‘Enlist or die’: Fear, looming famine and a deadly ultimatum swell the ranks of Sudan’s paramilitary forces

By Pallabi Munsi, Nima Elbagir, Barbara Arvanitidis and Mark Baron, CNN

CNN  —  In mid-December, the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) swept into Sudan’s central Al Jazira state, known as the country’s breadbasket, with an ultimatum: “Enlist or die.”

Since then, the militia group has sought to use food as a weapon, withholding supplies from the hungry in a bid to coerce men and boys to join its ranks, according to over three dozen witnesses.

The RSF has been battling the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) for control of the country since a civil war broke out between the two rival factions in April last year. Both forces have been accused of killing civilians. CNN reporting last year exposed an RSF-led campaign to enslave men and women, and other atrocities by the paramilitary group and its allied militias in Sudan’s western Darfur region – an area already scarred by what has been widely described as the 21st century’s first genocide.

Now, a CNN investigation has found that almost 700 men and 65 children have been forcibly recruited by the RSF over the past three months in Jazira state alone.

Many of the victims were identified by witnesses, survivors, and family members. CNN cross-checked their names with residents from their communities to get details of what happened in each case. The fighting has limited communications and restricted access to the media, making gathering accounts like these incredibly challenging.

CNN was independently able to corroborate the identities of all 750 people swept up by the RSF press gangs in Jazira. Of those, at least 600, including 50 boys under 18, joined the RSF in eastern Jazira, in many cases driven by hunger, witness testimonies revealed. Another 150, including 15 boys, were forcibly recruited in western Jazira. Many of the men previously worked as farmers or traders.

The RSF campaign unfolded in Sudan’s agricultural heartland during its peak cultivation and harvest period, exacerbating food insecurity in a country already on the brink of famine.

Eyewitnesses detailed a range of coercive methods employed by the RSF to compel individuals to join their ranks, including intimidation, torture, summary execution and the withholding of food and medical aid.

CNN has obtained and verified two videos from residents of a village in Jazira who described an RSF attack in early January. In one video, an RSF soldier, identified by his headgear and the insignia on his military fatigues, declares they have captured the village.

In another, RSF soldiers, again identified by their fatigues and headgear, are heard calling the village’s men “dogs” before gunshots fill the air. The RSF soldiers can be seen humiliating the men, forcing them to prostrate themselves. Then they executed six of them, according to three of those who survived. The men had refused to enlist, the survivors told CNN. Two other witnesses from the village corroborated their account.

RSF soldiers looking to swell the militia’s ranks targeted a different village on February 27, witnesses said.

The militia tried to recruit 20 young men from the village, eyewitnesses, survivors and families of victims said. When the residents refused, they set up a base in the village, unleashing what the witnesses described as a campaign of terror. Homes were looted, and supermarkets and food warehouses were set on fire before the soldiers took off with over 30 stolen vehicles.

The three dozen eyewitnesses CNN spoke with from across Jazira, including survivors and the families of victims, say refusing the RSF’s ultimatum comes at the cost of food, home and safety. CNN is not naming the villages and most of the people who spoke due to fear of RSF reprisals.

The RSF has yet to respond to CNN’s request for comment on this story.

Sudan’s breadbasket

Jazira state in central Sudan feeds much of the country’s population of around 48 million, according to United Nations data. Located just south of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, the state is also home to one of the largest irrigation systems in the world, the Jazira Scheme. Before the war, Jazira produced almost half of Sudan’s total wheat and housed most of the country’s grain reserves.

That grain, and the capacity to grow and harvest more, are now in the hands of the RSF, as they entrench and occupy vast swathes of Jazira’s farmland.

“Whoever controls Jazira, controls the food production in the country,” said Alex de Waal, an expert on the Horn of Africa and executive director of the World Peace Foundation, about what he called the “catastrophic hunger crisis” the conflict has spawned.

Mohamed Badawi, a lawyer with the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies, told CNN that the RSF’s coercive and violent tactics were akin to an “enforced labor system.”

“People need to survive – they have no other choice, no one to complain to. If you don’t kill for them, you will be arrested,” he said of the RSF’s methods.

With no sign of the conflict abating, fears of impending famine are gathering pace.

A health worker measures the circumference of a Sudanese child's arm at the clinic of a transit center for refugees in Renk, South Sudan, on February 13, 2024.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned earlier this month that more than 25 million people across Sudan and neighboring South Sudan and Chad were “trapped in a spiral of deteriorating food security.” Those most in need of help are “stuck” in areas which can’t be reached because of “relentless violence and interference by the warring parties,” the news release added.

Around 220,000 severely malnourished children and more than 7,000 new mothers could die in Sudan if urgent assistance doesn’t reach them in the coming months, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in an update Wednesday. Some 3.7 million children are suffering from malnutrition across the country, it stated, adding that there are already reports of child deaths related to malnutrition, including in Darfur.

The non-profit Save the Children, part of a group of humanitarian organizations working in Sudan, said since the conflict erupted last April, food supplies had severely decreased, both in production and distribution, while prices rose by “45% in under a year.”

The UN has appealed for $2.7 billion this year to meet Sudan’s humanitarian needs. So far, only 5% of that figure has been given.

Displaced people fleeing from Jazira state arrive in Gedaref, in the east of war-torn Sudan, on December 22, 2023.

‘People without mercy’

The RSF’s grip on food supplies is only part of a broadening system of coercion in Jazira, witness accounts indicate.

On January 3, a 21-year-old fruit trader from western Jazira was on his way back to the state from an SAF-controlled area in the north when the RSF got hold of him. “They accused me of cooperating with the Sudanese army intelligence and only released me following the intervention of one of my friends who has joined RSF,” the trader, who did not want to be named for safety reasons, told CNN.

But his friend couldn’t guarantee his safety going forward, the trader said. “He advised me to join the RSF with him so that I could provide food for my children,” he told CNN, indicating that’s what his friend had done. “But I completely rejected the idea.” He has since escaped the state and is living in an undisclosed location within the country.

Another man who owns a citrus farm in the same area, Sidiq Farouk, said he was tortured on his farm on December 28, days after the RSF consolidated power in the state capital, Wad Medani. Farouk, who spoke to CNN from a safe location outside the country, said, “They tied my hands and legs with ropes and pushed me to the ground. They started hitting me.”

Farouk alleged the RSF soldiers, who accused him of associating with the SAF, then stood on his face with their military boots on. “It’s so tough, the movement of the boots on your ears. Your ears start whistling. After a while, you become numb to the beatings. They are people without mercy,” he told CNN.

Four other members of his family have since been killed for trying to resist the RSF, he said.

He also recounted the experience of a man from Khartoum who had sought refuge in a village near his in Jazira when the war first broke out, in April 2023, and had since been coerced into joining the RSF. “When the RSF entered the state this December, they stole his car,” Farouk said.

The RSF told him they would only return his car if he worked for them, Farouk recalled. “Till now, he has been made to work as a driver for them. He hasn’t even got his car back.”

More than a dozen witnesses also accused the RSF of exploiting a month-long communications blackout in the state to extort money from locals. As a result of the blackout, the paramilitary group controls access to the internet in Jazira, charging residents money to use SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet system for online services, including bank transfers.

“The RSF charge $3 an hour to let people use (the) internet. And as far as bank transfers are concerned, they are taking a cut of 20% of the value of the amount that someone sends you from abroad,” one witness said. “They deliver it to the people in cash because they are the only ones now in the state of Jazira who have cash, from the money they looted from banks, shops, and many villages.”

The quid pro quo demanded by the RSF became clearer as weeks passed, residents said. “I went with a group of villagers to file a complaint with the district commander about the theft of cars and money from the village,” said one witness. “The commander’s response was, ‘Get the youth of the village to enlist with us so that they can protect you.’”

New RSF recruits are being “rewarded with food and aid looted from others,” more witnesses said.

Displaced people fleeing from Jazira state arrive in Gedaref, in the east of war-torn Sudan, on December 22, 2023.

Hala Al Karib, regional director of the non-profit Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, told CNN: “What the RSF is doing in Jazira – turning self-sufficient communities into IDPs who are reliant on aid or downgrading them into enslaved people in their own lands – is precisely similar to what they did in rural Darfur 20 years ago and got away with.”

Children are especially vulnerable to RSF exploitation, Al Karib said, and their recruitment will make any future demobilization process more difficult.

CNN shared its findings with UN special rapporteur for contemporary slavery Tomoya Obokata, who said, “the recruitment of young men and children in exchange for food and safety amounts to forced labour, the worst form in the cases of children, and amounts to contemporary slavery under international law.”

After nearly a year of war, UN children’s agency UNICEF estimates that about 19 million Sudanese children are out of school.

While several videos from across Sudan showing RSF child soldiers have been posted on social media since the beginning of the war, CNN has now been able to confirm the recruitment of 65 of them in Jazira since mid-December, with each report independently corroborated by locals from the villages concerned. Similar reports have emerged from other parts of the country; CNN has been able to confirm a handful of cases in Omdurman and Khartoum.

Hijacking Sudan’s food supplies

When the RSF moved into Jazira in mid-December it marked the first step in what appears to be a systemic destruction of the country’s agrarian infrastructure. It also worsened the country’s massive internal displacement crisis, since the state had given shelter to hundreds of thousands fleeing fighting elsewhere.

On December 20, the WFP, which had set up an aid hub and warehouse in Wad Medani after fighting broke out in Khartoum last April, was forced to temporarily pause distributions in Jazira, Leni Kinzli, head of communications for WFP in Sudan, told CNN.

“In under a week’s time,” Kinzli said, “our warehouse containing more than 2,500 metric tons of life-saving food, including pulses, sorghum, vegetable oil and nutrition supplements, enough stocks to feed nearly 1.5 million severely food insecure people for one month in Jazira state, were looted by elements associated with the RSF.”

CNN spoke to several locals who said most warehouses containing food aid in Jazira were looted in the first four weeks of the RSF’s occupation. “Since entering Jazira, the RSF leaders have been denying the looting, theft, and incidents of murder and rape, attributing them to criminals,” a witness told CNN. “But I, as an eyewitness to what happened in our village, can say those who commit all these atrocities are wearing RSF uniforms.”

Civilians fleeing conflict in Sudan wait for asylum registration procedures in Renk, South Sudan, on December 18, 2023.

In a report to the government, Omar Marzoug, governor of the Jazira Scheme irrigation project, detailed what he said the RSF stole when they broke into its headquarters on January 18. The list – reviewed by CNN – includes everything associated with agricultural infrastructure: from tractors to seeds, fertilizer and even warehouses full of food.

A prominent leader in the Jazira and Al-Manaqil Farmers’ Alliance, who declined to be named for security reasons, told CNN: “Now the fate of Jazira’s agriculture has become unknown.”

Eyewitnesses told CNN the Wad Medani central market, too, was looted and set on fire, just days after the RSF took over the city. In a video posted on social media – geolocated to the area around the market – a man wearing RSF fatigues boasts about the damage wrought by his forces: “They said Wad Medani cannot be taken over. Look now.” Satellite imagery from December 22 shows fire damage to the market.

De Waal, the Horn of Africa expert, told CNN that given the dire food situation, “what is happening would constitute a reckless famine crime.”

‘Seven million’ face starvation

The damage to Jazira’s agricultural infrastructure will only worsen the situation in the rest of Sudan.

In January, Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, reported that at the Zamzam camp for displaced people in the hard-hit North Darfur region, to the west of the country, at least one child “is dying every two hours” from starvation.

Sudan is facing the worst hunger level ever recorded during its October-February harvest season, according to research published last month by the Clingendael Institute, an independent think tank. It forecasts that the “severity and scale of hunger in the coming lean season (mid-2024) will be catastrophic” and calls for urgent, large-scale assistance.

According to the “most likely” scenario based on its research, around seven million people could face catastrophic hunger by June 2024, “with mass starvation being the prospect.”

The RSF’s presence effectively prevented farmers from harvesting their crops, Anette Hoffmann, author of the report, told CNN.

“This harvest was badly needed to compensate for the massive production losses that already occurred due to the fighting in other states. The RSF’s violent advances in Jazira state, their targeted destruction of warehouses, Sudan’s gene bank and irrigation systems will inevitably further exacerbate Sudan’s massive food shortages,” she said.

“Those hampering life-saving aid must be held responsible for the famine they cause.”

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has also urged immediate and collective action to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe. “Restoring crop and livestock production – a livelihood for 2/3 of the population – is a top humanitarian priority,” it said in its 2024 humanitarian response plan.

De Waal highlighted the very immediate consequence of the RSF conscripting farmers and traders as fighters amid the hunger crisis. “Who is going to cultivate then? You’re finished,” he said.

As one farmer, who asked not to be named for fear of RSF retaliation, summed it up: “It is an intentional act to starve people.”

CNN’s Benjamin Brown contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: This report would not have been possible without the contributions of Sudanese journalists whom we are not naming for their safety.

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