As Sudan’s latest conflict intensifies, artisanal gold miners are caught in the crosshairs

Artisanal gold miners in Sudan, like the ones pictured here, have been working in fear of their lives ever since conflict broke out between the Sudanese army and paramilitary forces on 15 April 2023. The army accuses the miners of collaborating with the RSF, while the RSF offers them no protection. (Alamy/Nicolas Marino)

On 17 April 2023, just before sunset in al-Ibaidiya, a Sudanese mining town on the banks of the River Nile about 400 kilometres north of Khartoum, four soldiers stormed the home of Omar Sheriff and dragged him out of his house. For hours, according to Sheriff, two of the soldiers searched his home, while the others held him hostage outside of his compound.

“They [the soldiers] falsely accused me of working with Russian merchants to smuggle gold out of Sudan,” Sheriff tells Equal Times. “They were hoping to find documents relating to gold smuggling operations at my home, but they couldn’t find anything incriminating.”

Ever since fighting broke out on 15 April between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), headed by Sudan’s de facto ruler General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and paramilitaries from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (popularly known as ‘Hemedti’), dozens of artisanal miners in al-Ibaidiya have been harassed by government forces who accuse them of conniving with gold merchants from a nameless firm.

Known by locals only as ‘The Russian Company’, the gold company is said to be owned by the Wagner Group, a Russian private military organisation that initially “secured the exploiting and exporting of Sudanese gold to Russia,” according to the Council of the European Union, by supporting and collaborating with the SAF, before switching sides and providing training and military support to the RSF. By selling their gold to merchants who work for companies linked to Wagner, artisanal miners in gold towns like al-Ibaidiya have now become a target of the military, while receiving no official protection from the RSF.

On the same day that Sheriff was harassed by Sudanese forces, Mustafa el-Tahir, another miner in al-Ibaidiya was arrested by soldiers who seized him from his home and drove him to a military base, blindfolded, before questioning him for hours.

“They kept asking me for the names of the merchants I work closely with to smuggle gold out of the country,” el-Tahir tells Equal Times. “I kept insisting that I wasn’t involved in any illegal trade. They eventually released me after over six hours of interrogation.”

Sudan is the third largest producer of gold in Africa after South Africa and Ghana but according to an in-depth report by CNN, 85 per cent of its gold is sold illegally. Since 15 April, an estimated one million artisanal gold miners have found themselves – along with the rest of the population – in the middle of a power struggle between the two generals, former allies, whose forces are battling each other in a deadly power struggle that has reportedly killed over 700 people and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians out of their homes.

The Wagner Group, which was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin – a key ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin – operates in various resource-rich African countries such as Mali, Libya and the Central Africa Republic. It has been accused of using the money it makes in Africa to fund its operations in Ukraine, where it plays a key part in the war and has an estimated 50,000 mercenaries fighting for Russia, according to the British defence ministry. Through its operations in Sudan – Meroe Gold and its Russian parent company M-Invest – the Wagner Group and several of its key figures are on an EU sanctions list for “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, in several countries, including Sudan”.

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Dangerous working conditions made even more deadly by a vicious rivalry

In al-Ibaidiya, miners labour in the searing desert heat to hack gold from rocks before separating the metal from the rock using toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury, both of which are incredibly harmful to both the miners and the environment. “Many miners from al-Ibaidiya have suffered kidney problems,” Fati Salau, a Nigerian doctor who worked in Sudan for six years, tells Equal Times. “It was clear that their situation was as a result of excessive inhalation of mercury vapour following chronic exposure to the chemical.”

Most miners in al-Ibaidiya earn less than US$100 a month, live in overcrowded compounds, work about 12-hour shifts and are typically only able to visit their families once every three months.

The gold they produce is mostly sold to merchants from a nearby gold processing factory, reportedly run by Wagner, which first surfaced in Sudan in 2017 on the invitation of the then-president Omar al-Bashir, before going on to create a close relationship with Hemedti.

Ever since the latter years of the al-Bashir dictatorship (1989-2019) Hemedti, who comes from a family of camel herders in Sudan’s western Darfur region, has enjoyed influence and power. He rose through the ranks of the Janjaweed to head the notorious Sudanese Arab militia group, which al-Bashir depended on in his campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arab peoples during the 2003-2005 war in Darfur, in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed. Despite not having any formal military training, al-Bashir appointed Hemedti as the leader of the newly formed RSF, which emerged from the Janjaweed in 2013. Four years later, Sudan passed a controversial law recognising the RSF as an independent security force.

But Hemedti would go on to betray his benefactor, who often relied on the RSF to quell various protests and rebellions in Sudan. At first, he joined forces with al-Burhan, who was by then the head of the army, in overthrowing al-Bashir following a popular uprising in 2019, Hemedti then positioned himself in the Transitional Military Council and later became a part of its successor, the Sovereignty Council. Now Hemedti, whose RSF forces were responsible for a brutal crackdown on a Khartoum protest camp in June 2019 that left over 100 people dead, has turned his guns in the direction of al-Burhan, in an attempt to seize power from his former ally and boss.

The face-off between al-Burhan and Hemedti has led to the targeting of entities with close links to Hemedti – who has amassed a personal fortune through his own gold interests. This includes mining companies run by the Wagner Group and the artisanal miners that sell gold to these companies. But Tahir, who has been mining gold in al-Ibaidiya since 2018, says that he and his colleagues are only trying to make money to survive. “We only sell gold to merchants who come to us in al-Ibaidiya and not to people outside Sudan as the authorities are claiming,” he says. “We are just being targeted because we sell gold to people who have scores to settle with the government.”

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“We are living in danger”

In recent years, the gold-trading sector in Sudan has been dominated by entities linked to Wagner, which smuggles much of the gold it produces out of Sudan. Last July, an investigation by CNN revealed that a Russian aircraft had been flying gold out of Sudan to the Syrian port city of Latakia, where Russia has had a major airbase since 2015, when it was invited by the Assad regime to support its forces in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

CNN reported that in 2021 as much as 32.7 tons of Sudanese gold, worth about US$1.9 billion, went unaccounted for. It also reported that when al-Burhan and Hemedti had a good relationship, Wagner worked closely with Sudan’s military junta to ensure that billions of dollars in gold bypassed the Sudanese treasury in exchange for the Russian government’s political and military backing.

Since the beginning of the year – the same period during which reports of a strained relationship between al-Burhan and Hemedti began to emerge – the Sudanese military government began to crack down on mining sector operators whom they accuse of smuggling and undermining the economy. On 14 January, authorities arrested a Russian national and head of security at Al-Sawlaj Ltd, a Wagner-linked mining company located near Atbara, 280 kilometres north of Khartoum, on the grounds that he was carrying five kilograms (161 ounces) of illicit gold. In the weeks that followed, 36 Russians and 22 local employees were questioned by security operatives on allegations of illegal gold trading before being released. But it is the targeting of local artisanal miners that has raised concerns.

“Dozens of artisanal miners have either been arrested or questioned by authorities since January,” Yaser Taifour, a human rights lawyer who offers legal services to a number of miners in al-Ibaidiya, tells Equal Times. “They are accused of being involved in gold smuggling, but these miners only sell to merchants, many of whom are from the nearby Russian company, and they do not determine how these merchants in turn sell the gold that they buy.”

Miners are not just worried by the regular harassment by Sudanese authorities, they are also concerned about their safety. Since the middle of April, a number of artisanal miners in al-Ibaidiya are said to be missing, while some others have fled the country as a result of constant government intimidation.

“I had to run away [from al-Ibaidiya] after two of my close friends and colleagues suddenly went missing last month,” Ammar al-Tash, an artisanal miner who fled al-Ibaidiya to neighbouring Chad in late April, tells Equal Times. “If I had remained [in al-Ibaidiya], I would probably have gone missing at some point.”

Miners who stayed continue to fear for their lives. Those fears have been compounded by recent reports that the Wagner Group has been arming RSF paramilitaries in northern Sudan, raising concerns that the Sudanese military may target more miners in retribution. “We don’t know when this constant harassment will end,” says Sheriff. “All we know is that as long as this war goes on, the military will keep coming after us. We are living in danger.”

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