top of page

Genocidal civil war pushes Sudan toward the Abyss


A War on the Nile Pushes Sudan Toward the Abyss

The New York Times

June 5, 2024

Photographs by Ivor Prickett


Declan Walsh and Ivor Prickett spent three weeks traveling in Sudan, which has been closed to most foreign journalists since the war began.


The gold market is a graveyard of rubble and dog-eaten corpses. The state TV station became a torture chamber. The national film archive was blown open in battle, its treasures now yellowing in the sun.


Artillery shells soar over the Nile, smashing into hospitals and houses. Residents bury their dead outside their front doors. Others march in formation, joining civilian militias. In a hushed famine ward, starving babies fight for life. Every few days, one of them dies.


Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and one of the largest cities in Africa, has been reduced to a charred battleground. A feud between two generals fighting for power has dragged the country into civil war and turned the city into ground zero for one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.


As many as 150,000 people have died since the conflict erupted last year, by American estimates. Another nine million have been forced from their homes, making Sudan home to the largest displacement crisis on earth, the United Nations says. A famine looms that officials warn could kill hundreds of thousands of children in the coming months and, if unchecked, rival the great Ethiopian famine of the 1980s.


Fueling the chaos, Sudan has become a playground for foreign players like the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Russia and its Wagner mercenaries, and even a few Ukrainian special forces. They are all part of a volatile stew of outside interests pouring weapons or fighters into the conflict and hoping to grab the spoils of war — Sudan’s gold, for instance, or its perch on the Red Sea.

Members of a Sudanese special forces unit posing for a photo during a military demonstration.

 


Mahmoud Ismail, 39, a soldier with the Sudanese military, having his bandage changed by a doctor at the Bawarith military hospital in Port Sudan.

 


Skeletal remains, apparently of a Rapid Support Forces fighter, on a street in central Omdurman. The city was recaptured by the Sudanese military during fierce fighting in February.


The greatest tragedy is that none of it was necessary, said Samawal Ahmed, as he picked his way through the remnants of a famous market, past looted jewelry stores and a mangled tank. A year ago, in the first weeks of the war, a rocket smashed into his apartment, and the medical lab where he worked closed down for good. Now he was back, to salvage what he could.


“I lost everything,” he said, holding a batch of documents pulled from the wreckage of his home: his children’s school certificates, his professional qualifications, and a passport. Across the street, the withered remains of three fighters, reduced to bones, were splayed among the debris.


“It makes my stomach churn,” Mr. Ahmed said. “All this could have been avoided.”


The war erupted without warning in April 2023, when a standoff between Sudan’s military and a powerful paramilitary group it helped create — the Rapid Support Forces — burst into gunfire on the streets of Khartoum.


Few Sudanese expected it would last long. Since independence in 1956, their country has experienced more coups than any other in Africa, most short-lived and bloodless. The rivals this time — the national army and the paramilitary force that once did its bidding — had seized power together in 2021, but fell out over how to merge their armies.

 

Once a Proud Capital, Now a Battle Zone


The map locates the tri-city area of greater Khartoum in Sudan, which includes Khartoum to the south, Bahri, or Khartoum North to the north, and the city of Omdurman to the west. Khartoum and Bahri are mostly controlled by the Rapid Support Forces, or R.S.F., and the Sudan military controls the northern and central parts of Omdurman, while large areas of west and south Omdurman are still held by the R.S.F.

 


Almost immediately, the fighting ripped across Khartoum and far beyond, in pulsing waves that quickly consumed Africa’s third-largest country. Sudanese have been stunned by the destruction, but neither side looks capable of victory, and the war is metastasizing into a devastating free-for-all.


Another genocide now threatens Darfur, the region that became synonymous with war crimes two decades ago. Fields have become battlegrounds in the country’s breadbasket. The health system is crumbling. And a plethora of armed groups, including hard-line Islamists, foreign mercenaries and even former pro-democracy protesters, has piled into the fight.


With American-led peace talks stalled, the Sudanese state is collapsing and threatening to drag down a fragile region with it. Experts say it is a matter of time before one of Sudan’s many neighbors, like Chad, Eritrea or South Sudan, gets sucked in.


Though often overshadowed by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the conflict in Sudan has global ramifications. Iran, already allied with the Houthis in Yemen, is now backing military forces on both sides of the Red Sea. Europeans fear a wave of Sudanese migrants heading for their shores. A recent U.S. intelligence assessment warned that a lawless Sudan could become a haven for “terrorist and criminal networks.”

Khartoum’s famous gold and silver market is looted and in ruins.



UNICEF pitches tents for clinic for some of the nine million internally displaced persons in Sudan.



Wrecked armored personnel carriers line the streets


As we approached the capital, artillery boomed, a warplane swept overhead and, across the Nile, an oily plume of smoke rose from Sudan’s largest refinery — the latest flashpoint in a sprawling urban battle. With the city in tumult, we slept in an abandoned house, where a neighbor told of how a bomb killed his sister in their kitchen.


It was just one corner of a country three times larger than France. Yet it was possible to see, up close, the immense damage to a capital once considered a jewel on the Nile — and how, if unchecked, it could still get much worse.


The River


Gunfire and mortars splashed into the waters around Col. Osman Taha, a badly wounded officer in the Sudanese military, as he crossed the Nile on a moonless night last November. Around him, he recalled, other wounded soldiers huddled in the boat, hoping to avoid being hit again. Several died.


Colonel Taha made it to the far bank, and five days later his right leg was amputated. Even then, there was no respite. As he recovered in a military hospital overlooking the Nile, he said, shells slammed into its walls, fired by the Rapid Support Forces across the river. Patients moved their beds to avoid being hit as artillery fell.


“It was hell." Col. Osman Taha, a wounded officer in the Sudanese military.

 

Violence in Sudan

Fighting between two military factions has thrown Sudan into chaos, with plans for a transition to a civilian-led democracy now in shambles.


The Nile has long defined Khartoum. Its tributaries merge in the city center before pushing north through the desert into Egypt. Now, the great river divides Khartoum militarily as well, yet another front line in a splintered capital.


Snipers nestle in the riverbank beneath a giant bridge, blown up in fighting, that slumps into the river. Drones swoop over the water, hunting for targets. And an island in the center of the Nile, where people once picnicked and swam, has become a kind of open-air prison controlled by the R.S.F., residents say.


“Watch your step,” said Dr. Manahil Mohamed as she led us up a sandbag-lined staircase to the fourth floor of the Aliaa Specialist Hospital, overlooking the Nile, where a line of blown-out windows offered a stark panorama.

Medics and soldiers outside the Aliaa Specialist Hospital, which was repeatedly bombed by Rapid Support Forces.



Doctors and nurses working at the hospital during a blackout.



Downtown Khartoum, the scene of heavy fighting since the war started, was visible across the Nile from the hospital.


On the deserted street below, burned-out vehicles clustered around the Parliament building. In the distance stood the skeletal skyline of downtown Khartoum: government ministries, luxury hotels and mirrored high-rises that poked over the city’s poverty, many built during Sudan’s oil boom of the 1990s, now pocked by shelling or gutted by fire. Among them stood the old Republican Palace where followers of the Mahdi, a cleric, toppled and beheaded the country’s British governor-general, Charles Gordon, in 1885. It, too, has gone up in smoke.


In many ways, the destruction in Khartoum is a bitter historical reckoning. For over half a century, Sudan’s military waged ugly wars in the nation’s distant peripheries, quelling rebellions by deploying ruthless militias. Khartoum was left untouched, its residents insulated from the consequences of wars fought in their name.


Now, the army’s most powerful creation — the Rapid Support Forces, a successor to the infamous Janjaweed militias that terrorized Darfur in the 2000s — has turned against the military and brought its trademark havoc to the capital.


Half of Khartoum state’s nine million residents have fled, the United Nations estimates. Its international airport is closed, bullet-pocked jets abandoned on the runway. Nearly all of the city’s 1,060 bank branches have been robbed, officials say, and many thousands of cars stolen — some later located as far away as Niger,


1,500 miles west — in a campaign of street-by-street looting, most but not all, by the Rapid Support Forces.

“A city of this size, this wealth, and nothing remains?” Mohamed Eldaw, a banker, said. “It must be the biggest episode of looting in history.”


At the Aliaa hospital, a triple thud of outgoing artillery shattered the calm. Warning of snipers, Dr. Mohamed urged us back inside.


For months, shells rained on the hospital, which mostly treated soldiers, often punching through its walls, she said. With no electricity, surgeons performed operations by the light of mobile phones.


Relief came in February when the military, armed with powerful new Iranian drones, recaptured this part of the city. (By contrast, the R.S.F. uses drones supplied by the United Arab Emirates).


The military’s advance allowed hundreds of wounded troops to be evacuated by air to Port Sudan, where they lie in the crowded wards of a military hospital. One man had extensive facial injuries from a drone strike. Amputations were common.


Sudanese army soldiers recuperating in a ward of the Bawarith military hospital.



Cpl. Issa Musa, 37, who was seriously injured in a drone strike in January, at the hospital.



Sgt. Sayeed Ali Hassan’s son praying while visiting him at the hospital. His father was wounded by mortar fire in 2023.


The evacuees included Colonel Taha, who sat up in his bed to show a series of videos that he took during his last battle. Jubilant soldiers can be seen whooping and hugging, thinking they have won. Bleeding R.S.F. fighters lie in the dust, and are kicked or taunted by the soldiers. The camera flips to show Colonel Taha himself, sweating heavily, his eyes glazed from battle.


But the soldiers had missed one R.S.F. fighter, a sniper hidden in a residential block, and he shot Colonel Taha in the leg. Later that night, he said, medics moved him to an ammunition factory beside the Nile, where they embarked on their perilous crossing.


He was pessimistic the war would end anytime soon.


“Guns can’t solve this problem,” he said. “We need to talk peace.”


The Famine Ward


To Amna Amin, war means hunger.


After Rapid Support Forces fighters swept into her part of Omdurman, one of the three cities that make up greater Khartoum, Ms. Amin, 36, had no way to feed her five children.


Her husband, a gold miner in the distant north, had vanished. She lost her job as a cleaner. Neighbors shared what they could, but it wasn’t enough. And soon she had two more mouths to feed: Iman and Ayman, twins born in September.


Within months, the twins started losing weight and suffering diarrhea, classic signs of malnutrition. Panicking, Ms. Amin bundled her children in her arms and made a desperate dash across the front line, traveling by donkey cart and minibus to reach Al Buluk children’s hospital, the last place they might be saved.


The United Nations has yet to officially declare a famine in Sudan, but few experts doubt that one is already underway in parts of Darfur and, shockingly, Khartoum, one of the largest capitals in Africa.


More than 220,000 children could die in the coming months alone, the U.N. says. And both sides use hunger as a weapon of war, aid officials say. The army withholds visas, travel permits and permission to cross the front lines. Rapid Support Force fighters have looted aid trucks and warehouses and raised their own obstacles.


“One of the most horrific situations on Earth is on a trajectory to get far, far worse,” said Tom Perriello, the United States envoy for Sudan.

 

Children in a famine recovery ward.




Pediatric out-patient unit at one of few functioning hospitals left in Khartoum.


The hospitals still functioning are strained to the point of collapse. Every day hundreds of new patients arrive at Al Nau hospital, near the frontline in Omdurman. Many sleep two to a bed.


Patients spoke of pinballing from one neighborhood to another as the front line shifts, running a gauntlet of checkpoints defended by fighters who demand money, steal phones and sometimes open fire.


Huda Adil, 30, was paralyzed from the waist down after R.S.F. fighters shot up the bus she was traveling in. (Three passengers died, she said).


Amouna Elhadi sat over her son, Hassan, a 14-year-old shot in the stomach by the mustanfareen, as new youth groups fighting alongside Sudan’s military have become known.


“All his stomach fell out.” Amouna Elhadi, mother of Hassan, 14.


Mujahid Abdulaziz, however, was smiling.


For 10 weeks, he had been trying to get a bullet removed from his leg. An R.S.F. fighter shot him at a checkpoint after a drone strike on a nearby fuel station killed several other fighters. “The guy was angry,” Mr. Abdulaziz said.


For Mr. Abdulaziz, a 20-year-old engineering student, it was just the start of a torturous search for help.

One hospital patched up his wound, but couldn’t extract the bullet. A second hospital couldn’t, either. He crossed the Nile three times, circling the capital in buses that passed through deserts and around a mountain. Finally, after a journey of 100 miles that should have been 10, he reached Al Nau hospital, where doctors pulled out the bullet, at last.


Not long ago, Mr. Abdulaziz believed he was part of an exciting future. He participated in the euphoric mass protests in 2019 that helped topple President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s autocratic ruler of three decades, a moment of triumph for the country. Two years later, he returned to the streets, defiantly flinging stones at riot police officers following the military coup that set back hopes for civilian rule.


Some protesters now run soup kitchens that provide much of the limited aid available in Khartoum.


But Mr. Abdulaziz just felt defeated. Before the war, “we were just dreaming,” he said. “Those hopes are gone.”


Clinging to Hope


Mudassir Ibrahim, 50, lifted his shirt to show welts across his back — evidence, he said, of a week spent in R.S.F. detention inside the headquarters of Sudan’s national radio and television station. His captors beat him with iron rods and electrical cables, he said: “It felt like death a thousand times over.”


At the television station in Omdurman, we saw evidence to back his claims. Ropes and other restraints hung from barred rooms in the finance department. Piles of dry excrement were scattered on the floor. Filthy walls were scrawled with names, pleas and snatches of poetry.


“The treachery of your tears is no use to fight injustice,” read one.

“Friends forever” read another, under a list of six names.

 

The smoke is rising from territory controlled by the Rapid Support Forces in Khartoum, across the Nile.



The Sudanese military trying to open a makeshift detention cell in Omdurman after driving the R.S.F. out of the area.



Graffiti covered the wall of a room used by R.S.F. forces at the broadcasting headquarters.


Most of the compound stood in ruins. Its main building had been incinerated by airstrikes, while a film archive dating back to the 1940s, one of the largest in Africa, had been blown open by gunfire. The R.S.F. had retreated across the river, soldiers said, but some left behind their own wartime wisdom.


“As long as death is certain,” read a line scrawled on one wall, “don’t live like a coward.” (The R.S.F. did not respond to the allegations of torture and other abuses by its fighters).


As the fighting raged, some Omdurman residents refused to leave. “We were born here, we grew up here, and we will die here,” said Edward Fahmy, 73, sitting in his courtyard of his modest home in the old city, where pictures of Jesus hung on every wall.


Mr. Fahmy and his cousin, Janette Naeim, 50, stayed put even as bombs rained down. Ms. Naeim was hit by a stray bullet as she went to fetch water. When two relatives died, they buried them outside their front door, they said, showing a pair of freshly dug mounds.


Both Orthodox Christians, they are testament to the enduring religious and ethnic diversity of a country whose image was often obscured by three decades of harsh Islamist rule. The war risks washing away that richness as well.


Imago Dei. Marmina Coptic Orthodox Church


At the Marmina Coptic Orthodox church, shafts of dusty light shone through holes in a rooftop fresco of Jesus, punctured in the fighting. The bishop fled after R.S.F. fighters smashed into his home, firing guns and shouting “Where are the dollars?” said Andrews Hanna, a local businessman.


When Mr. Hanna turned up, an hour later, the floor was smeared with the blood of a priest who had shielded the bishop from rifle blows, he said. Then Mr. Hanna’s factory was raided by fighters who carted away 8,000 motorbikes and rickshaws, he said. Weeks later, his family fled.


Families ate from a communal kitchen and fetched water from the Nile, he said, showing us around a mosque, a well-stocked pharmacy and apartments. His followers helped bury the dead, and at night they performed zikir, a devotional dance that is an expression of Sufi spirituality. “It soothed our souls,” he said.


Sheikh Elamin and follower


A soup kitchen still offered meals. Sheikh Elamin, a towering man in flowing green robes, said he paid for it all from his own pocket. Beyond running a Sufi Muslim order with branches in London, New York and Dubai, he was also a businessman who owned a gold mine and a meat export business, he said.


Before the war, the sheikh was sometimes criticized for his lavish choices, like chartering a private jet to attend the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. But his charity now has brought praise.


“In this time of war, he’s become the most popular figure in the country — period,” said Suliman Baldo, a veteran Sudan analyst. “People need something positive to hold onto.”


Nearby, we passed a giant mural with the word “Freedom,” leftover from the protests of 2019 and pocked by gunfire. Down the street, men huddled over a pot of bubbling lentils as they prepared to return to their shattered homes — a cautious gesture of hope as the war dragged on.

Returning residents wait for food.


“We will have a beautiful future, God willing,” said Mahmoud Mustafa, a rickshaw driver clutching a plastic food bowl.


He didn’t even flinch when another artillery barrage rang out, sending more shells across the Nile.


The Militias


Hundreds of black-clad young women, turning in perfect unison, marched through a schoolyard in Omdurman early one morning, the latest recruits in a rapidly expanding conflict.


The war started as a dispute between two men — Sudan’s army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces leader, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan. But since last fall, when a succession of R.S.F. victories set off widespread alarm, a proliferation of armed groups has joined the fight, mostly backing the military. There are rebels from Darfur, ethnic militias, Islamists once loyal to former President Bashir, and thousands of young people, women as well as men, recruited from the streets.


Even idealistic young Sudanese who once risked their lives to protest against Mr. Bashir and, later, the military, have joined in.


Young boys cheering on a Sudanese special forces unit on the edge of Omdurman.



Cleaning up a textile shop in the Souk Omdurman district, which was badly damaged in fighting in February.

 

Whether the militias will decide the war, or cause it to spin entirely out of control, is unclear. Sudan’s military tumbled into the war because it outsourced its fighting to a powerful group, the Rapid Support Forces, that ultimately turned against it.


Now, critics say, the military is in danger of repeating that mistake by empowering more militias.


Even some military leaders are worried. In March, a member of the military high command, Lt. Gen. Shams al-Din al-Kabbashi, warned that, unless the militias were kept in check, “the next danger will come from” them.

Days later he was rebuked by another commander, Lt. Gen. Yasser al-Atta, who said the army “blessed” the popular militias.


“Any mistakes can be corrected as we move forward,” he said.


The Weapons Store


Wooden crates lay scattered across the weapons depot we sifted through next to an abandoned R.S.F. base.


Any identifying marks — serial numbers or other clues that showed who had supplied the weapons — had been carefully scraped off. The foreign powers fueling Sudan’s war seemed to be covering their tracks.

Yet traces remain.


American officials have grown increasingly critical of the United Arab Emirates, the war’s biggest foreign sponsor. It has extensive gold and agricultural interests in Sudan, and before the war signed a deal to build a $6 billion port on the Red Sea. Since last year, it has smuggled weapons to the R.S.F. through a base in Chad, in breach of a U.N. arms embargo, The Times reported.


Egypt, by contrast, has backed Sudan’s military. But it is the army’s recent turn to Iran for drones and other weapons that has caused alarm in Washington, several Western officials said.


Sudanese military personnel standing guard in the basement of a building used as an arms depot by the R.S.F. in Omdurman.

 


Waiting for help in the malnutrition unit at Al Buluk Children’s Hospital in Omdurman.

 


Countless homes were looted in areas controlled by the Rapid Support Forces.


Russia seems to have helped both sides.


Earlier in the war, Wagner mercenaries supplied the R.S.F. with antiaircraft missiles, U.N. investigators say. Russians later traveled to Khartoum, where they trained fighters to shoot down Sudanese military warplanes, said two senior Sudanese officials who provided the Russians’ names and details of their movements.


Today, nearly two dozen Wagner operatives remain in the capital, mostly Libyan and Syrian recruits, flying drones and firing mortars for the R.S.F., the Sudanese said.


The Russian presence even spurred Ukraine to deploy a small team of special forces to counter its nemesis abroad by helping the Sudanese military in Khartoum.


But Russia’s posture may have changed since the death of Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin.


Following a visit to Port Sudan by Russia’s Middle East envoy in April, a top Sudanese general said recently that Sudan was prepared to allow Russian naval access to its ports, a longstanding desire for Moscow, in exchange for arms and ammunition.


The foreign meddling is frustrating American- and Saudi-led diplomacy to reach a cease-fire, though critics say even those efforts to save Sudan have been shamefully weak. The country, they warn, is barreling into a protracted conflict that could lead to anarchy or rival fiefs, like Somalia in the 1990s or Libya after 2011.


The war could easily spill beyond Sudan’s borders. It is already causing tensions inside the security services of Chad, and has cut off vital oil revenues for South Sudan. Now it risks sucking in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country.


Sudanese officials accuse Ethiopia of backing the R.S.F. Meanwhile, Eritrea, Ethiopia’s traditional enemy, has sided with Sudan’s military. And thousands of rebels from Ethiopia’s restive Tigray region are stationed at a camp in eastern Sudan, officials and aid groups said — part of a combustible mix that threatens to open a new front in the war.


Some Sudanese in exile desperately want the outside world to intervene. But so far, they say, it’s only made things worse.


“It’s sheer madness,” said Ibrahim Elbadawi, a former economy minister now in Cairo, calling for a U.N. peacekeeping force to save his country from collapse.


“The people of Sudan demand it,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

 

 

Declan Walsh is the chief Africa correspondent for The Times based in Nairobi, Kenya. He previously reported from Cairo, covering the Middle East, and Islamabad, Pakistan. More about Declan Walsh

Ivor Prickett is a photographer based in Istanbul. He covered the rise and fall of ISIS in Iraq and Syria while on assignment for The Times. More recently he has been working on stories related to the war in Ukraine. More about Ivor Prickett


Copyright 2024 The New York Times Company


Recent Posts

See All

Comments


Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
bottom of page