Warring sides in Sudan have weaponized humanitarian aid

Around 25 million people, half the nation’s population, are suffering one of the world’s direst humanitarian crises

Refugiados sudaneses recién llegados desde la frontera del país en guerra a Renk, en Sudán del Sur
Sudan war refugees arrive in Renk, South Sudan, near the Joda border crossing; March 19, 2024.SOPA Images (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Marc Español

April 15 marks a year since civil war broke out in Sudan between the regular army, paramilitary forces (Rapid Support Forces) and militias, and the country now faces one of the world’s fastest unfolding humanitarian crises. International humanitarian aid organizations say their shipments have been blocked by all the opposing factions, hindering a comprehensive response to the rapidly escalating needs of the Sudanese people.

Currently, an estimated 25 million people in Sudan urgently need assistance, and over half of them are children. The country faces one of the world’s largest food crises, affecting at least 18 million Sudanese with acute hunger. Starvation-related deaths happen every day, and a famine declaration seems imminent. The war has led to the world’s biggest internal displacement crisis, forcing 6.5 million people to seek safety in other parts of country and adding to the two million Sudanese refugees abroad. Critical infrastructure, including hospitals, has been devastated. Approximately 65% lack access to healthcare.

18 million Sudanese face acute hunger and a famine declaration seems imminent

Despite the severity of the crisis, the humanitarian response is dramatically underfunded. Currently, only 6% of the United Nation’s response plan has been funded. The assistance that does arrive in Sudan has been plagued by theft and obstacles imposed by warring factions who offer no security for humanitarian aid workers. Looting, bureaucratic hurdles and the outright weaponization of aid are rampant. These challenges mainly impact areas of heavy fighting like Khartoum, Darfur, Kordofan and Gezira. To raise awareness, Paris will host an international humanitarian conference on Sudan and neighboring countries that begins on April 15.

Initially, the main humanitarian agencies in Sudan faced disruptions due to fighting in Khartoum, the nation’s capital. The city was also looted by paramilitaries, leading to a temporary suspension of operations, evacuation of some workers, and a reassessment of the situation. To resume operations, many agencies relocated their operational bases to Port Sudan, a city on the Red Sea under army control that now serves as Sudan’s temporary administrative capital. Despite this move, they continue to face widespread insecurity, especially in areas controlled by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Military authorities have also made things difficult for aid agencies by restricting entry at border crossings, lengthy authorizations for distributing aid, and slow visa approvals.

Humanitarian operations have faced increased restrictions by the military government since last year. This change followed a significant military defeat in December 2023 when the army was defeated by paramilitaries in Gezira. In another blow to the government, paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo traveled to several African capitals to secure regional support and political legitimacy.

After that defeat, efforts to send aid from army-controlled areas like Port Sudan to places it doesn’t control (Darfur, Khartoum, Kordofan and Gezira) have ground to a halt. In late February, the Sudanese government blocked a vital humanitarian corridor between Chad and West Darfur, citing weapon shipments to the RSF across the porous border.

“This isn’t about helping areas controlled by the RSF — it’s about helping people there who are most risk of famine,” said Mathilde Vu, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Sudan advocacy adviser. “They’re the ones who’ve suffered the most from atrocities and have been the most cut off from humanitarian aid since the war began.”

Sudanese refugees line up for humanitarian aid at a United Nations post near the Joda border crossing in South Sudan.
Sudanese refugees line up for humanitarian aid at a United Nations post near the Joda border crossing in South Sudan.picture alliance (dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The United States and the European Union criticized the army’s ban on cross-border humanitarian aid and other obstacles to aid delivery in RSF-controlled areas. Likewise, they denounced the paramilitaries for looting homes, markets and warehouses. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk also warned that the apparently deliberate denial of safe and unhindered access to humanitarian agencies inside Sudan violates international law and may amount to a war crime.

“The Sudanese government is deliberately restricting access to areas controlled by the RSF,” said Helena Cardellach of Doctors Without Borders (MSF). “When they won’t let you go to Khartoum, Gezira or any places controlled by the RSF, what they’re basically doing is making sure the aid remains in their areas. And that goes against international law.”

Travel restrictions ease slightly

Responding to pressure, the Sudanese government agreed in early March, to allow cross-border aid from Chad to El Fasher (North Darfur’s capital), and from South Sudan to Kosti. They also planned to open a land route to send aid from Port Sudan to El Fasher and approved the use of airports in El Fasher and two other state capitals. However, the access points are all in army-controlled territories, and the distance from Port Sudan to El Fasher is about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers). According to Edem Wosornu, director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the procedures for accessing the new routes remain undefined as of late March.

“Now we have much less access than six months ago, both from Port Sudan and from Chad,” said Vu. “Most of the people facing famine risk are in Darfur, and of course, in Khartoum and to some extent in Kordofan. These areas remain quite isolated in many ways.”

These supply distribution obstacles could accelerate the crisis. Cardellach says MSF is using existing stocks in isolated areas like Khartoum and Gezira to support health centers, but they anticipate running out eventually.

Now we have much less access than six months ago, both from Port Sudan and from Chad
Mathilde Vu, Norwegian Refugee Council

In late March, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) sent the first food shipment in months from Chad to Western and Central Darfur. They were unsure when the next shipment would be possible. Shortly after, the agency delivered more supplies to North Darfur from Chad and Port Sudan, marking the first aid shipment across battlelines in six months.

Emergency aid coordination has also faced challenges due to widespread internet and phone blackouts in many parts of Sudan since early February. These blackouts are believed to be a paramilitary response to previous blackouts ordered by the army in Darfur. The service interruptions have particularly affected local initiatives involved in aid distribution and essential services in isolated areas. Emergency response units, local volunteer groups, and former rebel organizations now dedicated to aid distribution are spearheading crucial efforts. Wosornu mentions that these groups can work in areas inaccessible to humanitarian agencies, which have struggled to deliver aid to parts of Khartoum beyond the army’s reach since October.

A spokesperson from one of these local organizations says that internet blackouts have enormously affected their communal kitchens because thousands of families depend on app-based funds transfers from the Sudanese diaspora abroad. Over 100 communal kitchens had to cease operations due to the blackouts.

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