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The year Sudan plunged into darkness

Four years on from a democratic revolution, Sudanese have seen their country torn apart by war, with mass killings, sexual violence and wholesale destruction
Sudanese evacuees wait before boarding a Saudi military ship to Jeddah, at Port Sudan, 2 May (AP/Amr Nabil)
Sudanese evacuees wait before boarding a Saudi military ship to Jeddah, at Port Sudan, 2 May 2023 (AP/Amr Nabil)

In the early months of 2023, everyone came to Khartoum.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met Sudan's ruling general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in the first week of February. 

Shortly after, Russia's Sergei Lavrov was in town, holding separate summits with Burhan and his then-deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) better known as Hemeti.

At the same time, envoys from the United States and a host of European countries were with Sudanese officials, looking to push forward a framework deal signed in December 2022, which sought to secure Sudan's transition back to a civilian-led government. 

But the deal was in trouble. Burhan and Hemeti, who had both removed Sudan's longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir from power in 2019 following a democratic uprising, and who had then enacted a coup in October 2021 to return full control to the military, were increasingly at odds.

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The two commanders were holding separate meetings with the same foreign power players, and developing relationships with different figures of influence within the same overseas governments. The signs were troubling. 

The army and the RSF, which had been allied in their brutal repression of Sudan's democratic revolutionary movement, had turned against each other. On the streets of the capital, people wondered if - or when - all this would erupt into violence. 

Towards the end of February, Hemeti went to the United Arab Emirates, staying there until March and meeting with the Gulf state's ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, and his deputy Mansour bin Zayed. RSF fighters began to move into strategic positions around Khartoum and a host of air bases. Army commanders prepared. 

In the early hours of 15 April, shots were fired. Though it is still unclear who made the very first move, some 2,000 RSF fighters launched an attack on the headquarters of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and struck at Burhan's official residence from three separate directions, killing at least 35 members of the presidential guard in the process. 

Burhan himself took up a machine gun to defend himself, escaped by the skin of his teeth and then disappeared into a network of tunnels

Burhan himself took up a machine gun to defend himself, escaped by the skin of his teeth and then - according to a number of sources familiar with what happened - disappeared into a network of tunnels under the streets of Khartoum. For months after, his rival Hemeti, who himself was wounded early on in the war, would refer to him as being "the commander of the basement". 

The war had begun. The army controlled the air, but the RSF had taken hundreds of military officials and their family members hostage, and so for weeks the army did not know how hard to hit RSF bases, for fear of killing the captives.

On the streets, the RSF's paramilitary fighters, some of whom were veterans of UAE-backed wars in Libya and Yemen, proved superior to regular troops. The army simply could not match them in a fire fight, and key buildings in the capital fell to the RSF.

When it became clear the fighting would not stop, Khartoum's residents - those who were able to pay for inflated bus tickets and who could get themselves safely through the streets - fled. They went to Port Sudan in the east, to Gedarif on the border with Ethiopia, to Wad Madani in central el-Gezira state, to South Sudan and north to Egypt.

War spreads to Darfur

Rather than stop, the war spread. With the eyes of the world often elsewhere, Sudan plunged ever further into darkness, law and order breaking down in the face of armed men.

Inevitably, the conflict found its way to Darfur, the vast and restive western region that has been regularly subjected to conflict for two decades, including a 2003-2005 ethnically charged war that killed an estimated 300,000 people.

Here, the military project to keep Sudan's democratic movement from succeeding dovetailed with longstanding conflicts over land and ethnicity.

The RSF has a direct link to the Darfur massacres of the first decade of the 21st century. It was from the Janjaweed militias, deployed by Bashir to crush rebellions in Darfur, that the paramilitary force sprang. 

In 2013, when Bashir needed loyal fighters to quash anti-austerity protests across the country, the RSF was created, drawn from Janjaweed ranks and put under the control of the intelligence services.

According to human rights groups and a host of sources who have spoken to Middle East Eye over the course of the conflict, soon after fighting began in April the RSF were committing war crimes, targeting the Black African Massalit people, executing them and sexually assaulting women. 

A fighter jumps off a vehicle moving in a military convoy accompanying the governor of Sudan's Darfur during a stopover at Gedaref (AFP)
A fighter jumps off a vehicle moving in a military convoy accompanying the governor of Sudan's Darfur during a stopover at Gedaref (AFP)

By June, the city of el-Geneina in West Darfur had become a city of rotting corpses, with the dead piling up in the street. A local aid worker told MEE at the time that around 1,500 people had been killed in the town between 15 April and the last week of June. At least 1,000 of those, he said, were women and children.

"So far, we have collected around 700 dead bodies, and double this number are still on streets and inside some houses, but we can't reach them because of the intensive firing by the militias," the aid worker said, referring to the RSF and its allied Arab militias.

In the face of the increasing targeting of Massalit people, human rights monitors began to talk about a campaign of ethnic cleansing. On 13 June, Volker Perthes, then the UN's special representative to Sudan, said that in el-Geneina, "there is an emerging pattern of targeted attacks against civilians on ethnic basis allegedly committed by Arab militias and some men in RSF uniform".

This pattern hardened. Over the course of three days in November, around 1,300 civilians, mostly Massalit, were slaughtered by the RSF and allied militias in Ardamata, a suburb of el-Geneina, according to witnesses, lawyers and local activists who spoke to MEE.

A local NGO said the said the RSF and aligned militias had "practised many atrocities against the Massalit community", including killing, raping women, looting and torching homes. 

Women and children targeted

Across Sudan, but particularly in Darfur, children have been extremely vulnerable. In November, the UN's children's agency Unicef said that over 3,130 allegations of "severe child rights violations" had been reported in the country, with half of those taking place in Darfur. This number was "just the tip of the iceberg, with severe under reporting due to communications blackouts and lack of access".

Unicef went on to say that five million children were now living "at the brink" in Darfur, where they face "extreme deprivation of their rights and protection risks due to ongoing conflict". 

Sexual violence has also been a weapon of war repeatedly used in Sudan this year. In Nyala, South Darfur, 24 women and girls were kidnapped by men in uniform and taken to the city's Aldaman hotel, where they were sexually assaulted over three days in May.

In Sudan’s el-Geneina, the dead are left lying in the streets
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The youngest victim was 14 years old and the oldest was 56. Survivors of the attacks told local activists that the "perpetrators wore uniforms similar to those of the Rapid Support Forces and rode in cars bearing RSF plates". 

In July, Save the Children released a report in which they said that children as young as 12 were being raped and sexually assaulted by fighters in Sudan in "alarming numbers". The charity said at that point that at least 88 cases of rape had been verified since the beginning of the war. But even as early as June, officials said they believed there had been as many as 4,400 cases of sexual violence across the country. 

Faced by violence from both sides, ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the RSF and its allied Arab militias, sexual violence, looting and home invasions, many Sudanese had no choice but to run. Over seven million people have now been displaced by the war, with a million and a half of them leaving the country.

Sourcing basic provisions soon became a very dangerous struggle for Sudanese trapped in areas where the fighting was fiercest. While the army's air strikes and artillery fire often struck civilian buildings, the RSF was invading people's homes, looting their possessions and sometimes moving in. 

Across the country, markets selling goods looted by the paramilitary sprang up. They were named "Dagalo markets" in honour of Hemeti. Here you could find everything from televisions and radios to second-hand cars and tyres, and air conditioning units to beds, pillows and wooden cabinets. 

Lacklustre response

Sudanese have bemoaned the international community's lacklustre approach and interest in their country's crisis. Efforts to bring about peace - or even temporary ceasefires - floundered. Talks sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah repeatedly went nowhere. 

The US responded to the first significant breakdown in these talks with an initial round of sanctions announced at the beginning of June. Those targeted two businesses connected to the army and two linked with the RSF, and have since been expanded to include a UAE-based operation associated with the RSF and Abdul Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, Hemeti's brother and right-hand man. 

Each side has sought regional support and has tried to shape a narrative in its image. The RSF has picked up some backing from civilian leaders and has tried to position itself as the armed champion of democracy, in the face of an army taken over by figures connected to the discredited autocratic regime of Omar al-Bashir and supporters of the Islamic State group, common slurs in Sudan. 

Sudan: Soldiers accuse army of betrayal after retreat leaves Wad Madani to RSF
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The army simply refers to the RSF as the "criminal, terrorist" Janjaweed, an abomination to be set against the legitimacy of the national army. 

At the beginning of the war, a senior Egyptian military source told MEE that Egyptian pilots were flying Sudanese army planes. Egyptian soldiers stationed in Sudan had been captured early on in the war by the RSF, causing great embarrassment. But diplomatic and military sources have since told MEE that Egypt has stepped back from any significant involvement in the war, mindful of its economic dependence on the UAE.  

The UAE's support for the RSF has been far more significant and has come via Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic and Uganda. That backing appears to have powered the paramilitaries to a place where they now seem to have an advantage over the army.

Sudanese army officials have known about this support throughout the war, but on 28 November, one finally came out and accused the UAE publicly, describing it as a "state that loves ruin and follows in the footsteps of evil". And on 11 December, Sudanese officials loyal to the army expelled 15 Emirati diplomats.

The UAE has denied supplying the paramilitary force. Youssef Ezzat, political adviser to the RSF, told MEE: "I have said many times that they are accusing the UAE but that they forget the RSF controls all military storages and bases. The RSF doesn't need supply lines from our side."

As 2023 drew to a close in mid-December, the RSF launched a surprise invasion of el-Gezira, a peaceful state of almost six million people that had been hosting at least 500,000 Sudanese internally displaced by the war. On 18 December, the RSF seized the state capital Wad Madani. Over four days, between 250,000 and 300,000 people fled the city. The army retreated without putting up a fight and there is now an investigation into allegations of treason. 

An aerial view of black smoke covering the sky above the Sudanese capital Khartoum on 19 April (AFP)
An aerial view of black smoke covering the sky above the Sudanese capital Khartoum on 19 April (AFP)

With the RSF on the march - controlling Darfur, much of Khartoum, most of el-Gezira and other parts of Sudan - 2024 could see either total disintegration or the "Libya scenario", whereby the country breaks into two or even more pieces with competing governments.

The final days of the year raised the prospect of Burhan and Hemeti meeting at an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit in Djibouti for the first time since the war broke out. For Sudan's 45 million people, it was a brief glimmer of hope quickly dashed as the meeting was pushed back to January for "technical reasons". 

On the night of 28 December Khartoum, which is the only national capital in the world that is also an active battlefield, was plunged into darkness. Water and power are running out in the city, the sound of gunfire could be heard and the only light that could be seen came from the moon.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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