As fighting continues to rage between Sudan’s army and its main paramilitary force, aid agencies say they’re trying to move from crisis management to mapping out what a reconfigured relief effort might look like for a country at war.
Many hurdles lie ahead: Khartoum, the capital city and main base for aid operations, is under siege; aid workers are being evacuated in large numbers; and the country’s humanitarian set-up doesn't yet have the capacity to handle a nationwide emergency.
“This is now a much harder operational environment,” Will Carter, country director in Sudan for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has relief programmes in various parts of the country, told The New Humanitarian.
Aid agencies have suspended operations as a result of the fighting, which has seen unprecedented shelling and gunfights in the capital – a city of more than five million people – and major unrest spread to the western Darfur region.
Life-saving relief has been organised by Sudanese medics and civil society groups over the past week and a half. But some of these groups are now calling for external support, with millions likely on the move and a three-day truce drawing to a close.
“We don’t see any humanitarian workers coming to us,” Mohamed El-Sheikh, a resident of Khartoum, told The New Humanitarian on 24 April. “What we see are only soldiers moving everywhere. I cannot even get drinking water.”
Aid officials in Sudan said a significant increase in funding from international donors will be required if they are to scale up response efforts and meet what many fear may morph into a full-blown civil war.
A regional refugee emergency also appears underway as Sudanese flee in all directions – to Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and South Sudan. As they cross borders, many are describing ill treatment and slow humanitarian responses.
“We have to prepare to receive these refugees and give them all necessary support,” said William Ngabonziza, who leads the Humanitarian Development Consortium (HDC), a South Sudanese aid agency that is monitoring new refugee arrivals.
One in three Sudanese already needed humanitarian relief before fighting broke out on 15 April. Dire economic straits had led to soaring hunger, and conflict in Darfur and other peripheries had triggered a significant displacement crisis.
The situation had been worsening since 2021, when the army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) jointly toppled a military-civilian government. That administration was supposed to steer Sudan to elections after the 2019 fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Health services have collapsed and hundreds have died since the coup forces turned on each other. The clashes were triggered by plans to integrate the RSF into the army and reflect a long-standing competition between Sudanese security agencies.
Kate Maina-Vorley, regional director for Eastern and Central Africa at CARE, told The New Humanitarian that her organisation managed to restart relief programmes on 19 April in several states where the security situation is calmer.
Yet other agencies, including the World Food Programme – which had three staff members killed in Darfur on the first day of the conflict – are still not operating, even as the humanitarian situation worsens.
“Many aid agencies have evacuated their staff. The process of bringing those staff back when the situation calms down and we are ready to start responding is unclear due to the state of the airport.”
Relocations and evacuations have so far dominated the focus of aid groups, which have a duty of care to their staff. But there have been too few conversations on how to scale up the response in parallel, one senior aid official said, asking not to be named.
With Khartoum under attack, relaunching aid efforts will require finding a new operational hub. The Red Sea city of Port Sudan is being considered by the UN and some NGOs, officials said, though hubs may also be set up outside the country.
As Khartoum’s main airport is shuttered, getting staff and basic supplies into Sudan will also be challenging, according to Sibongani Kayola, who leads Mercy Corps’ work in the country.
“Many aid agencies have evacuated their staff,” said Kayola. “The process of bringing those staff back when the situation calms down and we are ready to start responding is unclear due to the state of the airport.”
Carter of NRC said his agency is pushing for a humanitarian air bridge to be set up in a safer part of the country. He said this could be used to bring in humanitarian personnel and basic supplies.
Funding needs and frontline responders
Getting relief out to people in need will be a massive hurdle, given the current insecurity. Depending on how the conflict unfolds in the weeks and months ahead, aid may need to move across front lines or across national borders.
Carter said a stronger aid infrastructure will be needed in Sudan, including improved security analysis and better coordination mechanisms between civilian and military actors. “The system wasn’t set up before for that,” he said.
Funding for relief efforts will need to increase substantially too. Despite record numbers of people in need last year, aid groups only received around half of the nearly $2 billion they requested from donors – a shortfall that other relief missions are also facing.
“The closing down of embassies was an astonishing thing. It means their concern is not to put pressure on both sides, but their own safety.”
Kayola said aid groups will need to reprioritise funds already allocated to Sudan. She said this could mean refocusing some development-orientated programmes to meet immediate humanitarian needs.
How long it takes for donor funding to materialise remains to be seen. In the meantime, frontline communities and mutual aid networks are acting as first responders, from hosting displaced families to coordinating relief in Khartoum and beyond.
Some Sudanese say they have felt abandoned as foreign embassies have closed operations in Khartoum in recent days, and as long lines of UN vehicles have been seen leaving the city.
A member of one of the Khartoum resistance committees – local groups involved in pro-democracy protests – said they feared the diplomatic vacuum will make it harder to enforce humanitarian corridors for those still trapped by fighting.
“The closing down of embassies was an astonishing thing,” said the resistance committee member, who asked not to be named due to security fears. “It means their concern is not to put pressure [on both sides], but their own safety.”
Aid efforts also need to be scaled up outside of Sudan. In recent days, thousands of Khartoum residents have rushed to the Egyptian border – where they are facing arduous waits – while others have been trying to cross to Saudi Arabia by boat.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) is, meanwhile, planning for 270,000 people to move into South Sudan and Chad, two countries that have their own security problems and underfunded relief missions.
Ngabonziza of the South Sudanese aid group HDC said they counted hundreds of families in the first few days of conflict. He said many South Sudanese residing in Sudan may return home.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 Sudanese have also fled into Chad from the Darfur region, said Roch Souabedet, who is country director there for HIAS, an international aid group that works with refugees.
Souabedet said some of the arrivals fled clashes while others premeditatively left the region, which experienced a major conflict in the 2000s. He said the arrivals are mostly women and children.
“There are those who have already experienced violence, and those who tried to find their way before the situation becomes worse,” Souabedet said. “I think it is based on past experience – they know how this situation can be.”
Chad is already hosting 600,000 refugees, but support programmes in the country have been underfunded for years. Earlier this month, the UN warned of a “complete suspension of assistance” without additional resources.
Souabedet said aid groups had not planned for the new arrivals, and that response efforts are being funded from existing pots. “Serious attention needs to be put on the crisis,” he said. “Chad needs the means to provide the right support.”
Back in Khartoum, the resistance committee member said “day-to-day survival” is now the priority for people. “It doesn't seem like they’re interested in ceasefires,” they said of the battling generals. “It seems both sides are going for a win.”
Philip Kleinfeld reported from Abidjan, and Okech Francis from Juba. Additional reporting from Obi Anyadike in Johannesburg. Edited by Andrew Gully.