Libya, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Saudi Arabia: Former Sudanese mercenaries testify

By Quentin Müller   
Posted on Friday, 18 February 2022 07:47

A Houthi fighter in March 2021 in Sanaa.
A Houthi fighter in March 2021 in Sanaa. Hani Mohammed/AP/SIPA

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have hired hundreds of Sudanese fighters to fight in Libya and Yemen. Deceived or simply driven by poverty, they have been caught up in foreign conflicts.

“I used to be a policeman, but I was disgusted by the [force]. There was corruption at all levels, shopkeepers were racketeering, […] I couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t me, so I resigned in 2018. I bought a tuk-tuk and was a driver for a while.

“One day, a friend of mine told me about a job opportunity as a security guard in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. They were looking for men with military or law enforcement experience,” says 35-year-old Abdallah, who is sitting on one of the narrow beds in the family room.

A light breeze lifts the burgundy curtain in the darkroom. His children watch him from the doorway. “I had the perfect profile. Everyone in Sudan knows that these countries offer attractive salaries, so I applied.

“[An] Emirati security company called Black Shield offered us three months’ training on the job and then a salary of $500 a month, which was a lot of money, especially after the currency devaluation following the revolution and the end of Omar al-Bechir’s regime.”

In Khartoum, employment agencies Amanda, Al-Houmayaa, Dan Dahab and Princess’ Office for External Use did not advertise this exceptional job offer. It was only shared around their trusted network, so Abdallah felt lucky to be part of it.

In order to pay the agency fees, which amounted to £SD100,000 (about $1,590 at the time), he sold his small car. “All this to end up as a human shield for the United Arab Emirates,” he says with eyes downcast.

Living conditions

At the end of 2019, Abdallah was hired and flew to Gayathi, a city located west of the capital, Abu Dhabi. The former policeman immediately sensed that he had fallen into a trap. His training, which was supposed to last a few months, took place in a desert area. The living conditions were poor. Some slept on the floor, crammed on small mattresses, while the lucky ones were on bunk beds.

The 250 Sudanese who had come to study the security guard trade became worried when they started learning how to handle weapons and build trenches. “We suspected that something was wrong. Why were they training us to shoot at targets with AK47s and DShK machine guns mounted on vehicles, and introducing us to military tactics?” he says.

Abdallah returned from the United Arab Emirates and Libya after long months of anguish for his family. He now has no income and lives with his parents, wife and children in a working-class suburb of Khartoum. © Quentin Müller

Fortunately, some of his fellow trainees secretly kept their mobile phones, which had been confiscated on arrival, causing them great concern. Very quickly, their families in Khartoum were warned that something was wrong. The Emiratis were not present on the ground. It was former Iraqi, Jordanian and Sudanese soldiers who were providing the training.

The future Black Shield security guards were demanding accountability. “They submitted our questions to management and calmed us down by saying that some of them would surely be hired by the UAE national army once we had completed our training. This news motivated us,” says Mohamed (first name changed at his request), who is sitting on a plastic chair in one of the capital’s many tea rooms during the interview.

However, when a rumour started circulating that Mohamed, Abdallah and his compatriots were going on a mission abroad, feelings of mistrust were no longer being merely whispered at bedtime. The Sudanese recruits began expressing their fear and anger out loud. “Until then, they had treated us well, but that changed when a delegation from Black Shield came to inform us that the first groups would be leaving to go somewhere, without telling us where,” says 33-year-old Ibrahim Nameer.

“Tanks were waiting for us”

Nameer joins his comrade Abdallah in revealing their misfortunes. Sporting small glasses, a blue shirt and a pen in his breast pocket, he looks like a professor. “On the base where we were, there was a former Sudanese soldier who was our instructor. His name was Al-Rashid al-Tijani, so we urged him to answer our questions! We were compatriots, we were of the same blood! He reassured us. He said we were going to join the prestigious fortress of Sheikh Zayed (Mohammed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi) in South Africa and become guards.”

One day, the group was informed that they would be flying out the next day. Even though the training ended with some feelings of doubt, the men were ready to become security guards. A VAM (military air route) awaited them in the desert.

“Nobody knew what was going to happen. Some people were reluctant [to get on the plane], but they had to because otherwise, they would be returning home with no income […] after having gone into debt to pay the recruitment fees. The flight was supposed to last half a day, but the plane started landing after only three hours,” he says. Outside, in Abdallah’s courtyard, parakeets are chirping.

The mercenary slave’s children have left the doorstep, dislodged by their mother, who is anxious to spare them the humiliation of this story. “During the trip, we [were] given bottled water from Libya, which had already worried me. At the window, we noticed that we were being taken to a militarised area. Tanks and arm[oured] vehicles were waiting for us as we [disembarked from] the plane.

“Armed guys with long beards ordered us into trucks. They were speaking an easily recognisable Libyan dialect. At that moment, we realised that we were going to be forced to become mercenaries. Nobody dared to react. We were all terrified.”

Killing innocent civilians

Ibrahim, Abdallah and Mohamed’s companions continued to keep their hidden phones with them. Their families and comrades who had just arrived to replace them at the Gayathi camp received text messages from the Black Shield slaves calling for help. A mutiny then broke out in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while in Khartoum, demonstrations in front of the Emirati embassy in January 2020 exposed the UAE’s macabre strategy to serve their geostrategic interests.

By sending mercenaries to Libya, the Black Shield security company was supporting Marshal Haftar, leader of the Armée Nationale Libyenne (ANL), and thus serving the geopolitical interests of the UAE, which was opposed to the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey and Qatar.

Money is nothing to these Gulf peoples, so they think they can do whatever they want, including fighting proxy wars and watching their subjects die for them. How can they do that?

In early 2020, a convoy of Sudanese soldiers arrived in response to a request from Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls more than 90% of Libya’s oil installations. In September the previous year, he had been short of fighters, several months after launching his offensive on Tripoli. Previously hired to guard refineries, ports and oil fields, its Russian and Sudanese mercenaries (recruited earlier) had been sent to the front. Ibrahim, Abdallah, Mohamed and their mercenary compatriots were supposed to replace them.

Thus, the latter were fighting in place of Libyan soldiers. “This is partly because Libyans in the east refused to fight,” says researcher Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist and researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. The Black Shield’s Sudanese recruits took the place of local Libyan forces.

“We were deceived,” says Ibrahim. “Our worst fear was that we would be forced to kill innocent civilians… There was chaos there. There was no electricity and in the distance, you could see RPG rockets cutting through the night. After sunset, no one dared to move for fear of jumping on mines. We obeyed orders for fear of being shot. We had to serve Marshal Haftar’s 302 regiment.”

The group of Sudanese stood together: they did not fight or carry out any missions. The Emirati trainers present in Libya then offered them exorbitant salaries of $3,000. Ibrahim and Abdallah’s lawyer, 39-year-old Suleiman Algady, explains that a “Sudanese could not refuse such a salary”.

“It was used as a means of silencing them and forcing them to obey without flinching,” he says. Finally, after their families, NGOs and the international press mobilised, the Emiratis repatriated the unfortunate men from Libya, as well as those training not far from Abu Dhabi.

“The Libyans and Emiratis were not dealing with young people from the marginalised rural areas of Darfur, but with educated young people from Khartoum who were able to intelligently rise up against this vile trap,” says Algady. His firm represents 412 victims of Black Shield.

In all, 60 complaints have been filed against Black Shield. Sudanese lawyers have also started proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague against the Sudanese labour agencies, Libya’s Marshal Haftar and Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyane, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and minister of defence.

“Money is nothing to these Gulf people, so they think they can do whatever they want, including fighting proxy wars and watching their subjects die for them. How can they do that?” says the lawyer.

Faced with these accusations, we contacted the Black Shield company for a reaction, but there has been no response.

15,000 Sudanese soldiers

The UAE is not the only Gulf country that buys soldiers in Sudan. Saudi Arabia is also a major importer of military manpower. In agreement with al-Bashir’s regime, Riyadh was able to deploy more than 15,000 Sudanese soldiers to Yemen from 2015 to fight the Zaydi (branch of Shiism) Houthi rebels.

However, after the old dictator’s regime fell, popular demonstrations demanded a withdrawal, which was agreed on. In December 2019, no less than 10,000 soldiers from the Sudanese national army were repatriated.

However, Saudi Arabia has not given up on recruiting Sudanese cannon fodder. In the poor suburbs of Khartoum and the rural provinces of Sudan, young people – sometimes minors –  continue to enlist in secret for Riyadh.

The interim soldiers are being sent to Saudi Arabia, on its southern border with northern Yemen, where intense fighting often breaks out with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Osman (the subject’s first name has been changed at his request) recently returned from the stifling heat of the mountainous frontiers, where death comes without warning. In the night, on a wasteland, his facial features barely perceptible, he recounts his painful experience.

“Yemen was my first mission. I wanted to go there on my own, to climb the ladder faster and to earn money. Saudi Arabia offered to increase our salaries sixfold. I was a young man, not yet married. With that kind of money in one year, you can pay for your wedding festivities and build a house.

“How many years would it have taken me to achieve all this if I had stayed in Khartoum? And the recruiters kept telling us that the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen were going to invade Mecca and the Kaaba. That they were Shiites sent by Iran. Since I am a Muslim, I thought that by going there I would be defending Islam,” he says.

On the most dangerous fronts

Unlike the period before the revolution, recruitment for Yemen is done in secret. You have to have high-level connections within the military administration to be able to go to Yemen.

“We knew that if we died at the front, our bodies would not be repatriated and that we would be buried there. Knowing this adds to the fear. Our mothers would not have a place where they could go to mourn and reflect… All because our army wants to hide its fallen soldiers in Yemen,” says Osman, who was stationed in the mountains of the north-western Yemeni governorate of Hajjah.

It was all smoke and mirrors.

“I was assigned to guard positions taken over from the Houthi rebels in the mountains. I had to stay in a fixed position in small dugouts or small forward bases, in 50°C weather, with a bulletproof vest and continuously keep my helmet on because the heights were infested by enemy snipers.

“Attacks were frequent. We try to tell ourselves that dying is just a fate played out in advance, but when we Sudanese are spread out on the most dangerous fronts, and the Saudis don’t even send their instructors, you think your fate is less important.”

He realised that he and his companions were sent to the frontline because of their nationality and that the Saudi soldiers and instructors rarely – if ever – travel to high-risk areas. He then realised that he might end up dying in some foreign war for a country that despises him.

“I lost a lot of friends [on] this mission. I can’t tell you how many. Here in Sudan, I am forbidden [from] mention[ing] their names. One of them haunts my nights. We met at the military academy. He was a year ahead of me, which is why he became my superior in the outpost we were defending.

“One evening, during the daily guard change, I was about to leave, I was equipped, when he asked me to stay, that he would go in my place. I didn’t understand because it was my turn to go replace the guys up there. But since he was my leader, I obeyed him. I can still see him leaving, saying, ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ In the evening, I learned that the Houthi rebels had launched an air attack on the base.

“The equipment that was supposed to warn us about incoming air attacks did not work that night. The Houthis hit our position and we suffered many casualties. My friend was one of the dead soldiers. Since then, not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if he knew something was going to happen that bloody night.”

It’s hard to detect Osman’s emotion in the darkness. Even though he speaks slowly, one thing is certain: he will never sign up again as a subcontracted soldier. “When I heard that he had died, the only thought that crossed my mind was that I had to get out of there. My initial motivation to protect Mecca and the Kaaba became quite artificial. It was all smoke and mirrors.”

‘He who goes to Yemen does not know what his fate will be’

For several decades, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – which has the fourth largest military budget in the world – have been steadily building up their armed forces with foreign recruits. One-third of the UAE’s soldiers are said to be of foreign origin.

The two Gulf powers have been recruiting in Chad, Uganda and Sudan, among other places, where they can find poor young men who can be enticed to join their wars in Libya and Yemen to defend their geostrategic interests, in exchange for attractive salaries.

In a poor suburb of Khartoum, a door opens into a small courtyard obstructed with clothes drying on a clothesline and a large TV antenna. A woman wrapped in a colourful veil invites us into a small, dark room with a single bed and a bedside table. There are no posters, personal objects, or a face in sight, only neutral furniture.

“That’s where he lived,” says the woman with whom Ahmed (whose name was changed at her request) grew up. After his father’s death, his mother entrusted Ahmad into the care of this modest family, when Nadia was still a little girl. Today, his baby brother works in a Saudi base in Najran, on the border with Yemen.

“In early 2021, he joined the Rapid Support Forces [RSF, a paramilitary force created to fight rebel groups in Sudan], and then with a group of 100 young people, he was chosen to go to Yemen and he left for the money. At first, I was not happy about his decision, but given the country’s economic situation and unemployment levels, I finally agreed. He had no other choice if he wanted to do something with his life.

Here, there are families who are not happy that their sons are leaving because the money they send afterwards is considered haram [sin].

“Fortunately, he doesn’t fight on the field. A lot of young people go there and end up doing administrative work or cooking. He hasn’t fought yet, but when he left, he didn’t know. He who goes to Yemen does not know what his fate will be.”

Here too, RSF recruitment is done on the down-low. Nothing is official, and every time new troops are sent to Yemen, they are sent on the sly so as not to arouse the discontent of the populace, which is largely opposed to the country’s youth dying to protect foreign powers’ interests.

“Of course, I worry about him, but every day he reassures me that he is in a safe place there. Here, there are families who are not happy that their sons are leaving because the money they send afterwards is considered haram [sin].

In Sudan, people think that going to fight in Yemen means joining militias and being complicit in the killing of innocent people. That’s what I think, but I make a distinction between those who fight on the ground and those who don’t even touch a gun. That’s the case with my cousin.” It’s hard to know whether Ahmed is telling the truth or not, so as not to worry his sister Nadia.

Contacted via Whatsapp, Ahmed says he was hired as a stock manager for the Najran military base’s canteen. He got this position thanks to his accounting degree. “Before joining the RSF, I received special military training for two and a half months.

“Then I was promised that if I agreed to go there, I would earn £SD17m ($38,183) for my six months of service. I was lucky to have been confined to the kitchen and that’s why I don’t want to renew my contract because there’s a risk I’ll be sent to the front line for the next six months. So I’m going home because it’s out of the question. Some accept [to go to the front line], including minors.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options