Both the RSF and the SAF have demonstrated a complete disregard for the rules of war, according to a report by Human Rights Watch in September. Both groups have used explosives in crowded civilian areas, and the RSF has been reported to have engaged in looting and sexual violence, including the rape of women and children as young as 14 in the city of Geneina in West Darfur.

By Ellen Ioanes

The world has no shortage of horrible stories — from the terror of October 7 and the widespread suffering in Gaza caused by Israel’s war to the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria, to Russia’s continuing assault on Ukraine.

But the reports coming out of Sudan these days are particularly appalling.

According to the UN, more than 8 million people have been displaced during the war, and more than 13,000 people have been killed. Almost half the population, 25 million people, require humanitarian assistance — and they shouldn’t be lost in a sea of global suffering.

Almost one year ago, rival military factions in Sudan began fighting in the streets of the capital Khartoum, reigniting civil conflict that echoes the terrible ethnically motivated violence in the country’s Darfur region that shocked the world two decades ago.

The current civil war — between the government’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (called Hemedti) — has spread from the capital to other regions of the country, including Darfur in the west.

There, the majority-Arab RSF fighters are being accused of widespread, targeted killing and sexual violence against ethnic minorities in the region.

On top of that horror, the SAF and al-Burhan — the de facto leader of the country — have said they will suspend cross-border humanitarian aid delivery from neighbouring Chad into RSF-controlled areas. The SAF claims, with some evidence, that weapons and supplies from the UAE make their way to the RSF via the eastern Chad-West Darfur border. But blocking aid would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis within Sudan.

While it might be easy to see this violence as cyclical or intractable, it would be a mistake to do so.

The Tragedy in Sudan

Both the RSF and the SAF have shown “utter disregard for the laws of war,” as Human Rights Watch wrote in September, with both forces using shells and other explosives in densely populated civilian areas, while the RSF has looted supplies and raped women and children as young as 14 in the West Darfur city of Geneina.

The conflict started in Khartoum and the neighbouring city of Omdurman but quickly spread into Darfur and east to Port Sudan, where al-Burhan and the SAF have set up a de facto capital, as the RSF now controls much of Khartoum.

Basic infrastructure and services are now essentially non-existent in Khartoum.

“Large, large numbers of people moved out of the worst of the fighting in Khartoum and surrounding areas and have moved into towns and cities in eastern Sudan,” Susan Stigant, the Africa director for the US Institute of Peace, told me in an interview.

“That’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure on any of the capacities in those areas in terms of food, in terms of basic services, just in terms of places for people to be able to sleep. Port Sudan is just overflowing” with refugees.

Hundreds of thousands of people have moved from different parts of the Darfur region — particularly West Darfur — into refugee camps in eastern Chad, where conditions are incredibly difficult.

“People fled with nothing into a place where humanitarian response was not ready for that scale of emergency,” Trish Newport, head of emergency programs at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), told me.

Some ethnic minority groups in Darfur, such as the Masalit, have been targeted by the RSF, much as they were in 2003.

A long path out of conflict

This battle for power had its seeds decades ago in the political machinations of Sudan’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

And though the RSF evolved from the Janjaweed militias Bashir empowered in the Darfur region 20 years ago and is accused of perpetuating somewhat similar crimes, this is not an inevitable historical repetition.

There seemed to be a break for Sudan after decades of autocratic rule and conflict in 2019, when the RSF and SAF together overthrew al-Bashir. Though there was broad popular and civil society mobilization for a change in leadership, “[Bashir] wasn’t overthrown by the popular movement directly,” Stigant said — it was a military coup that put him out of power. The short-lived transition to a civilian government ended with a second coup in 2021, leading to the power struggle between the RSF and the SAF.

The diplomatic and humanitarian responses to the Sudan conflict have been completely insufficient to meet the desperate need — both to stop Sudanese people’s suffering and to prevent the fighting from destabilising other countries, Stigant said. “If you look at the Horn of Africa more broadly, there appears to be a reordering of the politics and the power. If, for example, the Rapid Support Forces push east in an offensive, then they’re getting uncomfortably close to the borders of Eritrea and Ethiopia.”

Sudan has seen significant conflict over the decades. Sudanese civil society has repeatedly demanded civilian rule, both in the lead-up to al-Bashir’s disposal and after al-Burhan’s second coup in 2021. “There was a courageous nationwide social movement that pushed for a power-sharing arrangement between civilians and the military and security in 2019 and 2020,” Stigant said. But “the power was never shifted away from the military and the security elites, and we wanted to talk about [the transition] in the way that the Sudanese envisioned it and that I think many people hoped that it would go.”

Since last April, there have been some efforts to try and broker a ceasefire in Sudan, but none has held. And stopping the violence will be critical to restoring critical humanitarian aid to Sudan’s people and a democratic transition — something that the Sudanese have demonstrated for and demanded.

The African region is critically under-covered in the media, and the Sudan war has suffered that fate, but the conflict and humanitarian situation will only continue to spiral if the international community keeps ignoring it. –

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