Slaughter was brewing in Sudan last Thursday when Steven Koutsis, the Americans’ ranking diplomat in Khartoum, arrived in Washington. Fresh off the plane, he wanted to assure a meeting of government officials and experts that America was on the case. But Sudan was on the brink of chaos.
Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had been removed in a military coup in April following months of massive protesters, and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, known as “Hemetti”––commander of the feared Janjaweed forces notorious for alleged genocidal terror in Darfur province––was catapulted into power.
Negotiations between the military and the civilians who orchestrated millions-strong marches and sit-ins had broken down, and Hemetti’s Rapid Security Forces, or RSF, had attacked protesters in an effort to disperse them.
Something evil surely was coming, and there was consternation at the meeting of Sudan watchers in D.C., according to six people who attended the “off the record” session. The Daily Beast, which did not attend, is not bound by that rule.
Most of the witnesses said Koutsis’ comments were sloppy and unclear. He expressed sympathy for the military’s predicament at one point, since it could not simply hand over power after removing Bashir. But the really shocking moment came when Koutsis said the U.S. should align with the interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates––three countries that have provided military, financial and diplomatic support for Hemetti and the junta to help it hold on to power. It was a confusing statement for many in the room.
These three countries, although embraced by the Trump administration, share no democratic values with the United States whatsoever. Indeed, they are known for their brutal suppression of human rights not only at home but abroad. (The Saudi leadership, most notoriously, murdered and chopped up journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudis and Emiratis have waged a disastrous war in Yemen.)
Koutsis may have been on the defensive when he looked at the faces in the audience. He asked if people thought American interests diverged from those of these three countries.
Silence hung over the room for a moment. Then Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state and elder statesman of U.S. policy in Africa, responded crisply: “Democracy. Human Rights. Good governance. The rule of law.”
The State Department, subsequently queried about Koutsis’ remarks, did not respond to a list of questions.
Such was the state of American foreign policy when the slaughter finally came to Sudan on Monday.
Early in the morning, hundreds of Hemetti’s forces attacked the country’s sit-in site and roamed the streets, turning the roughly one square mile area of tents, stages, banners and placards into a heap of ashes, bodies and blood.
“They are doing what they’ve been doing in Darfur for years,” said a Sudanese activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The RSF are bandits. No discipline whatsoever.”
Videos, eyewitnesses and civilian activists described the horror to The Daily Beast: how Hemetti’s forces targeted civilians, beating some with long sticks, shooting others with automatic rifles; how hospitals treating the wounded were surrounded and invaded by soldiers. They described a city in lockdown, where any civilian who traveled was liable to be beaten––or worse––by Hemetti’s troops. There were disturbing reports of sexual assault and humiliation.
Regular internet access was cut off. At least 30 people died the first day and 300 were injured, but that number would rise because medics could not travel around the shutdown city, according to the Sudan Professionals Association, a group organizing protests.
On Tuesday, the violence continued in the streets of Khartoum, and residents said they were afraid to leave their houses. By Wednesday the death toll was put at 60.
“What’s next is civil disobedience and a strike. There will be no more negotiations,” said Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association.
An attempt at the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence was blocked on Tuesday by China with Russian backing.
This week’s massacres will be remembered as the turning point in Sudan’s post-revolution and Hemetti’s attempt to take the country through thuggery. “Order” is always the watchword of brutal regimes, with rationales much like those still used by the Chinese Communist Party to justify the carnage at Tiananmen Square exactly 30 years ago, or, more recently, by Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at Rabaa al-Adawiyah in 2013, Kill, repress, move on in the name of order. Then tell people to forget.
But in Sudan, people will not forget this violence any more than they have forgotten the slaughter in Darfur, even if the blood shed there is no longer the cause célèbre on American campuses that it was 15 year ago.
Today, precisely because of the military’s violence, Sudan is heading in the direction of other disintegrating states like Libya, and the massacre will be remembered as the latest example of the international community’s failure to prevent a predictable atrocity.
“The silence over the past few months by Western nations in the face of the Arab influence has contributed for this to happen,” said Cameron Hudson, a former Bush White House official.
Officially, the United States and other Western countries say they want democracy in Sudan, but many civilians and officials in Khartoum doubt the Americans are serious. Khartoum’s influential former spy chief, Salah Gosh, summarized the feeling many Sudanese government officials have regarding U.S. policy when we talked before Monday’s massacre.
“The interest of the United States is the stability of the country,” said Gosh, who has a long history of working with CIA and U.S. officials, but who recently fell out of favor with the Americans. “If [stability] is coming from the military council [the Americans] are for it. If it is coming from the civilian government they are for it. The Americans are interested in good governance––in the concept, not in the mechanism.”
Those who are skeptical about U.S. support for democracy in Sudan see a host of recent evidence that bolsters their conclusion. They point to the support of Egypt, where the U.S. effectively recognized a military coup against a civilian government in 2013. When Hemetti and military leaders recently toured Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE to shore up support, Western nations were silent. Authorities from some Western nations have told The Daily Beast that they would refuse to legally recognize the military government if it stayed in power, but the U.S. refuses to make that commitment.
None of that prevents the State Department and Trump administration officials from trying to persuade the world they are serious about democracy in Sudan. In a tweet, National Security Advisor John Bolton denounced Monday’s violence as “abhorrent” and called on the military to “speed transition to a civilian-led government.”
Before Monday’s massacre, there was discussion about bringing civilian leaders to Washington in order to boost their profile. The military said in a Tuesday press conference that it would hold elections in nine months, but U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy tweeted that “a rushed election or transition to a technocratic [government] that does not include the main opposition coalition will not suffice.”
Although the State Department has conducted table top exercises for mass atrocities in Sudan, it is not clear how effective the prevention efforts can be.
“Atrocity prevention once shots have already been fired is a really different animal from atrocity prevention when it looks like violence might be coming,” says Kate Cronin-Furman, an assistant professor at University College London. But multiple approaches should be taken to prevent mass violence, she said. “While high-level engagement effectively communicates ‘the world is watching,’ there's some evidence that peer-to-peer contact lower down the chain of command can be really important for convincing militaries to exercise restraint.”
Washington’s engagement with senior leaders in Sudan’s military and intelligence service are slim, according to current and former U.S. officials, in part because of past American sanctions on Sudan for supporting terrorism.
In fact, the United States is struggling to get basic intelligence about what is happening inside Sudan’s government and information on different political actors, according to three American officials.
Representatives of Western nations have described vastly different intelligence estimates to The Daily Beast when it comes to the size of Hemetti’s forces. Officials from these countries talk about uncertainty regarding the relationship between Hemetti’s unit and the Sudanese Armed Forces.
But with the military already tearing through the country’s sit-in site, it is not clear how the protestors who overthrew Bashir will respond. The Sudanese Professionals Association called on civilians to gather at their local squares for continued demonstrations. Maria Stephan, an expert in non-violent peaceful resistance, said that the key was for the protestors to disrupt the military’s sources of power. “Do the unexpected,” she said. “There is no guaranteed safety."