Thousands could die as Rapid Support Forces close in Al-Fashir in Sudan's Darfur province

Thousands could die as Rapid Support Forces close in Al-Fashir in Sudan's Darfur province
Some 800,000 people inside Al-Fashir city have no escape route from incoming attacks by the Rapid Support Forces' Janjaweed as violence in Sudan spreads.
5 min read
26 April, 2024
Rival military groups have uprooted millions in Sudan and left the country in a dangerous humanitarian crisis [Getty]

The capital of the Sudanese state North Darfur is facing an imminent catastrophe that is threatening some 800,000 people, as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) closes in on the last stronghold of rival Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) following weeks of battles.

Sudanese activists and international researchers warned on Thursday that the city of Al-Fashir is "about to be under siege" as the RSF gains ground in the surrounding province, terrorising villages and conducting intense bombing campaigns against the Sudanese army.

RSF is attempting to gain control of the city from the SAF and have begun closing in with its troops preparing for a full-scale invasion, according to researchers.

Al-Fashir is the last major city in the huge western Darfur region not yet under the control of the RSF which has taken control of four other Darfur state capitals over the past year. Some 700,000 internally displaced people fled to camps in Al-Fashir having escaped violence in other regions.

The latest round of violence began in the African country in April 2023 and snowballed into a civil war when long-simmering tensions between the military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the RSF paramilitary commanded by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, broke out into street battles in the capital, Khartoum.

The RSF has been blamed for mass killings of civilians - which are often ethnically driven - and numerous human rights violation, including terrifying levels of sexual violence.

The war has uprooted swathes of the population and humanitarian workers have described the conditions as among the worst in the world.

The UN said that some 20 million people in Sudan are struggling to find enough food to eat and that famine is now widespread.

Last week, UN officials warned the Security Council that 800,000 people in Al-Fashir were in "extreme and immediate danger" as fighting was moving closer.

There are fears fighting in the city could trigger inter-communal violence throughout the Darfur province which surfaced during conflicts in the 2000s, and could spill into neighbouring Chad.

Adam Mousa, director of Darfur Victims Support and Sudan Defenders, said that in April the RSF and aligned Arab militias fought with the Sudanese army and attacked 15 villages in the east of Darfur, forcing thousands to flee to al-Shagra town and the Zamzam displacement camp in Al-Fashir.

"Most of the displaced have no water, food or medicine, and at the same time the attacks are continuing," Mousa said during an online media briefing on Thursday which included activists, Sudanese civilians, researchers, and aid workers.

Mousa, who is from Darfur, said his organisation has requested to begin a ceasefire initiative and sent letters to SAF and RSF and are "waiting for a response".

Some eleven villages there have been burnt in recent days, according to Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health.

It has been challenging for journalists and humanitarians to gain on the ground access since the outbreak of war and as a result, observers have been relying on open-source intelligence to track the conflict.

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Raymond's Humanitarian Research Lab has been closely documenting the RSF and SAF movements using open-source data and satellite imagery, and last week sounded the alarm to the international community about RSF’s imminent attack on Al-Fashir.

"We have a city about to be under siege," Raymond said.

RSF fighters are about eight kilometres from the main SAF infantry base and open-source reports and imagery collected in the past day shows RSF fighters moving on the city from multiple directions, Raymond explained.

"The situation for those in Al-Fashir will likely get significantly worse in the coming hours and days," he said.

"At this point, civilians and the Sudan Armed Forces do not have a clear escape route to exit Al Fashir. We call this phenomenon, in our business, a kill box.

"The space for intervention is probably gone," he added.

Raymond fears that if the RSF behave in line with the mass atrocities conducted over the past year, the number of casualties in the region could exceed the 110,000 deaths of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

It is estimated that some 14,000 people have been killed in the war since last April, though some projections are far larger.

The RSF, which is formed of Janjaweed fighters aligned with former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, have conducted ruthless campaigns against civilians and there are fears they will conduct massacres in Al-Fashir.

There have been widespread human rights violations documented by RSF fighters, including cases of sexual violence against women and girls.

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Allegations of rape, forced marriage, sex trafficking in Khartoum, Darfur and Kordofan have been recorded. Rights groups say the truce scale of the crisis remains unknown due to underreporting and fear of reprisals.

Some 1.1 million people are internally displaced in Sudan while more than 3 million are refugees in neighbouring Chad, Eritrea and Egypt, according to figures from the UN refugee agency.

Hala Al-Karib, Sudan Regional Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, said that the anticipated invasion of Al-Fashir has been a "ticking time bomb" considering the number of local militias present in the city.

She said the city has been an important hub for activists and human rights defenders and hosts many displaced families. The only hospital in Sudan for survivors of sexual violence is in the city, Al-Karib said.

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The war has taken a spiral in recent months due to foreign interference, which observers say has prolonged the conflict and fuelled new levels of danger.

RSF's leader is reportedly receiving support from Russian mercenaries and allied Arab communities coming from the Horn of Africa, as well as Libya.

US officials recently said the UAE was providing financial and military support to RSF, which has been accused of committing crimes against humanity. Iran and Egypt are believed to be supporting Sudan's army with military drones.

Earlier this month, France hosted a donor aid conference to mark one year since the outbreak of war and garner much needed attention to the humanitarian disaster.

Western officials  are seeking an end to the fighting through diplomacy, but critics say it has done little to defuse the violence.