Sudan is being torn apart. Why aren’t we paying attention?

The Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces have been at war for over a year. How did the conflict arise – and how did it become one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises?
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The Zamzam displacement camp in North Darfur, Sudan, is home to an estimated 400,000 people. An assessment by Medecins Sans Frontieres in January found that two babies were dying every hour at the camp.

MSF/Mohamed Zakaria/Handout via Reuters

The civil war devastating Sudan began last year, but each month seems to reveal horrific new facets of the shocking humanitarian crisis facing the Sudanese people. A recent Reuters investigation found 14 mass graveyards in Sudan’s debilitated Darfur region, with satellite images showing rapid escalations in the graves’ number and size.

“It’s not so much the question of whether the genocide is happening,” says Hager Ali, a research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. “It’s more a question of coverage and attention to that.”

Clashes originally erupted in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum on April 15, 2023, between the country’s official military — the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), led by Gen. Abdelfattah al-Burhan — and an independent paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo. 

Since then, the SAF and the RSF have been embroiled in a prolonged power struggle. In the past year, their violent confrontations have resulted in nearly 16,000 deaths and left millions displaced. 

The conflict stemmed from efforts to integrate the RSF into the SAF, a reform required by transitional agreements since al-Burhan’s military coup in October 2021. Despite both the SAF and RSF being officially under al-Burhan’s control as chairman of the Sovereignty Council and supreme commander of the SAF, the RSF operated independently, closely tied to Dagalo and his family’s economic interests.

While the resulting humanitarian crisis rivals or even eclipses that of other high-profile conflicts, including the genocide in Gaza, Sudan has received less attention and is far less understood.

Who are the two main warring parties?

The SAF is the national army of Sudan and was the main culprit behind the coup against long-time President Omar al-Bashir, who had himself seized power in a coup in 1989. 

The RSF is a paramilitary group which initially began as the “Janjaweed,” an Arab militia with a history of genocide and many outstanding cases in the International Court of Justice. During al-Bashir’s presidency, which lasted from 1993 to 2019, the group was integrated into his regime. The RSF is estimated to have as many as 100,000 troops, mainly recruited from Sudan’s Darfur region.

In Sudan’s 2021 military coup, the two armies collaborated together to fight a common enemy. They allied themselves to oust the civilian members of the transitional council that had been placed after al-Bashir’s removal.

More than 10 million people — nearly a quarter of Sudan’s population — have been internally displaced as result of the war, making it the world’s largest internal displacement crisis.

Ali tells Analyst News that the SAF and RSF had a momentary strategic partnership to curb civilians’ push towards further democratization, as civilian interests were strongly opposed to the military’s own commercial interests. The two military forces emerged with a plan to oust civilians from the government and erode the parliament and judiciary.

“It was effective in keeping out civilians. But that also meant that al-Burhan and and Dagalo have no effective means to negotiate policy reforms, especially when they become very controversial, like the security sector reforms,” says Ali. “And once national priorities shifted towards merging the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudan Armed Forces, you then had two heads of state that have — suddenly — very conflicting tasks.”

How have civilians been affected?

On May 31, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the highest level coordinating forum of the United Nations system, warned that time was running out for millions in Sudan. 

Over a month later, the conflict in Sudan has killed nearly 16,000. More than 10 million people — nearly a quarter of Sudan’s population — have been internally displaced as result of the war, making it the world’s largest internal displacement crisis

Widespread violence has engulfed vast regions of the country, including Khartoum, Darfur, the Kordofans and Al-Jazirah. The crisis is compounded by the threat of famine, which already affects several areas, including Darfur. Experts warn that at least 750,000 people are at risk of starvation and death in Sudan. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification reports that at least half of Sudan’s population – 25.6 million people — were in a food crisis. About 8.5 million of them were in an “emergency” state. 

Despite the magnitude of these numbers, experts still urge that these are still conservative figures since the warring parties continue to block data collection efforts. 

Photo by Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
A man walks while smoke rises above buildings after aerial bombardment, during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan, May 1, 2023.

Although the SAF and RSF have long ended their friendship, they still share some common interests and tactics. Both factions have been accused of committing war crimes, indiscriminate attacks against civilians, and crimes against humanity. The violence has specifically targeted various segments of the civilian population, including women and girls, non-Arab Africans in Darfur, journalists, media personnel, humanitarian and health workers, and perceived political opponents. The use of child soldiers has also been reported.

“There is another part of the war which I think the two warring factions are in line with, which is a war against the revolution and against the Sudanese people,” Husam Mahjoub, co-founder of the independent non-profit Sudanese TV channel Sudan Bukra, tells Analyst News.

Why is the Sudan conflict causing such high levels of internal displacement and famine?

In Sudan, the legacy of violence stretches across decades — from conflicts in Darfur to the civil wars to recurring economic crises. These issues persisted through regime changes, from Al-Bashir to interim governments and now to Al-Burhan and Dagalo. 

The current conflict exacerbated long standing problems, insecurities and grievances that were never fully addressed, Ali tells Analyst News. Even before the recent wars, Sudan grappled with food insecurity, which worsened due to the ongoing conflicts. 

Ali says many Sudanese have been displaced since Khartoum, the urban center, was attacked. When the war reached Khartoum, it pushed urban dwellers to rural areas, only to be displaced again as conflict spread. When many fled to other “safe havens” like Al-Jazirah, it too was attacked. The conflict in Sudan has repeatedly uprooted civilians. 

Important roads have also been blocked, which simultaneously restricts civilians from moving to safety and prevents sufficient food and aid from reaching them.

Moreover, the RSF’s use of “scorched earth tactics” has also rendered the civilian population vulnerable. Ali says these tactics include “burning fields, razing villages, making sure that nothing in the environment can be used as a tactical advantage.” The ecological warfare deployed against civilians increases the threat of famine in the region and destroys fundamental infrastructure.

Why has the crisis in Sudan become a forgotten war?

The war in Sudan erupted while the world was witnessing several geopolitical tensions come to their boiling points simultaneously. The media’s attention has been divided by threats in Gaza, Ukraine, Taiwan and across the world. In February, an emergency relief coordinator with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees noted that it is “very, very difficult to get attention to Sudan.”

Sudan has undergone many deliberate internet blackouts, making it difficult for people to share information with the rest of the world, Ali notes. But part of the reason, advocates believe, is the perception problem. 

“[Sudan is perceived as] not as sexy as Ukraine and Russia,” Mahjoub says. “It doesn’t fit into the narrative of a superpower like Russia invading another like Ukraine and the white people with blue eyes that are becoming refugees.” 

To some extent, he believes, it comes down to the belief that Africans’ default state is to make war, and that the war in Sudan is therefore unremarkable. 

“It is partly…‘Sudan is an African country. Well, yeah, this is what Africans do,’” Mahjoub says. 

In addition, Sudan has a smaller diaspora population; while there are an estimated 1.7 million Sudanese living outside the country, there are upwards of 12 million Ukrainians living abroad and some 7 million Palestinians living abroad. The Jewish diaspora, as well as Muslims and Arabs globally, have long made the Israel-Palestine question a cause célèbre, making the violence in Gaza feel immediately relevant all over the world. The Sudanese people have found few champions.

Khadija Ahmad is a staff writer at Analyst News.