1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Why is the world ignoring the Sudan civil war?

June 14, 2024

It has been classified as one of the world's worst crises in many ways. But aid and advocacy organizations say the war in Sudan is being overlooked, which may well be making things worse.

Demonstration in response to the ongoing civil war in Sudan, which has now surpassed the one-year mark.
The year-long civil war in Sudan has been overshadowed by the conflict in Gaza and the war in UkraineImage: Joao Daniel Pereira/Atlantico/ZUMA/picture alliance

The list of wartime atrocities in Sudan is long and getting longer.

A maternity hospital bombed, causing the roof to fall onto babies inside. Refugee camps shelled, mass executions, streets filled with corpses, aid blocked, systematic sexual abuse and other war crimes: since the civil war started a year ago in the northeast African country, an estimated 16,000 people have been killed.

Sudan's war has also created the world's worst displacement crisis, with just under 10 million people forced to move to find safety. Last week, the United Nation's International Organization for Migration reported that of the millions of Sudanese displaced, 70% were "now trying to survive in places that are at risk of famine."

Despite this week's call for a limited cease-fire from the UN Security Council, the situation is not improving, all the aid and advocacy organizations involved say.

How did the war start?

Since mid-April 2023, two military groups inside Sudan have been fighting: the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, and the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF.

They began fighting in 2023 after disagreeing about how to share power following a military coup in late 2021. 

The SAF has about 200,000 personnel, is headed by Abdel Fattah Burhan and works more like a regular army. The RSF is estimated to have 70,000 to 100,000 personnel and is headed by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, and is more like a guerrilla force.

A burnt vehicle in front of damaged shop in Omdurman, Sudan.
The SAF and RSF are relatively equal in terms of fighting ability and neither has yet managed to overpower the otherImage: AFP

Most recently, the RSF has been gaining some ground in the western region of Darfur. In April, it took control of the strategically important city of Mellit and is now laying siege to El Fasher, a metropolis where over 1.5 million people are thought to be sheltering. 

"They [the combatants] are not patriots," Adam Rojal, a spokesperson for displaced people and refugees in Darfur, told media outlet Voice of America this week. "They are fighting [only] for their own interests. The only loser is the society of Sudan. People have lost everything," he said. "Words can't describe how serious this crisis is."

UN ambassador: 'Unforgivable silence'

Despite the intensifying levels of violence and deprivation in Sudan, many human rights and aid organizations say the rest of the world has been ignoring the conflict.

In April, on the anniversary of the start of the fighting, an international donor conference pledged $2.1 billion (€1.95 billion) more in humanitarian aid for Sudan. However, in a letter written at the end of May, senior members of the UN said they had only received 16% of the total $2.7 billion they needed.

"You can't help but watch the level of focus on crises like Gaza and Ukraine and wonder what just 5% of that energy could have done in a context like Sudan and how many thousands, tens of thousands of lives it could've saved," Alan Boswell, an expert at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy magazine in late May.

In March, the US ambassador to the UN also pointed this out in an op-ed for the New York Times titled "The Unforgivable Silence on Sudan."

Civil war has "turned Sudan into a living hell," Linda Thomas-Greenfield wrote. "But even after aid groups designated the country's humanitarian crisis to be among the world's worst, little attention or help has gone to the Sudanese people."

Why is no attention being paid to Sudan?

In mid-April, Melissa Fleming, the under-secretary-general for global communications at the UN, wrote a self-published op-ed in which she explored this question.

One reason for the lack of attention might be what is known as "psychic numbing," Fleming wrote. "The term … refers to the sad reality that people feel more apathetic towards a tragedy as the number of victims increases."

Other crises happening simultaneously can also have a numbing effect, she added — everything from climate change to the conflict in Gaza and the Ukraine war.

It may also have to do with the nature of the Sudanese conflict. Research has previously shown that civil wars — especially those seen as internal matters in a faraway country — get less attention than conflicts where one country attacks another.

Sudanese refugees in Cairo
An estimated 1.7 people have fled to countries surrounding Sudan, including 460,000 to Egypt, seen hereImage: Khaled Elfiqi/Matrix Images/picture alliance

"I've been really grappling with this question basically since I started working on Sudan issues in 1997," said Roman Deckert, a Geneva-based independent expert on Sudan when asked why the dire situation there doesn't get more attention. "Like so many things in life, the answer is a mix of things," he told DW.

One factor is the complexity of the situation, where neither side is obviously "good or evil," he said. Another may be a deeply ingrained, potentially even subconscious, racism or Eurocentrism, he suggested, where outsiders incorrectly perceive the fighting as somehow "uncivilized" or "typical."

Deckert, who mostly works for a Berlin-based media development organization, recounted how when he first started researching Sudan, it was war in the former Yugoslavia that was getting more attention than emerging famine in Darfur.

"A [German] journalist was talking about this at a conference and she said the landscape [in Yugoslavia] looks like central Europe. The people look like us. The houses look like ours. So it feels closer and people can relate more easily," he said. "Maybe that is comparable to Ukraine now." 

Rival Sudan forces blacklisted for killing children

More attention would help

Another factor that makes things difficult in Sudan is the involvement of international actors, Deckert explained, some of whom Western nations consider allies and important trading partners.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are known to back the SAF while the United Arab Emirates support the RSF. "That is an inconvenient truth [for their Western allies]," he said.

But that is also why more attention on Sudan could help, he suggested. Governments sensitive to public opinion should be pressured to apply diplomatic force to external actors keeping the Sudan war going, he said.

More focus on Sudan might also help the humanitarians struggling to work there.

In a 2021 study, a team of journalism researchers interviewed senior policy makers in the world's largest donor countries. While annual decisions about aid funding were made earlier and not necessarily affected, "the majority of these bureaucrats believed that sudden-onset, national news coverage can increase levels of emergency humanitarian aid allocated to a crisis," the researchers concluded. 

Edited by: Anne Thomas

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.