Ethnic violence in Sudan
Outlining the ongoing brutality and its context
On April 15, 2023, violent clashes broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan. The clashes erupted in the wake of two decades of military unrest in the region. The conflict exacerbates many of Sudan’s existing challenges, including ongoing conflicts, disease outbreaks, economic and political instability, and climate emergencies.
Peoples in Sudan have been subject to mass ethnic cleansing and humanitarian crises ever since April. The United Nations describe ethnic cleansing as a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove – by violent and terror-inspiring means – the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.
The conflict initially began in the country’s capital Khartoum and spread rapidly to the Sudanese states of North Darfur and West Darfur. What is important to understand here is the conflict that started in April has a long history with the last major event taking place in 2003, named the Darfur crisis.
Sudan has long been home to people of multiple ethnicities. The Arabs form the majority of the population inhabiting the nation, along with other non-Arab minorities. Soldiers from Sudan’s military-led government and their proxy militia, known as the Janjaweed, fought rebel groups in Darfur for a number of years in the early 2000s. Sudanese military, along with the Janjaweed, conducted a scorched-earth campaign in Darfur between 2003 and 2005. Through forced relocation and brutal attacks on civilians, both the government and Janjaweed forces methodically depopulated areas inhabited by the peoples of Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ancestry.
Attacks included the deliberate burning of crops, houses, and villages, as well as the planned devastation of food supply warehouses. Forces from the government and the Janjaweed targeted refugees and internally displaced people with more violence. Among the violent crimes were killings, rapes, and looting of aid supplies.
Approximately two million people were forcibly relocated and around 200,000 people died as a result of these actions. Horrifyingly, these atrocities against innocent civilians were sanctioned and facilitated by Sudan’s then-military-led government.
Among the first people on the international scene to call the slaughter in Darfur a genocide were representatives of the US government. At that time, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell respectively released statements denouncing the ongoing genocide that the Sudanese government and Janjaweed were thought to be responsible for in 2004 and 2005. Although large scale violence against civilians declined after 2005, most people who were displaced did not return to their hometowns and villages, fearing that violence might erupt again. Indeed, attacks on civilians have continued on a smaller scale over the years.
The minority populations living in Sudan saw some semblance of hope when an uprising in 2019 led to the removal of the National Congress Party, which had been ruling since 1989, and its long-time authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir. Hopes for reinstating a civilian rule were however quashed two years later in 2021 due to a military coup which dissolved the transitional civilian government. The coup triggered a chain of political and economic turmoil and reignited conflicts in the country.
The clash that erupted in April has been termed by many as a power clash between the two main factions of military regimes after the dissolution of the transitional civilian government.
The two factions are Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Diplomats in Khartoum warned in early 2022 that they feared an outbreak of violence and that an eventual war between these two military organizations was inevitable after Bashir’s ousting in 2019.
As the violence in Sudan enters its ninth month in December, the people of Sudan face one of the largest humanitarian crises of recent times. Thousands of people are dying, and millions are crossing borders and entering the neighbouring countries of Chad, Egypt, Central African Republic, and Ethiopia as refugees. As per the United Nation’s (UN) report, 6.3 million people have been displaced inside and outside Sudan and as many as 3,130 allegation of severe child rights abuse have been reported since mid-April.
In another report by the UN, it was reported that between May and June, hundreds of Masalit men, women, and children, including the governor of West Darfur, have been killed. Many have been buried in mass graves, some bodies have been left in the streets. Shops and houses have been burned and people are running critically short of essential supplies.
“It’s a daily struggle to get the essentials we need,” said Iman, a mother of two sheltering at a displacement site in Wadi Halfa, in Sudan’s Northern state bordering Egypt. “We lost everything that mattered to us, our home, our belongings, our jobs and our sense of security.”
The situation is particularly grim for women and girls in the country. Amnesty International released a report in August which revealed that scores of women and girls as young as twelve years old have been abducted and subjected to sexual violence and rape. As unimaginable as it may be for the people reading these reports, such horrors are a daily reality for the women and girls of Sudan.
Hunger, disease, and lack of amenities are adding to the suffering which was already unthinkable due to the violence, military atrocities, and war crimes. Sudanese activist, Duaa Tariq, in her conversation with Al Jazeera stated that many people are only able to eat one meal a day. “Hunger is striking, people’s faces are getting very pale,” she remarked.
Along with rising hunger, Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), warns that Sudan’s medical sector is on the verge of complete collapse due to lack of financial aid. The severity of the situation is better understood when one thinks about people in need of regular medical assistance and pregnant women who would have to give birth in the coming months under compromised conditions.
What has been called one of the largest displacement and humanitarian crises of the century does not seem to be moving towards a resolution, and people continue to suffer with no end to sight.
In a conversation with The Current, Mamadou Dian Balde, East Africa regional director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said, “We have never witnessed such a thing before. This is an incredible, incredible level of not only inhumanity, but incivility and brutality. The world needs to pay attention to Sudan. There are other crises happening, but this is one of the largest.”