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Farmers killed across agricultural heartland of hungry, war-torn Sudan

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Picture: World Food Programme / 2023 Refugees at a camp in Sudan in 2023. While more than half the war-torn country’s population is suffering hunger, the marauding troops of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are killing farmers in their hundreds and depopulating the villages of Sudan’s agricultural heartland, the writer says.

By Pavan Kulkarni

The troops of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are on a rampage in the eastern state of Gezira, looting and depopulating village after village in Sudan’s breadbasket, even as over half of the war-torn country’s population suffers hunger.

While starvation has been claiming lives daily in the RSF-controlled, semi-desert western region of Darfur, the fertile but uncultivated soil of Gezira in the east has been soaking up the blood of the farmers, killed in a spate of attacks by the RSF on hundreds of villages.

In the absence of human rights monitors on the ground, these atrocities are being documented by the Resistance Committees (RCs) to hold the RSF accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity in international courts.

Despite their efforts, the vast majority of the killings are going undocumented. Gezira has been cut off from the internet and telecommunication for about a month. The limited internet that is available is mostly from Starlink’s satellites. But the RSF has been “monopolising” them by seizing satellites from civilians, the RCs have complained.

They have further alleged that the RSF is using the besieged people under its occupation, who are desperate to make contact for help, as captive consumers to whom it is renting out the internet it has monopolised on a half-hour basis at exorbitant prices. Unable to afford these prices, the vast majority of Gezira’s population is incommunicado.

Even if the internet is restored, connectivity will remain limited because several remote villages in this state do not even have a telephone line, said Jamal (name changed), spokesperson of the RC in the city of Hasahisa. “The fate of 4 million citizens in Gezira is unknown,” he told Peoples Dispatch, adding that “over half of them have fled the state and the remaining are completely out of any network coverage”.

In the vicinity of Hasahisa alone, “there are more than 2,000 villages, each with a population of no less than a thousand”, he explained. His RC has been able to establish contact with less than a hundred of them. But the RSF has attacked and depopulated several hundred villages to Hasahisa’s south and west, especially in the Tabat area, Jamal added.

The hundreds of thousands of displaced people from this area are fleeing south to the city of Al Managil, hoping to escape from there into the neighbouring State of Sennar, where the RSF has already begun incursions. Managil is Gezira’s only city that the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) has still held on to, after abandoning the rest of the state to the invading RSF in December.

“Over a thousand killed”

All the villages along the roughly 100 km route from Hasahisa to Managil, and those along another 120 km-long route from there to Sennar, have been attacked by the RSF, Jamal said. He also confirmed that there are “many cases of rapes,” but due to social stigma against victims and their families in the conservative society, the cases are not being reported.

Even when the villagers handed over all their grains, vehicles, gold and any valuables that the RSF demanded, they were not spared of violence, systematically meted out “to terrorise the population” into abandoning their fields and villages, and fleeing from Gezira, Jamal said.

After looting the Al-Zubairat village in the Tabat area, the RSF also wanted the villagers to part with 20 young men it wanted to conscript. When the villagers refused, the RSF brought in more troops to occupy the village in late February. Since then, the Hasahisa RC has not been able to make contact with anyone in this village.

Two days later, when the RSF invaded another village in Tabat called Um Busha on February 25, the young men resisted, refusing to let the troops enter their homes where the women and children were sheltering, Jamal said. The RSF members left, but only to return with heavy weapons on several vehicles and lay siege, surrounding the village.

What happened in the village then remains unknown even two weeks later. The Hasahisa RC lost contact with their comrades in Um Busha, presumably after the RSF seized any Starlink devices that may have been set up in the village.

Under such circumstances, any systematic documentation of the death toll in this state has not been possible. But Jamal is certain that well over a thousand have been killed since the RSF’s invasion in mid-December. “The majority of them were members of the security emergency committees” that the RCs had set up in Gezira in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, he said.

They had been successful in defending their villages from criminal gangs that had begun to roam the countryside, taking advantage of the anarchy left in the wake of the fighting between the country’s two security forces.

However, they have since been confronted with heavily armed RSF troops marauding across Gezira. Armed with nothing more than hoes, sickles, and shovels — and an occasional rifle in some homes — they have fallen in large numbers trying to defend their villages, Jamal explained.

The RSF, Jamal added, has also pillaged all the healthcare centres and pharmacies in the villages it has attacked, stealing medicines, equipment and ambulances, even as cholera, dengue, malaria and measles stalk the people already weakened by hunger.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported “alarming levels of child wasting” in this State which used to produce over half of all the wheat grown in Sudan. Jamal recalled that farmers cultivating it had already been in the throes of a severe agrarian crisis since “all subsidies were removed” in 2021 as a part of the “ruthless free market policies” of the transitional government in which right-wing parties had shared power with the military junta.

Later that year, the civilian forces were ousted from this government with a coup through which the military junta consolidated all power. But the rivalry that had been simmering within the military junta between the SAF and the RSF boiled over into this war that has been raging since April 2023.

“With the outbreak of this war, seeds, fertilisers and pesticides became scarce. Their prices skyrocketed,” explained Jamal. “Most of the agricultural companies’ factories and warehouses are in the capital region of Khartoum. Due to active war there, the agricultural inputs could not reach the farmers in Gezira.” What came from Khartoum to Gezira instead were the displaced civilians in their millions, until mid-December when the RSF invaded the state from the north after taking control over most of Khartoum.

Farming has come to a halt

This invasion brought to a halt the nearly hundred-year-old Gezira scheme, one of the world’s largest irrigation projects channelling water from the Nile to the fields, making Gezira the most agriculturally productive state of Sudan. The governor of this scheme, Omar Marzouk, said in a statement in January that “the project’s cars and machinery have been looted and workers in every department are unable to reach their work”.

Jamal added that “most of the farmers themselves have been forced out of their villages, while those who remain cannot safely continue farming due to attacks on them by the RSF during their raids to loot crops”. In many villages, crops ripe for harvest were sacrificed as the farmers had to flood the irrigation canals to block RSF vehicles.

The RSF has also looted the warehouses of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Gezira’s capital city, Wad Madani, making away with food stocks that could have fed 1.5 million hungry people during this crisis.

“Acute hunger and malnutrition will have a lasting generational impact on the health of the population,” the WHO has warned. “They also increase vulnerable groups’ risk of medical complications and death from disease outbreaks such as cholera and measles.”

Many suffering chronic illnesses — including women, children and the elderly — have been held by the RSF with thousands of others in the schools and houses it has turned into concentration camps in the villages of Abu Quta district, Mazen Balloula, an RC member, said on being recently released after 17 days of imprisonment. Many family members of the prisoners have been desperately roaming from one concentration camp to another, asking after their loved ones, only to be told by the RSF that they have been killed, Balloula added.

“SAF’s record of shame”

In the meantime, the SAF has not only failed to make any attempt to defend Gezira but has instead added to the casualties with several indiscriminate airstrikes targeting positions of the RSF, without any regard for the lives of the civilian population it has held under siege.

SAF troops have refused to come out of their military base in Managil to defend the people, “claiming that they are waiting for orders”, the Hasahisa RC has said in a statement. It predicts that the troops will eventually receive “orders for another withdrawal, adding to SAF’s record of shame”.

In a joint statement last week, the RCs have called on the soldiers in the SAF, especially those hailing from Gezira, to disregard the army’s leadership and come to liberate the people under RSF’s occupation. It went on to remind the soldiers that it was after all SAF’s leadership that created the RSF in 2013 by coalescing the militias it had spawned a decade earlier in Darfur to commit atrocities during the civil war in the region.

When massive pro-democracy protests forced the ouster of former dictator Omar al Bashir in 2019, his close confidants, SAF chief Abdel Fattah al Burhan and the RSF chief Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, came together to form the military junta.

With Burhan as its chairperson and Hemeti as his deputy, the SAF and the RSF, the two components of the military junta, had since been unleashing violence together on the pro-democracy movement to protect the military dictatorship.

Nevertheless, with a network of over 5,000 RCs across Sudan at its forefront, the movement grew larger and more militant, especially after the 2021 coup when the little power that was shared with right-wing political parties for two years was also usurped back by the junta.

Led by the RCs, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to streets across the country to protest against the military rule of SAF and the RSF, right until the two forces descended into a war with each other in April 2023.

Even as they have been fighting each other since, both the SAF and the RSF have been separately cracking down on the RCs in the areas they control, arresting, torturing and killing its members. Nevertheless, at the forefront of the relief and rescue efforts, the RCs have remained a lifeline for the civilians suffering this war for the last 11 months.

Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist and an author at Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch