DARFUR, Sudan — The jagged peaks of the Jebel Marra mountains rise suddenly out of an endless stretch of desert in western Sudan’s Darfur region. Rows of orange trees are tucked into the valleys, next to half-destroyed villages. Across the mountain range, small bases are flanked by heavy weaponry. Rebel soldiers, many of whom came here to fight against the government nearly 20 years ago, man their posts.
Today civilians here live in relative safety after decades of war, but these mountaintop villages are completely cut off from the rest of Sudanese society. To many, trauma from decades of bombs dropped on them by their own government is compounded by their total isolation.
A team from VICE News are the first outside journalists to access the last rebel stronghold in Jebel Marra in five years. What we found is an area still completely cut off from Sudan and still functionally at war. Nearly a year after a historic revolution toppled President Omar al-Bashir, some in Jebel Marra haven’t even heard he is no longer in power.
Most Darfuris are still living in camps for the internally displaced, and journalists and aid agencies have been unable to access the region to help provide basic services, or to document crimes carried out during one of the most infamous — and ongoing — conflicts in the world.
Rebel General Omar Al Gizouli joined the Sudanese Liberation Army in 2003 after an attack on his village killed several family members. He remembers the cries of his grandparents as they burned alive in their home.
Today, he says, the revolution has completely bypassed Darfur. “Our families are still displaced. People just say things and write things on paper,” he said. “There are no actions in the field. We’re in the field and we see things with our own eyes.”
General Al Gizouli was shot in the head during one battle with government troops and said he lost hundreds of comrades fighting “for the rights of Darfuris.” Now, he wonders what it was all for.
“We said we couldn’t accept the situation and we would bear arms. I’ve been fighting the government now for 16 years,” he told VICE News.
Darfur became a household name in the U.S. in the early 2000s, largely because of George Clooney, who urged Congress to mount an international response when al-Bashir unleashed tribal militias to put down a rebellion in the long-marginalized Darfur region in 2003.
In 2004, the U.S. government called it genocide. Soon, genocide spilled over into war and rebel movements grew after decades of persecution of the non-Arab African tribes of Darfur.
Al-Bashir’s government deployed the full strength of Sudan’s land and air forces in relentless attacks on villages. A state-backed militia known as the Janjaweed — now a catchall term used to describe groups of armed Arab nomads and government troops — terrorized civilians and still looms large in the collective consciousness of Darfuris.
Internationally-brokered peace deals between the government and rebel groups fell apart in 2006 and again in 2011. Rights groups like Amnesty International shared evidence of chemical-weapons use. Bombing campaigns of civilian targets continued, some for months at a time, as recently as 2016. Attacks by ground troops continued into 2018. Jebel Marra, the ethnic heartland of Darfur and the most well-fortified swath of rebel territory, bore the brunt of the attacks.
The news faded. And to many, the conflict in Darfur seemed to end.
But in 2019, the movement that successfully ousted al-Bashir brought Darfur back into view.
Busloads of Darfuris arrived in Khartoum last spring to participate in the historic protests.
Al-Bashir was overthrown in April and the pro-democracy protests were violently broken up in June. Hundreds of young Darfuris boarded those same buses 500 miles back, hoping for lasting change.
Revolutionary murals can still be seen in the streets of Darfur’s capitals, hints of the change that ushered in a transitional government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Today, millions of Darfuris are still trapped in makeshift camps that have become small cities, thousands of villages remain destroyed, the area is awash in guns, and most territory is back in the hands of government forces.
Rebel soldiers say they are still fighting for a cause and many civilians say the toppling of al-Bashir is not nearly enough for those who suffered most under him.
It happened 16 years ago, but Ibrahim Mohammed Adam Salah, 45, says he remembers every minute of a two-hour siege on his small village in Darfur as if it happened yesterday.
“They were coming from all directions with guns. They rode on horses, camels, and in pickups,” he said. “Our village was completely on fire. Most of us were killed.”
“Our village was completely on fire. Most of us were killed.”
“When I remember,” he said, “I can’t eat. Still, today, it’s torture.”
Salah’s village was decimated during a conflict ignited by al-Bashir.
That day, Salah was taken by a militia and held captive for two years, tortured and beaten daily.
Ultimately, he reunited with his wife, who he discovered had also survived the attack. Ibrahim says she still suffers nervous breakdowns. For well over a decade, they’ve lived in a camp for the internally displaced in central Darfur.
This is the first time he has shared his story with anybody, he said, and the first time he has met anyone from “the outside.”
Across Darfur, tales of intimate and brutal violence against civilians are commonplace.
Kareema Ahmed Adam, a 32-year-old mother of two, lives in the El Hamidia IDP camp, near the city of Zalingei. She fled there after her village in Central Darfur was destroyed in 2013.
She, too, remembers the day the Janjaweed militia came to her village as if no time has passed.
“They came to our village from the west, on horses and camels. They were trying to rape me, in front of my husband and children. I tried to resist.”
“When my husband defended me, one released me and lifted his gun, straight to my husband. He shot him dead," she said. "They took me, even though I was pregnant. They did what they wanted to do. They robbed my home, then destroyed and burned it. I took my children and escaped before they could kill me, too.”
Kareema Ahmed Adam, 32, lives as an internally displaced person in central Darfur’s El Hamidiya camp, years after an attack on her village left her husband dead and she fled, alone, with her three children. Now, she makes bricks from mud to earn income. (Photo: Zach Caldwell/VICE News)
One of Kareema’s children died shortly after arrival at the camp in Zalingei. She now spends her days looking after her remaining two kids, who help her build and sell mud bricks within the camp.
In February, Sudan’s transitional government lifted decades-old restrictions on aid agencies, theoretically allowing humanitarian relief organizations to operate on the ground, but months later these organizations have still been unable to access remote areas of Darfur, even as COVID-19 reaches communities with little access to medical treatment.
Human rights researchers say for victims like Kareema, this vacuum of services for nearly 20 years has compounded their trauma. Like many of the displaced living here, Kareema does not feel safe enough to leave the camp to farm or collect firewood, citing the threat of the Janjaweed.
“I was shocked after [the attack] and now still, I’m frozen. I’ve stopped doing most things,” she told VICE News.
“I was shocked after [the attack] and now still, I’m frozen. I’ve stopped doing most things.”
Her hopes for the future are simple.
“I just want everything to be back as it was before, like our homes, our farms, that [there is] school for our children.
“I want them to give me my life back, my home and my safety.”
Sources with UNAMID, the U.N. and African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, told VICE News that local militias remain heavily armed and are supported by the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group evolved from the Janajweed. Even through ceasefires and renewed peace talks, small-scale attacks are still commonplace here, stoking fear in the civilian population crowded into camps.
These days, the Rapid Support Forces are attempting to sanitize their image under the longtime leadership of Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” the number two in the transitional government.
But in late December, the Rapid Support Forces along with tribal militias were involved in an attack on a refugee camp in El Geneina, in western Darfur. The skirmish killed dozens and freshly displaced tens of thousands who were already living in a displacement camp, many of whom fled over the border with Chad.
In Khartoum, state officials say foreigners are now welcome to travel to once-prohibited regions, like Darfur. Politicians assure foreign diplomats that the new government is committed to true democracy and justice for civilians.
Rebel leaders from nine Darfuri rebel groups are negotiating with the new government to end the conflict, but the leader of one key rebel faction — the Sudanese Liberation Army, led by Abdul Wahid El-Nur — is a critical holdout from the talks.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a longtime foot soldier of El Nur’s, believes that even under a new prime minister, it would be naive to cede their territory in Jebel Marra.
“The Sudanese government claims that these things have ended. They haven't. It didn't end,” Ibrahim said, walking on a narrow footpath around the mountain, pointing out dozens of sites of bombings along the way.
A scorched patch in a small village was a school.
“Bombed, twice,” he said.
Over there, near the orange trees, a chemical weapons attack, he added.
“I saw it with my own eyes. We treated people with their skin peeling off,” Mohammed said.
He explained that before El Nur will negotiate with the government, humanitarian access to Jebel Marra must be fully reinstated and key orchestrators of the genocide must face justice.
Prime Minister Hamdok is supporting peace talks with other rebel factions.
To many, those talks are problematic given they are being led by General “Hemedti” and missing key rebel leaders like El Nur.
“As long as Abdel Wahid is not on board, it can’t be successful, they’re not dealing with a full deck. The talks seem to be stumbling along,” said Jehanne Henry, the associate director of Human Rights Watch in Africa.
Analysts warn that despite his intentions, Hamdok has little control over the security apparatus that still runs the show in Darfur.
Even if a peace deal is inked, organizations including Human Rights Watch say the stability of Darfur depends on the future of U.N. presence there.
UNAMID is set to exit the country in late 2020 and have already handed over most of their bases to the government. Many bases have since ended up in the hands of the Rapid Support Forces. The drawdown was delayed because of the political transition and Prime Minister Hamdok requested a new political mission in the country to support peace-building. However, international rights groups tracking violence in Darfur say the withdrawal of a peacekeeping force could be catastrophic for civilians who rely on their protection.
“A conflict is still going on. The region is flooded with weapons,” said HRW’s Henry.
All of the tribal grievances that sparked even before 2003 are just as readily going to spark now. Without the U.N.’s forces, civilians could face more violence from armed groups."
The rebels, too, are nervous about what the departure of the U.N. could mean for civilians in their territory.
“If UNAMID leaves, they can burn down all of Jebel Marra,” said Commander Al Gizouli. “They would burn down Darfur. They’re adamant about wiping us out,” he said, describing the groups armed by the previous government and troops stationed in Central Darfur.
“They wanted to turn Darfur into another country. And we just want justice.”
Cover: Mariam Ibrahim Ausher, a soldier with the Sudanese Liberation Army, joined the rebels after her village was attacked by government forces and her first husband and children were killed. She fights alongside her rebel husband, General Al Gizouli. Photo: Zach Caldwell