Chad. Hundreds of thousands more have escaped to Central African Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has appealed for $1 billion to help provide aid and protection to more than 1.8 million people who are expected to flee Sudan this year. Nearly 7.1 million people are displaced inside the country, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Griffiths said that those inside Sudan who had managed to escape the violence now face starvation.
“More than 60 percent of people in West Darfur are highly food insecure, as is over half the population in East and South Darfur,” Griffiths said. “We’re in a race against the clock.”
In recent weeks the United Nations has been able to deliver aid into West Darfur from Chad and has aid trucks ready to reach other parts of the region, but said “unrelenting clashes” were stopping them from reaching the people in need.
“Darfur’s people are caught in a state of near total deprivation. Our message is urgent: Stop the fighting and let us through,” Griffiths said.
In Sudan the U.N. says half the country’s 49 million people need help and has appealed for $2.6 billion – so far, it has secured only 26% of this amount. Washington is the top donor, followed by the European Commission, Germany and Canada.
The fighting throughout Sudan has caused a “humanitarian catastrophe,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council last week in a report seen by Reuters.
“The growing ethnic mobilization and the increase in ethnically motivated attacks could spark a full blown civil war, with potentially an even more devastating impact on the Sudanese people, the region and beyond,” Guterres wrote.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Grant McCool)