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Sudan’s war has no end in sight, as atrocities and abuses mount

Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan visits the Flamingo Marine Base in Port Sudan on Aug. 28. [AFP | Getty Images]

There’s little end in sight for Sudan’s hideous civil war. Since mid-April, Sudanese troops loyal to the country’s top military officer, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, have locked horns with the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary faction that once operated in close coordination with the army. Their battles mark an old-school clash between rival warlords, squabbling for turf and power. And they have devastated the nation of 46 million people — leading to thousands of civilian deaths, displacing roughly a tenth of the country’s populationand leaving millions hungry and bereft of medical care.

On Tuesday, Burhan made a one-day visit to Egypt where he met President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi. A vague statement from the Egyptian government, which is closely allied to Burhan, expressed concern for and interest in “the sovereignty, integrity of Sudanese State.” The Sudanese commander’s trip was his first outside of the country since the war erupted, and he’s expected to make a stop next in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

Burhan’s forces and the RSF have agreed and summarily broken at least nine cease fires, and a lasting truce does not seem on offer, at least for now. On Sunday, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a former ally of Burhan who goes by the sobriquet Hemedti, floated a 10-point program for peace that would end hostilities and see their fighters integrated into a single entity. The proposal flew in the face of the grim realities on the ground and the depth of enmity between the warring factions. Burhan rejected it almost immediately.

“We ask the world to take an objective and correct view of this war,” he said while in Egypt. “This war was started by a group that wanted to take over power, and in the process it has committed every crime that could come to mind.” The previous day, Burhan told a gathering of Sudanese soldiers that there was “no time for discussion now” and branded the RSF as “mercenaries” who were guilty of “treason.”

Rights groups say both sides, as well as affiliated proxy militias, are guilty of carrying out hideous war crimes, as well as wanton looting. The RSF can trace its origins to the notorious Janjaweed paramilitary organization accused of genocidal atrocities two decades prior in campaigns against ethnic non-Arabs in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Since April, the faction and its allies seemed to have reprised their history of violence across the conflict’s main battlefields, from Darfur to the capital Khartoum and its environs.

The RSF is accused of carrying out multiple massacres of civilians, as well as the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war. Civil society activists have already verified dozens of incidents of horrific sexual assaults and gang rapes, and fear the real number for such attacks is far larger than what has been documented up until now. “It is brutal, and it is all about humiliation and degrading human dignity,” Sulima Ishaq, who heads the nation’s Combating Violence against Women and Children unit, told the Guardian. “Sometimes it is a part of their strategy. To make people evacuate their houses, they threaten sexual violence against the women.”

The Sudanese military is also implicated in myriad atrocities, including indiscriminate shelling and attacks on population centers. Clashes between the army and the RSF in the South Darfur city of Nyala in recent days has caught many civilians in the crossfire, with at least 39 people killed in just one day last week. The ferocity and scale of the violence have drawn comparisons to Somalia, which collapsed amid bitter internecine strife in the 1990s.

“Leadership on both sides see this as fighting for their lives. … That has made the job of diplomacy so much harder,” Murithi Mutiga, Africa head of the International Crisis Group, told my colleagues earlier this summer. “The risk of state collapse is particularly high and there is also a risk of jihadi infiltration — another parallel with Somalia.”

All the while, the conditions on the ground grow worse. Some 20 million Sudanese people face acute food insecurity. Around 14 million children lack access to basic services, including education and medical care like vaccinations. Eighty percent of Sudan’s health facilities are out of service, due to a lack of supplies, electricity or both. Hospitals themselves have been targeted by the warring parties. The imminent arrival of the rainy season has onlookers concerned about the country’s ability to cope with widespread flooding and the spread of waterborne disease.

“It’s going to be a complete disaster,” Yasir Elamin, president of the Sudanese American Physicians’ Association, which does relief and medical work in Sudan, told me. “You’re going to have children dying of malaria and diarrheal diseases.”

The international community has struggled to forge a lasting truce between Burhan and Hemedti. The two sides count various regional powers as tacit supporters — with the United Arab Emirates most conspicuously linked to the RSF — and the tangle of geopolitics has further ensnared a country long troubled by ethnic divisions, insurgencies and heavy-handed army rule.

After the ouster of long-ruling dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Burhan and Hemedti worked together to scupper a civilian-led democratic transition, carrying out a de facto coup in 2021. Their move at the time was largely tolerated by outside powers, including the United States, which focused more on the prospect of the leadership in Khartoum — no matter their anti-democratic bona fides — finding some sort of political accommodation with Israel as part of the broader Abraham Accords initiative.

“I think that played a negative role here,” Elamin said. “Because Burhan and Hemedti both viewed Israel the same way they viewed the UAE and Egypt — it’s just another country that’s going to help us get U.S. support.”

Now, talk of Sudan’s own foreign policy is moot as the country caves in on itself. Elamin, a Texas-based oncologist who mobilized his organization as part of a broader flourishing of Sudanese civil society in the diaspora and at home, argued that the short-lived, civilian-backed government failed at being truly inclusive, struggled under acute economic pressures and left open the door for the army men to subvert the country’s path to democracy.

“We thought that we were going to have a different fate when compared to Egypt, to Syria, to Libya,” Elamin told me, referring to hopes in Khartoum after the fall of Bashir and the ways that other pro-democracy uprisings in Arab states failed. “We felt that we owned the world. We were so foolish. We were so naive.”


(c) 2023, Washington Post


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