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Explained | Why over 8 million displaced by war in Sudan can't go home

The war has reordered Africa’s third-largest nation with breathtaking speed. It has gutted the capital, Khartoum, once a major center of commerce and culture on the Nile.
Last Updated : 15 April 2024, 06:03 IST
Last Updated : 15 April 2024, 06:03 IST

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Nairobi, Kenya: The forces of two rival generals have laid waste to Sudan for a year now, unleashing a wave of violence that has driven 8.6 million people from their homes.

The war has reordered Africa’s third-largest nation with breathtaking speed. It has gutted the capital, Khartoum, once a major center of commerce and culture on the Nile. Deserted neighborhoods are now filled with bullet-scarred buildings and bodies buried in shallow graves, according to residents and aid workers.

More than one-third of Sudan’s 48 million people are facing catastrophic levels of hunger, according to the United Nations, since harvests and aid deliveries have been disrupted. Nearly 230,000 severely malnourished children and new mothers are facing death in the coming months if they don’t get food and health care, the UN Population Fund has warned. Dozens of hospitals and clinics have been shuttered, aid workers say. The closure of schools and universities in a country that once drew many foreign students has precipitated what the UN says is “the worst education crisis in the world.”

Atrocities continue to mount in Darfur, the western region wracked by two decades of genocidal violence. Civilians have been slaughtered, aid camps and homes burned and refugees who fled previous violence are crossing the border into Chad, vowing never to go home again.

The death toll from the yearlong fighting has surpassed 15,600, with many more injured, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project — though UN officials and Sudanese health workers believe the actual toll is much higher.

Of the millions displaced by the conflict, more than 6.6 million remain inside Sudan, according to the UN refugee agency. Almost 1.8 million others have fled to neighboring nations, including South Sudan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and the Central African Republic.

The continued clashes between the two generals’ competing flanks — the army and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces — have also dashed hopes that Sudan will usher in civilian rule anytime soon.

Here is a look at what is happening in Sudan.

What is the state of the fighting?

The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces remain dominant in Khartoum, where the fighting first began in April 2023. The group also solidified its control over Darfur in November, where it’s been accused of committing a wave of atrocities. In December, it captured Wad Madani, the capital of the breadbasket El Gezira state, where tens of thousands of people fled when the war started.

Sudan’s army holds much of the country’s east, including the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea. In March, the army ousted the paramilitary forces from large pockets of Omdurman, a strategic city across the Nile from Khartoum, according to a resident and aid workers.

Regional analysts and security experts say the army is trying to use this newfound momentum to mobilize and recapture other areas from the paramilitary group.

Repeated attempts to reach a cease-fire have not been successful. UN calls for the cessation of hostilities for certain periods have been ignored. Humanitarian agencies are struggling to deliver aid, citing fighting, threats, blocked roads and tax requirements.

Tom Perriello, the US special envoy for Sudan, said last month that he was hoping for a resumption of talks in the days following a high-level donor conference in Paris on April 15.

Who are the rival generals?

The army chief, Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan, has been Sudan’s de facto leader since 2019.

He rose to power in the tumultuous aftermath of the uprising against President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s leader of three decades, who was ousted in April 2019 following protests.

Before that, Burhan had been a regional army commander in Darfur, where 300,000 people were killed and millions of others displaced in fighting from 2003 to 2008 that drew worldwide condemnation.

After civilians and the military signed a power-sharing agreement in 2019, Burhan became the chair of the Sovereignty Council, a body created to oversee Sudan’s transition to democratic rule. But as the date for the handover of control to civilians approached in late 2021, he proved reluctant to relinquish power.

Burhan’s main rival is Lt. Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the country’s Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group.

Of humble origins, Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, rose to prominence as a commander of the notorious janjaweed militias, which were responsible for the worst atrocities of the conflict in Darfur.

In October 2021, Burhan and Dagalo united to seize power in a military coup, making them effectively the leader and deputy leader of Sudan. But they soon fell out.

Many diplomats, including those from the United States, attempted to negotiate an agreement between the two generals that would see them hand power back to civilians.

However, they could not agree on how quickly the Rapid Support Forces would be absorbed into the army. In April 2023, after months of rising tensions, their troops went to war against each other.

Both leaders have traveled outside of Sudan in the past year to seek political support. Burhan addressed the UN General Assembly, while Dagalo traveled to several African nations. In a speech this April, Burhan said that his forces are bent on fighting until victory.

Why are many other countries invested in the conflict?

Sudan occupies a pivotal position on the African continent. It has a substantial coastline on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. It shares borders with seven countries — the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and South Sudan — many also threatened by instability.

The violence has spread throughout Darfur, home to several local armed groups that have already been sucked into the fight. Darfur was also a base for Russian mercenaries with the Wagner group, which received access to lucrative gold mining operations in the past. Although Wagner was officially disbanded, Russian mercenaries are believed to be operating in Sudan. Ukrainian forces have reportedly conducted operations alongside Sudan’s army against the paramilitary forces who are backed by Russian mercenaries.

The United Arab Emirates has also been secretly supplying arms and providing medical treatment to the paramilitary forces through an air base in Chad, according to several African and Western officials. The Emiratis have said that their operation is purely humanitarian.

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Published 15 April 2024, 06:03 IST

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