Away from the headlines dominated by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, a civil war between Sudan’s military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is pushing the country to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. As an allegedly genocidal RSF gains the upper hand, a U.N. official has warned that Sudan is “facing a convergence of a worsening humanitarian calamity and a catastrophic human rights crisis.”

Refugees that fled fighting in Sudan head towards a barge in Renk, South Sudan. August 27, 2023. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)
Refugees that fled fighting in Sudan head towards a barge in Renk, South Sudan. August 27, 2023. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

On April 15, war broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, led by al-Burhan’s former deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, popularly known as Hemedti. Over the past few weeks, the RSF has notched up significant military victories in Darfur, a region of western Sudan, routing the army from bases in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state; Zalingei in Central Darfur; the West Darfur state capital of El Geneina; and, Al Daein, the capital of East Darfur.

Accusations of Genocide

The RSF has been accused of committing genocide, ethnic cleansing and sexual violence directed at the non-Arab Masalit community. SAF personnel have been implicated in airstrikes on densely populated civilian areas, rape and sexual harassment.

“In Western Darfur, the RSF have continued to commit atrocities,” said Manal Taha, program advisor with USIP. In early November, over a period of six days, the RSF launched an attack on Ardamata, a town just outside El Geneina, resulting in the displacement of the entire town’s population. “Many believe this to be ethnic cleansing because the RSF targeted members of the Masalit tribe,” Taha said.

Jeremy Laurence, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said accounts from survivors and witnesses suggest “Masalit civilians suffered six days of terror at the hands of the RSF and its allied militia” after they seized control of the SAF base in Ardamata.

In the face of the RSF’s advances, the SAF has withdrawn to the border with Chad, leaving local populations and their military bases vulnerable.

Meanwhile, two local rebel groups in Darfur — the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Movement — have shifted from their commitment to date to stay out of the fighting and have joined forces with the SAF in an effort to halt the RSF’s advance.

“Places that had managed to avoid violence for the last seven months are now seeing serious escalation, including Al Daein, the capital of East Darfur, and El Fashir,” said Susan Stigant, director of the Africa Program at USIP. “Courageous initiatives continue from local and religious leaders to prevent more violence. This includes negotiating with the warring parties and armed groups to facilitate safe corridors for civilians.”

“We talk so much about atrocity prevention. This is a moment when there is an urgent need to activate all approaches possible and be clear that the world is watching,” Stigant said.

‘World’s Largest Displacement Crisis’

The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the war in April; more than 7 million people have been forced from their homes, making it the “world’s largest displacement crisis,” and 25 million people need humanitarian assistance to survive.

“For months now, many areas across the country have been under siege with no access to basic needs,” said Jawhara Kanu, program officer at USIP. “For some areas in Darfur, Kordofan and White Nile, routes other than Khartoum are used to bring limited supplies from neighboring countries like Libya and South Sudan. However, these routes are highly dangerous, and the goods received are not very affordable.”

In the Sudanese capital Khartoum, Kanu said, residents of El-Fetehab in Omdurman have reported a siege by the RSF that has resulted in people dying of hunger, thirst and a lack of medical supplies. “Internally displaced persons in states outside Khartoum, such as Gezira, White Nile, Gedarif and Northern Sudan, are also struggling to sustain shelter and resources, she added.

In Darfur, Kanu said, humanitarian support from Port Sudan is inadequate to meet the needs of the people. A combination of insecurity and a poor agricultural season has further worsened the situation. Sudanese refugees across the border in Chad, South Sudan and the Central African Republic are in a similar dire situation.

“Alternative humanitarian entry points and routes, other than Port Sudan, that are closer to the western and southern states need to be established,” Kanu suggested. “Further engagement between international humanitarian actors and grassroots humanitarian groups that have been active since the beginning of the war could also contribute to a more accountable delivery of aid.”

Local committees continue to provide the frontline response to the humanitarian crisis. It is Sudanese citizens who are organized to distribute food, basic medicines and provide care when those basic provisions can be delivered. “This is the clearest articulation of the Sudanese people’s continued commitment to peace and care for each other and each other’s communities, even in the face of the worst type of violence,” said Taha.

Peace Promises Unfulfilled

Al-Burhan and Hemedti had worked together to topple Sudan’s longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and then led a coup in 2021 that ousted a joint military-civilian government. Differences over how the RSF would be incorporated into the SAF led to a falling out between al-Burhan and Hemedti and the current civil war.

Multiple efforts have been launched to try and broker a cease-fire. The United States and Saudi Arabia established the Jeddah initiative to facilitate a cessation of hostilities and the provision of humanitarian assistance. Both the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development have put forward road maps to sequence peace and political talks. Frontline states — notably Egypt, Chad, Central Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan and Libya — have convened several meetings at the level of heads of state and ministers of foreign affairs. 

In Jeddah, the RSF and the SAF committed in May to facilitate the movement of humanitarian personnel and assistance amid a deepening humanitarian crisis. In the latest round of talks in October, the fighting parties agreed to the establishment of a humanitarian forum, which held its first set of meetings.

Hatim Badien, USIP’s country director, said the RSF’s recent territorial gains in Darfur will no doubt shift the power dynamics and influence the Jeddah negotiations. Sequencing of the cessation of hostilities and building of trust between the two parties should be a priority, he added.

“The current trajectory [of fighting] in Darfur is reshaping and changing the dynamics of the war and threatening divisions in the country,” said Badien. He predicted that Sudan could end up just like Libya, which has two rival power centers in the east and west of the country, with the RSF taking control of Darfur and setting up a parallel governance structure. “This would be a dangerous game,” Badien cautioned.

With the world’s attention on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the divisions in the U.N. Security Council, Badien said there is little hope that the atrocities committed against the people of Darfur, and Sudan in general, will be addressed anytime soon. The request of the Sudanese regime to “immediately” close the U.N. mission in Sudan raises further questions about the capacity to respond. “Advocacy and international lobbying remain crucial, especially in the absence of confidence in any local mechanism to achieve justice for the victims,” Badien said.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Ramtane Lamamra, a former Algerian foreign minister and head of the African Union’s peace and security commission, to serve as the personal envoy of the U.N. secretary-general for Sudan has buoyed hopes that there will be new leadership to advance a unified, coherent international approach, said Stigant.

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