Six Months of War in Sudan: And No End in Sight

October 19th, 2023 - written by: Saskia Jaschek

Originally published by taz 15.10.23 in German: Kein Ende in Sicht.

The war between Sudan's two most powerful generals rages on unabated. The people survive thanks to their self-organization.

Saskia Foto

Residential building and school hit: After an attack by the Sudanese army on a residential area. Photo by Abdulrahman Dramly

When war broke out in Sudan's capital Khartoum on April 15, 2023, many residents still had hopes that the conflict would quickly subside. But the war dragged on through the summer, when people endured sweltering heat without electricity or running water. It also lasted through the rainy season and the floods that took thousands of their homes. And it spread to many other areas of Sudan.

Today, after six months of war between Sudan's SAF army led by President Abdelfattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary RSF (Rapid Support Forces) led by former Vice President Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemetti, more than 5.7 million people are on the run in Sudan. According to UNHCR, the country has 48 million inhabitants. The independent conflict monitoring agency ACLED reports at least 9,000 dead. The number is likely to be much higher, as many areas are inaccessible to outsiders and communication is limited.

In addition, there are the consequences of the war. Numerous epidemics have been spreading rapidly since April, including measles, malaria, dengue fever and cholera. Coupled with the nationwide lack of food and fresh drinking water, these diseases have claimed many victims.

Sudan's already fragile health care system has nearly collapsed. In the embattled areas, more than 70 percent of all hospitals are closed, according to the UN Human Rights Council. The remaining hospitals operate under constant threat. For example, early last week RSF bombed Al-Naw hospital in the town of Omdurman, which lies across the Nile from Khartoum. Al-Naw was the only functioning hospital in the area, which is largely controlled by the military. Four people reportedly died in the attack, and dozens were injured. Hospital operations continue for lack of alternatives.

Resistance committees primarily provide humanitarian aid

Resistance committees, remnants of Sudan's 2018/19 democracy movement, report raids, arrests, and killings of their members. Resistance committees are local grassroots organizations that have organized civil uprisings against Sudan's military since the start of the 2018 revolution. The October 2021 coup d'├ętat by the RSF and SAF put an end to the transition process to civilian democracy negotiated in 2019. Resistance committees resisted the renewed military rule significantly, including through blockades, protests, and strikes. Since the beginning of the war, they have primarily provided humanitarian aid to the population. They have set up emergency centers throughout the country, which provide medical care, childcare centers and reception camps for refugees. This is because there are no safe corridors for humanitarian aid organizations. Thus, the emergency centers provide first aid in places that international NGOs cannot reach.

Abdulrahman Dramly coordinates the emergency operations center in Al-Jereif and describes the situation in his neighborhood in eastern Khartoum, which is under RSF control. A large RSF cannon stands in the center of the neighborhood, he reports: "In the morning the cannon fires, in the afternoon the response comes from the military."

When asked how he would like to be referred to in the taz article, he answers: "By name. There is nothing left for us to fear". Dramly communicates with the taz via voice mail. The connection is too bad for a phone call. Again and again, the Internet breaks up, and the interview stretches on for days. Gunshots can be heard in the background of his recordings. "After a while, the gunshots became background noise for me. We try to focus on the positive things," he explains. Such as the childcare he provides. The volunteers set up a library for them. They retrieved the books from abandoned houses in the city.

There is also a lesson plan: Painting, playing or reading together. "We try to make life as regular as possible for the children, to give them a sense of security." Adults cook for the community in a large kitchen. "When people gather and cook together, they feel safer," Dramly explains.

Only a few hospitals remain open

For their work, Emergency Centers cooperate with the few hospitals that are still open. The remaining doctors work there. But there are not many left, which is why they sometimes have to call in doctors from outside. This is not only expensive, but also dangerous. Dramly mentions a doctor from Khartoum North who worked at the emergency center. She was attacked and raped by RSF soldiers on her way home. Last week, a woman in his neighborhood was shot by RSF soldiers when she tried to prevent them from entering her house.

The murdered woman was part of a team that provides psychosocial support to survivors of rape and other gender-based violence. Sexual violence has increased dramatically since the war began. Although rape is rarely reported by women in Sudan, the feminist network SIHA reports well over 100 cases, including sexual enslavement, also of minors.

Human rights activist Najda Mansour calls the war a "systematic war" which goes beyond the aggression of two generals. Mansour is from Sudan's western region of Darfur and lived in Khartoum. After the war began, she stayed there for a few weeks until the danger became too great. Like thousands of other people, she then fled to the town of Wad Madani in the neighboring state of Al-Jezeera. There, she lives in a school that has been converted into a shelter for refugees: School lessons are almost nowhere to be found. The shelter rarely has electricity, and water is scarce. "There is not enough for the toilets," she says.

Mansour does not give up her work. She writes reports about the situation of refugees and how the war affects life in the city. She describes the drastic health situation for many people in the camps, especially women. Her own health also suffers: "I have to sleep on the floor, so I have skin and kidney disease."

A "systematic" war

Mansour sees the war to be systematic, in the occupation of territories by the RSF. "The culmination of this war is the occupation of the lands of the people in Darfur. That has been their goal for a long time," she says, explaining the RSF's war aims. She sees the origins of the current conflict in the 2003 Darfur civil war. At that time, the "Janjaweed" and other pro-government militias identifying themselves as Arab, led by Hemetti, committed genocide against the African-designated ethnic groups living there in order to crush rebels from those groups. Over 250,000 people were killed at the time, and several million were permanently displaced. Mansour speaks of "armed groups that use identity politics to gain wealth and power." They recruit young men from marginalized provinces and promise them prosperity through land appropriation. At the same time, they incite them to fight by ethnicizing the conflict.

Developments in recent months seem to confirm Mansour's view. While RSF soldiers in Khartoum are driving people out of their homes to occupy and rob them, entire towns in Darfur are being destroyed. Mass graves are repeatedly discovered. Refugee camps are being repeatedly bombed and attacked. Refugees report cruel executions and persecution by Arab militias. Their reports paint a picture very close to the genocide of the early 2000s.

Countless war crimes - also by the Sudanese army

But also the SAF are committing serious war crimes. The army bombs residential areas and hospitals, knowingly causing the deaths of civilians. It especially attacks the emergency centers, arrests and kills members of the resistance committees.

In the state of el-Gedareif, the resistance committees had converted a youth hostel into a reception camp for refugees. They cooperated with international NGOs to finance the project. When the local authorities learned about the project, they pressed the committees to close the emergency center down and to refer the NGOs to the state authorities. Fearing corruption, they refused, and were persecuted. Several times, soldiers showed up at the hostel to close it by force, reports a member of the resistance committees, who wishes to remain anonymous. With the support of the civilian population, they initially stood firm. However, after repeated incidents, the committees decided to move the refugee camp and split the management of the emergency center. They are now forced to work underground again.

Only a bleak future in sight

No one believes in a positive outcome of the war. Dramly is pessimistic: "To be honest, the future is bleak for me." He believes Sudan's divisions are so great that the war could go on for another 20 to 30 years. Likewise, Mansour is pessimistic: "Even if there is a cease-fire, the Janjaweed will continue to occupy land. They will continue to attack people, loot houses and property." On Thursday evening, Dramly sent pictures. They show destroyed houses in Al-Jereif. Around noon, the SAF bombed a house near a school. The five residents of the house were injured, as were two schoolchildren, one seriously. "I was playing with the children when the bombs fell. They became hysterical. The school is a place where they should feel comfortable."