First They Came for Sudan’s Future. Now They’re Destroying Its Past.

On the evening of April 14, 2023, I was at a concert in Khartoum. The end of Ramadan was near, and the audience listened to the ouds, tambours and kanoons of Bait Al Oud, an orchestra set up to preserve traditional Sudanese instruments. I sang along to songs made popular by the 2019 revolution and then floated home, my spirits high.

The next day I watched fighter jets fire rockets into the neighborhoods where I grew up.

First They Came for Sudan’s Future. Now They’re Destroying Its Past.
Hokyoung Kim

Thousands of people have been killed since fighting erupted just over a year ago between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group that is the latest iteration of the janjaweed, or devils on horseback, which was central to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur in the 2000s. The R.S.F. helped to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019 and, with its general Mohamed Hamdan (widely known as Hemeti), was part of a power-sharing regime that fell apart in April.

Now it is at war with its former partners in government, and the Sudanese people have become collateral damage. A report from Human Rights Watch in May detailed the R.S.F.’s ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Masalit and other non-Arab people in West Darfur. There have been other reports of summary executions, torture and rape. Across the country, more than 11 million people have been displaced. Homes have been occupied and looted. Museums have been targeted and their contents probably sold, destroyed or just taken.

In the 2021 coup, the R.S.F. and the military delayed the revolution’s dream of a democratic, pluralistic Sudan. Now the R.S.F. is intent on destroying any evidence that another Sudan could ever exist or ever did. If the rest of the world continues to look away, it may succeed.

My aunt spent the first few days of the war huddled on her living room floor with her children and grandchildren, trying to avoid errant antiaircraft bullets. Soon R.S.F. soldiers broke in and forced her family, including an 8-month-old, to lie facedown in the dirt with guns to their heads, she told me. The house in Khartoum that she had lived in for over 30 years was torn apart, and her house was covered in human excrement. Her family fled, leaving everything behind.

My great-uncle fled to Egypt when the fighting began. Soon afterward, he heard that the R.S.F. had emptied his house, including the china his wife had collected over 50 years, onto their trucks. Relatives told me that the soldiers had defecated on his children’s beds on the way out. My great-uncle died a refugee a few months later and never saw his house again.

Down the road from my house, my grandparents’ house was taken apart by soldiers who ripped up my grandmother’s photographs and my grandfather’s books and pulled their mattresses out into the streets. The home that witnessed the tragedies and triumphs of seven children, 27 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren was left unrecognizable.

Many homes across the country have been pillaged like this by the R.S.F., with people reporting that sometimes even the doors and windows were stolen. Our homes were where we held weddings and funerals, where families gathered for Friday fatours and Eid. Where our grandparents made space for us before we were even born. Now they are the spoils of war: Someone called my uncle and told him that a large family from Chad intended to move into his home. A militia member called a friend and said he was in my friend’s house and would be spending his honeymoon there.

The militia is undoubtedly motivated by profit; looted items are reportedly sold in markets in Sudan and further afield. But they are also erasing the Sudan that existed before the war and making sure that anybody who dares to come back has nothing to return to.

The National Museum of Sudan, like much of the country, had fallen into disrepair in the 30 years of Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s rule. But before the war a multimillion-dollar renovation, led by UNESCO and the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, was underway.

I last visited in early April 2023, a few days before war broke out. The museum held more than 100,000 artifacts, from the steles of ancient warrior queens to 13th-century Christian frescoes. Ancient Nubian and Egyptian temples dedicated to the Egyptian gods Horus and Amon, painstakingly rescued during the construction of the Aswan Dam, dotted its gardens. When I was growing up, the dictatorship of Mr. al-Bashir afforded very few opportunities for national pride, but at the National Museum it was possible to glimpse a better version of our country — more diverse, complex and inclusive. It was a Sudan I also glimpsed in 2019, when so many Sudanese peacefully united to overthrow Mr. al-Bashir.

At a sit-in outside the national military headquarters, I saw protesters from previously divided ethnic, religious and social groups coming together to build the democratic Sudan they so desperately wanted and deserve. We chanted, “We are all Darfur”, to acknowledge the pain the regime had inflicted on that region. Christians provided Ramadan meals to Muslims, and Sufis whirled. After a violent crackdown by the R.S.F., the people came out again.

But the leaders of the national army and the R.S.F., who were supposed to head a transitional government, had no intention of giving up power. A couple of years later, they staged a coup, then they turned on each other.

In May 2023 R.S.F. fighters entered the National Museum. In videos posted online, they gloated as they opened ancient Nubian caskets, disturbing 3,000-year-old corpses. Snipers took up positions on the museum’s roof. The museum was looted. It’s being used now as an R.S.F. cemetery. The Khalifa House Museum, in Omdurman, also recently renovated, was cleared out, too.

R.S.F. members have posted videos of themselves in the ruins of the ancient religious site of Naqa, a World Heritage site. They are said to have ransacked or burned university libraries and archives. In September I heard that the collection of rare instruments at the Bait Al Oud Academy — which I listened to on the eve of the war — had been destroyed.

I fled my home in Sudan one year ago. Millions of people are still there, trapped between an incompetent army and the genocidal militia it created. For them, it has been a year of summary executions, encroaching famine and city after city ravaged by the militia.

The R.S.F. encircled El Fasher in North Darfur a little over a month ago. The city, already threatened by famine, waits on the edge of a likely massacre. And yet the international community still stands by. Attention is rarely paid to Sudan, and much of what I read reduces the conflict to a power struggle between two generals or a migration problem for Europe. Perhaps this is why R.S.F. fighters feel so free to broadcast their crimes on social media.

There was no place for rogue militias in the Sudan we dreamed of at the sit-in in 2019. They stole that future from us, and now they are erasing our past.

Dena Ibrahim, who grew up in Sudan, wrote from London.

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