Follow our new WhatsApp channel

See updates
  1. Home
  2. Africa

Sudan briefing: Civilians face increasing fragility under military rule

Humanitarian officials say aid operations ‘hampered’ in the wake of political violence


Life is tentatively returning to Khartoum’s streets after pro-democracy campaigners abandoned a general strike this week, but Sudanese civilians are confronted by a range of challenges, from growing medical needs in the capital to renewed violence in Darfur, Port Sudan, and Kassala.

“The humanitarian situation is only going to get worse before it gets better because of the uncertainty around the political transition, the economic crisis, lack of development assistance,” a senior UN official in the Sudanese capital told The New Humanitarian.

Most hospitals in Khartoum are not fully functioning, reports of sexual harassment and assault of women and girls have grown, and restricted internet service and unreliable telecommunications are making it harder to help the most vulnerable.

The Transitional Military Council governing Sudan since the April ouster of president Omar al-Bashir has admitted “some mistakes happened” in a 3 June crackdown on sit-in protesters by paramilitary Rapid Support Forces that left more than 110 people dead.

But the ruling military junta has stopped well short of meeting pre-conditions set by the opposition Alliance for Freedom and Change for the resumption of talks – raising concerns that Sudan’s crisis could deepen.

This briefing offers an overview of the situation in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan.

What is the situation in the capital?

Although some life is returning to Khartoum’s commercial areas, at night there are still roadblocks set up by civilians to protect themselves from soldiers, particularly the RSF.

Many hospitals were closed and are only now reopening, although most can only offer limited services. Health facilities were deliberately attacked by the RSF during the 3 June violence, witnesses told TNH.

“We have received information that children are being detained, recruited to join the fighting and sexually abused.”

“Schools, hospitals, and health centres have been targeted, looted, and destroyed,” UNICEF’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement. “We have received information that children are being detained, recruited to join the fighting and sexually abused.”

A second UN official, who also asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of speaking to journalists, estimated that in the 72 hours following the RSF crackdown there were likely “thousands of women and girls who have been subjected to forms of violent harassment”.

Women TNH spoke to said they faced significant harassment on the streets of the capital by the RSF – the bulk of whom are drawn from the notorious Janjaweed militia, alleged to have committed numerous war crimes when deployed by al-Bashir in Darfur in the early 2000s.

The UN has evacuated all non-essential staff from Sudan, but it has also brought in some specialised personnel to help with the increased caseload – including survivors of sexual violence.

What’s the situation outside Khartoum?

The western state of Darfur has long been a byword for lawlessness and rights abuses. Since 2003, Khartoum’s scorched-earth campaign against rebels has left between 200,000 and 300,000 people dead and 2.7 million displaced.

Since the fall of al-Bashir, there has been an increase in tensions involving local communities and ethnic militia emboldened by the political situation.

“The lid is off.”

Amnesty International said it had disturbing new evidence, including satellite imagery, of villages destroyed by government forces and allied militias, describing their actions as “war crimes and other serious human rights violations.”

“The lid is off,” one senior aid official commented.

The UN-African Union Mission in Darfur, or UNAMID, confirmed on Thursday the killing of 17 people and the torching of more than 100 houses in the village of Deleij in central Darfur earlier this week.

The violence "occurred during heated clashes between nomads and residents apparently angered by the increase in commodity prices at the local market,” UNAMID said.

The opposition-linked Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors had accused the Janjaweed militia of a “systematic massacre” in Deleij.

Ahead of a UN vote on UNAMID’s future on 27 June, Amnesty International has urged the Security Council not to go ahead with a “premature and reckless” drawdown of peacekeepers who offer the only protection to vulnerable refugees and internally displaced persons in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur.

The rights group condemned the TMC’s demand to hand over vacated bases to the RSF – a demand also firmly rejected by the African Union on Friday.

In eastern Sudan there has also been a sharp rise in violence linked to the political crisis in Khartoum. More than 30 people have reportedly been killed in recent days in “tribal and criminal” clashes in Port Sudan. The fighting between the Beni Amir and the Nuba ethnic groups also spread to the cities of Khashm el-Girba and Kassala.

Local leaders accused Khartoum’s “deep state” of meddling, with the RSF recruiting from among the Beni Amir – a community traditionally supported by Saudi Arabia.

What are the food needs?

An estimated 5.7 million people are facing food shortages across the country, according to government figures. It was a sharp depreciation of the local currency, hyperinflation and fuel and food shortages that triggered the protests that finally led to the toppling of al-Bashir.

FEWS NET, which provides early warning of hunger and famine, says poor households will face “crisis” conditions – a struggle to cover their minimum food needs – in most areas of Greater Darfur, North Kordofan, South Kordofan, southern Blue Nile, northern Kassala, and Red Sea states through to September.

Displaced people in areas of South Kordofan controlled by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North and the Jebel Marra stronghold of the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid will face “emergency” levels of hunger, the US-funded group said.

How is politics affecting the response?

Sudan was already one of the more challenging countries for humanitarians to work in. The Humanitarian Aid Commission, an arm of the country’s intelligence service, has historically interfered with aid work – monitoring and delaying operations and, on occasion, expelling humanitarians.

In the current uncertain political climate, some senior officials in the line ministries that aid workers deal with now hesitate to make decisions. Staff shake-ups since the fall of al-Bashir have also meant the loss of some long-established contacts.

The HAC was looted on 3 June, and the loss of equipment – and the passports of aid workers being processed – saw an already sclerotic process become slower still.

“They don’t have internet and printers, and so what was already a heavily restricted environment will be delayed,” the second UN official said.

Restrictions on internet services and an unreliable phone network are “significantly hampering humanitarian operations,” according to a statement from the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA.

What’s going on with the political talks?

Sudan is still in shock over the 3 June crackdown and wider violence against civilians by the RSF that included mass rapes. The RSF is under the command of the deputy head of the TMC, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as 'Hemeti'.

The opposition Alliance for Freedom and Change said it suspended its strike to allow an Ethiopian-led mediation to resume, and to allow citizens to return to work.

But it insisted it would only agree to direct talks with the ruling TMC once the security forces are withdrawn from the streets and an independent investigation is launched into the 3 June attack by the RSF on civilian protesters.

The newly appointed US special envoy to Sudan, Donald Booth, and the assistant secretary of state for Africa, Tibor Nagy, met TMC chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on Thursday.

Ethiopia, which has led the international mediation efforts, said talks between the military and the opposition alliance on a transition to civilian rule would resume soon, but no date has been set.

The situation still remains volatile. TMC spokesman Shams al-Din Kabashi acknowledged “more than one” coup attempt by dissident officers had been prevented in recent days and the plotters were in custody.

There are also divisions within the opposition alliance over a power-sharing proposal by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with some fearful it could be a trap that legitimises military rule.


Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.