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‘Everything is destroyed’: Refugees recount the battle for Darfur’s largest city

‘We stayed under our beds as the fighting just kept going on and on.’

At the center of this image is a white tent, other tents are in the background. Okech Francis/TNH
South Sudan’s Wedwiel Refugee Settlement is hosting 9,000 Sudanese refugees, with most arriving from Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state.

Episodic fighting between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces is causing widespread destruction in Nyala, the second biggest city in the country and the largest in the Darfur region, say refugees escaping to neighbouring South Sudan.

While battles continue to trap millions of people inside the capital, Khartoum, the impact that war is having on Nyala has been less well documented, even as hundreds of civilians are killed, reports of sexual violence surge, and public infrastructure collapses.

“Life had come to a complete standstill,” said Fatima Hassan*, a university lecturer who recently left Nyala for a refugee camp in South Sudan. “There was no functioning market, no hospitals, power wasn’t working. There was no money, no help or assistance.”

Nyala is home to around half a million people and is a stronghold of the RSF. The battle to control the city – the capital of South Darfur, one of five states in the western region – has been one of the bloodiest since nationwide conflict broke out in April.

Tens of thousands of Darfuris have fled the city, including several thousand who have ended up at the newly established Wedwiel Refugee Settlement in South Sudan, which The New Humanitarian visited last week. 

Refugees described enduring a similar situation in Nyala to what is happening in Khartoum. They said RSF troops have fanned out into residential areas that the Sudanese army is then shelling with little regard for civilians.

Ceasefires negotiated by community groups in Nyala have led to pauses in the conflict. But outbreaks of fighting still take place every few weeks, severing communication networks, and preventing humanitarian aid from getting into the city.

A Darfuri journalist describes the battle for Nyala

Hafez Hussein, a teacher from Nyala, said he was forced to leave after a shell struck the compound he was living in, killing two children. “I was one of the people who carried them to hospital,” Hussein said. “But after we arrived, they died in our hands.”

Several refugees said the RSF and allied militias have been looting shops and houses, detaining and torturing civilians they accuse of belonging to the army, and abducting women and girls, echoing similar accounts from Khartoum and other cities.

“I remember six girls were taken away forcefully from our area by the RSF,” said Salwa Aldeen, who left Nyala in August. “They were our neighbours, and they did not come back. We still don’t know their whereabouts up to today.”

Aldeen said the refugees in South Sudan would like to head back to Nyala but only when the situation normalises. “We are still not certain about our future,” she said. “We are just here and we don’t know where we are heading.”

Wedwiel is currently hosting 9,000 people – the majority from Nyala – according to Garang Mayuen Athian, who works for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The camp is close to the town of Aweil in South Sudan’s Northern Bahr el Ghazal state. 

Dominic Kang Deng, a state minister in Northern Bahr el Ghazal said refugees have been allocated individual plots of land for farming. He said there are plans to find employment for them and that they won’t be treated like “foreign expatriates”.

Refugees said there isn’t enough food at the camp – which is mainly a collection of tents, some held up by straw – but that residents are supporting one another by cooking collective meals and by sourcing medicine for those in need.

 

 

Sudan’s conflict has produced the world’s fastest-growing displacement crisis, according to the UN. Some 1.2 million people have crossed into neighbouring countries, and nearly 4.5 million have been uprooted internally.

The testimonies that follow – edited for length and clarity – provide a snapshot of what has been happening in Nyala. For more on conflict in the city, read this first person testimony from a local journalist, and check out reporting from other Darfur towns too.

Khalil Osman, businessman: ‘What I lost is something that I cannot imagine’

“When this conflict started, we thought that it was something happening only in Khartoum, and that it is a problem that will end in a few weeks time or in a few days. But unfortunately the situation continued and also came down to Nyala.

I was previously living in a very, very good condition – I had a lot of resources and I was also a businessman. I was able to support many people. But now I have become vulnerable. I don't have anything, and I cannot even support myself. 

One day [in July], I decided to come out of my house and go to my shop. When I reached it, I found the shop had been broken into and the safe was removed, and everything in my shop was looted. It was a very big shock and surprise to me. 

When returning home… I passed two vehicles mounted with heavy weapons and full of RSF soldiers. They stopped me and started debating among themselves. Some were saying, ‘release him’, others were saying ‘don't let him go, this guy is a soldier’. 

They detained me for a long time, and only decided to release me after taking everything I had in my pockets, including my phones. It was happening to everybody. If they see you and have doubts on you, they will just arrest, interrogate, and torture you.

They come into populated residential areas, and then begin to shell the army. When the army responds, civilians actually fall victim. 

Another time, during daytime, some RSF soldiers came in a vehicle, parked it near my house, and then about five of them entered my house. They told me, for you, we are requesting personal [financial] support.

I told them I don't have this money and I can't get this money because even my shop was looted, and I don't have anything. Even something to eat with my family, I don't have. They told me, ‘you must get the money, it is requested from you and you must pay’. 

All the parties contributed to the suffering of civilians, but it is the RSF that is choosing the wrong places for battle. They come into populated residential areas, and then begin to shell the army. When the army responds, civilians actually fall victim. 

Most of the hospitals were also occupied by the RSF and even pharmacies were looted. All the medicine was taken away from the pharmacies, and the few health facilities that tried to work were also destroyed and some of them became battlefields.

Markets were attacked and looted too. The few businesspeople and traders that managed to carry some goods to their homes and tried to protect those goods were also looted in their homes.

Going back to Nyala is really difficult because the situation that we came out from is really a situation that cannot allow us to go back. Also, in addition to that, I was targeted as I explained.

The way we support each other here is just in our hearts and thoughts, but we don't have anything material to offer. You can see your brother or your sister lying down sick and you don't have any ability to take him or her to the hospital. 

What I lost is something that I cannot imagine that I will get back very easily. It was the work of my entire life. What I have been working for and saving – I lost it all. I cannot just get it back in a year or two.

I never requested help from people. I have been helping many people, but life can change for the worse. As I sit here in my tent and reflect back, I see the big bed I slept on, the air-conditioned house, the quality food I ate, all just gone. But that is life.”

Salwa Aldeen, medical worker: ‘We are just here and we don’t know where we are heading’

“In our neighbourhood, a bomb fell on a neighbour’s house and some people were injured and killed. Women were also beaten and tortured in Nyala without respect. 

I remember six girls were taken away forcefully from our area by the RSF. They were our neighbours and they did not come back. We still don’t know their whereabouts up to today.

All basic services completely stopped. Water was a problem. There was no power. All the medical facilities and hospitals were not working. Those who are sick with diseases were not getting services. You are prescribed medicine, but there is no pharmacy working.

On the roads, the bullets were flying everywhere and you could not even move. The people who were injured or sick and were brought to the hospital, many of them died in the hospital because there were no services.

I remember six girls were taken away forcefully from our area by the RSF. They were our neighbours and they did not come back. We still don’t know their whereabouts up to today.

The day I left with my family, there was heavy fighting and people were running and many died. I saw people being stopped and robbed, and when we were coming out of Nyala, a group of soldiers also stopped us and robbed everything we had. 

We share whatever we have in Wedwiel. We have lunch together, we have dinner together, then we take tea together. The one who has and the one who doesn’t, we always eat together. If you have something, we share it. That is how we are living.

If Nyala returns back to a normal situation like before and becomes safe, we can go back because there is no better place than our home. But we are still not certain about our future. We are just here and we don’t know where we are heading.”

Hafez Hussein, teacher: ‘We have this solidarity and that is what is holding us together’

“In the compound where we were living, a bomb fell on a house. I can never forget it. Two young children, maybe 10 to 13 were both hit and badly injured. I was one of the people who carried them to hospital. But after we arrived, they died in our hands.

We were targeted by the RSF. Whenever they see you, they call you, and they accuse you of being a soldier or a spy, or an army intelligence officer coming to collect information. If you are lucky not to be killed by them, they will torture you and they will rob everything that you have.

There was nothing coming into Nyala because all the roads were blocked by RSF rebels. There was not a single thing that was coming in, whether it was humanitarian assistance or commercial goods.

We were sharing the little resources and food we had with neighbours, but there came a time when we saw our resources finishing, and we resorted to having one meal per day instead of three meals. When we exhausted even that, we decided to leave.

We were targeted by the RSF. Whenever they see you, they call you, and they accuse you of being a soldier or a spy, or an army intelligence officer coming to collect information. If you are lucky not to be killed by them, they will torture you and they will rob everything that you have.

I am not really thinking that we will go back soon because what we have seen in Nyala is something that is really terrible. For me, I have lost everything, including the home that I was living in. 

We chose to come to South Sudan, which is our second home. But we also know that the situation here [is difficult], so we are hoping, if possible, to find a way of leaving and going to other countries that may offer a better life.

As Sudanese, it is our tradition that we love each other and we care about each other. We are living here in this compound in Wedwiel, and the common ground here is that all of us are from Nyala but we are not related to each other. 

Today, if I don’t have something, I will eat with my brothers, and if another one doesn’t have something, he will eat with us. If somebody also falls sick, we also care for each other.

A few days ago, my little child was sick, and he was admitted to Aweil hospital for four days, and I was there with him. So I left my other two children here, and the neighbours took very good care of them.

They were also checking on me every day, asking how the child is. They were even visiting me to see if my child had recovered. That is something that I will never forget. We have this solidarity, and that is what is holding us together.”

Fatima Hassan, university lecturer: ‘How can I go back when everything is destroyed?’

“I ran from Nyala because of the conflict. Life had come to a complete standstill. There was no functioning market, no hospitals, power wasn’t working. There was no money, no help or assistance.

People were killed and bodies were lying on the streets. When you left your home, going out, maybe to eat or to get medicine, people weren’t certain if they would come back or not.

All the time, we stayed under our beds, as the fighting just kept going on and on. If you went out, a bullet might hit you and then you would be gone. So, it was difficult and we were unable to move.

People were killed and bodies were lying on the streets. When you left your home, going out, maybe to eat or to get medicine, people weren’t certain if they would come back or not.

I have seen a lot. This is my first time to see a dead body lying on the street, a lot of bodies, some even rotten. I have seen many of them now, bodies of men, women, and some of children.

Life here in Wedwiel is difficult. There is collaboration among ourselves, and solidarity as Sudanese. But the situation is very, very bad because the food we are being given is not enough. Our bodies are weakening and it is making us vulnerable to diseases.

I am a graduate and I have no job now. I was teaching at a university. I need a scholarship and to go for further studies. I just don’t want to talk about Nyala for now. How can I go back when everything is destroyed?”

*The names of all refugees cited in this article have been changed for security reasons

This project was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid. TNH used transportation provided by UNHCR to reach Aweil. Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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