Aerial view of the fighting and violence that broke out in Khartoum, Sudan.

Sudan: “More than seven million displaced people and one million refugees: one of the biggest displacement crises in the world”

On Friday, February 2, 2024

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On April 15, 2023, a war broke out in Sudan as a result of a power struggle between two armed forces that had up to then been allies: on one side, the national army (Sudanese Armed Forces, SAF) under the orders of General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, the country’s leader, and on the other, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, better known as "Hemetti", Sudan’s Vice-President. In West Darfur, a region prey to ethnic cleansing conducted by the army and its auxiliary militias 20 years earlier, the conflict led to renewed ethnic targeting of the Masalit, the main non-Arab community. 

Since April, Jérôme Tubiana, head of refugee and migrant issues at Médecins Sans Frontières, has visited Sudan twice. In this interview, he discusses the dynamics of the conflict and the humanitarian situation in Darfur, where MSF teams operate in El Fasher and El Geneina. 

What has the situation been like in Sudan since the war started? 

I was in Sudan in early April, and we saw tensions rise until war broke out between the regular army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), paramilitaries recruited mainly from Darfur's Arab communities. In 2003, Omar al-Bashir’s regime had already recruited militias from these communities to fight the rebellion emerging at that time in the region. So today it is the RSF that are trying to seize power by fighting against their former military allies. 

In the capital Khartoum, in the first days of the conflict, the RSF took control of many neighborhoods up to the center of the city. The army found itself besieged in these areas and retaliated by massively shelling RSF positions. There was a big influx of injured people in the two hospitals that MSF tried to continue to support in the city.

In Sudan as a whole, the majority of civilian casualties have been people caught in crossfire or victims of indiscriminate shelling by one or the other of the warring factions. In West Darfur, however, where ethnic tensions were already very high before the conflict, the Rapid Support Forces allied with Arab militias targeted the Masalit, the main non-Arab community. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, particularly Masalit, fled to Chad, where there are now more than 500,000 refugees who have recently arrived from Sudan, in addition to 400,000 refugees from the previous war in Darfur. 

The Masalit are a non-Arab community in Darfur and Chad, particularly West Darfur. They are an indigenous community who founded a pre-colonial sultanate and ruled over this region until colonization.

In 2013, Omar al-Bashir’s government created the Rapid Support Forces, paramilitaries recruited from Darfur's Arab communities and placed directly under the President’s control. In 2019, their leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, known as “Hemetti”, turned against Bashir and participated with regular army officers in a military coup, followed by a second coup in 2021 thwarting the country's democratic transition. Power was shared between these officers and the RSF, but tensions between these groups grew steadily until the outbreak of war on April 15, 2023.

In West Darfur, two outbreaks of violence occurred in June and November 2023 and caused several thousand deaths and an influx of injured people at MSF's hospital in Adré, Chad. How would you describe the extreme violence that Darfur is currently experiencing? 

More than a thousand people injured in the first outbreak of violence, then another 300 injured in the second outbreak, were received at the MSF hospital in Adré. El Geneina, where MSF teams support the only functioning hospital, was the scene of fighting between the warring parties, but also of mass violence against a section of the town’s population, the Masalit. 

 In one of the camps, in which most of the people were from El Geneina, where the violence was most intense, the death rate since the beginning of the crisis had increased 20-fold.

After the first episode of violence in El Geneina, we conducted a retrospective mortality survey in several refugee camps in Chad. In one of the camps, in which most of the people were from El Geneina, where the violence was most intense, the death rate since the beginning of the crisis had increased 20-fold. It was also found that more than 80 per cent of the casualties were men, even the civilians among them being systematically seen as combatants and targeted as such.

In addition, more than 80% of casualties were caused by violence. This intensity is reminiscent of the violence in 2003, although today El Geneina is something of an exception whereas in 2003 ethnic targeting of non-Arab communities occurred throughout Darfur. 

MSF has also succeeded in maintaining its main project in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, thus enabling its continued presence in the city’s only still-functioning hospital, as well as in a health center in the Zam Zam displaced persons camp, one of the largest in Darfur. Many displaced people lived in El Fasher before the war, in camps on the outskirts of the city; others flocked in subsequently from rural areas. Supplies of equipment, medicine and human resources are sent from neighboring Chad, almost all the Sudanese airports through which aid transited before the start of the war being closed.

What struck you the most during your missions?  

What struck me greatly was the extent to which these people, these families who have been displaced for the past 20 years, in many cases repeatedly, have got used to being displaced. The other striking thing is that, contrary to what one might think, the new refugees who arrive in Chad and see their families or friends who have been refugees for 20 years, do not intend to stay in the camps: some are ready to take up arms to secure their right of return and their right to their ancestral land; others head for Europe, passing through Libya and Tunisia and attempting to cross the Mediterranean. There are more than seven million new displaced people and one million refugees: this is one the biggest displacement crises in the world. 

Some of the victims of the 2003 conflict, like the Masalit, are again victims of the 2023 conflict. Twenty years on, there has never been any reconciliation and tribal tensions are still very strong, with an extremely high degree of fragmentation that is easily manipulated by warring factions possessing significant military resources. A small spark or a minor incident can turn into a massive attack on civilians based on the community they belong to.

Almost a year after the start of the war, what are the prospects of a solution to the conflict? 

The two warring factions hold very different political positions and peace negotiations do not seem to be productive. Players in the international community who would have the necessary means to exert pressure on the warring parties are insufficiently mobilized for this crisis. 

 Players in the international community who would have the necessary means to exert pressure on the warring parties are insufficiently mobilized for this crisis. 

From a humanitarian point of view, this is reflected by a shortage of resources, especially for UN agencies and NGOs which depend on institutional donors, including for refugees in Chad. There is no guarantee today that the current level of aid, which is already inadequate, can be maintained in the coming months. 


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