Sudan: International community must act now to stop the war

May 4, 2023
Hoyam Abbas
Inset: Hoyam Abbas. Background photo:

Fighting broke out in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, between the Sudanese Armed Forces and a powerful paramilitary faction, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), on April 15. Clashes quickly spread across the country.

As at the time of writing, more than 550 people have been killed, more than 4000 injured and more than 100,000 displaced.

I spoke with Hoyam Abbas from the United Sudanese Revolutionary Forces Abroad on April 29 about the crisis in Sudan.

Abbas explained that the war has its origins in the fact that the previous Islamist regime under the dictator Omar al Bashir created the militias that are now fighting the military for power and control of resources in Sudan. “Nowhere in the world does a country have two militaries and not one government.”

Abbas said there are more than 87 militias across Sudan, “but the biggest one is the Rapid Support Forces”, also known as the Janjaweed — a tribal militia led by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti.

“It was created by [Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman] al-Burhan, who is in the government right now, as the President. He created those militias who are now coming back at him,” she said.

Both the military and the RSF are to play major roles in the country, under a law that would integrate the RSF into Sudan’s armed forces.

Abbas stressed that the current situation in Sudan is not a civil war.

“I would call it a resources war ... There is another player outside this circle, outside of Sudan and they are looking for resources in Sudan, involved or interfering in the policies of Sudan and playing secret games that are not clear to everyone.” For example, people are asking how and from where the factions are getting their weapons, Abbas said.

It is becoming clearer through media coverage that the big powers are behind this, Abbas said. The United States and Russia are still playing a big role in North East Africa and trying to get access to Sudan’s resources through indirect means, she explained.

Sudan is also very important from a geostrategic point of view. “Sudan is surrounded by eight countries. Sudan has a port in the Red Sea and all the trade comes through this point.

“So it is very complicated.”

Attempts by the US to influence the situation in Sudan are “very clear” Abbas said. “Volker [Perthes, Head of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan] has tried to step in. IGAD [the Intergovernmental Authority on Development] has tried to step in, and Sudan’s neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have tried to step in and make an agreement,” but there is a lot going on “under the table”.

Abbas said there were some early warning signs of conflict as the two coup factions manoeuvred for leadership in the negotiations.

“We noticed six months ago, that Hamdan started making some strange moves, because a lot of soldiers came into Khartoum and at Marawi military airport there were forces there. This was a red flag,” Abbas said. People started asking what the military were doing and why there were so many troop movements.

At the time, both sides announced that things were peaceful and there was nothing to worry about, Abbas said. “Suddenly people woke up to bombing — without any warning.”

The outbreak of war is anathema to the peaceful, non-violent struggle of the pro-democracy forces. “People back home have been protesting on the street, they want to go for democracy … and they are working very hard, but nobody holds a gun,” Abbas said.

Now, men, women and children are being shot in the streets and the people are surrounded by war and desperately trying to escape the violence.

“Even before the war started, we didn’t have enough resources. We don’t have clean water, enough electricity … enough medicine or food,” Abbas said. “80% of the people live below the poverty line. Day by day they don’t have any savings, any food.”

Sudan is facing a humanitarian disaster. Hospitals have been bombed and power outages mean there is no access to electricity. People are drinking river water to survive, raising the risk of disease. “Orphanages are calling for help because they can’t feed the babies,” Abbas said.

“There are dead bodies all around … They kill people and leave them on the streets.”

World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus briefed the media on April 26, and said that in Khartoum, 61% of health facilities are closed, and only 16% are “operating above their usual capacity”.

“Many patients with chronic diseases, such as kidney disease, diabetes and cancer, cannot access healthcare facilities or medicines they need.

“In the coming weeks, an estimated 24,000 women will give birth, but they are currently unable to access maternal care.”

Programs to prevent the transmission of dengue fever and malaria have also stopped. Power outages are also threatening blood supplies and 50,000 children are in real danger of starvation and malnutrition.

Militia members are forcing people out of their homes, robbing people at gunpoint, robbing factories and even freeing criminals from Khartoum’s prisons, Abbas told me. The militia, which are aligned with the former al Bashir dictatorship, are trying to create an unsafe and lawless environment. On the other side, the Sudanese military should be protecting the people, but aren’t. “Burhan and Hemeti are in hiding. No one has heard from them,” said Abbas.

There have been calls for safe corridors to be opened to enable people to escape the fighting, but these depend on a ceasefire being negotiated and for it to hold long enough for people to travel safely.

On the border, the situation is very uncertain, Abbas said. To the north, people can only cross the border into Egypt if they have an entry visa. To the south, the South Sudanese government has said it will open the borders, but it is very hard to cross at this point, unless you have family over the border or carry a South Sudanese passport.

In the east, people are seeking to leave via the Red Sea port, which is relatively safe from bombing so far, but it takes seven hours to drive there from Khartoum, Abbas said. The road is unsafe and criminals and gangsters are robbing and shooting people on the road.

To the west the situation is terrible because of the war still raging there, Abbas said.

Egyptian officials are delaying Sudanese from crossing over into Egypt on the pretext that there may be “terrorists” hiding among the refugees and they need to undergo security screening, Abbas said. “When you go north to Egypt, it takes four days to cross the border. They leave people waiting in the desert, without food and water, without anything. And that area is full of scorpions.” This is despite a longstanding agreement between Egypt and Sudan that anyone holding a Sudanese passport has a right of entry into Egypt.

People being evacuated by air have also come under fire, Abbas said. Aid coming into the country has also been blocked by the militia.

Sudanese have taken to social media to share information with each other about safe roads to travel on and to support each other. Abbas told GL that the grassroots forces are trying to organise support and aid in the hospitals and on the streets, but they don’t have enough resources.

“Sudanese people live together in social solidarity and they are very cooperative with each other,” Abbas said. “If you don’t have food they will share their food with you. If you don’t have shelter, people will open their doors, spontaneously. Even if they don’t know you.

“But unfortunately the grassroots forces don’t have support, don’t have money. We cannot send money back home. The banking system is shut down. There is no electricity.

“People are looking for cash. But if you hold cash, it is dangerous, because you may get robbed and killed for it.

“People donate blood as much as they can but there is no water to drink.

“The Resistance Committees, which are new grassroots organisations, don’t have enough resources to support people on the ground,” Abbas said. “They share everything but they do not have enough medicine to give people. They cannot provide electricity or transportation … We have heard unverified reports that people are paying up to US$80 for a gallon of gasoline.”

For the diaspora, this means that funds being raised to help the Sudanese people cannot reach them because of the banking collapse.

In terms of immediate demands on the international community, Abbas said the priority is taking action to stop this war and allow aid into Sudan: food, water and medication. To organise food drops, if necessary.

Abbas said the international community can do a lot. “They evacuated people from Ukraine and supported the Ukrainian people — why not do this for Sudan?

“Australian people could provide aid, and open doors for people evacuating from Sudan.”

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