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PoliticsMiddle East

Sudan conflict fuels humanitarian disaster

June 10, 2023

Analysts see no end to the war of attrition between two rival generals in Sudan, and there is growing concern that the country could run out of food. Moreover, the UN's envoy has been declared "persona non grata."

People gather to collect water in Khartoum, Sudan, Sunday, May 28, 2023.
The humanitarian situation in Sudan is deteriorating, and analysts say a famine later this year is likelyImage: Marwan Ali/AP/picture alliance

Sudan is already facing a humanitarian disaster, and now "we are in danger of heading toward a famine," Muzan Alneel, co-founder of the ISTiNAD research center in Sudan and former fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

She said the country's resources were rapidly decreasing because crops had not been planted, as a consequence of the conflict between two generals that has been raging in the country since mid-April. Alneel's last hope is that aid organizations and private donors will provide funds and seed for farmers "to reduce the risk of famine in autumn and winter."

Some eight weeks ago, fighting broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces led by General Abdel Fattah Burhan and the country's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, over the planned integration of the latter into the former. 

The fighting, which has been taking place largely in the capital Khartoum and the already conflict-ridden region of Darfur, has brought the Sudanese economy close to a halt. Sky-high inflation, a collapsed financial system and a lack of water, food, electricity, medicine and medical staff are exacerbating the situation for the population.

A man inspects damage as he walks through the rubble in a damaged room at a house that was hit by an artillery shell in the Azhari district in the south of Khartoum on June 6, 2023.
Many Sudanese fear the clashes between the military and paramilitary have turned against civiliansImage: AFP

According to Sudan's Health Ministry, the clashes have led to around 800 deaths and at least 6,000 people injured. But the real numbers are likely to be multiple times higher, as many casualties go unreported. Bodies remain uncollected and uncounted on the streets.

War of attrition

"Our neighborhood is like a ghost town," said Yasir Zaidan, a researcher at the National University in Sudan who managed to flee the country by ship and is now living in Saudi Arabia.

He told DW that a neighbor who had decided to stay had told him via Facebook this week that "the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces looted the whole neighborhood and also broke into our house."

Zaidan explained that they were searching for money or gold, as well as possibly for car keys. "They take private cars to transport weapons and their people," he said, adding that his car had been hit by a bullet and had a smashed rear window, but was still reportedly parked outside the house. 

Destroyed vehicles are pictured outside the burnt-down headquarters of Sudan's Central Bureau of Statistics
Many neighborhoods in Khartoum are deserted, and cars that are not destroyed are often taken by the paramilitary forces for transportImage: AFP/Getty Images

"Over the past two months, the power struggle has become desperate," said Hager Ali, a researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies. "The fighting in Khartoum will not be decided by firepower alone and a decisive victory is out of the question."

This view was echoed by Theodore Murphy, Africa expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The war has turned into one of attrition, where the outcome is determined by whichever side can marshal the most support," he said.

"That support can be external, meaning money and weapons from regional backers, but it can also be internal, such as drafting parties [tribal groups that recruit fighters] on the ground in Sudan," he added. "This gives new life to the ethnically driven, preexisting local conflict in West Darfur." 

Darfur, an ethnic battleground 

It's not the first time that ethnic differences in Sudan's western region of Darfur — where a part of the population identifies as Arab and another as African — have fueled a violent conflict. Between 2003 and 2005, the Arab-African divide helped fuel many crimes against humanity, with around 300,000 civilians killed.

The president at the time, Omar al-Bashir and his proxy militia, known as the Janjaweed, were held responsible in absentia by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The Janjaweed later turned into the Rapid Support Forces.

Recently, conflict has exploded again in the region. An alarming number of reports of arbitrary killings of unarmed civilians, looting, and rape have been confirmed by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Witnesses have mostly accused the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, but also the Sudanese Armed Forces, albeit to a lesser extent.

The UN body said an attack in the city of Kutum in northern Darfur in early June had left an unconfirmed number of civilians dead and injured, including internally displaced people in a refugee camp.

"Now, mass rapes are again being reported in Darfur," Adjaratou Ndiaye, the UN Women Country representative in Sudan, told the news agency AFP.

Sudanese women in their village in Kassala State
Women in Sudan have been particularly vulnerable to violence in the regionImage: Eric Lafforgue/imago images/Hans Lucas

Rapid Support Forces has 'home advantage'

"Shifting the fight to Darfur brings back a home advantage to the Rapid Support Forces," Hager Ali told DW.

Their tactics of marauding, looting and burning down structures work better in an environment like Darfur than in Khartoum where the Sudanese Armed Forces have a slight upper hand," she said, adding that many of the RSF fighters had never even been to the Sudanese capital before this conflict.

"Turning the ongoing military conflict into an ethnic one helps mobilize support for the Rapid Support Forces who originated in Darfur," she said.

Fighting leaves Khartoum residents struggling to survive

Perthes dismissed, new cease-fire set

On Thursday, the UN's envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, who has been pushing for a cease-fire for weeks, was declared a persona non grata by Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces. He had already accused Perthes of being partisan and of fueling the conflict. 

Germany's Foreign Ministry in Berlin told The Associated Press on Friday that the international community, including the German government, "continues to stand fully behind Mr. Perthes and his efforts, and that Perthes will continue to do his job from Kenya." 

A 24-hour cease-fire was due to start early on Saturday morning.

Edited by: Ben Knight

Correction, June 10, 2023: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Yasir Zaidan and the ISTiNAD research center. DW apologizes for the errors.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa