May 19, 2023

Sudan’s military power struggle results in humanitarian catastrophe

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The camp in Bentiu, South Sudan, is one of six UN protected sites where civilians have sought to escape.

Picture by: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie | Flickr

No visible solution is yet seen to the military struggle in Sudan after conflict broke out between its leaders.

Fighting broke out on April 15 in Khartoum and several other cities between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

RSF’s movement of soldiers and arms into these areas, as well as their attempt to strategically seize the town of Merowe, was key in provoking the violence to erupt. The Merowe town is home to the largest airport in Sudan, close to the electric dam along the Nile, and holds a central position within the country.

Who is at the heart of this conflict?

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of SAF, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo also known as Hemedti, the head of the paramilitary RSF, have both played a role in tackling Darfuri rebels in the 2003 civil war in the western region of Sudan.

They both contributed to the collapse of the Omar al-Bashir regime in 2019 after popular protests demanded his leave; and together, in 2021, they managed to successfully carry out a military coup, asserting their power as leaders. Due to clashing views on civilian rule, a power struggle bloomed. Questions during the negotiations, such as who would assume control over the military and how would the two parties merge into one arose, leading to heightened tensions between the two.


Who is affected?

As of May 10, the UN health agency has reported at least 604 people have been killed while the World Health Organization counts over 5,100 cases of injuries since the fighting began. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA), ‘over 936,000 people have been newly displaced by the conflict since 15 April, including 736,200 people displaced internally and 200,000 who have crossed into neighbouring countries.’

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that it is planning for an outflow of about 860,000 refugees and returnees from Sudan to neighbouring countries. The conflict in Sudan will have consequences on mixed migration and humanitarian emergencies as Sudan is the largest host country for refugees on the African continent. It is a key destination of transit and origin for refugees and migrants travelling towards North Africa and sometimes Europe along the Central Mediterranean Route.

Cristiano d’Orsi, international law and refugee expert, shares with The Conversation: “The refugees hosted by Sudan are now fleeing violence in Sudan. Neighbouring countries will have to treat them as asylum-seekers or refugees because they cannot be returned to a situation of conflict. Some will also face the difficult decision of returning to their home countries.”

The conflict has triggered ‘one of the biggest international evacuations in years’, reported Reuters, with travellers and nationals being rescued by their countries. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry announced the successful evacuation of 5,197 people of 100 nationalities of which included 184 Saudi citizens.

France was thanked for its “vital assistance” by the United Nations Secretary-General for helping transport 400 U.N. personnel out of Sudan. While the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Chad conducted its first evacuation flights from Sudan carrying more than 200 people, including dozens of children. A handful of other countries have also put collaborative effort into evacuating foreigners from Sudan. EU members, overall managed to evacuate most of the 1,700 EU citizens present in Sudan, as well as additional non-EU citizens.


For more on the refugee situation in Sudan follow updates on:

Which necessities are lacking?

UNHCR reports how “the clashes are adding another layer of complexity to an already challenging humanitarian situation in Sudan, as almost 16 million people were estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2023 before the crisis started.”

The lack of safe drinking water increases the chances of risk of water-borne diseases, such as cholera, and mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria. Records of the number of people facing hunger, as outlined by ReliefWeb, is expected to rise, especially “with aid agencies unable to deliver critical assistance and communities’ resilience severely undermined by the ongoing conflict in multiple areas.”


How did the conflict impact local infrastructure?

Homes and other civilian infrastructure have been destroyed. UNHCR disclosed that “densely populated residential areas of Khartoum, Bahri, Omdurman and towns in Darfur and North Kordofan are facing electricity cuts, a lack of healthcare and basic services, while running out of food, water and medicines”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that “the fighting has damaged at least 16 hospitals, while dozens of others have had to shut down due to lack of supplies, water, electricity, and staff.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “more than two-thirds of hospitals are not functional due to direct attacks, occupation by fighting parties, access, lack of electricity, water supply or fuel, or stock out of medicine.”

Water systems have been targeted, leaving civilians without viable access. Parts of Bahri were cut off from water when a massive fire shut down the water treatment plant on the first day of fighting. As shared by a 34-year-old woman to HRW: “You either stay at home with little or no electricity or water and risk having your house bombed, or take your chances driving to a safer place, still risking being caught in crossfire.”


How did the international community respond?

Countries, international organisations (IGOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world have been urging Sudan’s competing leaders for ceasefires, to engage in mediation talks and for overall peace to be restored.

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stated: “Thinking today of the people of Sudan, caught up once again in conflict. The transition to civilian rule would create stability and solutions for millions of displaced in the region – it is crucial that violence ends and the transition resumes as soon as possible.”

AU Press Release: May 2, 2023

African Union Condemns Violence in Sudan, Calls for Humanitarian Ceasefire and Urges Coordinated International Support to the Sudanese People Amidst Armed Confrontation

The African Union (AU) calls for a humanitarian ceasefire to “ensure the protection of civilians, health, sanitary, transport and other critical infrastructure, particularly water and electricity services, humanitarian access and assistance, as well as political dialogue.”

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also stress the importance of dialogue. And President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, stated: “Our diplomatic efforts to urge all parties to end the military conflict and allow unhindered humanitarian access continue.”

The European Union’s special representative for the Horn of Africa has entered discussions with the AU and other stakeholders on ending the conflict. Humanitarian supply distribution and refugee corridors are among the first EU humanitarian priorities. UNHCR and partners have announced that they will require 445 million US dollars for effective Sudan relief until October.

What is the current situation?

According to Reuters, pre-negotiation talks mediated by the United States and Saudi Arabia were to be held in Jeddah, Saudi with SAF and RSF representatives. But since news of this, shelling on Sudan’s capital occurred on Sunday, May 14. For now, there are small signs of a possible ceasefire.


What are the heartbreaking stories of those caught up in the conflict?

UNICEF, which is on the ground in Sudan and its borders providing families with emergency relief, has shared some of the heartbreaking stories of those caught up in the conflict, with thousands being forced to flee their homes. The charity has shared the impact of the violence ‘through the eyes of a child’ by sharing 11-year-old Ali’s first-hand account of watching the violence unfold.

Ali and his family woke up to the sounds of planes and the clashes, with his home shaking from the fighting. Terrified, they stayed under their beds on the floor for several hours, while weapons of all sorts were being used outdoors.

Ali told UNICEF: “The fighting came to our street. I heard loud bangs,” with his sister, Areej, adding: “The sounds shook our house. It was so very close.”

The family knew they had to leave when there was no electricity and water in their house. Yet, when they thought they found refuge at their relative’s house, fighting broke out there too. Once again, they had to flee.


Read the full story on UNICEF: Through the eyes of a child | UNICEF Sudan

Written by:


Sofiya Suleimenova

former International Affairs Section Editor

Geneva, Switzerland

Born in 2006 in Barcelona, Spain, Sofiya currently studies in Switzerland. She aims to study law, preferably in the United States. In her free time, Sofie practices karate – she won a silver medal for kata and a bronze in sparring. She speaks French, English, Russian and Spanish.

She started her collaboration with Harbingers’ Magazine as a Staff Writer. In 2022, she assumed the role of the International Affairs Correspondent. Sofiya created and manages the collaboration with LEARN Afghan organisation, under which teenage girls from Afghanistan receive free education in journalism and English. In recognition of the importance of this project, in September of 2023, she was promoted to the role of the International Affairs Section editor.


Edited by:


Timur Boranbayev

Economics Section Editor

London, United Kingdom

human rights

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