Winnipegger is a political adviser to a general in Sudan's deadly conflict
Yousif Ibrahim Ismaeil's role questioned by some members of Manitoba's Sudanese community
A Sudanese Winnipegger says he's serving as a political adviser to the general leading a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the deadly struggle for power in Sudan, a job which has left some people in the city's small and tight-knit Sudanese community questioning his involvement with one of the warring factions in the month-long conflict.
Yousif Ibrahim Ismaeil, 49, said in a phone interview with CBC on May 5 he's a lawyer originally from Darfur in western Sudan who came to Canada as a refugee in 2003. He said he's a Canadian citizen who moved to Manitoba in 2007 and worked as a taxi driver to pay for a post-secondary education in conflict resolution studies and international development at the University of Winnipeg.
Speaking through WhatsApp from what he called a "safe place used for communication with Wi-Fi" in Khartoum, Ismaeil told CBC he went to Sudan following a coup in October 2021, when Sudan's army and the RSF toppled a civilian government.
He has spoken to international media outlets about the conflict.
Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, is the leader of the RSF and has been the deputy of Sudan's ruling council since 2019. He is in a power struggle with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan's army and the leader of Sudan's ruling council.
Fighting between the two sides, which broke out on April 15, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, left hundreds dead — including civilians — and thousands more wounded. Both sides blame each other for provoking the violence.
The conflict erupted in Khartoum and has since spread beyond the capital city.
Revolution in 2019 paved way to adviser role
Ismaeil said he became a political adviser to the RSF because he's been following Hemedti since the revolution in Sudan in 2019 which resulted in the ousting of the autocratic former president, Omar al-Bashir. Plans to complete a transition to a civilian-led government were upended amid disagreements between al-Burhan and Hemedti.
As the plan for a new transition developed, Hemedti aligned himself more closely with civilian parties from a coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), that shared power with the military between Bashir's overthrow and the 2021 coup.
"I've been advising him [Hemedti]. He's my colleague, he's my classmate in the first year in primary school," Ismaeil said. He said he's known Hemedti for a long time and is supportive of his beliefs.
Ismaeil spoke to CBC Radio in 2014. He said he was invited to Doha, Qatar in 2010 where he alleged he was drugged and held against his will after refusing to accept Qatar's position on the peace process related the conflict in Darfur in western Sudan.
Father of 2 attended Sudanese community gatherings in Winnipeg
Ismaeil is a father of two children. He and his wife are now separated.
Ismaeil told CBC he believes in what he's doing. But some members of the Sudanese community in Winnipeg are questioning his association with Hemedti and the RSF.
Mekki Mohamed, general secretary of the executive committee of the Community of the Sudanese Canadian in Manitoba, said he's known Ismaeil since 2009. They were both going to school at University of Winnipeg at the time.
"He attended any gathering…summer picnics…and also any party regarding the Sudanese independence day, Eid celebrations," Mohamed said.
Mohamed has family in southern Khartoum and is worried for their safety.
Mohamed's upset Ismaeil chose to go to Sudan to become a political adviser for Hemedti. While he doesn't think Ismaeil has much sway on the situation, he hopes he's pushing for an end to the fighting.
"Sit together, hand the power to the civilians," Mohamed said.
Like Mohamed, Winnipegger Noureddin Suleiman is worried about the safety of his mom and sister who live in Khartoum. He said he's surprised by the position Ismaeil has taken.
"We were going to a peaceful transition, to peaceful government, to civilian government," Suleiman said. "Now they started this war. What surprised me is him defending the action of the militia."
Not everyone feels the same way.
Sudanese Winnipegger Ahmad Hamid told CBC he sees Hemedti as the lesser of two evils and argues that if he takes power he will be forced to hand over the country to a civilian-led government. He said al-Burhan is loyal to the previous Bashir regime.
Feds won't comment on Ismaeil, citing privacy
The United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday May 11 adopted a resolution for more detailed monitoring of alleged rights abuses in Sudan.
Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign affairs minister, said Canadians associated with groups in violent conflicts abroad can be charged and prosecuted in Canada under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.
"Working with that group gets them very much involved in what I think is one of the most egregious and terrible actions where two armed forces are basically destroying the lives of tens of thousands of people," Axworthy said.
David Matas is a Winnipeg-based human rights lawyer who wrote a letter to the government of Qatar on Ismaeil's behalf following his 2014 allegations. He's no longer his lawyer and couldn't speak to specifics but he said not everyone associated with a government or entity committing atrocities is complicit.
"They have to be complicit in the acts and not just be sort of around at the time," said Matas. "There has to be something that the person accused did wrong, as opposed to an entity with which he was associated did wrong."
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said it "cannot speculate" on Ismaeil for privacy reasons.
In a response to CBC, IRCC said there can be consequences for residents involved in conflicts abroad.
"The government is determined to deny safe haven in Canada to war criminals and persons believed to have committed or been complicit in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide," IRCC said in an email.
Ismaeil hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing nor has he been charged with any crime.
"I'm managing the political side with the political parties but I didn't commit a crime," he said. "I'm trying to help and I'm trying to push for peace. "
South Sudanese Winnipegger weighs in on conflict
Reuben Garang, a South Sudanese Winnipegger, was displaced from his home in 1987 by a brutal civil war before coming to Canada in 2004.
"The Rapid Support Forces…were created by Omar al-Bashir to help his agenda of Arabizing the region of Darfur," Garang said. "Now they gain so much power and they have influence in the region and now they are fighting over controlling the country."
Ismaeil told CBC he is in Sudan because of his beliefs.
"We're working for peace, justice, development and democracy," Ismaeil said. "This should be the future of Sudan."
With files from Reuters