by Chris Stein * – OtherNews, The Guardian US
The eruption of gunfire in Sudan’s capital on 15 April was not a complete surprise to Mohamed Eisa, a gastroenterologist living in Pittsburgh who had returned to Sudan to bury his father. He had seen pickup trucks full of armed men circling the streets of Khartoum, and was aware of the rivalry between the country’s military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group.
As open warfare erupted that Saturday, Eisa expected the combat would be brief. Africa’s third-largest country lies on the strategic Red Sea and shares borders with a number of states important to western powers like the United States and their allies in the Gulf and Europe – all players whom he expected to end the clash between the armed groups.
“That’s why I thought this is going to be contained very quickly, sort of diplomatically, [by] Sudan’s allies or from the big players in the region or the big players internationally, the United States or the European Union,” Eisa recalled.
Instead, the opposite occurred. The conflict between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) has now raged for eight months with no end in sight, killing thousands of people and creating what the United Nations says is the world’s largest human displacement crisis.
Beyond trapping civilians and destroying infrastructure in a country that already struggles with high rates of poverty, international observers have accused both sides of committing war crimes. Evidence is also emerging that the RSF and their allies have massacred members of an African ethnic group in west Darfur, potentially repeating the genocide that took place there two decades ago.
For the Sudanese diaspora, the conflict between the two military factions is the latest depressing turn of events for a country that just a few years ago seemed on the path to shaking off decades of dictatorship. In 2019, the despotic president Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by security forces after months of street protests, but those same forces staged a coup in 2021 that ended the transition to a democratic, civilian-led government, and intensified the issues that brought the RSF and SAF to war in April of this year.
The United States has one of the largest populations of Sudanese in the west, numbering around 51,000 people, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The UK Office for National Statistics estimates 35,000 people born in Sudan are living in Britain.
“No one was expecting this. No one was prepared for it,” said Ibrahim Babiker, a Virginia-based activist with Girifna, a pro-democracy group whose volunteers have shifted to getting food and medical supplies to cut-off areas of Khartoum and elsewhere in the country.
Seven million people have fled their homes due to the fighting that began in April, according to the United Nations, and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a Wisconsin-based crisis-mapping group, estimates 12,190 people have been killed. Even this is likely an undercount since many of the areas where fighting is happening are inaccessible to independent observers. Earlier this month, the World Food Programme warned war-wracked areas could face “catastrophic hunger” by next May unless more food assistance gets in.
Sudan has dealt with civil wars practically since independence in 1956, which led to its southern half splitting off to form South Sudan. But this war is unique in that one of its main battlegrounds is Khartoum, the capital and heart of a state that is home to an estimated 9.4 million people. The months of fighting have left bodies strewn in its streets, destroyed densely populated neighborhoods, damaged a crucial bridge over the Nile River and gutted the skyline, including a prominent oil company headquarters and the justice ministry.
“I think this is what people have not realized, that this is not business as usual, you’re not going to be delivering assistance as you did it before, or, fundamentally, the country is being broken,” said Bashair Ahmed, the CEO of Shabaka, a UK-based research organization that, after the start of the conflict, founded the Sudan Crisis Coordination Unit to act as a clearinghouse for information about the situation on the ground.
Many of those displaced from Khartoum went to Sudan’s second city Wad Madani, and are now fleeing again after the RSF stormed it a few days ago. Clashes have also resumed in El Fasher, the last major city in Darfur still under army control.
After fleeing Khartoum by road and then taking a boat to Saudi Arabia, Eisa returned to the US, where he is the secretary general of the Sudanese American Physicians Association. With Sudan’s healthcare system barely able to cope with the war’s impacts, the association is now focused on providing supplies and money to clinics and hospitals caught up in the war or overwhelmed by displaced people.
Six months after the fighting began in Sudan, Israel and Hamas went to war in the Gaza Strip. Eisa said this event caused an “overnight” drop-off in the response to his country’s conflict from donors and non-governmental organizations.
Both diaspora and international humanitarian groups acknowledge Sudan’s needs are competing with the crises in Gaza and Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion will soon enter its third year.
The United Nations said it had received from donors only 39% of the $2.6bn it needs to respond to Sudan’s crisis, with about half of that money coming from the US. Among western countries, Washington is viewed as taking the lead in trying to mediate between the warring sides, although negotiations are reportedly deadlocked.
In August, the UK’s Africa minister, Andrew Mitchell, said evidence suggested “serious atrocities” are being committed against civilians in the country, especially in Darfur, and this month, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said both warring parties have committed “war crimes”, while the RSF and its allies “have committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing”.
Washington has sanctioned RSF commanders and former Bashir officials for their role in the conflict, and the US vice-president Kamala Harris recently discussed the war with United Arab Emirates president Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. News outlets have reported that the UAE is sending the RSF weapons and treating its fighters at an airbase in Chad, near the border with Sudan.
The White House is in a protracted negotiation with Congress over approving military aid for both Israel and Ukraine, but despite Sudan’s unraveling over the past eight months, Joe Biden has not appointed a special envoy to the country, as his predecessors did.
Cameron Hudson, who served as chief of staff to several former envoys and is now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said such an appointee could articulate the administration’s response to the crisis, rally US allies and fill the void created when the American embassy in Khartoum evacuated after the fighting began.
He also said Blinken missed an opportunity by using a press release to declare that atrocities were happening, rather than an in-person speech. Hudson contrasted it with the former secretary of state Colin Powell’s 2004 appearance before a US Senate committee to announce “that genocide has been committed in Darfur”, which was crucial to highlighting that conflict’s severity.
“For somebody who’s been watching this issue for 20 years myself, every step of the way seems like a kind of downgrade,” Hudson said. “I reject the notion that Gaza or Ukraine are just too much for this administration to handle because previous administrations have been able to handle major geopolitical shifts and even wars that America was involved in and have enough bandwidth to care about what’s happening in this country. So, I don’t fully understand why today is particularly different from 15 or 20 years ago, but it is in every single measure that you could look at.”
Last week, the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the House and Senate committees handling foreign affairs proposed resolutions calling on the Biden administration to appoint a special envoy to Sudan, sanction the warring parties and investigate atrocities.
“Despite global focus on crises in Europe and the Middle East, the dire situation in Sudan – characterized by extreme suffering, widespread destruction, and horrendous crimes – must not be overlooked,” said Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee.
In testimony before the House foreign affairs committee earlier in December, Molly Phee, the state department’s top diplomat for Africa, said appointing a special envoy was “under active and serious consideration by the administration” but did not say when it might happen.
Ahmed said Sudanese people trapped in the country by fighting are aware of the ebbing international attention, recalling a conversation with a displaced person who had fled Khartoum.
“Her son was saying to her, why is everyone focusing on Ukraine or other contexts? Why are they forgetting about us?” Ahmed said. “And no one wants to help us, even though they’re under shelling. Everything they owned, everything they had, that’s been lost, essentially. And everyone has to start from zero.”
To learn more, read our Sudan conflict factsheet
Cover image: A huge fire in one of the ancient markets in Sudan (Amdurman market) likely due to the war between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces ©Abd_Almohimen_Sayed/Shutterstock.com
* Chris Stein is the US politics live blogger for Guardian US, based in Washington