Sudanese miners are blaming Russia’s infamous Wagner Group mercenaries for massacres along the porous border between South Darfur state and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Witnesses say the Wagner Group, with close ties to the Kremlin, has fought to loot the region’s rich gold mines in recent months, as Russian mercenaries killed scores of miners in at least three major attacks.
Two Sudanese miners who survived attacks in March by Wagner mercenaries said they were detained for days and tortured.
“There are multinational fighters with the Russian security company,” one of the witnesses told news website Middle East Eye (MEE). “We saw fighters from Russia, Syria and other African countries, including Central African Republic and others.”
In a June 24 statement, the Darfur Bar Association (DBA) said it has documented the Wagner Group in South Darfur “since last year.”
It says it has photographs of Russian mercenaries in the streets and cafes of Um Dafuq, a South Darfur village close to traditional artisanal gold mines. The DBA recorded testimony from relatives of people in South Darfur who allegedly were killed by Wagner mercenaries in the borderlands with CAR.
The DBA said in a June 11 statement that the Russian ambassador in Khartoum denied Wagner operates in Sudan.
Officials in Sudan have issued the same denial repeatedly, but experts and diplomats from around the world express a different perspective.
“It has been the worst kept secret in Sudan that Wagner operatives were working here and supporting the military,” Kholood Khair, managing partner of Insight Strategy Partners in Khartoum, told Al-Monitor news website. “It’s just a function of greater oversight from the international community on how close the [Sudanese] military is to Russia and what that could mean for this region.”
Pauline Bax, deputy director of International Crisis Group’s Africa program, said the recent attacks appear to be more like raiding and looting than securing and extracting natural resources.
“There are regular reports of attackers arriving by helicopter, killing artisanal goldminers and rebels, taking everything they can and then leaving,” she told British newspaper The Guardian. “Sometimes they come back again a month or so later and do the same thing. It is nothing to do with securing a mining site.”
The Wagner Group’s presence in gold-mining areas has increased since governments around the world unleashed massive sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine.
The DBA lashed out at all who are “allowing companies to exploit the wealth of the area’s residents without their participation.”
It also laid blame on the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a Sudanese paramilitary group led by Gen. Mohamed “Hemetti” Hamdan Dagalo.
One of the top leaders of Sudan’s military coup in October 2021, Hemetti is also deputy chairman of the junta’s Sovereignty Council and became one of the richest people in Sudan after his RSF took control of the Darfur region’s gold mines in November 2017.
Hemetti visited Russia on February 23, the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to political analyst Magdi El Gizouli, it was a trip “arranged by the Russian Wagner mercenaries in order to ensure his continuation in power so that they can continue to plunder the country’s resources,” Sudan’s Radio Dabanga reported.
In April, Bloomberg news service reported on a large gold-processing operation linked to the Wagner Group through an internationally sanctioned company called Meroe Gold.
The U.S. Treasury describes those links as “an interplay between Russia’s paramilitary operations, support for preserving authoritarian regimes and exploitation of natural resources.”
Researcher Eric Reeves, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, said the Wagner Group found its “perfect Sudanese counterpart” in Hemetti.
“The theft of Sudanese national wealth by Hemetti and his RSF militia has been of staggering proportions,” he tweeted on June 27. “We should not be surprised that Russia’s [Vladimir] Putin is doing all he can to assist Hemetti’s continuation in his present position of power and favorable policies toward Russia.
“Perversely, Putin’s war against Ukraine is making food less available for Sudan, Darfur in particular, as famine looms.”
Bax said miners from Sudan and CAR are paying the ultimate price for Wagner’s and Putin’s need for gold.
“Wagner has been a convenient vehicle because it is not a legal entity and does not have to play by any rules,” she said to MEE. “The [CAR] government does not have money to pay Wagner for its services. Wagner thus needs to pay itself through mining revenue.
“Sadly, artisanal miners are collateral damage.”