Sudan: Civilians caught in middle of military leader power struggle

Map of Sudan. Screenshot taken from France 24 Youtube channel

As a genocide unfolds in Sudan, the international community looks on, powerless. Sudanese civilians have become caught up in a conflict between two military leaders striving to gain complete control of the country.

After four months of public protests calling for the immediate resignation of Sudan's former president, Omar el-Bechir (in office from 1989), and a change of government, the president's 30-year reign was overthrown on April 11, 2019.

Transitional Sovereignty Council was subsequently established for a period of 18 months, to bridge the gap until fresh elections could be held to restore civilian rule. Two military officials were appointed as the council’s leaders: General Abdel Fattah al Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

However, on September 21, 2021, the council experienced its first attempted coup d’état, led by the supporters of former president, Omar al-Bashir. The following month, on October 25, another coup d’état saw General Abdel Fattah al Burhan dissolve the country's transitional government. On November 11, a new Transitional Sovereignty Council was created to replace the previous government. Although General Abdel Fattah al Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo retained their respective positions, a conflict soon broke out between the two men, thus hampering the country's democratic transition process.

To better understand the source of this conflict, French newspaper, Courrier International, provides a brief explanation in this video:

On April 15, 2023, Abdel Fattah al Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, backed by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) respectively, plunged the country into a deadly war. After being accused of deploying his troops in Darfur, Sudan's capital, Khartoum, and other Sudanese cities on May 19, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo was ultimately removed from his position as the transitional council's deputy leader.

Sudanese civilians are effectively caught in the middle of an ego conflict between two generals over the country’s leadership.

Violence and war crimes against civilians

Due to being targeted by both factions, Sudan’s estimated population of over 48 million citizens often bears the brunt of this conflict. The violent treatment and killing of civilians have been recorded by international organizations, like Amnesty International.

In its report “Sudan: “Death came to our home”: War crimes and civilian suffering in Sudan,” published on August 3, 2023, this organization blames both factions for the “deliberate and indiscriminate attacks” that left thousands of civilians dead and injured. An extract from the report states:

Des milliers d’hommes, de femmes et d’enfants sont pris entre deux feux et les combattants des deux parties, qui utilisent souvent des armes inadaptées et des munitions explosives à large rayon d’impact, se positionnent souvent dans des zones résidentielles densément peuplées, d’où ils lancent des attaques. Les pillages et saccages de biens publics et privés, dont des infrastructures médicales et humanitaires, auxquels se livrent les parties au conflit exacerbent la situation humanitaire déjà catastrophique. Plus de 2,6 millions de personnes ont été déplacées à l’intérieur du pays et plus de 750 000 ont fui dans les pays voisins.

Thousands of men, women and children have been caught in the crossfire, as the warring sides often use inaccurate weapons and explosive weapons with wide area effects, with fighters locating themselves in, and launching attacks from, densely populated residential areas. Looting and trashing of public and private property, including medical and humanitarian facilities, by the warring sides has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. More than 2.6 million people have been internally displaced and over 750,000 have crossed into neighboring countries.

According to the Geneva Convention, as this war is a non-international armed conflict, civilian lives should be spared. However, this is not the case in Sudan. Sudanese civilians have become victims of all kinds of violence. Women and young girls have also been subjected to sexual assault and gang rapes. One such survivor from El Geneina (a city located in the southeast of the country bordering Chad) gave her account in this Amnesty International report:

On n’est nulle part en sécurité à El Geneina. Je suis sortie de chez moi parce qu’il y avait partout des coups de feu […] et ces criminels m’ont violée. Maintenant je crains d’être enceinte […] Je ne pourrais pas le supporter.

There is no safety anywhere in El Geneia. I left home because there was shooting everywhere […] and these criminals raped me. Now I am afraid I may be pregnant […] I fear that I cannot cope with that.

Armed groups have caused terror and death in several towns. Summary executions have also been conducted in schools where several civilians had taken refuge.

To better understand the violence experienced by civilians, read: Sudan: Darfur Town Destroyed

Another international organization, Human Rights Watch, provides further information on the violence committed by these armed groups in a report. That report features harrowing testimonies from shooting survivors and people whose human rights have been violated.

Mass exodus

The atrocities of this conflict have already caused thousands of Sudanese citizens to flee Sudan. Neighboring countries are subsequently acting as host countries, with most civilians now seeking refuge in Chad. As of September 10, 2023, it had received more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

However, Chadian authorities fear that this escalating conflict could affect their country. The United Nations has also expressed its concerns over the increasing risk of genocide. Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Special Advisor of the United Nations Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide, released a statement warning about this alarming situation in Sudan. In this statement quoted by UN INFO, she says:

Après quatre mois de combats incessants, accompagnés de violations des droits de l'homme et d'abus généralisés, le nombre de morts, de blessés et les milliers de personnes déplacées dans le cadre d'un conflit à forte composante identitaire est inacceptable. (…) les violences intercommunautaires et ethniques, si elles ne sont pas empêchées ou stoppées, pourraient s'intensifier et entraîner l'ensemble du Soudan dans une guerre civile, avec un risque élevé de génocide et de crimes d'atrocité connexes.

After four months of continued fighting, with widespread human rights violations and abuses, the level of deaths, injuries, and displacements of thousands in a conflict with strong identity-based components is unacceptable. […] inter-communal and ethnic-based violence, if not prevented or halted, could escalate and engulf the entire country in a civil war, with high risks of genocide and related atrocities.

Both factions receive foreign support

Various African countries and external powers support both factions. In September 2023, Abdel Fattah al Burhan made multiple international trips, primarily to Egypt, South Sudan, Eritrea, Qatar, and Turkey. According to Khalid Omer Yousif, vice president of the Sudanese Congress Party, al Burhan is seeking to consolidate power. Yousif told media outlet, TRT Afrika:

Je crois qu'il veut renforcer la position militaire dans cette guerre en discutant avec les pays voisins et les acteurs régionaux et internationaux qui pourraient avoir une certaine influence sur la situation au Soudan.

By holding talks with neighboring countries as well as regional and international actors who could potentially have some bearing on the situation in Sudan, I believe he is seeking to strengthen the military’s position in this war.

According to French newspaper Le Monde the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also receive military support from mercenary groups in Mali, Chad, Niger, the Central African Republic, Russia, as well as other Middle Eastern powerhouses, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This France 24 video explains further:

Under such circumstances, the Sudanese people have very little hope of seeing both parties come to the negotiating table to restore peace in their country.

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