An Inescapable Route? The Resurgence of Ethnic Violence in Sudan and the Plight of Refugees
By Sanya Malhotra | Summer 2023
On April 15th, 2023, explosions rocked the streets of Khartoum. In the capital of Sudan and a densely populated area bordering the Nile River, civilians awoke to a panic as foreign nationals and embassy officials fled in the following days. With no warning, neighborhoods once bustling with families and businesses descended into chaos as cities across Sudan transformed into war zones. Videos recorded by journalists stationed in Khartoum depict the smoke of explosions rising overhead in residential and urban areas, disrupting the peaceful traffic around schools and mosques. Streets are empty since many Sudanese have no other choice but to stay imprisoned within their homes packed with a dwindling set of supplies. Moreover, targeted military assaults on hospitals and transportation routes threaten the delivery of humanitarian aid, leading to acute shortages of food, water, and medicine. Trapped between the spiraling web of street fighting and a beleaguered home, people are losing hope over the security of their nation as the next day becomes ever so unpredictable. Some attempt to escape to nearby countries such as South Sudan and Chad, but are faced with confrontation of insurmountable violence on the way or rejection from border authorities. Not only has violence sprung up as a consequence of the power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), street gangs have jumped on the bandwagon by participating in widespread looting and theft.
The origins of this political and humanitarian crisis in Sudan, which includes the nightmarish aerial bombardment on civilians, lie in the autocratic trend that persists in the country’s post-colonial period. Many within and outside Sudan are familiar with the dark history associated with Darfur. Located on the western side of Sudan, Darfur experienced one of the worst genocides in recent human history and continues to haunt the survivors whose land became a symbol of the grotesque side of human behavior – when manipulated by the forces of naked power and manipulation. The man indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as responsible for the atrocities in Darfur is the former head of state Omar al-Bashir. After thirty years of autocracy, a united civilian and military front ousted Bashir in 2019 with the aim of transitioning to a civilian government after a period of power sharing. Back then, the SAF and RSF rose to prominence in Sudan as both willingly cooperated with each other to depose Bashir. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamadan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, respectively led the Army and RSF in 2019. Today, the two men still hold power but on opposing sides. Their earlier promise of a democratic civilian government proved to be a cover-up for their competing desires for political power. In October 2021, the military element headed by al-Burhan seized control of the transitional government, which they justified by noting the threats of internal fighting between military and civilian parties. The coup inevitably caused public protests that triggered violent repression by al-Burhan’s new government.
Violence is not a subject of taboo for al-Burhan or Hemedti, both of whom have held various roles in Bashir’s military. Although Hemedti acted as the people’s representative in the coup against Bashir, he was guilty of war crimes during the Darfur genocide, including the killing and raping of civilians. Specifically, Hemedti’s RSF found their roots in the Arab Janjaweed militias, which were co-opted by Bashir’s government for counterinsurgency and accused of committing atrocities against non-Arab tribes in Darfur. In response, rebel groups in Darfur attacked Bashir’s government forces, leading to tit-for-tat ethnic violence that grew into a genocide. Despite its end, the new generation remains embroiled in acrimony, where neither side is willing to look beyond the confines of identity.
While the promise of democracy never left the ideological language of the military regime, the power struggle that has fermented between al-Burhan and Hemedti since 2019 and erupted over the past few months has officially dismantled the path of democracy for the Sudanese people. The question of peace and economic stability finds no resolution in Sudan without a sustainable model of governance attuned to the conflict-prone country. In recent history, the government in Sudan has privileged a select few at the expense of the non-elite society. The deals struck in the sphere of politics are driven by a class intent to preserve their power at the expense of the general welfare. Such an insecure and inward-looking style of politics removes democratic objectives from the agenda by rejecting direct participation and representation of the people. The voices of Sudanese protesters unequivocally denounce the political leaders who spare little time and money on basic resources. Moreover, conflicts strain the economy by destroying physical and human capitals while public officials profit themselves through corruption. For example, the government uses its intricate web of parastatals to engage with criminal networks that smuggle gold out of the country. In addition, investment in oil takes precedence over agriculture, leaving subsistence farmers neglected. Marred by the social and economic consequences of conflict, Sudan requires a model of governance focused on creating peace on the grassroots level.
As a result, the Darfur genocide no longer remains a relic of the past. Ethnic fighting resurges in Darfur, but this time on the periphery of a power struggle in the capital between the competing generals. As witnessed two decades ago, Arab nomadic tribes linked with RSF are attacking non-Arab Masalit tribes. Though ethnic cleansing continued intermittently after the civil war ended in Darfur in 2020, the ensuing violence between military and paramilitary forces threatens a total renewal of genocidal tactics in the western region. This continuation of ethnic violence exposes the vulnerable and fractured state of community relations there. On July 13th, residents of Darfur discovered a mass grave of at least 87 bodies, including members of the targeted Masalit ethnic group. What may have once been characterized as individual and spontaneous acts now reveals itself to be a habitualization of violence. Interviews of survivors and refugees tell a story of the consequences of such violence in which one is stripped from the autonomy to carry out a humble life and profession.16 Story after story permeates with the feeling of terror and death as people recount images imprinted in their memory of strewn corpses and towns turned to rubble over the last three months. For Darfur to escape the tormenting cycle of inhumane violence, a process of rehabilitation between ethnic groups is necessary.
The question of the fate of the Sudanese people and who, if anybody, is responsible for them remains unanswered. While hundreds of thousands are fleeing the country, the possibility of surviving the Sahelian journey or perishing in the poorly maintained refugee camps abroad is a matter of chance. Neighboring Sahel countries fear that cross-border migration would carry spillover threats to their own stability. Egypt, for one, has restricted border crossings through implementing an ad hoc policy of requiring all Sudanese to obtain a visa prior to entry, despite previously exempting women, children, and elderly men. Other countries, especially those located on the other side of the globe, look upon the conflict with indifference or empty words of reassurance. A stench of delusion lies behind many of the political messages delivered by the United Nations, which condemn the barbarity of the conflict but fail to deliver long-term solutions. With little understanding of Sudan’s history and a lack of recognition of the common needs of humanity, their dialogues center around abstract political goals to be reached between militias and ignore the roots of these groups’ predatory power: resources and social insecurity. Negotiations brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah in April 2023 led to a series of ceasefires continually broken by the rivaling forces, which revealed the ineffectiveness of table talks in mediating political conflict. The weak promises given by military delegations in a foreign city hold no sway over their insouciant leaders, who solidify their power by fanning the flame for retributive violence.
No one will object that human rights violations must be averted and humanitarian aid distributed at all costs. However, beyond that it is unclear whether international institutions have any solutions to the deeper causes of conflicts in Sudan. For countries experiencing the pains and trauma of systemic violence, their people encounter many obstacles in undoing this cycle because of the psychological imprint it leaves on the survivors. Political violence of this nature cannot be deterred by stopping one act of violence or prosecuting one criminal, but by removing the basis which leads to the collective spur towards rampant killings. Therefore, legal justice is only one part of rehabilitation, while the primary effort must go towards reconstructing social relations from the ground-up so as to prevent the recurrence of violence. Moreover, the genocide exposes the automatic and epidemic character of violence, since people take up arms against their neighbors not out of their own deep ideological belief, but due to political suasion. While the common definition of genocide usually describes an intent of mass extermination, it would be reductive to think of a genocide as an unhinged murder spree when such violence is fundamentally manufactured by politics. The complexity of the conflict in Sudan should not obscure its underlying human thread: the futility of a life reduced to the whims of political leaders.