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Moment that mattered: Armed conflict breaks out in Sudan

People carry Othman Mohamed, a senior army general loyal to Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on their shoulders in Port Sudan on 20th April 2023

People carry Othman Mohamed, a senior army general loyal to Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on their shoulders in Port Sudan on 20th April 2023. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

On 15th April a violent struggle for control of Sudan broke out between the army and a powerful paramilitary group. Led by ex-warlord Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) claimed control of the international airport and the presidential palace, both in the capital Khartoum, on the first day of fighting in the African country. Since then the crisis has escalated with thousands of people killed and millions displaced.

Nima Elbagir, a Sudanese correspondent for CNN, recalls how she first heard about the outbreak of violence. “It was a Saturday, I was at home in London and my brother called [from Sudan],” she says. “I remember just going cold. I was thinking: ‘My parents’ home is not far enough from the airport’.”

This is the second time we’ve interviewed Elbagir about a ‘moment that mattered’ in her home country. In April 2019, Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled Sudan with an iron fist for 30 years, was ousted from power by a military coup following a popular uprising (see here for interview). After the coup the Transitional Military Council, comprising military and civilian members, was set up to run the country until planned elections. Its president was Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the army; its vice president was Hemedti. When we spoke in 2019 Elbagir described the uprising as “a revolution of a people who had finally had enough.” She also warned, prophetically, that to get to democracy “Sudan first has to survive 21 months in which the head of the sovereign council is from the military.”

The planned elections never came to pass. In a second coup in 2021, again staged with the support of the RSF, Burhan and the army seized complete control of the country, dissolving the transitional government and sidelining the civilian groups involved in the power-sharing agreement. Despite having staged two coups together, Burhan and Hemedti were growing increasingly suspicious of each other. The former may have been the country’s de facto leader, but the latter had established extraordinary levels of power, wealth and influence. Hemedti had built alliances with leaders in Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He had sent an estimated 40,000 RSF troops to Yemen to support the Gulf countries in their war there and had given the green light to Russia’s Wagner group to plunder Sudan’s gold in exchange for providing training and weaponry.

Elbagir says it was clear that Burhan and Hemedti were on a “collision course”. In April 2023, when Burhan made moves to subsume the RSF into the regular army, Hemedti saw a potential threat to his power and sent his men into battle. “The situation had become existential for both sides,” she says.

While many Sudanese were shocked to see fighting on the streets of Khartoum, a city that was left largely untouched by the string of civil wars that has scarred Sudan since independence in 1956, Elbagir was not surprised to see Hemedti attempt to seize power. She first interviewed him in 2008 when he was a leader of the ‘Janjaweed’ Arab militia, which has been accused of committing war crimes and genocide in the Darfur region in the 2000s. “I had spent time with Hemedti, spent time reporting on him. I was always under absolutely no illusions about the extent of his ambition,” says Elbagir.

After speaking to her brother on the day fighting broke out, Elbagir called her father in Sudan, a journalist and publisher who has faced time in prison for his work. “I could hear artillery fire in the background while talking to him,” she recalls. “My dad is the most unflappable person on Earth. He was like, ‘Do you need help getting press statements?’ He went straight into journalist mode… At first my parents refused to leave, even though they were right in the thick of it. They kept insisting that they were fine.”

Her parents’ reluctance to abandon their home is understandable – having been exiled three times in the past, they had no intention of leaving Sudan again – but in the end they relented. “This is the fourth time now and there’s something so visceral and emotional about seeing them at the age they’re at now being forced to leave yet again because of the actions yet again of soldiers fighting for power,” Elbagir says. Getting them to depart was not easy. “My sister Yousra, who’s also a journalist, was in Port Sudan [on the Red Sea coast] and she threatened my parents – either you leave Khartoum or I will rent a minibus and cross the front lines to get you.” Elbagir and her siblings managed to help her parents get out of Khartoum, on a tough and dangerous journey that involved “being stranded for 36 hours in no-man’s land at 50°C”. Elbagir speaks to us from Cairo, where she’s temporarily staying with her parents in one of their homes from a previous spell of exile.

Her parents’ home in Khartoum has since been occupied by RSF forces. “My dad was like, ‘I guess that means the army will bomb our house,’ and as horrible as this sounds the reality is that since it’s been vacated and there’s no civilian presence, under international law the army would be within their rights to flatten the house,” says Elbagir.

Sudanese people are sad, angry and traumatised, but there is still pride”

As awful as their situation may be, Elbagir acknowledges that her parents have been relatively lucky. Many residents of Khartoum don’t have the means to get out of the city – the cost of a bus ticket to leave reached around $800, she says – and many others couldn’t get visas for neighbouring countries; her mother’s 91-year-old aunt was initially turned away from the Egyptian border due to a lack of documentation. Every day, Elbagir says, news reaches Cairo of another friend or family member in Sudan who lost their life.

Some of those who have been able to depart the country are now experiencing appalling conditions – many have gone to Chad and South Sudan, among the poorest countries in the world. In June, Elbagir reported from a refugee camp in South Sudan. “Within about five minutes of our arrival, someone [at the camp] died because they had an asthma attack and there was a shortage of oxygen in what was one of the worst hospitals I have seen anywhere,” she says.

Many refugees in the camps come from the Darfur region, where a surge in ethnic violence has had disturbing echoes of the genocide 20 years ago. According to Human Rights Watch, in June the RSF and allied militias killed hundreds of non-Arab residents of the West Darfur capital of El Geneina. The governor of West Darfur, Khamis Abdallah Abbakar, was executed after he criticised the RSF in a TV interview – the RSF denied responsibility. “The violence [in Darfur] almost exactly matches the methodology of the genocide,” says Elbagir. Hemedti may now call his forces the RSF rather than the Janjaweed, but his propensity for ethnic violence appears to be undimmed. In the Darfur conflict rape was used as a weapon of war, and since the start of the current conflict Elbagir has reported on allegations that the RSF is once again terrorising civilians with sexual violence.

In July 2023 UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned that Sudan was on the brink of “full-scale civil war” –  and by the start of September there was still no sign of the violence abating. The RSF now controls most of Khartoum and the Darfur region. Multiple ceasefires have been agreed and broken, and an estimated 5,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

When we spoke to Elbagir four years ago our interview ended on a note of cautious optimism. While the plan for the transition to democracy was fraught with potential pitfalls, she was hopeful that she would one day vote in an election in Sudan for the first time. Does any hope still remain? “Maybe if it’s possible to have hope without optimism, some still exists, yes,” she replies.

Both Burhan and Hemedti say they are committed to the transition to civilian rule. Burhan says that the RSF has “committed every possible crime imaginable” since the start of the fighting, while Hemedti says that the reason he is fighting is to protect the democratic transition from his rival, who he describes as a “radical Islamist”. The Sudanese people have little reason to believe either of them.

“Sudanese people are sad, they’re angry, they’re traumatised, but at the same time there is still pride in the knowledge that the people did the impossible [in 2019],” Elbagir says. “Nobody thought that after 30 years al-Bashir could be overthrown. The idea of a democratic Sudan is something that people are unwilling to let go of.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #51 of Delayed Gratification

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