Date: Monday, 17 June 2019
KHARTOUM, Sudan — Once a camel trader who led a militia accused of genocidal violence in Darfur, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan now sits at the pinnacle of power in Sudan, overlooking the scorched streets from his wood-paneled office high up in the military’s towering headquarters.
From his office in the capital, Khartoum, he can see the site where his unit, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, cleared thousands of pro-democracy protesters in a storm of violence that began on June 3.
The heavily armed troops burned tents, raped women and killed dozens of people, some dumped in the Nile, according to numerous accounts from protesters and witnesses.
The blood bath consolidated the vertiginous rise of General Hamdan, widely known as Hemeti, who by most reckonings is now the de facto ruler of Sudan. To many Sudanese he is proof of a depressing reality: Although they ousted one dictator in April, the brutal system he left behind is determined to guard its power.
“We thought this might happen,” said Alaa Salah, 22, the woman dressed in white who led chants from atop a car and brought the world’s attention to Sudan’s revolution. “For years Hemeti killed and burned in Darfur. Now Darfur has come to Khartoum.”
For years, General Hamdan was an enforcer for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the brutal dictator who led Sudan for 30 years. When protesters filled the streets in April, roaring for Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster, the military toppled him.
[Read about the upcoming court appearance of Mr. al-Bashir, who is expected to face charges of corruption and possessing foreign currency.]
General Hamdan, claiming to support the revolution, abandoned his patron.
But when the protesters refused to disperse, demanding an immediate transition to civilian rule, the generals refused to budge. With power-sharing talks stalled on June 3, the Rapid Support Forces began their crackdown.
Sudanese doctors put the toll at 118 dead.
With international pressure building, General Hamdan, 45, wants to present himself as Sudan’s savior, not its destroyer.
“If I did not come to this position, the country would be lost,” he told The New York Times in a rare interview with a Western journalist.
But he declined to answer direct questions about accusations that his troops committed atrocities, citing a continuing investigation that, he said, will publicize its findings in the coming days.
“I’m not escaping the questions,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the investigation.”
As he spoke on Thursday, a newly appointed American envoy to Sudan was arriving in Khartoum to press the military to stop attacking civilians. A day earlier, the United Nations Security Council formally condemned the violence.
The American envoy, Donald Booth, a former ambassador to Sudan, also called for an independent investigation into the June 3 killings, a military withdrawal from Khartoum and an end to the internet blackout that has severed Sudan’s links to the outside world.
General Hamdan, for his part, said his troops had been goaded into action by what he called “unspeakable provocations.”
“One protester pulled out this,” he said, pointing to his crotch, “and waved it at our soldiers. Our vehicle was torn apart in front of us, and they filmed it live. There were many provocations.”
A lanky man with a primary school education, four wives and no formal military training, General Hamdan is enjoying the trappings of his new position.
At his office in the military headquarters, courtiers, advisers and waiters swarmed around him. Golden swords and military medals, awarded to past military leaders, filled the cabinet outside his door.
His fighters lounged in khaki-colored battle wagons at the gates, showing off the weaponry that underpins his authority. Some cleared piles of paving stones from the deserted streets outside, effacing the traces of the exuberant protest that a few short weeks ago enraptured the country.
Sudan is formally under the rule of Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, an older army officer who heads the Military Transitional Council that seized power from Mr. al-Bashir on April 11. But few doubt that, with Khartoum in his grip, General Hamdan is the true power.
Since the rampage on June 3, angry residents have started to refer to General Hamdan’s men as “the Janjaweed,” after the notorious Arab militias that terrorized ethnic African communities in Darfur in the 2000s.
The term offends General Hamdan, who rose to prominence by commanding one such militia.
“Janjaweed means a bandit who robs you on the road,” he said. “It’s just propaganda from the opposition.”
It’s certainly true that, under his control, the Rapid Support Forces has evolved into far more than a gun-toting rabble.
With 50,000 fighters by some estimates, the force has been deployed to quash insurgencies across Sudan and to fight for pay in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.
War has made General Hamdan rich, with interests in gold mining, construction and even a limousine hire company. His patrons include Mohammed bin Salman, the hawkish crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
Longstanding fears about the dominance of his group, which Mr. al-Bashir groomed for years as a sort of praetorian force, are being realized.
“Army generals and Darfur Arab leaders had repeatedly warned the Bashir regime that the militias were a time bomb,” said Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher and journalist who has covered conflicts in Chad and Sudan for more than 20 years. “Now here we are, and it may be too late to step back.”
For now, the Rapid Support Forces watch over Khartoum like hawks. Armed pickup trucks sit on intersections and bridges, or snarl the sandy streets with long convoys manned by fighters brandishing sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Others work from offices. At a five-story villa in the upscale neighborhood of al-Manshiya on the banks of the Blue Nile, uniformed officers sit in air-conditioned offices with computers and printers.
On every floor, the elevator opens to large posters that show a smiling General Hamdan embracing the poor, opening schools or meeting tribal leaders. Surveillance cameras dot the ceilings.
Faced with a barrage of international condemnation, those officers are trying to shape an explanation for the violence on June 3, portraying the raid as a moral crusade against degenerate, armed pro-democracy protesters.
In one office, Gen. Nooreldeen Ahmed, a former Sudanese diplomat, heads the force’s human rights unit. A timetable of lectures on human rights for soldiers sat on his desk. A sign on the office next door read: “Child Protection Unit.”
In the past, the Rapid Support Forces have faced accusations of recruiting child soldiers to fight in Yemen. General Ahmed dismissed such claims and accounts of atrocities by soldiers during the June 3 operation as “fake news.”
Their purported proof was available downstairs, where an intelligence officer piled items that he said were confiscated from protesters onto a table: a sword, an old pistol, batons, half-empty bottles of Sudanese moonshine, hashish and a fistful of condoms.
He then summoned five barefoot men in dirty clothes and with downcast eyes to the room — a few of the 300 people they said they had arrested. He did not permit questions.
Sudanese news channels, now under strict military control, pump out a stream of such propaganda every day. Protesters, who relied on the internet to mobilize opinion against Mr. al-Bashir, say they have videos and images that document army killings and beatings. But with the internet shut down, they cannot distribute them.
Dr. Sulaima Sharif, head of the Ahfad Trauma Center in Khartoum, said her staff has treated dozens of traumatized women who were beaten or abused by the Support Forces this month. At least 15 said they had been raped, she said, and many more had been beaten on the genitals by stick-wielding soldiers while in military detention.
The true number of rape victims is likely much higher, she added, because of stigma and cultural sensitivities.
Like many strongmen, General Hamdan claims his ominous reputation is overblown. “People say Hemeti is too powerful and evil,” he said. “But it’s just scaremongering. My power comes from the Sudanese people.”
Still, there are signs that his dominance of Khartoum has stoked resentment and anger inside the regular army, where some officers view him as an impudent upstart.
Those tensions exploded into the open on Thursday, when a spokesman for the Transitional Military Council said it had foiled an apparent takeover plot led by army officers this past week. But dislodging General Hamdan would be difficult, requiring the army to start a civil war on the streets of Khartoum, said a Western official in Khartoum who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the military situation. That seems unlikely for now, he said.
At the top ranks, generals of all stripes are joined by powerful, shared economic interests.
Under Mr. al-Bashir, General Hamdan and the army generals became business tycoons who cornered entire sections of the economy, said Suliman Baldo of the Enough Project, which seeks to end atrocities in African conflict zones.
“This is not just about power; it’s about money,” he said. “Army commanders and Hemeti are up to their necks in corrupt proceeds — that’s why they have zero tolerance for civilian rule in Sudan.”