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Sudan: Six months of war – thousands dead and millions displaced

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Picture: REUTERS/Taken May 14, 2023 – A Sudanese refugee girl who fled ethnic violence in Sudan’s Darfur region, sits on her family’s belongings outside the house of a Chadian family where they took refuge, near the border between Sudan and Chad in Koufroun, Chad. With more than 5.3 million displaced, the war which began on April 15, 2023 between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces enters its sixth month with no resolution in sight, as the UN warns of further escalation, the writer says.

By Pavan Kulkarni

Over 5.3 million have been displaced in the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which entered the sixth month on Friday, September 15.

Over a million of them have fled to the neighbouring countries of Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan, while more than 4.1 million have been internally displaced “in 3,855 locations across all of Sudan’s 18 states,” according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Six states – River Nile, followed by South Darfur, East Darfur, Northern State, Sennar and North Darfur – are hosting the highest number of these internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Before the fighting broke out between the different arms of the security forces which had together seized power in a military coup in October 2021, Sudan already had 3.2 million IDPs from the previous civil wars. The five months of fighting between SAF and RSF has displaced over four million more, which puts the country’s total at least 7.1 million IDPs.

“Highest number of internally displaced people on earth”

Sudan’s 7.1 million IDPs “eclipses other war-affected countries with massive internal displacement, the next highest being Syria with 6.6 million people, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at 6.1 million people and Ukraine at 5.1 million people,” the UN reported. “Sudan is now the country with the highest number of internally displaced people on earth … including an estimated 3.5 [million] children,” Save the Children International said on September 11.

According to the IOM, a large majority of the IDPs (more than 69 percent) have fled from capital Khartoum and its sister cities of Khartoum North (Bahri) and Omdurman, which together constitute the Khartoum state.

The RSF has taken strategic control of areas around the army bases in this state by invading densely populated neighbourhoods, occupying homes, killing, maiming and looting the residents. The SAF, on the other hand, continues bombing residential areas to target RSF’s positions, unmindful of the stranded civilians.

Civilians under bombardment

A drone strike on Khartoum’s Gorro market killed at least 43 on September 10. “For hours, dozens of bodies lay under sheets in the hospital’s courtyard until families came to identify their lost loved ones,” said Marie Burton, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) emergency co-ordinator in Khartoum.

Picture: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – The Sudanese Armed Forces have been carrying out air raids of residential areas occupied by the RSF in the capital Khartoum. Doctors Without Borders said on September 12 that residents are suffering the ‘deadliest days in Khartoum since conflict began’.

“And in the meantime, our staff tried their best to save the lives of the survivors, whose wounds were testament to the incredible power of the weaponry used: body parts torn off, abdomens ripped open. Even though this war has been going on for nearly five months, the Sudanese volunteers on whom the hospital relies, are still shocked by what they witnessed,” she added.

Residents are suffering the “deadliest days in Khartoum since conflict began”, the MSF said on September 12. Areas around the SAF’s Armoured Corps base in Khartoum, and the neighbourhoods of Omdurman and Khartoum North on either side of the Shambat Bridge, which is under RSF’s control, have been the worst affected by fighting over the last month.

The supplies and reinforcements for the RSF troops in the capital arrive from the regions of Darfur and Kordofan to Omdurman. They go across the Shambat bridge and from there to Khartoum Bahri, and onward further south to Khartoum city.

SAF’s takeover of this bridge will cut-off the supply lines of the RSF troops in Khartoum North and capital Khartoum, which “could eventually mean that the RSF is doomed to lose the battle for Khartoum”, explained the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

“Conversely, if the RSF overtakes the Armoured Corps base, SAF forces would likely be unable to advance in Khartoum and their forces would be trapped in their last stronghold, the General Command Headquarters,” ACLED added.

The RSF’s first successful breaching of the defences of the Armoured Corps base on August 20 marked a particular intensification of fighting in the state. Of the 2,280 fatalities ACLED recorded across Sudan between August 5 and September 1, 1,400 were from the Khartoum state, which “continues to have the highest number of recorded … fatalities”, according to its Situation Update on September 8.

ACLED has recorded almost 7,500 fatalities since the war broke out between the SAF and the RSF on April 15. Other reports as early as July had already indicated over 10,000 deaths in the state of West Darfur alone, although independent verification from the region is hard to come by.

In this state, the RSF-affiliated militias known as the Janjaweed have unleashed an alleged ethnic cleansing against the farming tribes such as the Massalit, who speak local African languages.

Victims of this violence are often those who were already living in IDP camps after being displaced by the Janjaweed, which the SAF created to commit mass atrocities against the marginalised communities that supported the rebel groups during the Darfur civil war.

It was from the ranks of the Janjaweed that RSF was created in 2013. Since then, the SAF and the RSF had worked together, including against the December Revolution — the mass pro-democracy protests which began in December 2018 and forced in April 2019 the removal of the dictator Omar al-Bashir, who had overseen the civil war.

The civil war, which began in 2003, was brought to an end only on paper with the Juba peace agreement of 2020, which, critics argue, was a mere power-sharing deal between the leaders of the rebels on one side and the heads of the SAF and the RSF on the other.

Failing to address the root causes of the conflict, the violence on the ground in Darfur, mainly by the RSF and its allied militias, had continued with the backing of the SAF. Amid the anarchy of this war as a result of the power-struggle between the formerly allied SAF and the RSF, the violence has only intensified further. Entire villages have even been burnt down in the region. Chilling accounts of sexual violence continue to be reported.

There is “little doubt who is responsible for what”, UN special envoy for Sudan, Volker Perthes, whom the SAF had declared unwelcome in the country, said in his final speech to the UN Security Council before resigning on September 13.

SAF, RSF conflict morphs into ‘full-blown civil war’

“Often indiscriminate aerial bombing is conducted by those who have an air force, which is the SAF. Most of the sexual violence, lootings and killings happen in areas controlled by the RSF and are conducted or tolerated by the RSF and their allies,” he added, warning, “What started as a conflict between two military formations could be morphing into a full-blown civil war.”

More than 20 million people in the country, amounting to “42 percent of Sudan’s population, now face acute food insecurity and 6 million are just a step away from famine”. “At least 498 children have died from hunger. Clinics and doctors have come under fire throughout the country, putting 80 percent of the country’s major hospitals out of service,” more than 50 humanitarian and human rights organisations warned in a joint statement on September 13.

The UN has received only a quarter of the needed funds it had sought from the International Community to provide aid to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe, while “Sudan’s warring parties continue to undermine efforts to deliver aid safely”, added the statement.

“While the world is focused on Ukraine, it is imperative that political attention and resources are dedicated to ensuring the people of Sudan are safeguarded from all forms of mass violence.

“The country has a history of large-scale human rights abuses, giving us all an ominous warning of what can transpire in the days and weeks ahead,” Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director of one of the signatories, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, told the Jurist.

Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist and an author at Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch