A mass grave with the bodies of at least 87 people who were most likely killed by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and their allied militia was uncovered in Darfur, in the west of Sudan, the United Nations said on Thursday.
The discovery is only the latest indication that the fighting raging in Sudan between rival military factions — the army and the Rapid Support Forces — is pushing Darfur, a region long blighted by decades of genocidal violence, into a new phase of ethnic war.
The victims were mostly members of the ethnic Masalit, a largely African farming community that has been the target of ethnic attacks by Arab militias over many years. The Masalit and other African ethnic groups were terrorized in the early 2000s by the notorious Janjaweed militias, which evolved into what is now the Rapid Support Forces.
The Sudanese Army has been battling the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces for power in Sudan since April 15, resulting in thousands of civilians killed and nearly three million others displaced — many fleeing across borders. The conflict has paralyzed Sudan, a country of 46 million in northeast Africa, and threatens to destabilize neighboring countries.
On Thursday, leaders from the seven nations surrounding Sudan held a one-day meeting in the Egyptian capital of Cairo to discuss a process to get the warring sides to engage in dialogue and stop the violence. Multiple diplomatic efforts, including by the United Nations, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Britain to achieve a cease-fire and to open a pipeline to deliver humanitarian aid have so far been unsuccessful.
The fighting has been particularly brutal in the western region of Darfur, which has been under a communication blackout. Residents have faced indiscriminate killings and have had their homes and businesses razed.
In June, the U.N. special representative for Sudan, Volker Perthes, warned that the violence in West Darfur could amount to crimes against humanity.
The U.N. Human Rights Office said on Thursday those found in the mass grave were killed over more than a week in mid-June in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur. Many were killed in violence that erupted after the killing of the region’s governor, Khamis Abdullah Abakar.
After the killings, the paramilitary forces stymied the efforts of local people to collect the dead, the U.N. said. The paramilitary fighters also prevented those who had been injured from getting to a hospital.
Residents were then forced to bury the dead in a mass grave just several miles from El Geneina between June 20 and 21, according to the U.N. Some of the dead included people who had succumbed to untreated wounds. At least seven women and seven children were among those buried in the mass grave, the U.N. said.
Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said on Thursday that he was “appalled by the callous and disrespectful way the dead, along with their families and communities, were treated.”
A spokesman for the paramilitary forces did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.N. findings come just days after Human Rights Watch accused the paramilitary forces and their allied Arab militias of executing 28 ethnic Masalit civilians in May, and razing several towns in Darfur.
The Darfur region suffered under Sudan’s former dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019 after a popular uprising. The two generals now fighting for power — Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the army and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan of the Rapid Support Forces — were accused of being deeply involved in perpetrating the atrocities in Darfur, which killed as many as 300,000 people, and led to an indictment of Mr. al-Bashir at the International Criminal Court.
Darfur is a major stronghold of the paramilitary forces, and in recent weeks, its fighters have tightened their control on major cities across the region in order to secure their supply routes into the capital, Khartoum, and adjoining cities.
On Thursday, rights groups said the U.N. Security Council should enforce targeted sanctions against those deemed responsible for the killings. The International Criminal Court should also investigate these attacks as part of its ongoing Darfur investigation, said Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“The severity of what is happening in West Darfur is plainly clear for all to see,” she said.