June 4, 2023

Khartoum — One month since Sudan’s conflict erupted, its capital is a desolate war zone where terrorized families huddle in their homes as gun battles rage in the dusty, deserted streets outside. As people hope to dodge stray bullets, they also endure desperate shortages of food and basic supplies, power blackouts, communications outages and runaway inflation.

Khartoum, a city of five million on the Nile River, was long a place of relative stability and wealth, even under decades of sanctions against former strongman Omar al-Bashir. Now it has become a shell of its former self.

Charred aircraft lie on the airport tarmac, foreign embassies are shuttered and hospitals, banks, shops and wheat silos have been ransacked by looters.

Sudan’s warring generals break ceasefires

The fighting broke out on April 15 between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

While the generals fight, what remains of the government has retreated to Port Sudan about 500 miles away, the hub for mass evacuations of both Sudanese and foreign citizens.

Americans fleeing Sudan’s civil unrest sail across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia


The battles have killed more than 750 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Thousands more have been wounded and nearly a million displaced, with long refugee convoys headed to Egypt, Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan.

Multiple truce deals have been agreed and quickly violated, and hopes are dim for an end to the fighting which has piled more suffering on the 45 million people of one of the world’s poorest countries.

Both sides “break ceasefires with a regularity that demonstrates a sense of impunity unprecedented even by Sudan’s standards of civil conflict,” said Alex Rondos, the European Union’s former special representative to the Horn of Africa.

In their latest moves, Burhan declared that he was freezing the RSF’s assets, while Daglo threatened in an audio recording that the army chief would be “brought to justice and hanged” in a public square.

Sudan’s history of unrest

Sudan has a long history of military coups, but hopes had risen after mass pro-democracy protests led to the ouster of Islamist-backed Bashir in 2019, followed by a shaky transition toward civilian rule.

As Washington and other foreign powers lifted sanctions, Sudan was slowly reintegrating into the international community, before the generals derailed that transition with another coup in 2021.

Smoke rises in Khartoum, Sudan, May 3, 2023. Many people are fleeing the conflict in Sudan between the military and a rival paramilitary force.

Marwan Ali/AP

Despite all the bullets, aerial bombardments and anti-aircraft fire of recent weeks, neither side has been able to seize the battlefield advantage.

The army, backed by Egypt, has the advantage of air power while Daglo is, according to experts, supported by the United Arab Emirates and foreign fighters. He commands troops that stemmed from the notorious Janjaweed militia, accused of atrocities in the Darfur war that began two decades ago.

For now, “both sides believe that they can win militarily,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a recent Senate hearing.

“Sudan will be much poorer for much longer”

The fighting has deepened the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, where one in three people already relied on humanitarian assistance before the war.

Since then, aid agencies have been looted and at least 18 of their workers killed.

Across the Red Sea, in the Saudi city of Jeddah, envoys from both sides have been negotiating. By May 11 they had signed a commitment to respect humanitarian principles, including the protection of civilians and allowing in badly needed humanitarian aid.

More than 800,000 people could flee Sudan conflict, UN warns


But, “absent a significant change of mindset from the warring parties, it is hard to see that commitments on paper will be fulfilled,” said Aly Verjee, a Sudan researcher at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.

Sudan has had a long history of conflicts, especially in the western region of Darfur, where Bashir from 2003 unleashed the Janjaweed to quash a rebellion by non-Arab ethnic minorities.

The scorched-earth campaign killed up to 300,000 people and uprooted more than 2.7 million, the UN said.

According to the health ministry, the bulk of deaths during the current fighting have occurred in Darfur.

The ministry reported 199 fatalities in Khartoum, but said at least 450 people were killed by May 10 in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, and surrounding areas.

With hospitals gutted, “there are also reports of people dying from the injuries they sustained in the early days of fighting,” said Mohamed Osman of Human Rights Watch.

Doctors Without Borders said food shortages in Darfur displacement camps mean that “people have gone from three meals a day to just one”.

Verjee said the fighting across the country has destroyed workshops and factories and caused “the partial deindustrialization of Sudan.”

“This means that any future Sudan will be much poorer for much longer.”

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