Famine and Atrocities in Sudan

War, Famine, and Atrocities in Sudan. Women and children walk through the Djabel refugee camp in Eastern Chad.

Lara Kajs | 7 May 2024 |

“Without more resources, we will not be able to prevent a famine.” Those are the words of the OCHA representative in Sudan. It has been just over a year since Sudan was plunged into a war that has resulted in at least 15,000 dead, more than 8 million civilians displaced, and some 28 million people in need of emergency humanitarian assistance. A year of war in Sudan has led to warnings of famine, as well as a growing list of atrocities committed by all warring parties.

Within a few weeks of the start of the fighting, due to increased security concerns, humanitarian NGOs were forced to leave Khartoum. Nevertheless, aid groups continue efforts to get lifesaving resources to those most in need. Nearly 18 million people face acute hunger and famine. While humanitarian supplies are available in Port Sudan, the biggest obstacle is getting aid to the affected population amid the violence, fighting, bureaucratic barriers, insecurity, looting of resources, and overall dysfunction.

The wave of violence that continues to surge from Khartoum and has swept across the country is a direct result of air and ground attacks between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). There are elevated concerns in the Darfur states as reports indicate attacks on civilian communities and targeted ethnic violence.

The UN estimates that about half of the population, some 28 million people, rely on emergency food supplies to survive, which the SAF deliberately restricts, and the RSF loots. These acts are in clear violation of international humanitarian law and could amount to war crimes.

Darfur Violence

Villages near El Fasher, where at least two million people live, have been burned to the ground. El Fasher serves as a humanitarian hub for hundreds of thousands of displaced people and is the only capital in Darfur not controlled solely by the RSF. The SAF, Darfur Joint Protection Forces, and the RSF each control different parts of the area. Over the last few weeks, the paramilitary has besieged the city. There are reports of RSF and Arab militia attacks on non-Arab villages. Shelling and fighting in one camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) left an undetermined number dead.

Already compromised, the El Fasher area is at an elevated risk of further attacks and increased violations and abuses against the civilian population. The US special envoy for Sudan called on the RSF to end the siege and urged them, along with the SAF and allied fighters to protect civilians and to respect international humanitarian law (IHL).

In West Darfur, the RSF and allied armed groups have targeted ethnic Masalit people, including destruction of property, sexual violations, and summary executions. The SAF has also targeted Darfuris with arbitrary arrest, torture, and extra-judicial killings. All warring parties have committed indiscriminate attacks and acts of violence in civilian populated areas, as well as carried out attacks on civilian infrastructure such as healthcare facilities and water treatment plants. As much as 80% of healthcare facilities in Khartoum and Darfur are nonfunctional. Those facilities considered functional face massive challenges, including a lack of electricity, staffing, and medical supplies including life-saving medication.

Children and War

Some 24 million children have been exposed to the conflict in Sudan. The intense fighting in the area has led to devastating levels of malnutrition among children, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Severe acute malnutrition affects 730,000 children. One child dies every two hours from malnutrition in North Darfur.

What’s more, most children in Sudan have been displaced multiple times. MSF reports that further fighting risks cutting off already critically displaced people from humanitarian relief and care. Alarmingly, more than 19 million children have lost access to education, putting them at risk of forced recruitment by armed groups.

Both the UN and the US have issued warnings about the consequences of a full-scale attack on an area on the brink of famine. The UN warned Sudan’s warring parties that there is a serious risk of widespread starvation and death in Darfur if humanitarian relief is not allowed into the region.

Jeddah Talks

In an attempt to bring a peaceful resolution between the SAF and RSF, Saudi Arabia and the US held peace talks in Jeddah in May 2023. The Jeddah Talks were later joined by the AU and the IGAD. During the talks, the warring parties committed to upholding IHL and allowing aid to be delivered to the civilian populations. But that has not been the case.

Warring parties target humanitarian convoys. Aid workers have been detained, injured, and killed. In December, the SAF attacked a convoy from the ICRC which included civilians to be evacuated. Two people were killed and seven injured, including three ICRC staff. SAF issued a response that ICRC had diverted from the agreed-upon route and that they were escorted by RSF vehicles.

UNHCHR said in February that both SAF and RSF arbitrarily detained thousands and were responsible for hundreds of enforced disappearances including emergency response healthcare workers.

Humanitarian organizations described how SAF authorities, including its military intelligence, routinely imposed a range of arbitrary bureaucratic restrictions that have obstructed their work and blocked their ability to reach those in need. The restrictions include delays, denials, and nonresponse to requests for visas and travel permits, which are requirements for NGO personnel to move between federal states.

Further, SAF authorities imposed excessive administrative procedures for importing and transporting relief materials. The tactics used by SAF are reflective of the decades of routine obstruction and hostility toward international NGOs under Sudan’s former leader Omar al-Bashir.

In March, SAF authorities revoked WFP’s permission to deliver aid from neighboring Chad to West Darfur and Central Darfur. SAF alleged that the WFP’s crossing had been used to transfer weapons to the RSF. Similar allegations were used in Port Sudan to deny the WFP from delivering aid.

As the Jeddah Talks are set to resume, the host leaders should press to establish a mechanism that will monitor the commitments to uphold IHL, and international human rights, and to protect civilians, including addressing attacks on and the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian assistance and the destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Global Response

The global response to the situation in Sudan, specifically the humanitarian crisis that this war has created, needs to change. People are suffering famine; children are starving to death. The International Humanitarian Conference for Sudan was held in Paris on 15 April. The conference raised a total of $2 billion in pledges – about half of the $4.1 billion requested. The support will go to help with the urgent needs of 18 million in Sudan, as well as the 1.7 million displaced persons in host countries: Chad, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Ethiopia.

The UN Security Council, as well as the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, should warn against further attacks against the civilian population. The Security Council should adopt measures that will better protect Sudan’s civilian population. There is a UN arms embargo on Darfur, that all warring parties are obligated to respect. The African Union should make clear its support for international investigations. Influential Member States (i.e., the US, UK, France, etc.) should make it clear that warring parties will face consequences for violating IHL.

The Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC announced in July 2023 that it is investigating recent crimes committed in Darfur as part of his office’s ongoing Darfur investigation. Additionally, the independent international fact-finding mission on Sudan established by the UNHRC in October 2023 and mandated to investigate violations across Sudan, including in Khartoum and Darfur, should be given full support and access, and be renewed as needed until investigations are complete.

Photo Credit: Sudanese Refugees in Chad by Global Partnership for Education. Licensed under CC by NC-ND 2.0