Sudanese resistance committees keep Khartoum from the brink as fighting rages

Violence has pushed the capital to almost total collapse, but neighborhood groups that emerged during the country’s long struggle for democracy are filling the void left by the state and NGOs

Khartoum Sudan
A man walks past a destroyed house in Khartoum, Sudan, on Tuesday.Marwan Ali (AP)
Marc Español

The fierce clashes that broke out on April 15 in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the country’s most powerful paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), have brought Khartoum to the brink of total collapse. The extent of the destruction caused by the fighting is difficult to estimate, and the activities of the state and social welfare groups have been largely suspended. But amid this general paralysis, more informal neighborhood networks have mobilized and are attempting to fill the void, organizing the distribution of basic goods, coordinating medical care, planning evacuations and building a movement to oppose the war.

“We are not counting on the generals, because we know they don’t care about us. We are counting on the people,” sums up a young man named Mohamed Elobaid. Although citizen initiatives have been very diverse, at the forefront of these efforts are the so-called resistance committees, such as the one to which Elobaid belongs in Omdurman, one of the satellite cities that make up the metropolitan area of the capital.

The history of these committees extends back at least to the 1990s, but they gained greater exposure during the 2018 and 2019 social mobilizations that led to the downfall of former dictator Omar al-Bashir after nearly 30 years in power. Even then, this extensive informal network of revolutionary groups ― largely made up of young people and deeply rooted in the neighborhoods ― demonstrated an instinctive ability to evade the regime’s repressive tactics. Strong local ties and their decentralized character also proved key to their leading role in protests against the coup d’état staged against the transitional government in 2021 by the two generals now at war with each other ― Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the RSF, and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who commands the Sudanese Armed Forces. Today, these same organizations are trying to mitigate the effects of the fresh onslaught.

“We are not counting on the generals, because we know they don’t care about us. We are counting on the people”
Resistance committee member Mohamed Elobaid

From politics to food distribution

They face a huge task, however. Shortages of food, water, medicine, electricity and fuel are increasingly acute. Many people have no access to cash, and the banking system is largely paralyzed. A local doctors’ committee reported that 70% of general hospitals in Khartoum and nearby states have had to cease operations since the conflict broke out, while the rest can only provide very basic services. And movement through some areas of Khartoum, especially those hardest-hit by the fighting, is extremely dangerous and requires careful planning.

When the violence erupted, many of the resistance committees formed emergency cabinets to coordinate their action. Although they were originally born as eminently political groups, they put material support at the center of their agenda as well, as the four activists consulted by EL PAÍS, who belong to four different committees in Khartoum, explain. They distribute food, water and other essentials, such as baby formula, insulin and first aid supplies, to hundreds of families.

“The situation is very difficult for the committee because of the deteriorating economic situation, high prices and lack of safe roads. But we do what we can,” says Muhamad Ali, a young man from Bahri. “And [this is] thanks to donors from inside and outside Sudan and from the committee itself, without whom the situation would have been even worse.” In Ali’s committee there are nine members and six volunteers.

Hajoj Kuka, a committee member from Khartoum who was out of the country when the fighting began, says that in his case they have been fortunate because there are some farms in his area and this has made it easier to access food to distribute. “We try to gather food for people who don’t have access to it, or are too scared to go home to get food, or who don’t have any money,” he says via telephone.

To try to alleviate the collapse of the health system and shortages in hospital, some committees are collecting donations to purchase medicines, medical equipment and supplies, and assisting in coordinating medical personnel in their areas. Kuka says that in his neighborhood they have set up a room to perform basic medical interventions because the nearby hospitals are closed.

In neighborhoods where clashes have taken place, committees have mobilized to evacuate trapped residents, providing them with safe passage to other neighborhoods or outside the capital. Ali says the committees have put residents who wanted to escape the city but could not afford the costs in touch with fuel and vehicle donors. Most citizens of Khartoum are unable to flee because they cannot afford skyrocketing transport prices, Ali says, and most of those who do leave make for states near the capital, where the security situation is more stable.

Muzdalifah Izz Al-Din, an activist in a committee in southern Khartoum, says that in her neighborhood they have organized a night patrol to protect the area from theft and looting, which is sometimes carried out by soldiers from one of the warring sides, especially the RSF, which has embedded itself in some areas of the city. The committee members interviewed acknowledge that the internal organization of their groups has been affected by the violence and the departure of some of their members. But they also say that the close links between committees and the distribution of responsibilities prior to the clashes has facilitated their mobilization and coordination.

“Everyone has their role and their way of doing things, whether it is by internet or meeting [in person]. And even amid the clashes this didn’t stop, because the goal is to serve the neighborhood,” says Al-Din. “You organize with the people in your neighborhood, so you can go to each other’s houses, you make sure everyone is okay, and people still meet a lot, because everyone lives nearby,” adds Kuka.

“If people are not killed by a bullet, they will be killed by hunger, they will be killed by thirst”
Muzdalifah Izz Al-Din, committee activist in southern Khartoum

Committees remain neutral in battle between RSF and armed forces

Despite their efforts, the interviewees note that their ability to stave off an even greater catastrophe is limited and that the return of international humanitarian organizations with infrastructures and resources far greater than their own, or at least the channeling of resources through NGOs to the committees, is a matter of great urgency. “If people are not killed by a bullet, they will be killed by hunger, they will be killed by thirst,” Al-Din says. “I hope we don’t starve; I hope the state of the country improves, I hope for many good things, God willing. We are optimistic, and we believe that this crisis will pass, as all the previous ones did.”

The committees, in addition to coordinating and distributing aid, are remaining as politically active as possible. Many of them have issued communiqués in which they state they do not support either of the warring parties, declaring themselves hostile to the leaders of both sides and calling on the population to protect themselves and to continue working to achieve their objectives of disbanding the militias and restructuring the Sudanese Army. Kuka says that is committee has launched a campaign against the war, with graffiti on the streets and posts on the internet. “It’s all on a small scale, because it’s still too dangerous to gather a lot of people together. But we are trying to find ways for the voice of the resistance committees to be heard so that this does not become something where the only protagonists are the international community, the politicians, the military,” he says. “[We] want to preserve the idea that we, as civilians, have power.”

At the end of February 2022, four months after the coup d’état in Sudan, the Khartoum resistance committees reached an important milestone when they agreed on and published a political charter, which outlined the main points of a proposal for a path out of the crisis the country had been plunged into, as well as the bases on which they wanted to build a new Sudan. The charter attributes Sudan’s failure to make strides since independence to an elitist political approach incapable of addressing the roots of the country’s economic, social and cultural problems. The document also states that the inability to adopt a development vision that ensures a fair and equitable distribution of power and wealth led to the rapid collapse of previous transition attempts. It calls for the construction of a modern, democratic, civilian-led state.

After it was published, a process was initiated to discuss the document with all Sudanese resistance committees, some of which had published charters of their own, in order to reach a consensus on a unified text. Despite their political activism and their organization and influence within Sudanese society, the country’s political elite, the generals who led the coup and the international community made no attempt to include the committees in negotiation processes following the removal of the transitional government.

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