Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Catastrophe unparalleled’: War in Sudan enters second year

FILE PHOTO: Civilians who fled the war-torn Sudan following the outbreak of fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) camp at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) transit centre in Renk, near the border crossing point in Renk County of Upper Nile State, South Sudan May 1, 2023. REUTERS/Jok Solomun

It has been almost an year since the outbreak of the conflict in Sudan. The UN claims that it is currently “experiencing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.”

The country, situated in the northeast of Africa, faces a severe shortage of basic necessities, including clean water, food, fuel and medications. Worsening the condition, the prices of commodities have hiked dramatically due to the scarcity.

According to the UN statistics, over half of Sudan’s 49 million citizens require humanitarian aid. Additionally, “catastrophe levels of food insecurity” affect about 18 million people, primarily in areas of West Darfur and Khartoum.

Relief organizations are finding it tough to deliver humanitarian aid due to access restrictions, security threats, and other operational difficulties. For the first time in several months, the UN was able to provide food assistance to West Darfur in March.

The UN has not yet acknowledged that a ‘famine’ has reached Sudan since there has not been any official declaration. It is a matter of dismay that the UN, in the name of respecting the legal sovereignty of the Sudanese state, chooses to prefer the consent of the army above the rights of people starving to death.

The Port of Sudan is the quickest route for humanitarian relief to arrive by sea, but in the absence of an official declaration of famine, the customary humanitarian assistance and financial support from global organizations fail to reach Sudan.

The world body warned in March that 222,000 children could die from malnutrition in the coming months unless their aid needs are urgently met.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sudan is having a devastating impact on women and children. Even before fighting broke out, more than 3 million women and girls in Sudan were at risk of gender-based violence due to the long-standing rifts and fights in the country.

The UN refugee agency claims that because schools are shuttered in Darfur, millions of people are unable to benefit from a safe environment or an education. In the meantime, more and more kids are being taken away from their homes, and many of them have experienced trauma and sexual assault.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reports that lethal outbreaks of diseases like malaria, cholera, and measles have also been affecting Sudan. Meanwhile, between 70 and 80 per cent of hospitals in battle zones are no longer operational as a result of air raids, shortages of supplies, and attacks on healthcare personnel. Approximately 65 per cent of the population does not have access to healthcare.

Several areas have also seen partial or whole destruction of critical infrastructure, including power plants and water treatment facilities.

But amid the ongoing wars in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine, Sudan keeps getting forgotten by the international community.

Sudan crisis in brief

Before the current conflict, Sudan had already been grappling with violence and displacement since the onset of the Darfur crisis in 2003. Sudan was home to more than 1 million refugees — the second-highest refugee population in Africa — most of whom were from South Sudan and Northern Ethiopia, with many fleeing violence in Tigray.

Nearly a year has passed since the start of the ongoing conflict in Sudan, which has resulted in this terrible humanitarian crisis and brought long-standing political and ethnic issues to light.

Following deadly conflicts between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) on April 15, 2023, over 8.5 million people—including internally displaced people (IDPs), asylum seekers, and refugees—were forced to flee their homes.

The violence has worsened an already precarious humanitarian situation, driving the spread of mass-starvation conditions. Meanwhile, neighboring countries have taken in more than one million refugees, risking broader destabilization across the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions.

Both the rival groups have been engaged in a prolonged power struggle. Many of Sudan’s pre-existing problems, including persistent hostilities, disease outbreaks, political and economic instability, and climate emergencies, were made worse by this conflict.

The Sudanese civil war began when a power battle between RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo and army head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan reached its breaking point.

 After a popular rebellion in 2019 overthrew President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled Sudan for over 30 years, a precarious transition to civilian-led democracy was destroyed in 2021 when al-Burhan and Hemedti attempted a coup.

At first, the army and the RSF had shared authority over Sudan, but in December 2022, an internationally supported Framework Agreement made matters worse. This led to a power struggle between the two. As part of a larger security sector reform and the shift to democracy, the framework aimed to incorporate the RSF into the army.

Each side was afraid of giving up too much power to the other in a new political order, even as Western nations pushed the two parties to come to an agreement by offering aid and debt relief as incentives.

All hell broke loose as hostilities between the two military troops in Khartoum reached an impasse when they both deployed armoured vehicles into the streets and began firing at one another.

After fighting broke out in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum, it spread to Darfur as well as the northern city of Merowe, which is close to Egypt and the River Nile and is home to sizable gold mines and a military airfield, and portions of Kordofan and the Blue Nile states.

The war has made Darfur, which is weary of fighting, even more exposed. For almost two decades, there has been conflict between Masalit tribes, both Arab and non-Arab, regarding limited water and land resources. Fighting now has an ethnic aspect to it.

A growing amount of documentation and testimonies have detailed attacks that amounted to ethnic cleansing carried out by Arab fighters in collaboration with RSF members.

Parties in conflict

With an estimated 300,000 men, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) serve as the country’s armed forces. Under President al-Bashir, General al-Burhan, the military leader, advanced through the ranks as a professional soldier.

Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan visits the Flamingo Marine Base in Port Sudan on August 28, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

On the other hand, the RSF has about 100,000 well-equipped soldiers spread throughout the capital city of Khartoum and the Darfur region.

Armed factions within the Popular Defence Forces gave rise to the RSF. Government-backed Popular Defence Force groups—referred to by rebels as Janjaweed (men with guns and horses)—were ethnic cleansing militia charged with war crimes during the Darfur War in the 2000s when al-Bashir’s administration employed them to assist the army in suppressing an uprising.

European projects such as the 2017 Khartoum Process, which funded the RSF to function as border guards to halt African migration to Europe, were also perceived as a supportive gesture from European powers to legitimise the RSF as a ruling force.

Even though the RSF presently has the military advantage in areas of active conflict, stories of its soldiers engaging in extrajudicial executions, sexual assault, and aid looting have seriously damaged the group’s credibility among the Sudanese populace.

Throughout the war, numerous other factions have also joined the conflict.

A large number of the combatants opposing the RSF are highly motivated Muslim forces with a strong desire to reclaim Sudan. Other armed groups support the SAF as well.

Furthermore, in October 2023, citizens established their own coalition, known as “Taqaddum,” or the Sudanese Coordination of Civil Democratic Forces. This was started with the intention of representing civilians in peace talks and is headed by former prime minister of Sudan, Abdallah Hamdok.

Deaths, displacement and devastation

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that as of April 2024, around 16,000 people—including military personnel—had been killed. However, experts have stated that the figures are a huge undercount because it is hard to get precise, real-time data during a war like this.

In Darfur alone, from April 15 and the end of August, there were about 4,000 civilian deaths and 8,400 injuries, according to a report released by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in October. A UN study obtained by Reuters in January stated that in just one city, El Geneina, in the West Darfur region of Sudan, between 10,000 and 15,000 people died the previous year.

Since the war began, at least 8.2 million of Sudan’s 49 million citizens have left their homes. Of them, about 1.8 million have managed to flee the nation, mostly to South Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad, and Egypt. For many, the only ways to get to those locations were to walk for days on end and endure arduous travels, or to pay enormous sums of money for bus tickets.

There are at least 6.5 million internally displaced people living in Sudan’s 18 states. South Darfur has the highest concentration of internally displaced people (IDPs), followed by River Nile and East Darfur. Over 50% of these individuals have been forced to leave Khartoum.

Over the past year, multiple ceasefire agreements have been established, but in every instance, both sides have accused one another of carrying on with violence.

The lack of success has also been connected to rival interests among international players including Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as regional divisions between the mediating nations.

Moreover, the US has made an effort to lead the mediation process by designating Congressman Tom Perriello as a special envoy for Sudan.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and other US allies in the area have noticed that the US is paying a lot more attention to what’s happening in Sudan, and they want to be prepared to align with that.

Egyptians and Emiratis are currently leading talks that are taking place in Cairo as well. But these are up against the Saudi-backed Jeddah negotiations, and this internal struggle might impede the ability of the international community to work together to promote peace.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional organization made up of eight nations around the Horn of Africa, is another important player in negotiations. Disagreements between the rival forces as well as the members of the coalition have prevented any substantial movement towards achieving stability in the region.

Resolutions passed by the UN Security Council and the African Union (AU) also failed to make any change.

Another factor adding to the complexity of the matter is the rise of a “mosaic” of many armed actors, some of whom are associated with the RSF or SAF and who are also driving the war in Sudan but have not yet been included in peace negotiations. Their participation in the conversation will be crucial.

On April 18, talks between the opposing parties are anticipated to start in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Before the army withdrew in 2023, citing the RSF’s violations of the truce, the city had hosted multiple rounds of negotiations.

Meanwhile, European diplomats met in France on Monday to mark the anniversary of the conflict, and many have pledged to boost aid to Sudan with funding worth 2.13 billion US dollars.

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