Caught in the Khartoum crossfire: ‘We Sudanese are resilient, but this is surreal. It is war’

NGOs have warned that medicines and blood are in short supply in hospitals, while experts fear an escalation in Darfur and the entry of more armed groups into the fighting

Shops closed in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, on Tuesday.Marwan Ali (AP)

Rowan Amir has been holed up in an apartment north of Khartoum for four days with her husband and children, aged three, four and eight. The family has been joined by a cousin, aged nine, who was visiting them on the day the country descended into violence and has to remain with them. “I tell the children that the shooting in the streets is just tear gas,” says Amir, 36, who works in an advertising agency. “But at some point, they are going to become aware that this is a war.” In a video call with EL PAÍS, the sound of gunshots can be heard and, from the balcony, smoke is visible: Amir believes there has been a bombing in a nearby neighborhood.

The power struggle between the Sudanese Army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which flared up on April 15, has resulted in 270 deaths and more than 2,000 wounded, most of them in the country’s capital, Khartoum, according to the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO). On Tuesday, generals from both sides announced a 24-hour ceasefire agreement, but in the hours before it came into force, fighting continued amid accusations of dishonesty leveled by both warring factions.

Those children who remain at home can be persuaded that the noises they hear are tear gas because Sudan has been in a permanent state of instability for over four years. In October 2021, the democratic transition was cut short by a coup d’état staged by the army and the RSF. Two years earlier, the dictator who had ruled for three decades, Omar al-Bashir, had been overthrown after months of street protests, which left more than 240 people dead, according to the Sudanese Doctors’ Central Committee. The military uprising of 2021 was a major setback for popular aspirations to dismantle the old regime and lay the foundations for a civilian, democratic government. But the plans of the two generals — Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the commander of the Armed Forces, and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces — former allies who are now at war with one another, to cement their authority were met with widespread popular opposition. In recent years, Sudan has faced a severe economic crisis, alarming levels of internal violence and diplomatic isolation that ultimately shattered the fragile alliance of convenience between Burhan and Dagalo.

“In Khartoum, even ambulances are having trouble picking up bodies from the streets or transporting the wounded”
Ghazali Babiker, representative for Doctors Without Borders in Sudan

Hospitals lacking supplies and equipment

This political instability has been compounded by a persistent humanitarian crisis, marked by a lack of food and drinking water, and the difficulty of gaining access to healthcare and education, particularly in the country’s peripheral, traditionally marginalized regions. One third of the Sudan’s population of 45 million are in need of humanitarian aid, according to Save the Children. UNICEF warned late last year that Sudanese children are caught in a “perfect storm,” with one in three requiring humanitarian aid. That figure has risen by 35% in just two years, mainly due to increasing food insecurity. According to World Bank data from 2021, 56% of Sudan’s population lives on less than $3.20 a day; in 2009, that figure stood at 43%.

Osama A. Osman, communications director for the Sudanese Red Crescent, moves the phone closer to the window of his home in Khartoum so that the gunfire is audible. “People can’t go to work or school. Some students have been trapped in school buildings since Saturday,” he says. Of the 18 hospitals where the Red Cross/Red Crescent operates in Khartoum, most are already suffering from staff shortages, lack of medicines and materials — some as basic as bandages — and continuous power cuts. “They have generators for basic functions, but they are running out of fuel,” Osman says.

Ghazali Babiker, representative for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Sudan, tells EL PAÍS: “In Khartoum, even ambulances are having trouble picking up bodies from the streets or transporting the wounded.” The situation was already complicated before the 2021 coup, Babiker says, with the majority of international aid frozen and spiraling living costs. “The health care system has been on the verge of collapse for decades. The political and economic crisis was already pushing it to the limit, but these latest events exacerbate humanitarian needs, which were already at their peak over the last decade.”

Katharina Schröder, a Save the Children worker in Khartoum, says that in the five states in western Sudan that comprise Darfur, the offices of many humanitarian organizations — hers included — have been ransacked for, among other things, medicines. MSF reports it has treated 136 wounded in El Fasher in North Darfur, of whom 11 died. In a statement, MSF’s project coordinator in El Fasher said most of the wounded are civilians, many of them children. “The rest of the hospitals in North Darfur have had to close. We didn’t have the capacity to treat everyone. Fortunately, a group of surgeons from other hospitals transferred here on Saturday and have already operated on six people. But we are running out of medicines and blood stocks.” And with the airports closed, there is no way to bring in vital supplies.

“People in the camps and citizens in the towns of Darfur are living in a state of panic and fear”
Adam Rojal, spokesman for the internally displaced in Darfur

Although that is the reality for most Sudanese, Khartoum has significantly better infrastructure and services than the rest of the country. In the capital, the middle class can afford, at least for the time being, to remain at home. Many others, however, are forced to survive day-to-day. Inaya, who uses a pseudonym and asks not to reveal any details that could identify her, also hears the bullets from her apartment in a residential area of the capital. The walls of her building are marked by shooting, she says, and drinking water, eggs, fruits and vegetables are scarce in the supermarket. “It all happened so suddenly that we didn’t have time to prepare. Electricity comes and goes. There is not enough fuel to keep the generators running. We follow the news on social media, but some internet and phone operators are down. We Sudanese are resilient, but this is surreal. It is war. We have never experienced anything like this in Khartoum.” Inaya, too, tries to present a sense of calm for her children. “I put them in front of a screen, the TV or a tablet, from the moment they wake up, in a room that seems more or less safe to me. It’s a luxury that others can’t afford,” she acknowledges.

Danger in Darfur

Miguel Mubarak (a pseudonym), a 29-year-old Spaniard, also sits out the tension as best he can in his home in the capital, where he has lived since 2019 and runs an art gallery. “Last night we were expecting an attack by the army, there was talk in WhatsApp groups. We fell asleep at 2 a.m. and were woken up by gunfire. This morning I managed to fix the generator to charge the phones. And then we stayed up watching the news. We tried to stay calm,” he says. Everybody interviewed by this newspaper agrees that fake news abounds on social networks and that it is difficult to verify information with contradictory messages being spread by the two opposing factions.

National and international experts are increasingly concerned that the fighting that has so far been concentrated in Khartoum will escalate in outlying regions such as Darfur, where fierce clashes have already taken place. Fighting has also been reported in the state of North Kordofan in central Sudan, Blue Nile State in the far south, Red Sea State in the northeast, and in the Northern State. Some of these areas are strongholds of armed groups that have so far remained neutral, but it is feared that the spread of violence could drag them into the conflict, further aggravating the humanitarian situation.

“People in the camps and citizens in the towns of Darfur are living in a state of panic and fear,” Adam Rojal, a spokesman for the internally displaced in Darfur, said recently. Sudan had 3.2 million internally displaced people at the end of 2021, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

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