When foreign diplomats fled Sudan as fighting engulfed Khartoum, some denied Sudanese civilians the means to follow them to safety. American and French staff shredded passports handed in by those seeking visas, to ensure they did not fall into the wrong hands. Others simply left them locked inside abandoned embassies.
This speaks to the disregard shown to those caught up in the struggle between two generals: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s army chief and de facto leader, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who commands the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. The fighting is not only trashing hospitals, markets and homes. The political analyst Kholood Kair says the conflict has “completely annihilate[d] Sudanese political, social and economic life”. The UN expert for human rights in Sudan, Radhouane Nouicer, warned on Tuesday: “This is the destruction of a country in a way that is dehumanising its people.” More than 850 civilians have been killed, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands displaced since violence erupted in mid-April.
The latest patchy, fragile ceasefire has begun, following a deal brokered by Washington and Riyadh. But expectations are at rock bottom. Both sides remain aggressive; neither has gained a decisive advantage and previous ceasefires have been partially honoured, if at all. While the situation in Khartoum has commanded the most attention, there are concerns that the conflict in Darfur is already broadening. The longer the war drags on, the greater the risk that more people will be drawn into this conflict: other domestic armed groups, civilians who begin to see no other way of defending their communities, and regional players pursuing their own interests. The intense violence could escalate into a fully fledged civil war fuelled by external powers – and even harder to resolve.
Not only are civilians suffering from indiscriminate attacks, but civil society activists are being targeted by people on both sides. That is, perhaps, hardly surprising, when the generals were previously united in preventing a transition to civilian government. Those whom the country most needs are being detained, killed or forced to flee.
This conflict has already demonstrated that counting on military strongmen for stability is a grotesque error. Saudi Arabia, which has ties to both leaders but is regarded as broadly neutral, has been key in bringing them to the table and reaching this ceasefire agreement. No one imagines it will see the return to democracy as an important goal, however. Senior White House engagement and the appointment of a special envoy could help stabilise the situation and should also press for civilian involvement in the longer term. The African Union has so far played a limited role, in part because the two generals have not welcomed its involvement. Its attempt to convene a political process involving civilians is welcome and necessary, but integrating that with the military talks will be extremely difficult, and there is a danger of it being relegated to secondary status. For now, merely stopping the fighting is an immense challenge.
More than half of Sudan’s population needs humanitarian aid. Over 300,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring countries, where many are extremely vulnerable. While the UN has launched a $3bn appeal for help, the UK has just slashed funding to east Africa. As many feared, the international spotlight has swung away from this violence following the evacuation of foreigners. But Sudanese civilians must not be treated as an afterthought.