Foreign Correspondence

Sudan’s war is crushing the promise of democracy

A war between two forces has caused the world’s ‘worst humanitarian nightmare’. Amid the violence, pro-democracy activists struggle on

November 29, 2023
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More than six million people have been displaced. Image credit: Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo.jpg

“My message is for you, Burhan; you and Hemedti. May God exact His vengeance on you both.”

A young woman, her face cradled in her tobe, speaks directly into the camera. She is a survivor of the Ardamata massacre, one of several attacks by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF, formerly the Janjaweed) in West Darfur. Her voice is quiet and controlled, but her eyes seem to show a feeling of total betrayal.

In that attack RSF forces—led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or “Hemedti”—brutally murdered more than 1,000 people over a period of three days, the majority of them men, and virtually all from the indigenous Masalit tribe. Those lucky enough to escape with their lives fled as the RSF looted homes and set fire to the town. Shortly before, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, with whom the RSF are at war, had packed up their gear and evacuated the base in Ardamata, leaving the civilians to fend for themselves.

Many consider the attacks on Ardamata an extension of the long-standing, ethnically driven and politically fuelled conflict in Darfur, rather than being a consequence of the war that has been raging since April in Sudan’s capital Khartoum. But the actors are the same, two sides of the same despotic coin that revolutionaries from Darfur to Khartoum have been warning the world about for years.

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The war between rival generals Al-Burhan and Hemedti has just completed its seventh month. In that time, at least 12,000 people have been injured, more than 9,000 killed and more than five million people have been displaced from their homes, including three million children. The UN’s Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Chief, Martin Griffiths, has declared it one of the “worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history.”

The Resistance Committees were largely sidelined during the transitional period, and actively silenced during the two years post-coup. 

Since the outbreak of the war, they remain the only support system for millions of Sudanese people within and outside the conflict zones. “Our work began on day one,” says Oshi. “On the political front, the committees released statements denouncing the war and the warring factions; in the media, we were reporting on the reality on the ground in our areas.” 

Emergency response rooms were quickly set up by the committees to provide food, medicine, fuel and electricity to their communities. In the early days of the war, volunteers in Khartoum were responsible for helping embassy staff and foreign nationals safely evacuate from some of the most volatile areas of the city. 

Seven months later, long after the world had turned away, these civilian volunteers continue to do the work of humanitarian organisations, tending to the people trapped in the conflict zones, caught between the brutality of the RSF and the indifference of the military. Here, civilians are not just considered collateral damage; they are everything from direct targets to spoils of war. 

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And the volunteers in the emergency response rooms are “enemies of the state”. They are arrested by Burhan’s military intelligence agency, abducted by the RSF, detained by both, and accused by both sides of conspiring with the other. Here, law and order is a myth, due process a long-forgotten concept. 

In 2019, world powers congratulated Sudan for ousting of 30-year dictator Omar Al-Bashir, touting their support for the revolutionary Sudanese people and their desires for democracy. In 2021, as the military and RSF sought to choke the life out of the pro-democracy movement, those same world powers told the revolutionaries to aim lower, be reasonable and make it work with their oppressors.

And now, the war that the pro-democracy movement had warned about has come to pass, but these world powers have grown tired of Sudan and its problems. The quick fix they were hoping for does not exist, and they have more pressing matters elsewhere. 

And so, the generals fight, on the battlefield and at the negotiation table. And the people die, in their homes, in the shelters and in the camps. And those who remain, in Sudan and abroad, give everything they have to salvage what remains, in the hopes that out of the ash their nation can begin again.