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The human cost of Sudan's spiralling war

'Zero-sum conflict': The human cost of Sudan's spiralling war
7 min read
01 September, 2023
In-depth: In recent weeks fighting between the army and the RSF has intensified in parts of Khartoum, South Darfur and Kordofan, further aggravating a critical humanitarian situation in the absence of any peace process.

As the war in Sudan nears its fifth month, the Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) remain locked in heavy fighting that is inflicting a staggering human toll, devastating large parts of the country, and fuelling old conflicts with still no end in sight.

One of the areas hardest hit by the clashes, which have already left 4,000 people dead and almost 5 million displaced, continues to be the capital, Khartoum.

Members of the RSF have been entrenched in large parts of the city since the early stages of the conflict, while the SAF has mainly relied on its air superiority to try to halt their advances.

In recent days, one of the main focal points of the battle for the capital has been the strategic headquarters of the Armoured Corps in southern Khartoum, on which the RSF launched a major offensive in late August that was repelled.

Heavy clashes have also taken place in other key locations of the city, including bridges and markets, while the SAF has continued its bombing campaign against RSF positions.

“Since the beginning of the war on 15 April, the humanitarian situation is becoming increasingly complex,” Khaled Massa, a resident of the Sharg El Nil district, east of Khartoum, told The New Arab (TNA).

“The siege of this area continues, and the shelling, the exchange of fire and the clashes go on, [making] the situation dire,” he added.

Beyond Khartoum, the region most affected by war remains Darfur. In the early stages of the war, the violence was concentrated mainly in West and North Darfur, but since mid-August it has been South Darfur’s capital Nyala that has been engulfed by heavy fighting.

In the past three weeks, clashes in Nyala have left at least dozens dead and displaced over 50,000 people, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which has reported that the city’s electricity and water systems are also down.

Information emerging from the town, however, is scarce due to communications outages, Mohammed Adam Hassan, director of the Darfur Network for Human Rights, told TNA.

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Local and international human rights groups have documented multiple war crimes and atrocities in Darfur since 15 April, including episodes of ethnic cleansing, the burning of entire towns, and mass graves, mainly attributed to the RSF and allied Arab militias. The International Criminal Court said in July that it is investigating and monitoring the events.

The violence in Darfur has left local armed movements, which signed a peace agreement with the central government in 2020, in a precarious position, as they are now proving unable to protect civilians in most of the region. The latest sign of this has been their inability to stop the military escalation in Nyala.

The general deterioration of the security situation in the country has paved the way for other fronts of fighting to open in the South and West Kordofan regions.

Since mid-June, the SAF and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), one of Sudan’s main armed groups, have exchanged fire in these states, displacing 70,000 people according to OCHA. In recent weeks, some of the heaviest clashes have occurred in South Kordofan’s capital, Kadugli.

The United Nations has warned that the spread of fighting across Sudan threatens to create a "humanitarian emergency of epic proportions". [Getty]

Violence and hunger

The war has also cleared the way for a wide range of human rights abuses. Since the beginning of the conflict, both warring sides have carried out hundreds of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, and many cases of torture, targeted killings, and persecution of activists and human rights defenders have been documented.

At least 13 newspapers and a number of radio and TV stations have also shut down as a direct result of the war as the repression against journalists has skyrocketed, according to the Sudanese Journalists Syndicate. Some 100 journalists have since left the country.

Amid the hostilities, there has been as well an alarming increase in sexual violence against women. To date, the Unit for Combating Violence against Women, which falls under the Ministry of Social Development, has documented 61 cases in Khartoum, 43 in Nyala and 21 in El Geneina, West Darfur’s capital, its general director, Sulaima Ishaq, told TNA.

“The violence in Sudan could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, because the RSF and SAF have committed these crimes in a widespread and systematic manner, especially in Khartoum and Darfur,” Mossaad Mohamed Ali, the executive director of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS), told TNA.

The combination of war and hunger is in turn fuelling what UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths went so far as to describe in late August a “humanitarian emergency of epic proportions”.

Today, more than 24 million people, or around half of Sudan’s population, are in need of humanitarian aid and protection, more than half of whom are children.

Despite these great needs, humanitarian agencies face daunting difficulties to operate in Sudan, including widespread looting, lack of security, bureaucratic and logistical obstacles, attempts by both sides to instrumentalise their work, and limited funds.

“The humanitarian crisis is also happening in a total breakdown of essential systems. The economy is collapsing, all the prices are really high, markets are not functioning, they were burned down, and looted. Factories were destroyed; banks are barely operating,” Mathilde Vu, advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told TNA.

“Basic things are now unaffordable: food, commodities, fuel. And the essential services are down: 80% of health facilities are not functioning, telecommunications are damaged. There is no safety net; nothing to rely on,” she added.

“The only thing people relied on is themselves. Relatives, communities, people hosting them, network of solidarity,” she said.

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Way forward

In an attempt to halt the war, several countries and regional organisations with influence over Sudan have launched diplomatic initiatives to bring the parties to the negotiation table or define a way out of the crisis. None have achieved tangible results.

The initiative that garnered the most attention was a round of Saudi and US-sponsored talks in Jeddah that led the warring forces to announce several ceasefires. Yet all were systematically broken, and the process was suspended in June due to lack of progress.

The African Union (AU) has also proposed its own roadmap, which has failed to gain traction. Another plan initiated by Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and South Sudan was directly boycotted by the SAF, which accused Nairobi of being close to the RSF.

In mid-July it was Egypt, which is close to the SAF, that hosted a summit attended by all seven of Sudan’s neighbours as well as the AU and the Arab League. But the initiative laid out by President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi also failed to gain momentum.

Numerous attempts by regional players at diplomatic negotiations and peace talks have failed to yield lasting results, sparking fears of a protracted conflict. [Getty]

The failure of these initiatives has been partly attributed to the poor coordination between diplomatic efforts, the conflicting interests of major regional actors, the absence of high-ranking officials, and the exclusion of civilian players.

“A negotiated settlement backed by the international community would be feasible provided that the main backers and supporters of both warring factions in the region, namely Egypt [for the SAF] and the UAE [for the RSF], are behind and are part of it,” Hamid Khalafallah, a researcher and policy analyst, told TNA.

The main obstacle, however, has been the lack of will and commitment exhibited by the two factions, which have been locked in a zero-sum conflict. Griffiths recently warned that the war is moving closer into Al Jazira state, Sudan’s breadbasket south of Khartoum.

Still, some hope that, as both sides fail to impose themselves by force, this dynamic may change.

“In the short to medium term there is a chance for the war in Sudan to end, or at least for an extended ceasefire to hold, because both warring factions have realised that there is no way for a military win,” Khalafallah explained.

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A protracted and increasingly complex conflict could also weaken them internally. The atrocities and crimes committed by ill-disciplined RSF members are widely believed to be eroding the legitimacy that the group may have once enjoyed among some Sudanese.

At the same time, the difficulties that the SAF is showing in dealing with the paramilitary force and its proximity to the deep state and Islamist circles from the orbit of former dictator Omar Al Bashir’s regime are also a source of unease and apprehension.

In addition, Khalafallah noted that any potential agreement or truce between the leaders of the two sides could be difficult to implement because the control they retain over their own forces is not total.

Amidst the violence, it is Sudanese civil society that has led efforts to build an anti-war front that calls for the dissolution of the RSF, a thorough reform of the SAF, and a long-awaited process of justice and accountability.

Marc Español is a Catalan journalist based in Cairo.

Follow him on Twitter: @mespanolescofet