The gunmen arrived at dawn on motorbikes, horses and cars. For hours afterward, they fired on houses, rampaged through shops and destroyed clinics, witnesses said, in a frenzied attack that changed life in El Geneina, a town in Sudan's Darfur region.
Violence in mid-May, that is killed at least 280 people in two days, coming just hours after two military factions fighting for control of Sudan signed commitments to protect civilians and allow the flow of humanitarian aid.
The ceasefire agreement has so far failed to end the brutal fighting that broke out on April 15 between the Sudanese army and its rivals, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. The peace talks in Saudi Arabia are formally suspended last thursday.
The fighting has devastated much of the capital, Khartoum. But war between military factions has also swept across the country to the long-suffering western region of Darfur – a region that has been ravaged by two decades of genocidal violence.
The gunmen who entered El Geneina were supported by paramilitary forces. They were met with fierce resistance from armed fighters, including some townspeople, who had received weapons from the army, according to doctors, aid workers and analysts.
Amid the fighting, dozens of markets were destroyed, dozens of relief camps burned, and health facilities closed. As heavy artillery rained from the sky, militants went door to door finding targets and shooting unarmed civilians. Without food or water in the 100-degree heat, thousands of people began fleeing the city—only to be killed by snipers, leaving piles of bodies in the streets.
“The situation is catastrophic in parts of Darfur,” said Toby Harward, coordinator in Darfur for the UN refugee agency which has taken in refugees in neighboring Chad. “The people live in a dystopian nightmare where there is no law and order.”
Communications to West Darfur were cut for two weeks. But interviews over the past week with two dozen displaced people, aid workers, UN officials and analysts reveal that the region is under siege by a level of violence unlike any seen in recent years. More than 370,000 people have fled Darfur in the past seven weeks, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Many of those displaced reached border towns like Adré in Chad, hungry and traumatized, telling harrowing stories of their flight.
They include Hamza Abubakar, 30, who fled the village of Mystery in West Darfur after being attacked at dawn in late May by Arab militants backed by the Rapid Support Forces. As people fled their homes, he said, the militants, armed with AK-47s and other weapons, chased them on horses, camels and cars. Mr. Abubakar suffered a gunshot wound to his left arm and is recovering at a clinic.
“They have no reason to start killing us,” Abubakar said in a telephone interview. Although his wife and 1-year-old daughter made it out, he said, his brother and sister had died on the road from their injuries.
“A lot of other people couldn't make the trip,” he said.
For years, the government of former dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir waged a campaign of killing, rape and ethnic cleansing in Darfur that has killed as many as 300,000 people since 2003.
Two generals now vying for power in Sudan – General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the army and Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan of the paramilitary forces – were among those who committed the atrocity, which ultimately led to the indictment of Mr. -Bashir at the International Criminal Court.
Fighting in the region has also increased in recent years after UN peacekeepers left and mercenaries and rebel fighters flooded the borders with neighboring Libya and Chad. Nomadic African farmers and Arab herders – sometimes supported by General Hamdan's men – also clashed over dwindling resources and land.
In the weeks before the war began, tensions were already running high in Darfur.
In cities across the region, community leaders, aid workers and observers reported stockpiling of weapons and increased recruitment campaigns by both the army and paramilitary forces. General Hamdan, who recruited most of his troops from Arab tribes, also started recruiting soldiers from African tribes in an attempt to curry favor with them and strengthen his rule in the region.
When fighting began in Khartoum in April, rival military forces also started clashing in Darfur, leading to mass killings of civilians, looting of food warehouses and attacks on aid workers.
But community leaders, civil society organizations and some regional political leaders were able to quickly negotiate a ceasefire that halted the fighting in parts of Darfur. A ceasefire in East Darfur has been largely held, observers say, although insecurity continues due to bandit attacks.
That opened up a small window of opportunity allowing UN staff and international humanitarian workers across Darfur to be evacuated in late April by road and air to Chad and South Sudan.
But shortly after the evacuation, the area was thrown into chaos again.
The two sides began clashing for control of key installations, including airports and military bases in cities such as El Fasher in North Darfur and Zalingei in Central Darfur. In the city of Nyala in South Darfur, clashes broke out and banks were looted after paramilitary members were unable to collect their salaries because General al-Burhan had frozen their accounts and assets, aid workers and analysts said.
Arab militants backed by paramilitary forces also mobilized and advanced towards El Geneina, where the army was already arming ethnic African tribesmen for self-defence.
“El Geneina is one of the worst places on Earth right now,” said Fleur Pialoux, project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in El Geneina, who evacuated the town in late April.
Before the conflict, his team was racing against waves of malaria and malnutrition in Darfur ahead of the rainy season in June.
But when the bullet penetrated her staff complex, Ms. Pialoux, 30, knew he had to get his workers out. After four days huddled in safe rooms and scouring social media apps for news of the ceasefire, he learned of a brief truce to allow bodies to be collected from the streets. As he and his staff flee the city, Ms. Pialoux remembers speeding through charred refugee camps, looted markets and paved roads.
Darfur's warring parties, he said, “will not rest until they run out of ammunition or bodies to kill.”
With the collapse of ceasefire talks in Saudi Arabia and call for arms issued by the Governor of Darfur, Mini Arko Minawi, the region could be dragged into a more vicious and protracted war.
Aid workers have been unable to obtain visas to enter Sudan or find safe routes to deliver food by road. Prices for food, water and fuel have skyrocketed, and many people cannot access cash.
On Monday, soldiers were accused by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo of bombarding a university in Khartoum on Sunday, killed 10 Congolese. An army spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In El Geneina, a Sudanese doctor who had taken shelter with a colleague in a medical guesthouse in late April said gunmen beat them and robbed them before placing them on the streets.
“The streets reek of death and gunshots,” said the 30-year-old doctor who asked to be called by his nickname, Yousef, for safety reasons. “Bodies rotting in the streets, covered in gunshot wounds.”
He and his partner lived on the run for the next month, he said, dodging gunfire and circling militia on motorbikes to reach a series of makeshift shelters: mosques, abandoned clinics, charred markets.
“The city was flooded with weapons of all kinds. I've never seen anything like it,” said the doctor who has worked at El Geneina for four years. He said he witnessed gunmen killing residents indiscriminately, and when gunmen began going door to door in late May, killing residents, he and his partner fled.
At least a dozen women have been raped in El Geneina, according to Mona Ahmed, a women's rights activist who fled the town last month. Ms Ahmed said the true number of rape victims was likely higher.
“There is no protection for them, no medical or social support,” said Ms. Ahmed, 27 years. “Terror thrives in that kind of environment cut off from the rest of the world.”
Elian Peltier reporting contribution from Chad.