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Sleepless in Sudan as humanitarian nightmare intensifies

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Picture: Rapid Support Forces (RSF) / AFP / April 23, 2023 – Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) fighters wave assault rifles as they cross a street in the East Nile district of greater Khartoum. Ordinary citizens bear the unbearable cost, death, and destruction of continuing power battles. Conservative estimates are that over ten thousand people have been killed in battles since April and that over five million people have been displaced, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

April was an excruciatingly sombre time for Sudan. Despite the pending cheeriness of Sudan’s signature summertime sunlight, the heavens were dense with the chilling spectre of civil war. In the last seven months, a perfect storm has swept across Sudan, bringing yet another season of catastrophe for the country.

Sudan, economically fragile, and forever scarred by the 2003 genocide, is plunging fist first into a new abyss of atrocity.

Goliath power battles between the government’s army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and paramilitary group, Rapid Support Forces, (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, are fast and furiously turning Sudan into a horizon of horror and a geography of genocide.

The people of Sudan have been plunged into a heart of darkness that pumps without compassion. For a people who have known the horror of genocide, the current conflict is a death penalty; those who escape the punishing killing fields of civil warfare are likely to perish in the wasteland of economic destitution and unforgiving famine.

Under the reign of former President Omar al-Bashir, a strong proponent of Arab-Islamic nationalism, brutal attacks on non-Arabs in Darfur became the order of the day. Although use of state force was legitimised as a necessary act of defense against citizen insurgency, in truth it was wholesale slaughter. In the 2003 – 2008 genocide, 300,000 lives were snuffed out. When Bashir, who had ruled for three decades, was finally overthrown in 2019, there was an expectant breath of hope among the long-suppressed Sudanese. But the planned new transition, which was to include civilian parties, was not to be. Once again, the hopes and longing of the people were crushed, in a fist of leaders more fixed on the clutch of power than on embracing its citizens.

When conflict reared its ugly head in April, former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who has previously mediated in civil conflicts in Sudan, appealed for an end to the violent clashes. Mbeki stressed the need for stability if deeply rooted socioeconomic challenges were ever to be resolved and the successful transition to political democracy realised.

Mbeki urged the two opponent groups to “return to the negotiations to reconstitute the transitional government as well as ensuring that it’s civilian-led”. But power battles have continued, and ordinary citizens are bearing the unbearable cost, death, and destruction.

Conservative estimates are that over ten thousand people have been killed in battles since April and that over 5 million people have been displaced. According to Arab News, human rights monitoring groups and journalists have expressed concern that fatalities, casualties and damage are far higher than the official figures are indicating.

In June, Mini Arko Minaw, the governor of Darfur, called for an international probe into human rights violations after non-Arab unarmed civilians were killed, women and girl children raped, and property plundered and destroyed. The UK Minister for Africa, Andrew Mitchell, told the BBC that the current warfare bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”.

It is a grim picture. Such is the storyboard of genocide. Fierce political contestation, civil instability, and warfare, often fuelled by interference from foreign countries, and the vile stench of ethnic cleansing, are all turning Sudan into a place of eternal grief. Yet again, Sudan is in the grimace of an unfolding humanitarian crisis. In October, UNICEF described the situation as “the largest child displacement crisis in the world”.

On October 5, The Economist published an article entitled “Survivors tell of mass slaughter, murdered babies and kill lists”. The article graphically details accounts of survivors. One such story is that of Aanan Khamis, a young woman who was seeking refuge after weeks of gunfire and rockets directed at the Masalit, a black African ethnic group.

“Hoisting her 23-month-old baby boy, Sabir, onto her back she started walking towards Chad. Yet fighters wearing the uniforms of the Rapid Support Forces soon surrounded them. They dragged men to the side of the road and told the women to run. Before she could do so, a gunman wrenched open the shawl on her back that covered Sabir. “No men can escape to Chad,” he shouted. Then he shot her baby in the head.” Another horrific account is of another mother whose 15-month-old son strapped to her was shot dead as he clung to her.

Former UN chief in Sudan Mukesh Kapila has said “if that isn’t a genocidal act, I don’t know what is”.

The United States ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, Beth Van Schaack, has referred to the current crisis as an ominous reminder of the horrific events that led the United States to determine in 2004 that a “genocide was under way in Darfur”.

In mid-November, the European Union warned of the danger of “another genocide”. The United Nations has described the current situation in Sudan as “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”. The UN refers to gruesome discoveries of mass graves and reports of how rape is being used as a weapon of war.

Gloomy figures from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), show that almost half of the population are experiencing severe food insecurity. Many are on the brink of famine and malnutrition.

Humanitarian agencies aside, Western nations tend to be more interested in the treasures of African countries than in the trauma of its people. For the world, Sudan is a geopolitical gem, straddling the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. It is a prized place of ports for world powers with naval and imperial ambitions. As the world’s 10th largest gold producer in the world, Sudan is a place that attracts intentional attention. In the new scramble for Africa, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates may be salivating at getting a piece of Sudan. But there may be little left in another seven months.

As in many places in modern day civilisation, leaders are failing at their very own first commandment – protection of their own citizens. The people of Sudan are in a real-time nightmare. Some stories simply don’t have happy endings.

In mid-November, the European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell, said that international community cannot turn a blind eye to the disaster unfolding in Darfur, Sudan, and allow another genocide to happen in this region. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor is investigating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, warning that history is at risk of repeating itself. But it may not be enough, and it may be too late.

Cornell University Professor Rachel Riedi points out that the “current conflict between rival military leaders in Sudan is at great risk of spiralling intro a broader regional conflict, where control of the precious Nile River and mineral resources are at stake”. “The potential for regional involvement includes the UAE, Egypt, as well as Russia (Wagner Group), Israel and Libya.”

Descriptions of the unfolding horror are not in short supply. Time is fast running out. There is much talk, and posturing but there is a general paralysis when it comes to large scale and decisive international action against this genocide. Failure to stop the daily slaughter makes those with the power to end the conflict complicit to the crimes. And for the spillover of this violence and inhumanity across other parts of the Continent and beyond.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.