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Sudan’s civil war triggers an ‘unimaginable’ humanitarian crisis

Analysis by Ishaan Tharoor

Women from the city of Al-Junina receive news about the death of their relatives, who they were waiting for in Chad on Tuesday. (El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters)

It’s not just Gaza where there is no cease-fire. A week of Saudi-brokered talks between Sudan’s warring parties ended Tuesday, yielding vague commitments to opening up deliveries of humanitarian aid — but no truce for a conflict that has raged in the heart of Africa since April. In the months thereafter, the two sides, Sudan’s military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), agreed to cease-fires that they summarily violated. Their battles garnered global attention for a few weeks as foreigners in the Sudanese capital Khartoum scrambled to get out, but the war ground to a brutal, bloody stalemate and receded from international attention.

Now, a new tipping point seems to have been reached, as my colleague Katharine Houreld reported. In recent weeks, the RSF and allied militias seized what appears to be de facto control of the western region of Darfur, driving their rivals out of a host of regional capitals and scattering their forces into the desert in what Houreld explained “is the most significant military breakthrough” by the RSF since the conflict began in April.

The gains of RSF have also come with a new wave of alleged mass killings. Houreld spoke to a number of eyewitnesses who described how the paramilitary group and its allies, predominantly ethnic Arab, carried out slaughters of non-Arabs after they seized the army headquarters in the West Darfur capital of Geneina. Representatives of international organizations documented reports of massacres of whole families, rape, sexual assault and widespread looting.

“Ahmed Sharif, 31, said Wednesday he had personally collected 102 bodies and laid tents over them after an attack over the weekend on Ardamata, a satellite settlement of Geneina that has an army base and a large camp for displaced families,” Houreld wrote. “The road to the border was strewn with dozens more bodies, he said, and leaders from the camp who had fled to Chad had collected the names of hundreds more people reported dead by family members and witnesses.”

Away from the killing fields, U.N. officials warned of a disaster of a vast scale taking place in Sudan. Some 4.5 million people — close to a tenth of the country’s overall population — have been internally displaced during the conflict. More than a million others have fled the country, with some half a million people, primarily from Darfur, sheltering in squalid camps in neighboring Chad.

In a statement released Sunday, Dominique Hyde, director of external relations for the U.N.’s refugee agency, warned that relief agencies are overwhelmed and struggling to deliver essential services to those in need. Malnutrition and disease stalk the land. In White Nile State, where Hyde visited along the border with South Sudan, more than 1,200 children under the age of 5 have died in a measles outbreak worsened by food shortages. Hyde added that water and sanitation conditions make the country “ripe for an outbreak of cholera.”

“What I saw was despair, was unimaginable humanitarian needs and fear in so many people’s eyes,” Hyde said during a news conference. “This is a war that erupted without warning and turned previously peaceful Sudanese homes into cemeteries.”

In a separate interview with Canada’s Globe and Mail, Hyde pointed to the resumption of a full-scale ethnic conflict in Darfur, which was ravaged two decades ago by pro-government armed groups that carried out what has now been recognized as genocidal crimes. They later became what’s now the RSF. “It’s shameful that the atrocities that were committed 20 years ago in Darfur can still be happening today with such little attention,” she said. “People are looking away. They’re forgetting Sudan.”

The global silence speaks volumes and has dire implications. “Sudan’s population is more than three times that of the combined number of people living in Israel and the Palestinian territories,” Vox’s Bryan Walsh noted. “When a crisis like this civil war comes to a country of this size, one where an estimated 35 percent of people are living on less than $2.15 a day, the humanitarian consequences are proportionately terrible.”

U.N. officials have pleaded for months with the international community to muster more aid for beleaguered Sudan. Those entreaties have fallen flat. A nearly billion-dollar humanitarian response plan, aiming to meet the needs of Sudan’s 5.2 million most vulnerable people, has only been 26 percent funded with less than eight weeks left in the year. Onlookers are urging Western governments to do more.

“With so many other global crises demanding the Biden administration’s and the world’s attention, it might be tempting to write off Sudan and Niger as hopeless cases, defying easy resolution,” a Washington Post editorial noted, referring also to the challenging state of affairs in West Africa’s poorest nation that is now in the grips of a coup-plotting junta. “That would be a mistake. Even a small change, the product of consistent sustained attention and diplomacy, could save lives.”

The political process, such as it is, has failed to stymie the conflict. The rival warlords — Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of Sudan’s military and RSF chief Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, universally known by his sobriquet Hemedti — appear entrenched in their strongholds and bent on consolidating what monopoly they can over the country’s resources. “The military controls most of the agricultural lands to the east, and the oil terminal in Port Sudan,” Houreld explained. “The RSF controls the gold fields of the west, and the porous desert borders leading to refugee camps in Chad and the arms bazaars of Libya and the Central African Republic.”

The military, too, is accused of carrying out indiscriminate violence, including its relentless bombing of areas of the capital Khartoum held by the RSF. All the while, the suffering of ordinary Sudanese civilians and refugees across the country’s borders is mounting.

“We need support, and we need it now,” Pierre Honnorat, the head of the World Food Program in Chad, told the BBC. “We do need to secure a meal a day to them all. They have nothing.” © 1996-2023 The Washington Post

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