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‘We are on the edge’: Communication blackout thwarts mutual aid efforts in besieged Khartoum

‘If this continues, it will be a factor that hastens famine.’

This is a composite image done in an editorial collage style. At the centre is a hand holding a phone. On the left are two women walking away, on the top right is a woman with her hands over carton boxes. On the bottom right are plumes of smoke over the skyline of Khartoum, Sudan. Composite with photos from: El Tayeb Siddig, Hadeer Mahmoud, Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters and MetaLab/nappy

A communication blackout across Sudan is having a particularly harmful impact on the besieged capital city, Khartoum, where some mutual aid groups have suspended their life-saving humanitarian work even amid growing levels of catastrophic hunger.

Ten months of conflict between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has overturned the lives of millions of people in Khartoum. And now the one-month blackout has left civilians enduring the still-expanding war in the dark.

“The outage brought me different obstacles, but the main thing is that I cannot communicate with my relatives outside of Sudan who are supporting us financially,” said Amani*, who lives in Khartoum and looks after a large family.

Amani said the severing of support from relatives – who send her money via a mobile banking application – has left her family dependent on a communal kitchen run by one of the city’s many mutual aid groups, which are known as emergency response rooms.

The communication outage began in early February and has been blamed on the RSF. The group is accused of cutting the network to force engineers to restore internet to their stronghold in Darfur, where services have been absent for several months.

International aid groups say the blackout has disrupted their already hamstrung operations at a time when 25 million people across the country need humanitarian assistance, and seven million are expected to face extreme hunger by June.

Though connectivity has improved in some areas, networks are down in many cities, including Khartoum, where bank closures and cash shortages mean residents and mutual aid groups depend entirely on e-wallets to receive money and buy goods.

Volunteers from Khartoum’s emergency response rooms – the main humanitarian actors in the city – said their food banks, which feed hundreds of thousands of people, are collapsing because they don’t have access to their mobile banking applications.

The volunteers told The New Humanitarian that the absence of a telephone network also means they are struggling to connect people with chronic diseases to pharmacies and health clinics that have the right medicine in stock.

The volunteers all described severe hunger taking hold in the capital – still home to around half of its six million pre-war population – and called for international institutions to urgently pressure the warring parties to restore communication services.

“If this continues, it will be a factor that hastens famine,” said Yusuf, a member of an emergency response room in the East Nile area of Khartoum. “We are on the edge, and the international community should help us.”

Shuttered kitchens and scant supplies

Sudan’s conflict was triggered by a dispute over plans to merge the RSF into the army. Fighting first broke out in Khartoum and soon enveloped densely populated districts, where residents have faced constant threats of rape, robbery, and killings.

The RSF controls most of the capital and its fighters have taken over people’s homes to shield themselves from army airstrikes that regularly kill civilians. Vital infrastructure has been destroyed, and public services have collapsed as government institutions have relocated to the east.

Emergency response rooms – youth-driven neighbourhood networks that draw on a long history of mutual aid in Sudan – have stepped into the void, especially as bureaucratic and security constraints restrict the access of international aid groups.

Still, volunteers from these groups have described facing constant harassment and threats from the warring parties, and their funding has largely been reliant on local communities and diaspora groups rather than international aid donors.

“In our neighbourhood, everyone is poor and in need of everything. Most families could not afford food for a single day.”

Abo Mahmoud, a volunteer who works at a communal kitchen in Khartoum, said the situation has worsened significantly since the blackout began because his group cannot receive funds through Bankak, the digital mobile application of the Bank of Khartoum.

Mahmoud said their kitchen has had to temporarily close, which means the 850 families they supported each day are going even hungrier. In other parts of the city, emergency response rooms say kitchen closures are leading to starvation deaths.

“The number of people experiencing famine may be even bigger than it is written in reports,” Mahmoud told The New Humanitarian. “In our neighbourhood, everyone is poor and in need of everything. Most families could not afford food for a single day.”

Yusuf, from the emergency response room in East Nile, said volunteers at his group “totally depend on the internet” to receive financial transfers and to communicate with each other, with aid recipients, and with their donors.

Yusuf said a lack of available supplies from Khartoum merchants – who also work through mobile banking systems – means his group would struggle right now even if they had access to their e-wallets or to physical cash.

Not being able to communicate online or over the phone is especially problematic when there are so many risks involved in moving around Khartoum, added Anas, who works for an emergency response room in Bahri, a city adjacent to Khartoum.

“It is a war situation and security is stressed, especially in Khartoum,” Anas said. “There is limited transportation and limited movement [because of] security risks and restrictions… especially when fighter jets bomb the area.”

A dangerous alternative

To get back online, emergency response room volunteers said they are increasingly using Elon Musk's Starlink satellite communication network, which has also been used in other conflict zones where internet connections have been severed.

Volunteers said soldiers from the RSF are the main providers of the Starlink devices – reportedly importing them via supply corridors that run through neighbouring countries – and charge around $5 for one hour’s use in local coffee shops.

Jaralnabi, a volunteer from an emergency response room in Khartoum’s Aljerief West locality, said finding cash to pay for the devices is hard, while accessing the coffee shops exposes people to army airstrikes due to the presence of RSF fighters.

“We could [also] be targeted by RSF soldiers themselves,” Jaralnabi said. “They might steal our cell phones or even make us open up our Bankak account and then transfer money into their accounts.”

Mahmoud, the communal kitchen volunteer, said his group must walk long distances to find satellite devices. “The international community could help by pressuring the two sides to bring back the internet or by offering us Starlink devices,” Mahmoud said.

Anas from Bahri said there are no devices at all in his city, and that people are having to travel to neighbouring states to physically collect cash donations and get access to the internet.

"The Bahri emergency response room is not able to receive money from donors due to the outage and could not send reports to them so that they can hold themselves accountable,” Anas said.

‘Violations are not being monitored’

The volunteers who spoke to The New Humanitarian said they are also worried that the blackout is providing cover to the army and the RSF to commit acts of violence without any documentation.

Last week, a Sudanese human rights group accused the RSF of attacking more than 50 villages in Al Jazirah state, south of Khartoum. The attacks come as the army ramps up its own military operations after several defeats.

“When there is connection, people can share the news, and the military is [more] afraid when human rights violations are being monitored. The absence of the internet threatens civilian rights.”

A report published last month by the UN accused the RSF of massacring thousands of people in the western Darfur region, and committing widespread sexual abuse. The report also accused the army of killing more than 100 civilians in airstrikes.

“The conflict parties are committing crimes against civilians, but violations are not being monitored while the internet is not available,” Amal, a journalist and resident of Khartoum, told The New Humanitarian.

Anas from Bahri added: “When there is connection, people can share the news, and the military is [more] afraid when human rights violations are being monitored. The absence of the internet threatens civilian rights.”

Jaralnabi from the Aljerief West locality said getting the internet back is crucial but ending the war is even more paramount. “If we are able to stop the war, then everything could be resolved,” they said. “People want security in their daily lives.”

*The names of all sources in this story have been changed due to security risks.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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