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Sudanese left sceptical of US-Saudi led peace talks

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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. The Sudanese Communist Party argues that a recent ceasefire mainly serves for the warring parties resupply their forces and resume fighting with greater intensity, the writer says.

By Pavan Kulkarni

The fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which entered its third month on June 15, has lulled into an uneasy calm with the start of the 72-hour-long ceasefire from 6am on Sunday, June 18, albeit with violations.

In the agreement, secured late on June 17 at talks jointly hosted by the United States and Saudi Arabia in the latter’s city of Jeddah, both sides committed to not undertake offensives, resupply their forces or reinforce their positions.

The US-Saudi joint statement on the talks also highlights that the parties have “agreed to allow the unimpeded movement and delivery of humanitarian assistance throughout the country”.

While similar commitments were made in the previous, frequently violated, ceasefire agreement, hardly any aid reached the civilians trapped in the fighting during the week-long truce at the end of May.

“The agreement only proved to help both the warring parties to reorganise, resupply, and strengthen forces. What followed was the worst of the fighting,” Fathi Elfadl, national spokesperson of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), told Peoples Dispatch.

He fears that the new ceasefire is bound to have the same effect again. Elfadl believes that the RSF, whose fighters are mostly from a group of nomadic Arabic-speaking tribes spread across the national borders in the region, “is bringing in more fighters from neighbouring countries like Central Africa, Niger etc”.

“The army is mobilising troops from different parts of Sudan …We are not at all hopeful of any positive outcome from Jeddah. The fighting has only intensified and spread since these talks began there [on May 6], and both sides are stronger than before.”

“Even if this ceasefire lasts for three days, it is back to hell again after that,” he added, insisting that “hell” is the proper word to describe what the civilians are enduring, especially in Darfur in western Sudan and in the national capital region.

In capital Khartoum and its sister cities of Khartoum Bahri (North) and Omdurman, the SAF’s planes have been bombing densely populated residential areas with artillery and airstrikes, while the RSF kill, loot and rape civilians on the ground, and occupy their homes and properties.

An increasing number of civilians have been displaced or caught in the crossfire, especially over the last few weeks since the army dispatched additional infantry to engage the RSF in street battles in the residential neighbourhoods they occupy.

Along with several homes, Elfadl said that the RSF has also occupied and destroyed the Abdel Karim Merghani Cultural Centre. It describes itself as a “library, a research resource, a lecture and performance arts venue and a publishing house for Sudan’s written culture and history”.

SCP’s headquarters was also occupied by the RSF on May 25. Only on June 18, the SCP members, including Elfadl, were able to enter their office again. “Although the RSF troops have now vacated the headquarters, the whole neighbourhood of Khartoum 2 is now under the control of the RSF,” Elfadl said. He added that the SAF meanwhile, has been forcing civilians to vacate the city so they can fight the RSF.

“I advise the civilians that if the RSF elements occupy your house and you are forced out, the neighbours, in turn, should evacuate the houses adjacent to this house because from now on, we will attack them anywhere,” General Yasir al-Atta announced on June 16.

Soon after this announcement, the SAF unleashed two days of heavy shelling and airstrikes on residential areas around the capital region, during which 217 people were estimated to have been killed in Khartoum and its sister cities, Elfadl said. Most of the deaths occurred in the northern part of Khartoum and in northern and central parts of Omdurman, where he resides.

Thousands killed in two months

In the two months of fighting, more than 3,000 people have been killed and over 6,000 have been injured, Health Minister Haitham Ibrahim said on June 17. This data seems to exclude the killings in West Darfur state’s capital El Geneina because all the hospitals “are out of service” in the city which is under siege and incommunicado. According to a report published on Monday, June 19, by an organisation representing the tribe under siege in Darfur, more than 5,000 people had been killed in El Geneina alone, as of June 12.

In a statement that day, Fadil Omar, spokesperson of a local Resistance Committee, said, “The city of Geneina is now isolated, with its residential neighbourhoods and displacement camps cut off from the world … say this with complete certainty: no place on this earth is more miserable than Geneina.”

He added that reports indicate that “the majority of kidney patients in the region and those with chronic illnesses, especially those suffering from heart problems, have either died or are on the brink of death. Pregnant women are also experiencing highly challenging conditions, and there are reports of cases of rape in the area”.

Two days after Omar’s statement, the governor of West Darfur, Khamis Abakar, was killed on June 14. He is the highest government functionary to be killed since the war broke out between the SAF and the RSF. Footage shows him being detained by a group of armed persons, including several in RSF uniform. Another video allegedly showed his bloodied dead body, lying on the ground with slash wounds, including on the side of his neck.

The civil society activists, the SAF, and the UN have all accused the RSF of his murder. Denying the charge, the RSF claimed in a statement that it had taken his custody and driven him to the headquarters in El Geneina “to protect the governor” but “two outlaws” killed him after kidnapping him from the RSF’s custody. Their statement has been met with scepticism.

Abakar was a member of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which was among the armed groups in Darfur at war with the Sudanese state in 2003. In protest to the political and economic marginalisation under the Islamist regime of former dictator Omar al Bashir, the region’s sedentary farming tribes, that speak local African languages, supported the armed rebel groups.

The regime in turn armed and organised into militias a group of nomadic Arabic-speaking cattle-herding tribes, whose competition with the African farmers over resources had been intensifying, particularly since the increased desertification in the mid-1980s.

These militias, known as the Janjaweed, committed mass atrocities in co-ordination with the SAF, whose Darfur commander at the time was Abdel Fattah al Burhan, the current chief of the SAF. The first five years of the civil war left 200,000 to 300,000 dead and millions displaced by 2008. In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, but he continued to rule for another decade.

The Janjaweed, in the meantime, coalesced to form the RSF in 2013 under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti. He has since taken control over much of the mining sector in Darfur, home to the majority of Sudan’s gold deposits. Sudan is Africa’s third largest producer of the precious metal.

After months of mass pro-democracy protests, which had erupted in December 2018, forced the removal of Bashir in April 2019, his trusted generals, SAF chief Burhan and RSF chief Hemeti, formed a military junta, with the former as its chairperson and the latter as his deputy.

After the RSF put down the pro-democracy mass demonstration outside the SAF’s HQ with a massacre on June 3, 2019, the junta agreed to share power with a coalition of right-wing parties in August of that year and formed a joint civilian-military transitional government.

Juba peace agreement dead-end; Darfur back to civil war

In August 2020, several armed groups, including the JEM in Darfur, went on to sign the Juba peace agreement. This brought no peace to Darfur. Since the agreement was signed, several hundred thousand more have been displaced in attacks by the nomadic Arab tribes, armed and backed by the RSF, which was accused of undertaking a depopulation campaign with the support of SAF.

Nevertheless, the leaders of different armed groups who got a share in state power, including Khamis Abakar, went on to later support the military coup by Burhan and Hemeti in October 2021 to remove the civilians in the transitional government. All state power has since been concentrated in the military junta led by Burhan and Hemeti, with the former rebel commanders also enjoying their share.

Elfadl argued that Abakar had become one of the “collaborators used by the military junta”. After the internal power struggle simmering between the junta’s leaders, Burhan and Hemeti, exploded into a war on April 15, pitting SAF and RSF against each other, the RSF, along with the Arab tribes from which its troops hail, have unleashed a mass killing of African tribes. Most of the victims were living in camps, displaced during the civil war.

In these circumstances, Abakar, who hails from the Masalit, the largest tribe in the African farming community under attack in Darfur, broke ranks with Hemeti and started organising defence for his community, explained Elfadl. “So the RSF removed him from the governor’s office by assassination.”

In an interview hours before he was killed, he accused the RSF and its Arab militias of repeating a “genocide”. He had urged the international community to bring the killings to a stop, pointing out that, “civilians are being killed randomly and in large numbers …We haven’t seen the army leave its base to defend people”.

Abakar’s killing is yet another reiteration that the Juba peace agreement is a dead-end, offering no way out of the spiral of violence, Elfadl argued.

The SCP, the Darfur Bar Association, and the General Co-ordination of Displaced and Refugees have all criticised the agreement as a mere power-sharing arrangement between the junta and rebel leaders. The key questions of resources and rehabilitation of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have yet to be considered in earnest, making peace in Darfur still out of reach.

Other states in the Darfur region, including South Darfur and North Darfur, have also suffered attacks and killings. Late last month, Minni Minnawi, a former rebel leader of Sudanese Liberation Army’s largest faction, called on people to arm themselves. Minnawi had signed the Juba agreement and went on to support the coup after being appointed the regional governor of Darfur (including five states).

Minnawi’s call to arms, Elfadl argued, is an indication of his “desperation”. “After the Juba agreement, his own armed group splintered into different groups, and he can no longer rely on them. So he is asking others to take arms,” Elfadl said. “There was no need for him to call on people to take arms. Arms are everywhere in Darfur, and a civil war is already under way. He is only fuelling it further.”

His call to arms, Elfadl reiterates, “is only a clear confirmation that the Juba agreement has brought no peace at all to Darfur. On the contrary, Darfur is going through the worst violence it has seen since the beginning of the civil war in 2003”.

“The consequences have been devastating on the communities, with over 100,000 people forced to flee across the border to Chad,” Toby Howard, the co-ordinator of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Darfur, said last week. Another hundred thousand have been displaced within Darfur.

Across Sudan, almost 2.5 million people have been displaced since the war started on April 15. This figure includes an estimated 1.9 million people who have been internally displaced, and another 550,000 who have fled to neighbouring countries, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported on Monday, June 19.

They include over a million children, 270,000 of whom were displaced in Darfur, which had most of the 3.6 million IDPs already living in camps across Sudan by the end of 2022.

The ceasefire agreement is reported to have reduced the scale of violence in Darfur, although attacks were reported in North Darfur. But the ceasefire expires at six on the morning of Wednesday, June 21.

Democratic forces fight for peace

No resolution to the conflict in Sudan can be brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, Elfadl argued, adding, “The resolution has to be found here in Sudan.” Left to the international powers to bring the conflict to an end, he warns, Sudan will be hurling toward a situation comparable to that in Iraq, Syria, or Libya. The war, he argued, can only be stopped decisively after power is “usurped” from the generals, and they are put to trial for igniting this war.

To this end, “we are trying as a first step to find the broadest possible agreement on a common minimum program for Sudan’s future, among all the different political forces who are truly opposed to this war”.

Already, in parts of Sudan where there is no active fighting, protesters are trying to reclaim the streets with anti-war, pro-democracy demonstrations, especially in Atbara, a northeastern city with a militant labor history which saw the first protests of the December Revolution in 2018. “Port Sudan and some other cities in the eastern region have also witnessed protests,” Elfadl said.

“Although not large enough yet, it is the beginning. The democratic forces in Sudan, which is the majority of the population, are gradually trying to occupy the streets again and reclaim the revolution. Yes, it is still in an embryonic stage. But it is the beginning of a long march to return to the scale of mass demonstrations that characterised Sudan before the war started on April 15.”

Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist and an author at Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch