Explainer: How Darfur became a ‘humanitarian calamity and catastrophic human rights crisis’


Close to nine million people need humanitarian assistance and reports suggest that some 4,000 people have been targeted and killed because of their ethnicity.

There are now concerns that Darfur is returning to the years of brutal fighting and increasing atrocities last witnessed two decades ago that left some 300,000 people dead and millions of others displaced.

So, what is happening right now in Darfur? Here’s what you need to know about the conflict.

What’s the historical context?

The name “Darfur” is derived from “dar fur,” meaning “the land of the Fur” in Arabic. The Fur tribe once ruled the Islamic Sultanate of Darfur until the killing in 1916 of the last Sultan of Darfur. Today, Darfur is home to approximately 80 tribes and ethnic groups, encompassing both nomadic and sedentary communities.

On April 27, 2023, the Al-Imam Al-Kadhim School in Al-Geneina City, West Darfur State, which had been serving as an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) shelter, was burned to the ground amidst the ongoing crisis in Sudan.

While tribal and ethnic conflicts are not uncommon, the situation escalated in 2003 when rebels, notably the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), took up arms against the Sudanese Government, protesting the unequal distribution of economic resources. 

This conflict pitted Sudanese Government forces, supported by allied militia known as the Janjaweed, against rebel groups resisting the autocratic rule of former President Omar al-Bashir. 

The result was a devastating toll on Darfur. Some 300,000 people lost their lives, and millions were displaced, including 400,000 refugees who were forced to flee to camps in neighbouring Chad.

In response to these atrocities, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants against several Sudanese senior officials, including Omar al-Bashir, on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.

Is history repeating itself in Darfur?

Although Darfur has experienced intermittent periods of reduced violence in recent years, especially during the period when the joint UN-African Union mission UNAMID was operating in the restive region, the situation took a drastic turn with the outbreak of conflict in April 2023 between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Addressing the Security Council in November, Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Africa, said that hostilities had “intensified” and that Sudan was “facing a convergence of a worsening humanitarian calamity and a catastrophic human rights crisis.”

Escalating violence across the Darfur region in Sudan has sparked fears that the atrocities committed two decades ago could be repeated.

A boy walks in the Al Salaam camp for displaced people in North Darfur.

A boy walks in the Al Salaam camp for displaced people in North Darfur.

UNHCR expressed alarm over reports of continued sexual violence, torture, arbitrary killings, extortion of civilians and targeting of specific ethnic groups. 

In West Darfur, hundreds have died in ethnically motivated attacks by RSF and allied militia according to the UN’s human rights chief.

“Such developments echo a horrific past that must not be repeated,” said Volker Türk UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, marking “months of futile suffering, death, loss and destruction”.

In July, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region, following the discovery of mass graves of some 87 members of the ethnic Masalit community, allegedly killed by the RSF and affiliated militia.

The African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) patrols Shangil Tobaya in North Darfur, Sudan in 2020.

The African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) patrols Shangil Tobaya in North Darfur, Sudan in 2020.

Are the people in Darfur getting any help from the UN?

In the past, the United Nations had a strong presence in Darfur through UNAMID, which was established by the Security Council in July 2007. Its mandate included, among other things, the protection of civilians and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance by the UN and other aid organizations. 

UNAMID ended its operation on 31 December 2020 and the Government of Sudan took over the responsibility of protecting civilians across the region. It followed a milestone peace agreement reached between the Sudanese authorities and two armed groups in Darfur.

A UN political mission known as UNITAMS was then established to support Sudan for an initial 12-month period during its political transition to democratic rule. That support included the establishment of the Permanent Ceasefire Commission (PCC) which was key to the implementation of the Darfur Track of the Juba Peace Agreement of October 2020 and to preventing a recurrence of political conflict in Darfur.

In December 2023 the UN Security Council decided to terminate the mandate of UNITAMS and begin winding down its operations over a three-month period slated to end on 29 February 2024.

Worryingly, the UN Joint Human Rights Office has recently received credible reports about the existence of at least 13 mass graves in El Geneina in western Darfur, and its surrounding areas, as a result of the RSF and Arab militias’ attacks on civilians, with the majority of these civilians from the Massalit community. These acts, if verified, may constitute war crimes.

Children draw at a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space at a camp in South Darfur, Sudan, for people displaced by the conflict.

© UNICEF/Adriana Zehbrauskas

Children draw at a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space at a camp in South Darfur, Sudan, for people displaced by the conflict.

But what about now? 

The UN says it is particularly worried about conditions in Darfur, where babies are dying in hospitals, children and mothers are suffering from severe malnutrition and camps for displaced people have been burned to the ground.

The UN’s Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee told the Security Council, that “sexual and gender-based violence continues, with accusations of sexual violence by Rapid Support Forces personnel, and rape and sexual harassment implicating the Sudanese Armed Forces.”

Is aid being delivered?

UN humanitarian agencies left Darfur when the April 2023 conflict broke out and many of their facilities were looted or destroyed. Some have returned on an occasional basis to provide humanitarian relief when the security situation has allowed.

In November, UN partners were able to reach Central Darfur State in a road convoy, which took five days, that brought medical supplies from Kosti, White Nile State, for the first time since the outbreak of fighting.

And the UN Humanitarian Affairs Office (OCHA) reported the arrival of the first cross-border relief to support 185,000 people from Chad to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. 

Many aid workers have been killed in Darfur, while others are working under extremely challenging conditions to support the civilians there.

OCHA says that Sudan represents the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, but the response plan is only 33 per cent funded.  The humanitarian office said that without more support “thousands of people will die.” 

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