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Hundreds are dying in Sudan as army’s war on itself intensifies

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Picture: Peoples Dispatch – The East Nile Hospital in Khartoum was bombed on May 15. Over 800 civilians killed as fighting between Sudan’s army and paramilitary RSF enters its second month. The so-called Jeddah Declaration, in which the warring parties committed to protecting civilians on May 12, has only remained on paper as fighting intensifies in the states of Khartoum and West Darfur, claiming hundreds of more lives, the writer says.

By Pavan Kulkarni

Armed conflict within Sudan’s military junta between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) continued into the second month on Monday, May 15. At least 822 civilians have been killed and 3,215 injured in the crossfire since the conflict started on April 15, according to a statement by the Sudan Doctors Union (SDU).

Shelling, airstrikes, and fighting on the ground in residential areas continue to rock the national capital of Khartoum and its sister-cities, Omdurman and Khartoum Bahri (North). The so-called “Jeddah declaration” has not led to any halt to the fighting.

The SAF and RSF had committed to protect civilians in this declaration signed by their envoys in the Saudi city on May 12 after a week of “pre-negotiations talks” facilitated by the US and Saudi Arabia.

That very day, intense battles raged on in all three cities of Khartoum State. As the warring parties battled with heavy weapons to control the state TV and radio broadcasting buildings in Omdurman, neighbouring residential areas were hit. In the el-Hashmab neighbourhood, Shaden Gardood, a prominent Sudanese singer much loved for her advocacy of peace in songs such as “Brother, Don’t Kill Brother,” was killed when a shell hit her home.

“We have been trapped in our houses for 25 days,” she had said in one of her last social media posts on May 10. “Yes, we are hungry and living in an enormous fear, but are full of ethics and values. And if we die, we will die with our dignity and morals.”

‘The Jeddah declaration is only a piece of paper’

On the evening of May 12, army chief Abdel Fattah al Burhan, who is also the military junta’s chairman, ordered the freezing of all accounts and assets of the RSF. He also replaced the Central Bank’s governor, a move that is widely speculated to be connected to this order.

However, it remains unclear to what extent this can be done since the RSF is in physical control of the gold mines in Darfur region and has a vast international financial network with prominent holdings in the UAE.

RSF head Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a.k.a. Hemeti, who is the deputy chairperson of the military junta, in turn released an audio clip that night, vowing that Burhan would be “tried quickly and hanged in public”.

“The Jeddah declaration is only a piece of paper. It has made no difference to the civilians. Fighting has in fact intensified,” said Mustafa (name changed), a resident of Omdurman. Airstrikes hit the city on Sunday.

While both sides committed in the declaration “to vacate and refrain from occupying, as well as to respect and protect all public and private facilities, such as hospitals and water and electricity installations, and refrain from using them for military purposes,” none of this has materialized.

“The RSF is still occupying key infrastructure, including several hospitals. They had assumed the army would not call in air strikes on the hospital. But the army doesn’t care either. Today they struck the Easter Nile hospital in Khartoum,” Mustafa told Peoples Dispatch on Monday.

17 hospitals had already been bombed by May 13, according to the SDU. Another “20 hospitals have been forced to evacuate since the war began,” said its statement. 66% of the hospitals in the areas where clashes have been taking place are out of service. 59 of the 89 hospitals are out of service, while of the remaining 30, some only provide first aid. Even these are under pressure to close down due to shortages of staff, water and electricity.

Most of the bombed hospitals are in Khartoum city, where the SAF HQ, the airport and the Presidential Palace are the key sites both sides seek to control. Droves of people here have been making desperate attempts to flee Khartoum to safer cities.

But it is a dangerous journey to make amid the fighting. Several people have gone missing while trying to escape. The RSF, which is manning checkpoints along the main roads of the city, is believed to have detained hundreds of civilians.

‘The fighting was so intense it made our building shake’

Aamira Khalid (name changed), a statistics lecturer from Khartoum University, is among those who successfully escaped Khartoum in the early days of the conflict on April 18 and reached Al Jazirah state, where she now resides at a relative’s home with her husband. Her family home is located in the Khartoum 2 neighbourhood, only a few kilometres from the RSF-controlled Presidential Palace, which was hit by the SAF’s air strike earlier last week.

Recalling the horror that forced her and her family to leave behind their home, Aamira told Peoples Dispatch that “the fighting — RPGs, planes, and bullets all over — was so intense that it made our building shake. My family’s house was hit with a couple of bullets on the higher floors. The building next to mine was hit by an RPG. It destroyed a whole flat.”

The RSF had also allegedly broken into the homes of two of her cousins nearby, “which was one of the main reasons why we decided to leave,” following which the RSF took over her family home. Her large family, the youngest of whom is a two-year old and the oldest is 80, has had to separate and accommodate themselves with relatives in different States of the country.

Over 700,000 people have been displaced within Sudan, apart from the over 200,000 that have managed to flee to neighbouring countries. Most of these internal displacements are concentrated in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, where the conflict between the SAF and RSF has also escalated violence between ethnic militias. According to the SDU, 280 people were killed and 160 injured on May 12 and 13 alone in West Darfur state’s capital, Geneina, adding to the hundreds of earlier deaths.

‘International community part and parcel of catastrophe’

The declaration signed by the SAF and RSF on May 12 was “not a ceasefire,” a US State Department official confirmed to AFP, explaining it was only “an affirmation of their obligations under international humanitarian law”.

US State Department Under Secretary for Public Affairs, Victoria Nuland, had said earlier on May 10 that “Our goal for these talks has been very narrowly focused: first securing agreement on a declaration of humanitarian principles and then getting a ceasefire that is long enough to facilitate the steady delivery of badly needed services.”

“If this stage is successful,” she explained, “it would then enable expanded talks with additional local, regional and international stakeholders towards a permanent cessation of hostilities, and then a return to civilian-led rule as the Sudanese people have demanded for years.”

The radical pro-democracy mass-movement in Sudan, however, has made it clear time and again that its demand is for “civilian rule,” to which the armed forces will be subjugated. On the other hand, “civilian-led rule” is a euphemism for an arrangement in which the military will jointly rule with the right-wing parties of the Freedom and Change Coalition (FFC).

A government formed on the basis of such an arrangement in August 2019 — four months after the former dictator Omar al Bashir was forced out of power due to mass-protests — was overthrown by Burhan and Hemeti with the coup in October 2021.

Since then, slogans in the regular mass-protests have consistently rejected any compromise with the military junta, calling for its complete overthrow. Nevertheless, the US and its regional allies continued to pressurize the right-wing parties and the military to find common ground and return to some variant of the pre-coup power sharing arrangement.

A step in this direction was taken with the signing of a framework agreement in December 2022, to make way for a final agreement that was to be clinched by early April 2023. However, a power-struggle within the military junta between Burhan and Hemeti erupted into an armed conflict last month after the two disagreed over the timeline for the integration of the RSF and the SAF.

While Nuland once again summoned the “regional and internal stakeholders” to find a solution, Saleh Mahmoud, Foreign Relations Secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), maintains that “they are a part and parcel of this catastrophe”.

“They didn’t listen to the people of Sudan when we refused to legitimise the military junta by negotiating with them. They didn’t listen to us when we said no to the framework agreement,” he told Peoples Dispatch, adding that much blame for the current catastrophe is to be laid on this international condoning of the military junta’s insistence on retaining political power.

Sudan’s left and progressive mass-movements continue to insist that the only solution to this crisis is to completely dissolve the RSF and all other militias, and reform the military to ensure it is a unified professional armed force, devoid of any political power and economic entrenchment.

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch