Sudan: Revolutionaries fighting alongside army against Rapid Support Forces
Radical democratic activists who faced violent repression at the hands of Sudan's military are now fighting alongside the army in its war against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary, Middle East Eye has learned.
Young Sudanese belonging to the radical democratic groups that ousted former autocrat Omar al-Bashir are going into battle alongside young fighters connected to the Sudanese Islamic Movement (SIM) that backed him, according to sources from both sides.
The development marks a significant new turn in the war, which has been raging since 15 April, when fighting broke out between the army, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the general better known as Hemeti.
Members of resistance committees - the nationwide collection of local groups that have been at the forefront of Sudan’s democratic revolution - and other radical youth organisations, such as Anger Without Borders and Kings of Clashes, joined military training camps opened by Burhan in June, when he called on Sudanese youth to join army ranks for “the battle of dignity”.
At the same time, a militant group called Al-Bara bin Malik, named after a hero of the early Muslim conquests initiated by the Prophet Muhammad, has declared that it is fighting alongside the army against what it describes as the treasonous rebellion of the RSF.
Analysts believe that the widespread violations committed by the paramilitary in Khartoum - particularly the occupation of houses, looting and the raping of women - are the main reasons driving such disparate groups to fight alongside the army.
The RSF has denied committing such violations and says that the Al-Bara bin Malik brigade is made up of the remnants of Bashir's ousted administration.
Others say that Sudan’s Islamic movement, which was behind the military coup that installed Bashir as president in 1989, is using the army to pave its way back to power.
With the soldiers, against the officers
Three members of the radical democratic group Anger Without Borders, which has previously clashed violently with Sudan’s police, security forces and other associates of Bashir’s ousted administration, told MEE they had recently joined army training camps and fought against the RSF.
The activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said they were fighting alongside the army as a form of self-defence because of violations perpetrated by the RSF.
They said they were supporting lower ranking officers and soldiers but not the generals, who they charged with being involved in the killing of protesters and the undermining of democracy.
“We believe that this war was caused by a conflict of interests between the generals on both sides, but we have witnessed and experienced widespread humiliations inflicted by RSF soldiers,” one of the activists, who has been injured more than once while protesting since 2018, told MEE.
The activist, who lives in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city, said his colleagues had spent months inside their homes with very little food.
“I saw the RSF make ordinary citizens carry their own possessions out to RSF trucks, so they could carry the loot away. I will never forget that,” he said.
'Joining the army is very easy. You just need to go to the nearest military camp to be trained, there are no conditions'
- Sudanese pro-democracy activist
“We started to organise to protect ourselves from RSF violations – we did this without any real help from SAF, which wasn’t even in our neighbourhoods. So the story is simply about defending ourselves, our families and properties from RSF attacks, and our priority now is to expel the RSF from Khartoum,” the activist told MEE.
To do this, the activist trained at an army camp for a short period of time and fought with the army back in his neighbourhood, which surrounds the popular market in Omdurman city.
“We got the weapons and stood with SAF soldiers at the checkpoints in the night to stop RSF attacks on the neighbourhood,” he said.
“Joining the army is very easy. You just need to go to the nearest military camp to be trained, there are no conditions. Then you get a weapon, join any military unit and begin your duties,” he said.
Another resistance committee source, who is still fighting with the army in Omdurman’s Althawra neighbourhood, told MEE he spent a month being trained at Karary military camp before going to man SAF checkpoints back in Althawra.
“I saw hundreds of youths joining the camps and others finished their training and are now fighting for the army," he said.
"I have taken part in some battles against the RSF and I’m proud of this experience, because I’m fighting for the dignity of our people, for the women that have been raped and the humiliation we faced.”
Some resistance committees in Khartoum state and other trade unions have declared their open support for the army. They refer to the RSF as “foreign militias” because they believe the paramilitary is bringing in fighters from Arab populations across countries like Chad and Niger, and they say it is their duty to fight them.
“We are still against the top generals of the army and still against the old regime, but we believe that the army is supposed to be for the entire Sudanese population and it’s the duty of the national army to protect the people,” a collection of Khartoum resistance committees said in a recent statement.
“We are with the institution of SAF, its lower ranking officers and soldiers on the front line… while the generals still only want to stay in power,” the statement continued.
But Sudan’s revolutionary movement is not united in its support of the army.
Participating in protests calling for change, 18-year-old Nuha Abdul Gadir has come face-to-face with the police and security forces on the streets of the country. She believes the army and RSF are both “counter-revolutionary powers” opposed to the revolution and to democracy.
Gadir told MEE that fighting for the army was a personal decision and that revolutionary bodies had not decided to join the war.
'This war is a clear conflict of interests between the generals on both sides'
- Ahmed Albushra, Anger Without Borders
“However, I also believe that some of the youth have witnessed the extreme violations, attacks on their homes and rape of women - they have no way of defending themselves and SAF is the only place you can easily get weapons and training for fighting,” she said.
Ahmed Albushra, the founder of Anger Without Borders, said that no revolutionary institution had declared official support for the army, adding that “this was an individual decision by those revolutionaries”.
He told MEE it’s not clear how many activists have joined SAF and that it was a “tactical step by some democratic activists to protect themselves”.
“This war is a clear conflict of interests between the generals on both sides,” Albushra told MEE. “This is why we have nothing to do with it. We are principally against the war in Sudan because peace is one of the main slogans of the revolution itself, but we are also against the violations of the RSF.”
Militants and Bashir's deep state
Those democratic activists who have joined the army find themselves fighting alongside young Sudanese with very different political ideologies.
The radical militants of Al-Bara bin Malik and other similar groups have joined the army in large numbers.
Sources in Sudan’s Islamic Movement told MEE that the militant group’s presence in the army dated back to the 1990s, when it was part of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) paramilitary, which had close links to the National Islamic Front, itself closely connected to Bashir.
“The army’s officer corps was ‘Islamised’ in the early 1990s after Bashir took power, when suspected opponents were sacked or, in many famous cases, taken out and shot,” Gill Lusk, an analyst on Sudan, told MEE.
The PDF was part of the Sudanese forces that fought the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the second Sudanese civil war. Dissolved after the removal of Bashir, the PDF has been working underground and has been presented an opportunity by the eruption of war.
Sources inside the movement said that Al-Bara bin Malik and the wider Islamic movement had been preparing its fighters since 2019. They added that the militant groups have ties with some officers in Sudan’s military intelligence and that they joined the war on the army’s side immediately after it broke out in April.
“The group has fought beside the army and has lost many fighters in many different locations since April,” one source, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told MEE.
“One of the main battles that led to the death of many Al-Bara bin Malik fighters was inside and around the military tanks unit in Khartoum,” the source said.
A video posted on social media (embedded above) shows Burhan visiting Abuzaid and embracing him at a hospital in the northeastern city of Atbara. The militant leader had been evacuated there after being injured in fighting in Khartoum.
Other videos circulating on social media show Abuzaid singing militant slogans and calling for a “jihad” against the RSF.
In his virtual address during the UN general assembly meeting on Thursday - a meeting that Burhan addressed in person - Hemeti claimed that the Islamic State (IS) group and other associates of the Bashir administration were fighting alongside the army.
In May, the RSF arrested a number of figures including prominent IS supporter Mohamed Ali Al-Jazouli, who had promised to fight against the paramilitary.
After he was captured, the RSF released a video of Jazouli talking about a secret plan coordinated by his group to fight alongside the army with the help of senior figures in Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), which is still officially banned in Sudan.
Now in its sixth month, the war in Sudan has displaced about 5.3 million people within Sudan and neighbouring countries, according to the UN.