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Sudan's war: A year on, no hope for a cease-fire

April 14, 2024

After a year of war, Sudan is dealing with one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. As more local and international actors get involved, the outlook remains grim.

A young woman sitting among a pile of belongings
After a year of fighting, more than 550,000 people have now fled from the war in Sudan to South SudanImage: Eva-Maria Krafczyk/dpa/picture alliance

"There are extreme levels of suffering across the country, the needs are growing by the day, but the humanitarian response is deeply inadequate."

This is how the head of Doctors Without Borders, Christos Christou, recently described the impact of the war that broke out in Sudan a year ago.

The conditions are appalling in refugee camps in some of the hardest hit areas, he said. There's not enough drinking water, food or other aid, and hygiene facilities are non-existent. "I urge international organizations to scale up their response," Christou wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on April 8.

According to the United Nations, about a third of the country's population, or 18 million people, are facing acute hunger. Most of these people are in areas where aid agencies have little or no access, UN agencies have said.

Fighting in Sudan has been ongoing since April 2023, with two large military groups facing off against one another. These are the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, which has about 200,000 personnel and is headed by General Abdel Fattah Burhan; it works more like a regular army. The other is the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, which is estimated to have 70,000 to 100,000 personnel and is headed by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti.

The conflict began last year after a proposal — part of Sudan's democratic transition, that would have seen the RSF absorbed by the SAF — worsened tensions between the two factions. The growing political ambitions held by RSF chief Dagalo reportedly also played a part.

Laborers rest on sacks of grains at a market in Gedaref, eastern Sudan.
In some areas, warring parties have deliberately destroyed foodImage: EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP/Getty Images

Some civilian actors are also to blame, said Osman Mirghani, editor-in-chief of the Sudanese daily, Al-Tayar. Despite an agreement signed in December 2022, some people wanted to push through their own agenda at any cost and established ties with military groups to do so. "Unfortunately, all political parties are trying to retain their power even at the price of war," Mirghani told DW. 

Deliberate destruction of food, blocked aid

The two warring parties are willing to accept that their actions have brought about a humanitarian crisis, said Marina Peter, who heads a German advocacy group, the Sudan and South Sudan Forum. In many parts of Sudan, local farmers can't grow anything because of fighting and in traditionally fertile regions like Gezira or White Nile, crops and other foods have deliberately been destroyed by fighters, she said.

"The RSF has set fire to grain depots in areas they want to conquer," she told DW. "They also deliberately prevent humanitarian aid getting into these areas."

There are also international actors taking part in the fighting, Peter added. For example, Egypt has given support to the Sudanese Armed Forces.

"The government in Cairo has always been skeptical about the peaceful revolution [in Sudan] and the prospect of a civilian Sudanese government," Peter explained. "It wants a form of rule here that is like its own — that is, military leadership with a democratic face."

At the same time, Egypt is worried the conflict could spread over the border and put its water supply from the Nile River at risk. That, said Peter, is why Cairo has thrown its support behind officials in power. "And from the Egyptian perspective, that is Abdel Fattah Burhan," she said.

The SAF has also recently gained another new partner: Iran. The SAF "has established some stable relationships there. They're now getting drones delivered from there," said Peter.

Meanwhile, with Sudan's gold reserves often sold through the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf emirate is betting on the RSF and its leader, Hemedti. "The RSF have long been building troops to organize the mining and transport of the gold," said Peter.

Gold aside, the UAE does not want to see an Islamist politician, similar to previous authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir, back in power.

"This is bizarre, though, because both Burhan and Hemedti are the ideological offspring of the deposed president, Omar al-Bashir, who followed an Islamist course," said Peter. "But the RSF are trying to portray themselves as opponents of those old cadres and they have convinced the UAE of this." This is why the United Arab Emirates is supplying the RSF with weaponry, she added.

Refugees from Sudan arrive in Chad.
War in Sudan has displaced 5.4 million people within Sudan and driven over 1.4 million people into neighboring countries like ChadImage: David Allignon/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

Those weapons shipments have often been delivered via Libya, up until last year with the help of Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group. The private military company, whose units in Africa have been rebranded as the Africa Corps since coming under the umbrella of the Kremlin, are looking to expand their influence in this region.

Little hope for cease-fire

The end of the conflict does not appear to be near, Hager Ali, a researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, wrote in a January analysis. In part, this is because more Sudanese factions are getting involved in the violence, often for their own ends.

"Involving [other] armed factions likely rendered the SAF and the RSF unable to end the violence, too, because command structures within and between troops eroded," she wrote. "The more preexisting factions join the war, the more it localizes the principal conflict between the SAF and RSF, and the more it drowns out their power struggle with faction-specific agendas."

Fighting will also continue because of international involvement, Ali argued. "Fuel, ammunition, weapons and other cargo are smuggled through Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, and via the Red Sea. Weapons also arrive from Uganda and South Sudan. The UAE and the Wagner Group cooperate closely to supply the war through these countries," she wrote.

In the days leading up to the first anniversary of the conflict, Norway and other Western governments published an appeal calling on those involved in Sudan's war to end their fighting and negotiate an immediate cease-fire. But despite the ongoing civilian suffering, there are no signs that anybody is paying them any attention.

This story was originally written in German.

Forgotten war: Stories of survival in Sudan

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East