‘Enough’: UN, Humanitarian Groups Call for Peace in Sudan as Civilians Pay the Price for War
Dense smoke over Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, which has been the centre of conflict between warring factions over the past four months.

As the war in Sudan enters its fifth month, the leaders of 20 United Nations (UN) agencies and humanitarian organisations are urging the warring parties and the international community to urgently scale up peace efforts for the sake of Sudanese civilians.

Violence in Sudan has spiralled out of control since April when a power struggle between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) erupted into a full-blown war. 

The fighting has displaced more than four million people, left 14 million children in need of humanitarian aid, and pushed six million Sudanese people “one step away” from famine, the UN said on Tuesday. 

Around 4,000 people — including at least 435 children — have been confirmed dead, though many more are believed to have been caught in the cross-fire. Some 1.5 million children are expected to fall into crisis levels of hunger by September, while women and girls have been left at the mercy of paramilitaries known to use rape as a weapon of war.

“People have witnessed their loved ones gunned down. Women and girls have been sexually assaulted,” the UN and humanitarian agency leaders said in a joint statement on Tuesday. “People are dying because they cannot access health care services and medicine. And now, because of the war, Sudan’s children are wasting away from lack of food and nutrition.” 

Overflowing morgues in the capital, Khartoum, are leaving thousands of corpses rotting on the streets, as doctors and medical organizations warn the decaying bodies and arrival of the rainy season risk unleashing a cholera outbreak the country’s medical infrastructure is not prepared to handle. 

Nearly all hospitals in Khartoum have been rendered inoperable, Save the Children said in a statement this week, a grim reality that has persisted since the conflict began. Medical staff numbers in the country are also dangerously low, and those facilities that remain operational are at the mercy of frequent power outages.

The closure of hospitals across Sudan is also forcing pregnant women to make a harrowing choice: either risk a dangerous journey through war-torn streets to reach a functioning medical facility, or give birth at home, often without any medical assistance.

“Medical supplies are in scarce supply. Time is running out for farmers to plant crops that will feed them and their neighbours,” UN and humanitarian agency leaders said. “The situation is spiraling out of control.” 

A ‘senseless’ war

Protestors chant for “peace, freedom, and justice” in front of the military headquarters of 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir during Sudan’s 2019 revolution.

The humanitarian crisis caused by the war stands in stark contrast to the hopes ignited just five years ago by the civilian overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir. 

Bashir’s brutal 30-year rule over Africa’s third-largest country looked set to end with a transition to democracy, but in 2021, General Abdel Fattah Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo – the two men now vying for control of Sudan – jointly ousted the civilian-led transitional government, dashing hopes for a brighter future and raising fears of a civil war.

Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement on Tuesday that the “senseless” war in Sudan was “born out of a wanton drive for power”. 

This war of egos has led to “disastrous” results, including “thousands of deaths, the destruction of family homes, schools, hospitals and other essential services, massive displacement, as well as sexual violence, in acts which may amount to war crimes”, Türk said.

Sudanese women faced a sharp increase in sexual violence after Burhan and Hemeti’s coup in 2021.

A year after the military takeover, the International Service for Human Rights reported that Sudanese women – whose bravery became the face of the revolution against al-Bashir just a couple of years earlier – were facing “an unprecedented crisis with escalating gender-based violence, conflicts, hunger and political instability”.

“After the revolution, whenever women talked about representation or participation or [the need] to include women’s rights … [male] politicians just said ‘this is actually not the right time’ and ‘these women are so annoying,” Linda Marwan, a women’s rights activist who was arrested during the revolution against al-Bashir in 2019 told Foreign Policy

Then the war arrived.

Women pay the price for a war of men

Sudanese women, many of whom became leaders of the 2019 revolution in the hope of securing their rights, are being targeted by soldiers using rape as a weapon of war.

Reports of sexual assault in Sudan have increased by 50% since the war began, according to the UN Population Fund.

Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that the UN has verified at least 28 cases of rape. Amnesty International has confirmed reports of rapes and abductions of girls as young as 12 years old. 

The Sudanese government’s Unit for Combating Violence Against Women (CVAW) warned last month that verified rape cases may represent as little as 2% of the total. Data on rapes and sexual assaults during conflicts is notoriously inexact; a fact that underscores the UN Security Council’s characterization of rape as “war’s oldest, most silenced and least condemned crime”. 

Rapes and gender-based violence surge during conflicts. UN data, which is incomplete, estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996. 

A recent investigation by Al Jazeera into the use of rape as a weapon in the war in Sudan found that the conflict is no exception to the historical pattern of sexual violence escalating during wartime.

Z, a human rights researcher in Sudan who works with rape victims who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said: “Rape is being used as a weapon by both sides. The reports we’re getting now are just the tip of the iceberg.”

“You’re dealing with a conservative Muslim community, where women’s bodies are a symbol of honour, of purity … the symbolism is very complicated,” Z said. The cultural context enmeshed in the conflict has made women’s bodies “part of the battlefield”, she explained.  

In a report published earlier this month, Amnesty International found almost all reports of rape accused the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), though Sudanese army personnel were blamed in a minority of cases. 

The RSF is a descendant of the feared Janjaweed militia that participated in the genocide in Darfur, in which around 300,000 people were killed. 

Hemedi, the general who heads the RSF, led Janjaweed paramilitaries that burned villages, killed civilians and raped ethnic Africans across his native Darfur. These crimes led to the indictment of his then-commander, al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide. 

“Enough is enough,” Fatima Hashim, a leader in the grassroots movement to overthrow al-Bashir and women’s rights activist, told Foreign Policy. “I think men have destroyed Sudan. What has the army done? The war in South Sudan. The war in Darfur.” 

“It’s been 67 years since independence, and those men haven’t done anything [for] Sudan,” she said. “They made it worse.” 

Image Credits: CTNSIS, Ola A .Alsheikh, CC.

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