War in Sudan

Humanitarian Crisis Not Making Headlines

By Sundus Abrar

July/August 2023

As Eid Al Fitr drew near, on April 15, violent clashes erupted in Khartoum, Sudan, between two military groups. The Sudanese Armed forces (SAF), led by Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, popularly referred to as Hemeti, surrounded civilians who were unprepared for the perilous days ahead. 

The SAF and the RSF comprise around 100,000 members on each side. Both are organized and well-armed with military equipment which is being actively used in the power struggle for control. The conflict is heaviest, but not limited to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. West Sudan, an area which has a painful history of conflict, is also again experiencing unrest. 

It is often difficult to differentiate and assign responsibility to either the SAF or RSF for the consistent bombings and fire exchanges with neither side bearing responsibility. Multiple negotiated cease fires have been violated, and peace talks being held in Saudi Arabia are stalling.  The only certainty is that conditions are worsening. 700,000 Sudanese are now displaced internally as they move out of affected areas. More than 150,000 have become refugees in neighboring states.

Civilians are experiencing dire circumstances like shortages of food, water, medical supplies, and electricity. Nada Osman, a Sudanese-American settled in Northern Virginia and founder of renowned cosmetics brand, Sudaniya, is very concerned for her family. “We are always waiting to hear back from them. Power outages and limited network reception in Khartoum make it difficult to maintain contact,” she said. 

The humanitarian crisis is worsening. Banks are closed, and cash is in short supply. Scarcely available items are exorbitantly priced. Lawlessness looms. Looting and destruction are commonplace as factories, hospitals, stores and other facilities are obliterated. The crisis is further exacerbated by an attack on a prison in Kobar, a sister city of Khartoum. This resulted in the release of dangerous prisoners. The disregard for civilian safety leaves residents with two hard options: evacuate or shelter in place. 

Evacuation Struggles

As the SAF and RSF continue warring in an attempt to gain control of prominent bases to establish rule, Khartoum is becoming more dangerous. The only accessible way out is by road. There are military checkpoints throughout the city at which interactions can be unpredictable, and at times fatal. “People fleeing have done so with only the clothes on their back,” Osman said. “Driving away in personal cars is rarely feasible due to limited gas, and also not advisable as it exposes the passengers to become targets of violence.”

Aasiya*, a 17-year-old Sudanese-American, is a first-year law student at University of Medical Sciences and Technology, Khartoum, Sudan.  When the war started, Aasiya’s mother was reassured that her daughter who had been residing at the university dorm would be prioritized by the U.S. State Department because of her U.S. citizenship and status as a minor. However, the U.S. government classified her as a private citizen, and initially offered no plan ensuring safety. By the time the first option of a U.S. convoy was available on April 27, almost two weeks into the crisis, Aasiya had already arrived in Aswan, Egypt. She had to risk a long, expensive, and unpredictable journey with her aunt’s family. It involved multiple bus rides, canceled routes, and hiring a private car. “We were on the street and could hear shooting from a distance,” Aasiya said. “We left in such a hurry with hardly anything because we didn’t have time to pack. We just had water and a little food. We sprinted to the bus as it filled up.”

The challenges of evacuation mean that it is not feasible for the elderly, and others with fragile health. They are all already struggling due to limited access to hospitals and diminished medical supplies. Osman received the tragic news of the death of an uncle who was not able to receive lifesaving oxygen in time. A cousin of hers waited two days to receive medical care after suffering from a stroke. While these family members had limited mobility due to their health, others have decided to remain in Khartoum to protect their homes. They are worried about leaving because unoccupied properties are being taken over by the Rapid Support Forces. 

Dr. Bushra Ibnauf, a Sudanese-American doctor and founding member of humanitarian organization, Sudanese American Medical Association (SAMA) stayed in Khartoum to care for his aging parents. He was killed on April 25, one of the more than 600 civilian lives lost to this war. More than 5,000 people have also been wounded. His wife and four children live in Iowa. Dr. Saleh Abusin, a Sudanese Cardiologist in Chicago, and a close friend of Dr Ibnauf, shared that he was also attacked by rogue criminals in front of his house. 

The SAF and RSF first assumed power together following a military coup which they led together to oust long term President Omar Al Bashir who ruled for 30 years. The coup was in response to a persistent civil movement for a democratic government. The SAF and RSF formed a Transitional Military Council after the coup, and were met with ongoing protests for democratic rule. The civilian led groups for Sudan’s long due democracy have been subjected to brutal violence by the military, particularly the RSF, who originated from the Janjawid militia and were incorporated as a paramilitary group under Al Bashir. The SAF and RSF are also accused of continued human right violations and the genocide in Darfur. Despite these transgressions The SAF and RSF have managed to maintain their positions of power by ensuring close participation in negotiations with the resistance movement for a democratic civilian government.  

Sudanese-American Nisreen Elamin, who teaches at the University of Toronto’s Department of African Studies, evacuated at the start of the war with her daughter and parents. “The problem is that since Al Bashir was overthrown, the Transitional Military Council took over, and we got into these protracted processes of negotiation. Throughout that process the balance of power has always been tipped in favor of the military regime.”  

International Response

Even as the civil movement presses on for democratic rule, the military continues to evade it. A democratic rule could hold the SAF and RSF accountable for their vast atrocities. A major contributor to this is international involvement. Sudan is a resource-rich country and has drawn vast corporate investments despite the prevalently contested military led rule. Though the pro-democratic movement has continually sought a civilian led government without military involvement, the international response continues to include General Burhan and General Hemeti in negotiations. The advantage of familiarity with the military regime for the international community ensures stability for their own corporate interests. Conversely, the pro-democratic resistance movement aims to rearrange Sudan’s economic structure to prioritize the interests of civilians. This is a significant factor in the continual oversight of the involved international countries and their failure to acknowledge the demands of the pro-democratic movement for no military oversight. 

The SAF and RSF have been meeting in Saudi Arabia for peace talks mediated by the U.S. and Saudi. Neither military faction is willing to work towards an end to the fighting, and consideration is only being given to passageways for humanitarian aid and civilian safety. The complete absence of civilian representation in these peace talks further validates the generals in their roles. As the deadlock holds in peace negotiations the international response for Sudanese safety and exit out of the country is insufficient. The UN World Food Program states that millions of dollars’ worth of food was looted in Khartoum. Also, because more than 15 humanitarian aid workers have been killed, UN agencies temporarily suspended work. 

A shift in international responsibility can be instrumental in alleviating this crisis. “If only the U.S. and European countries would just open their borders like they did for the Ukrainians to provide special emergency status refugee status to people,” said Aasiya’s mother, Faria* deeply feeling the inadequacy of the U.S. response. They believe this negligence is fueled by racism and Islamophobia. In the midst of the unrelenting warfare, the Sudanese community feels overlooked. “When I drive around, I see Ukrainian flags, but there is nothing for Sudan,” Osman said. 

Need for Aid

The immediate concern is for humanitarian needs. Expectations of political outcomes have been cast aside for now. Given the resiliency of the civil movement, political outcomes being a secondary concern is a grave marker of the human suffering in Sudan. “The only thing we want is for them to  stop killing us,” said Dr. Abusin. “At least stop killing us so we can bury the people. There are bodies on the street. Let others evacuate safely.” 

Sudan urgently requires humanitarian aid. Dr Abusin, treasurer of humanitarian group SAMA, believes the Muslim community can do more. “There is always room for improvement, there is room for more engagement, and we desperately need the funding” he said. SAMA is currently working on the ground in Sudan with a focus on providing medical care. In the absence of international aid, other Sudanese-led local organizations like SAMA are a lifeline in the crisis.

The Sudanese need to be trusted as the ones most informed about their needs as they work towards their goals of freedom, peace, and justice. Their experiences and voices should be heard and amplified when they call on the world. To stay informed about this unfolding crisis, to donate, or learn about local protests, follow the hashtag #eyesonsudan and visit www.eyesonsudan.net      

“What’s really allowing people to survive right now is the resistance committees on the ground,” Elamin said. “It’s the Sudanese people themselves who at great risk are providing all this lifesaving work that the international aid agencies usually provide.”                                                                                                             

*these names have been changed for security concerns. 

Sundus Abrar is a freelance writer of Pakistani descent, currently residing in Chicago. 

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