AFRICANGLOBE – Heavily armed and dressed in desert fatigues, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have made their presence felt in Khartoum since military generals cracked down on a long-running sit-in.
Piled onto pickup trucks mounted with machine guns or patrolling the streets on foot, they are seen by some protesters as a new version of the infamous Janjaweed militias accused of horrific abuses in Darfur.
The RSF is a paramilitary force led by the deputy head of the ruling Transitional Military Council, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, nicknamed Himeidti.
Dagalo was a former leader of one of the Arab Janjaweed militias at the height of the genocide in Darfur that started in 2003.
The Janjaweed militias were recruited when Khartoum trained and equipped Arab raiders to crush an African ethnic minority rebellion in the area.
The groups were sent to attack villages on camel and horseback as part of a campaign of terror that saw now ousted president Omar al-Bashir indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In 2013, during clashes between the Arab militias and the security forces in Darfur, “Dagalo was one of the few commanders to stay loyal to the regime, which got him chosen for the RSF — the new paramilitary force aiming to control and strengthen the Janjaweed,” said Jerome Tubiana, a researcher specialised in Sudan.
Under the control of Sudan’s powerful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and then the presidency, the RSF was sent to fight insurgents in Darfur, and in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
But the force was accused by rights groups of abuses against civilians in Darfur, such as rape, extrajudicial killings, looting, torture and burning villages.
In 2014, the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called them the “new version of the Janjaweed”.
That same year, Abbas Abdelaziz, the NISS officer jointly in charge of the force with Dagalo, said calling the RSF “Janjaweed” was an insult, insisting the men had combat experience and had “become professionals”.
According to him, the force was then made up of 6,000 members, 1,500 of whom were from the Sudanese armed forces.
Between 2017 and 2018, “several thousand of the RSF were heavily rearmed (and given training by Russians) in a bid to protect Bashir”, Tubiana said.
But all that changed in April when demonstrators launched the sit-in outside army headquarters in Khartoum to demand the departure of Bashir.
Himeidti refused to break up the sit-in, Tubiana said.
The protest allowed the army to topple Bashir, after three decades of authoritarian rule.
On Monday security personnel attacked demonstrators at the sit-in site outside army headquarters in Khartoum.
Witnesses said RSF were at the forefront of a “massacre” that had left dozens dead and hundreds wounded, and referred to the attackers as “Janjaweed”.
In Yemen, the RSF have fought alongside the regular Sudanese army in the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015.