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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zeinab Mohammed Salih in Khartoum

Thousands of refugees in danger as Sudan fighting spreads from Khartoum

Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and troops with their arms raised
The Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, centre, greeting supporters in the marine base in Port Sudan in August. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has spread south of Khartoum towards Gezira state, endangering the lives of thousands of people who have fled there from the capital.

The conflict is also intensifying in South Kordofan state, where a large rebel force, the SPLMN, that mobilised in June, has been relentlessly attacking army barracks, and in Darfur, where Arab militias backed by or affiliated to the RSF have been accused of conducting a brutal campaign of ethnic violence.

Across Sudan, school closures have affected about 20 million children. The RSF is understood to be actively recruiting older children from the southern outskirts of Khartoum, while the army has been recruiting young men and women from tribes in areas it controls in the north.

Fighting between the army and the RSF erupted on 15 April over tensions linked to a planned transition to civilian rule. Months after mediators suspended negotiations, there appears to be no clear winner and no end in sight to a war that has displaced more than 5.75 million people, killed thousands and destroyed major cities.

The RSF is now attempting to move southwards towards Gezira state, a key agricultural area and population centre. Hundreds of thousands of people, as well as some government and humanitarian functions displaced from Khartoum, have moved there. Last week, the RSF took control of Ailafoun, a large town on one of the routes to Madani.

Meanwhile, aid workers are struggling to access badly affected parts of Khartoum and Darfur, and cases of measles, malaria, dengue fever and cholera have been reported nationwide.

lots of children on a cart in desert region
Sudanese refugee children fleeing the conflict in the Darfur region earlier this year. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

“Everybody is losing weight, and people are struggling mentally as well,” said 29-year-old Khalid Salih from Omdurman, a city on the west bank of the Nile River, opposite Khartoum. “There are limited food items in the markets, which are closing early due to fears they’ll be bombed by the army. People are also scared of being arrested and interrogated by the RSF. It’s bleak.”

Salih said that like many other men he had remained in Omdurman to guard his family home, while women and children in his family had fled to safer parts of the country.

Aisha Abdulrahman, a 62-year-old living in the al-Haj Yousif district in the east of Khartoum, said she was still reeling from army airstrikes on her neighbourhood in late September. “I was shocked by what I saw,” she said. “They killed children who were playing football. Their bodies were cut into pieces.”

Abdulrahman, who managed to send three of her 11 children to Sudan’s western neighbour Chad, said the strikes had cut power, internet and telephone access to her neighbourhood for 10 consecutive days. She thought both the army and the RSF wanted people to leave the capital: “It feels like they want to displace us without saying it.”

The RSF now controls most of Khartoum and the army has almost no presence on the streets, with its only tactics to target RSF positions from the air and use heavy artillery from afar, which often result in heavy civilian casualties.

On Wednesday, the BBC reported it had seen new evidence of brutal ethnic violence in Darfur, based on an analysis of satellite and social media data by the Centre for Information Resilience, a research body partly funded by the British government. The BBC said the analysis showed that at least 68 villages in Darfur had been set on fire by armed militias since the civil war began.

Army officials and their supporters have vowed to crush the RSF, despite battlefield setbacks, and have expressed no interest in reaching a ceasefire deal. Meanwhile, other countries are continuing to supply arms: Egypt and Turkey are sending drones to the army, and the UAE is supplying kit to the RSF through Chad.

Regional and international efforts to stop the war have gone quiet, and people in Khartoum say they fear the Isarel-Hamas war will further distract international attention from their plight.

Al-Tahir Hajar, a former rebel leader who sits on the sovereign council led by the army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said the main blocks to stopping the war were Islamist supporters of Sudan’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir and people he described as “racists” in the army.

“The problem is in the leadership of the army,” Hajar said. “The decision to stop the war is not in Gen Burhan’s hands, but in the hands of the Islamists and the racists who want to come to rule this country again. Neither group has understood the lesson that Sudan will not be ruled by political foolishness again.”

Cameron Hudson, an analyst and consultant on African peace, security and governance issues, who served as the chief of staff to successive US presidential special envoys for Sudan, said “Sudan fatigue” had set in within the international news media and among some diplomats.

“There is a sense that Sudan is in a perennial state of coups and violence,” Hudson said. “However, the problem is that Sudan has never been threatened the way it is today. Its very existence is in question.”

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