Sudan marks grim anniversary of civil war in shadow of other conflicts

Author: Editors Desk, Analysis by Ishaan Tharoor Source: The Washington Post
April 15, 2024 at 03:02

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Sudanese refugees gather as teams from Doctors Without Borders assist the war-wounded from West Darfur, Sudan, in Adre hospital, Chad, in June. (Mohammad Ghannam/MSF/Reuters)


Exactly a year ago, Sudan’s ruinous collapse began. Tensions between two powerful rival factions that had already carved out fiefdoms in the country — the Sudanese Armed Forces, headed by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — exploded into open war. Airstrikes hit civilian centers; militiamen and vigilantes set up checkpoints and looted neighborhoods. The capital, Khartoum, transformed into a sprawling battlefield. The conflict flared elsewhere in the African nation of close to 50 million people, including the already war-ravaged region of Darfur. 

For a time, Sudan’s civil war attracted some global attention. President Biden and his European counterparts whirred into action to evacuate their embassies and hundreds of foreign citizens and dual nationals based mostly in Sudan’s big cities. International journalists met convoys of refugees in the Saudi port city of Jeddah to hear their desperate, harrowing journeys to escape the country.

The conflict marked a sad turn of events: A fledgling transition toward democracy in the years prior had won Sudan closer ties to a host of Western governments, and some relief from decades of U.S. sanctions. Even after Burhan and Dagalo, known universally by his sobriquet Hemedti, collaborated in interrupting that transition in 2021, ousting a civilian-led government, Sudan remained the subject of eager diplomacy. A U.S.-led initiative hoped to add Khartoum to the list of Arab capitals that could normalize relations with Israel.

But the war seems to have doomed all that. The Sudanese state has essentially collapsed in many parts of the country. In some areas, hospitals and health services barely function. Thousands of civilians have been killed, including in atrocities and massacres likely to be remembered as war crimes. Courageous civil rights groups are documenting myriad accounts of sexual violence and rape. Lackluster rounds of peace talks, convened in some instances by Arab governments that tacitly back one party or the other, have yielded failed cease-fires. And as destruction and death mounts, international awareness and interest in Sudan’s misery has waned.



RSF soldiers on a motorbike drive by a destroyed tank belonging to the defeated Sudanese Armed Forces, on a main street in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, Sudan, on February 20. (Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The Washington Post)



Twelve months on, the humanitarian situation in Sudan is astonishingly grim. The country is the site of the world’s largest displacement crisis, with more than a fifth of its population forced out of their homes by the civil war, as well as earlier rounds of conflict. Nearly a third of the population is acutely food insecure, according to U.N. data. Some 19 million children are out of school; an estimated 3 million Sudanese children are malnourished.

Humanitarian officials have been warning of hunger — and its attendant miseries, such as cholera and other diseases — gripping the country. “This is a huge, looming problem, and they are very close to famine,” Cindy McCain, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program, told my colleagues at the beginning of the month. “Kids are dying of starvation within Darfur and other parts of the country.”

International organizations complain that it’s logistically impossible to service much of the country. “Constraints to humanitarian access are severely impeding the delivery of life-saving assistance, and humanitarian funding needs have gone largely unmet,” noted a report by the International Rescue Committee. By February, food prices in Sudan had spiked by more than 110 percent since the war began. In ramshackle refugee camps in neighboring Chad and South Sudan, aid groups say a dearth of funding may see food distribution cease imminently.

The World Food Program says the “roots of the hunger problem are twofold: access and funding,” explained my colleagues Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi and Katharine Houreld. “Within Sudan, WFP trucks have been blocked, hijacked, attacked, looted and detained. Outside Sudan, makeshift camps are swollen with hungry and sick arrivals — but there’s no money to feed them.”

On Monday, international governments, humanitarians and donors will convene in Paris for a conference aimed at raising funds for Sudan. They meet at a time when a paltry 5 percent of the humanitarian requests put out for Sudan by U.N. agencies have been met. There’s no question that the wars in Ukraine and Gaza — exacerbated furthermore by the recent escalation between Israel and Iran — have put Sudan’s tragedy in the shade.

“As communities barrel toward famine, as cholera and measles spread, as violence continues to claim countless lives, the world has largely remained silent,” said U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, last week. That must change now, she added. “The international community must give more. It must do more, and it has to care more.”

“For one year, the people of Sudan have been neglected and ignored as they bore the brunt of violent clashes” between the warring parties, said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southern Africa, in a statement. “Diplomatic efforts have so far failed to end violations, protect civilians, provide sufficient humanitarian aid, or hold the perpetrators of war crimes to account.”


Women prepare a meager meal on Feb. 18 in the yard of a former primary school, one of the numerous sites where thousands displaced by the war are seeking shelter in Sirba, a town north of El Geneina. (Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The Washington Post)


Yet the warring parties are as likely to sharpen their hatchets as they are to bury them. The country is roughly split now between west and east, with the RSF ascendant in the former and Burhan and his allies better entrenched in the latter. In its Sudan briefing, the International Crisis Group, a think tank, urged countries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to use more of their leverage to bring the feuding factions to heel, open up access for humanitarian relief and place Sudan back on a path to stability.

“The alternative is grim to contemplate, as the country teeters on the brink of chaos, mass starvation and a war that could spread across its borders to a troubled region,” noted the Crisis Group. “Time is of the essence – particularly since the parties are inveigling new warlords to join the fight with promises that they will share in victory’s eventual spoils, which promises to make negotiations to end the war that much more difficult.”


Ishaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post, where he authors the Today's WorldView newsletter and column. In 2021, he won the Arthur Ross Media Award in Commentary from the American Academy of Diplomacy. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Twitter

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