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, or Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto leader; and on the other, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, better known as "Hemetti," who is Sudan’s vice president.
The conflict spread from Khartoum throughout the country, including West Darfur, a region with a tragic history of ethnic cleansing conducted by the army and its auxiliary militias 20 years ago. Since last year, the Masalit, the main non-Arab community, has again become the target of ethnic violence.
Jérôme Tubiana, head of refugee and migrant issues at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has visited Sudan twice since last April. Here, he answers three questions on the dynamics of the current, ongoing conflict and the humanitarian situation in Darfur, where MSF teams operate in the cities of 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 army and RSF, a paramilitary force recruited mainly from Darfur's Arab communities. In 2003, former President 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 of the warring factions. In West Darfur, however, where ethnic tensions were already very high before the conflict, the RSF allied with Arab militias and targeted the Masalit 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.
How would you describe the extreme violence that Darfur is currently experiencing?
The MSF hospital in Adré received more than a thousand injured people in the first outbreak of violence, then another 300 injured in the second outbreak. Most had fled from El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, which was the scene of fighting between the warring parties, but also of mass violence against a section of the town’s population, the Masalit. MSF teams support the only functioning hospital there.
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, most people were from El Geneina, where the violence was most intense, and we found that the death rate had increased 20-fold since the beginning of the crisis. We also found that more than 80 percent of casualties were men. Even the civilians among them were systematically seen as combatants and targeted as such.
In addition, more than 80 percent 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 camp for displaced people, 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 subsequently flocked there from rural areas. Supplies of equipment, medicine, and human resources are sent from neighboring Chad, as almost all the Sudanese airports through which aid transited before the start of the war have closed.
What struck you the most during your assignments in Sudan?
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 adjusted 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 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 newly displaced people and one million refugees. This is one the biggest displacement crises in the world.
In the 20 years since the Masalit were targeted in the previous conflict, there has never been any reconciliation. 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.
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.
From a humanitarian point of view, this is reflected by a shortage of resources, especially for UN agencies and NGOs that 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.