Sudan: Local organising central to responding to war and humanitarian crisis

June 28, 2023
Sudan crisis
About half a million people have fled Sudan since the war began, and 1.5 million are internally displaced. Background image: UNHCR. Inset: Maysoon Elnigoumi

Fighting between rival military factions, led by Abdelfattah Al-Burhan — Commander in Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) — and Mohamed Hamdan Hemeti — leader of the Rapid Support Forces militia (RSF) — has been ongoing since April 15, killing more than 3000 people.

Green Left spoke to Maysoon Elnigoumi, a member of the Sudanese community in Western Sydney, on June 9, to find out more about the grassroots responses to the humanitarian crisis.

We started by discussing the recent ceasefire.

“Everybody knows there has been no ceasefire,” Elnigoumi said. “Every time a ceasefire was announced, minutes later there would be some infighting and shelling and it’s starting to be clear to everyone that [the ceasefire] is being used as propaganda.”

Information circulating on social media is also unreliable.

“Just after the latest announcement of the ceasefire, just two days ago [June 7], there was this really intensive fighting in one of the areas where there is army bases … You’ll see video from the army, people celebrating that they have taken over the area, and at the same time you’ll see videos by the RSF saying we are still in control...”

The situation in the capital Khartoum is dire, but in western Sudan, including Darfur, it is far worse, Elnigoumi said. “There is talk about massacres and targeting of ethnic tribes and minorities by the RSF, and the Army is not taking steps to protect them.”

Medical response

Elnigoumi recently shared a social media post about a neighbourhood medical clinic set up in Omdurman, initially in response to the targeting of ambulances and shelling of hospitals.

“This is just one of the amazing examples of how the local neighbourhoods are organising on the ground,” she said.

Some centres have been opened by local organising comittees, and other neglected clinics have been cleaned up and reopened.

“In other instances, people would use a school to make a makeshift clinic and provide first aid,” Elnigoumi said. “Then it expanded into providing other services, [like maternity services], so there are midwives also working there. It is also a makeshift pharmacy … And now it is also expanding into a neighbourhood kitchen…”

This response has spread beyond Khartoum. “Madani, for example is a city where a lot of the people displaced [by the fighting] have moved to … and there are a lot of displaced peoples’ centres located there … and a movement of doctors there,” Elnigoumi said.

“Even though there are a lot of hospitals there, people are more accepting of this idea of decentralised health systems. And in my city which is five hours away from Khartoum, far away from the fighting … they are starting to embrace this model and providing free health services as well.”

Since the fighting started, it has been very difficult to get humanitarian aid into the country and the banking system has ground to a halt. There have also been media reports that the SAF has commandeered medical aid meant for civilians.

“Aid, in certain areas [is visible] where some of the international organisations’ operations are — so Madani, Port Sudan, where most of the UN have moved their offices — but it is still very slow,” Elnigoumi said.


More than 2 million people have been displaced by the fighting. About half a million people have fled across the border, but the rest are seeking refuge in other parts of the country, including in Madani, where the people have responded with grassroots organising.

“People in Madani set up these refuges in college hostels and schools. They made these areas into refugee centres,” Elnigoumi said.

“The aid was first just from the people — donations — so only local support. And then international aid organisations started working directly with these local neighbourhood centres.

“But now we see the government — the state government, or the remnants of it — trying to take over and trying to reorganise how aid is delivered. And it’s trying to control [it]. They’re not comfortable with this kind of activism and movement on the ground ... They are wary of it.

“They started by first saying: ‘We want to find out which refugees are Sudanese and which have fled from Khartoum who are originally Ethiopian and Eritrean citizens,’ and they were talking about pushing them out towards the border.”

Sudan has been ruled by a military council since a coup d’etat in October 2021. The council — headed by al Burhan and Hemeti — was in negotiations with the Forces for Freedom and Change — a wing of the civilian democratic movement — when the fighting broke out.

Since the coup, Elnigoumi said: “The FFC have been out of the picture and the military council has been unable to create a central government … The FFC were on the verge of signing this framework agreement, which fell apart because of the war and — I am very critical of the FFC — you can see them publishing statements all the time, either condemning both parties or asking the international community to intervene to stop the warring … they are always limited to that.”

The war has exacerbated the impacts of the coup and decades of authoritarian rule. “Even before the war, you could see the state almost collapsing. Civil servants are posting that they have not been receiving their payments or salaries,” Elnigoumi said.

“People still go to ministries and to offices but there are no operations.

“What we do see is some civil servants working directly with local neighbourhood organisations — because they are from these local neighbourhoods ... but the state is either non-existent or a hindrance."

In the coming weeks, there will be added impacts of the war and challenges for the grassroots organisations, said Elnigoumi, including the potential failure of the harvest season, a potential famine and the onset of the rainy season, Elnigoumi said.

“The government, even before [the coup], had little intervention when there were floods. It is always been by local organising.”

Social media

Since the fighting started, people have been using social media to spread information about safe evacuation routes or where to seek medical help, said Elnigoumi.

“It’s not only local neighbourhood committees, but everyone is using the internet to organise … and people are learning to use it in a much more organised way.

Usually, whenever there is a situation in Sudan there is always an internet blackout. But [this time] both the militias and the army need the internet for their propaganda.

“Now you can see [posts about] safe passages, medicines (whatever is missing), donations and you find people around the world – even me, and I don’t have strong links to activism in Sudan — in the middle of organising evacuations, because [people on the ground] need somebody outside to help.

“Right now there is an influx of people running to the states for refuge, so now we’re seeing the states announcing their capacity [to take more evacuees], which city you should go to [for example] … [and] the kinds of services you will find, or not.”

The local neighbourhood organisations have moved to the centre of the grassroots response to the war and the humanitarian crisis, Elnigoumi said. How this evolves and impacts on the broader movement for democracy is still to play out.

“Before the war the local organisations had been marginalised by all the parties involved in Sudan,” said Elnigoumi. The FFC, the military council, the RSF and even international players think of the local neighbourhood organisations as just giving “credibility to the political process”.

“That is the only role they can see for them.

“There has been a kind of slow activity within the neighbourhood committees, but the war has actually brought them back to the centre. And people are regaining trust [in them] … people are used to a central government with central services, they don’t know about this grassroots organising and taking over of power ... so now people are regaining trust in the local actors again and participating more actively.

“The post I shared about the local clinics – this is something that activists like me and other people have been advocating for years, but it got realised [rapidly] within the war ... But to what extent the local neighbourhood committees would see themselves as an alternative — that remains to be seen.”

“Just a few days ago, I was talking to a member of one of the committees who has started copying this model of the emergency health units and they have now a higher coordinating body which coordinates all the centres in Khartoum, and that’s just to pool resources and to find volunteers.

“Where I come from, in Sinjah, which is closer to the rural areas … they have this long tradition of local organising, because governments in rural areas are almost non-existent.

“People see a need and then respond to a need.

“There has been criticism of the grassroots movement in Sudan that they … are not ideological enough. … But you do find them embracing [progressive ideas] because of the realities on the ground, so if we’re talking about women’s participation, [for example] it’s now not just a principle, but a necessity.”

[Doctors Humanitarian Aid Charity Organization, in collaboration with the Sudanese Australasian Medical Professionals Association and Sudanese Against War-Australia is appealing for funds. Donate at:]

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