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War in Sudan engulfs agricultural heartland amid record levels of hunger

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Picture: United Nations in Sudan – World Food Programme personnel provide food to people in Sudan. After capturing Gezira, a state in central Sudan that was producing 40 percent of its wheat and providing refuge to hundreds of thousands of IDPs, the RSF is set to battle the Sudanese Armed Forces for the neighbouring states to consolidate control over the country’s agricultural heartland, the writer says.

By Pavan Kulkarni

Agricultural production has come to a halt in Sudan’s breadbasket, Gezira. This is at a time when hunger in the war-torn country is at the highest level ever recorded during the harvest season between October and February, with nearly 40 percent of the population facing “acute hunger”.

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are on the retreat after the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) stormed across Gezira last week, disrupting harvest in this State which produces half of all the wheat grown in Sudan.

Farmers are too terrified to return to their fields and have in some areas “gone so far as to flood canals and sacrifice their harvest in order to make it difficult for RSF to enter”, said Jamal (name changed), spokesperson of the Resistance Committees (RC) in Hasahisa city.

Within a week of occupying the city, the RSF had killed at least three civilians in Hasahisa, the Resistance Committee reported on December 28. It accused the RSF of rape attempts, including one targeting a child, and other atrocities including extortion, stealing cars, looting homes, ransacking markets etc.

Living conditions have deteriorated to the point of “an imminent famine” in Hasahisa, the RC said, reporting severe food shortages. Waste is accumulating in the city and medical facilities have shut down.

Abandoned by the SAF and the police, Hasahisa fell to the RSF’s control on December 20, a day after the paramilitary took over Gezira State’s capital Wad Madani, about 55 kilometres to its south. Over the next two days, the RSF “invaded most villages and towns in Gezira, including Wad Sulfa, Al-Wali, Al-Muslimiya, and Tabat”, Hasahisa RC said in a statement.

With the entire State of Gezira under RSF’s control, “life is at a standstill, with everyone fearing for their safety”. “The markets are closed,” Jamal told Peoples Dispatch. A continuation of this situation in the absence of measures to ensure the safety of civilians could “ultimately cause a famine”, not only in Gezira but also in other states dependent on its wheat, he said.

“Sudan’s breadbasket must remain for what it was intended – farming, not fighting. Otherwise, we may see an even more catastrophic hunger crisis as the lean season gets under way in May 2024,” warned Eddie Rowe, Country Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Sudan.

After the RSF looted its warehouse in Wad Madani, the WFP, which was regularly providing food aid to 800,000 people in the State, has been forced to stop deliveries in several parts of the Gezira “at a time when people need our help the most”, he added.

Amid an outbreak of cholera and other deadly diseases, the health authorities have moved out of the Gezira, along with most of the humanitarian agencies based in its capital Wad Madani. The UN has suspended all of its humanitarian operations in the state. Their aid was especially critical for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

Safe haven turned into a battlefield

Hitherto spared from fighting, except for the RSF’s sporadic attacks on the northern borders of the State, Gezira was a haven, sheltering about 9 percent of all the IDPs of the war ongoing between the SAF and the RSF since April 15. Wad Madani, Sudan’s second-largest city, had hosted 86,400 of the nearly 525,000 IDPs in Gezira.

RSF started its advance toward Wad Madani on December 14 with a southward push into Gezira from Sudan’s capital Khartoum and its two sister cities in the Khartoum State, which it controls for most parts except for some SAF bases the army has retained thus far.

Storming the Abu Gouta area in the northern part of Gezira that morning on 20 machine-gun mounted four-wheel drives, the RSF went on a rampage, pillaging markets, homes, the Agriculture Bank and the police station.

The SAF pummelled the area with airstrikes against RSF’s positions but failed to halt their advance as the fighting reached the suburbs of Abu Haraz and Hantoub to the east of Wad Madani by December 17.

In the meantime, the RSF also attacked Rufaa, 60 km to the north of Wad Madani. On December 18, overrunning the town which it looted along with the nearby villages, the RSF opened fire into the Rufaa hospital, killing two, including a nurse, and wounding several others.

Down south in Hantoub suburb, the RSF also took over SAF’s base guarding the bridge across the Blue Nile river to Wad Madani on December 18, whereupon the army’s soldiers abandoned Gezira’s capital and retreated without putting up a fight in Sudan’s second largest city.

“An investigation is under way to scrutinise the reasons and circumstances behind the forces’ withdrawal from their positions,” SAF spokesperson Brigadier General Nabil Abdallah said on December 19, when the RSF had full control of the city.

“Some 350,000 children are under direct risk of being killed, injured or displaced in … Wad Madani,” Save the Children has warned. “We fear that Wad Madani, once considered a safe haven for people fleeing extreme violence in Khartoum, is turning into another death trap,” said Pierre Dorbes, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation to Sudan, which has relocated its staff from Wad Madani.

“Reports indicate that dozens of civilians including medical personnel were killed and many more injured in Wad Madani between December 15 and 19,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said. “There have also been reports of mutilations and looting, as well as of an attack on a hospital.”

At least 300 deaths have been reported in the city. About 300,000 of its 700,000 inhabitants, including 150,000 children, have fled between December 15 and December 19.

Upon consolidating its control over Wad Madani on December 19, the RSF set up checkpoints across its neighbourhoods and broke into the residents’ homes, looting valuables and stealing their vehicles.

On December 20, the RSF entered Hasahisa, about 55 km to the north of Wad Madani and less than 10 km west of Rufaa. The SAF and the police had already fled the city on December 19.

Resistance Committees on forefront to protect civilians

In their absence, prisoners in Hasahisa set themselves free. “They were then joined by other gangs and criminals who took advantage of the lack of law enforcement, and began to loot and attack the shops, hospitals and other public areas,” said Jamal, spokesperson of the Hasahisa RC.

The RC then organised “emergency committees to maintain security and public safety”. These committees were able to protect the people and their belongings from criminal gangs “without the use of any guns”, he said.

His RC also made contact with the RSF, who were on their way, “to let them know” that in the absence of SAF or the police, the RSF would be the only party with weapons, and consequently held entirely responsible for any acts of violence against civilians.

“They agreed and reassured us that they have no military target in Hasahisa,” and encouraged civilians to stay back, promising the safety of their lives and belongings, Jamal added. Soon after their arrival, however, the RSF imposed a curfew and went on to break into the homes of the residents, stealing their cars, money and gold.

“One civilian was killed, and another bled to death over five hours due to the lack of any healthcare facility,” he said. Some RSF troops also attempted to rape a woman, who was however, saved as they fled the scene when the civilians who heard her scream swiftly mobilised.

His RC reported on December 28 that the RSF also attempted rape on a child, and when confronted by her family and residents, demanded money to spare the child.

In Hasahisa’s neighbouring town of Arbagi, the RSF shot unarmed youngsters organised into patrols by the local RC to protect the residents, killing one and injuring three others.

Earlier, on December 25, RSF troops arrested several residents in this town and tortured them in a “widespread retaliatory campaign” after the RC documented the thefts they reported, and secured a commitment from RSF leadership that the stolen properties would be returned.

IDPs who have fled Gezira to the neighbouring states and its residents fear that the RSF might strike anytime, while the SAF — which has lost most of Khartoum, all five states of the Darfur region, parts of the Kordofan region and the whole of Gezira — inspires little confidence.

Gezira’s neighbouring states under threat

Even before the capture of Gezira, the RSF had already entered the remote villages of its eastern neighbour, Gedaref, earlier this month on December 7. Last week, it also made forays into the White Nile State to Gezira’s west, triggering a mass exodus of its residents.

To Gezira’s south is Sennar, which is another important agricultural state where fighting might disrupt farming during the harvest season, worsening the already record levels of hunger in the country.

The RSF set up a base near the Sennar sugar factory in the northwest of the state by the border with Gezira on December 23, soon after consolidating its control over all areas of Gezira. The SAF responded with airstrikes.

“Sporadic clashes” near this sugar factory resumed on December 28, when a meeting was scheduled for negotiation between the SAF and RSF under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc of eight African countries.

However, the President of Djibouti, who is the current chair of IGAD, announced on December 27 that the meeting has been postponed to an unspecified date in early January “for technical reasons”, while the RSF appears set to penetrate deeper into Sennar.

“Sennar garrison is devoid of army presence,” an RC in Sennar had reportedly said earlier on December 22, adding, “There are only a few soldiers, and no signs of military outposts.”

While awaiting an attack by the RSF, the RC members in Sennar’s capital Sinja are in the meantime enduring a crackdown by the SAF’s intelligence, which has detained several of its members and tortured them with beatings and deprivation of food.

Both warring parties have thus been targeting the members of RCs in the areas they control. Before the war started on April 15, a network of more than 5,000 RCs, organised in neighbourhoods across Sudan, had been leading the mass pro-democracy protests, regularly mobilising hundreds of thousands against the military junta jointly led by SAF and the RSF.

After the internal struggle for power between the ruling partners devolved into a state of war that has claimed well over 12,000 lives in eight and half months, the RCs have proven to be a lifeline, critical for the survival of the civilians in this crisis.

From scrounging medicines for the sick and organising food for the IDPs to protecting neighbourhoods and mapping out safe routes for evacuation of civilians caught in crossfire, RCs have remained at the forefront, even though protests became unviable amid the war.

Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist and an author at Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch