Dar El Salaam, Omdurman: The worst indiscriminate shelling to date

12 July 2023

Last Friday an aerial bombardment on the Dar El Salaam neighbourhood, Omdurman, the capital’s sister city, killed at least 37 civilians. Many of those killed in Dar El Salaam were citizens formerly displaced from Darfur and South Kordofan, local sources said, and many were women and children.

Nasiba Muhammad, a resident of Dar El Salaam, told Ayin she lost 16 acquaintances –including one family that lost nine family members in the attack. “They were eating dinner on the roof of the house due to the hot weather,” Nasiba Muhammad said. “Only one person survived from this family, who happened to be in a room on the ground floor when the shells fell.”

A woman surveys her destroyed home in Dar El Salaam, Omdurman (social media)

The blame game

As usual, both warring parties were quick to deny culpability and accused one another of the attack. The army spokesperson accused the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of spreading misinformation. Instead, the army spokesperson alleges, the army only targeted rebels and combat vehicles. Other pro-military sources allege the RSF had hacked the Khartoum State Ministry of Health’s social media accounts to publish false casualty reports. Meanwhile, the RSF condemned the attack accusing the army of a “systematic aerial bombardment on innocent civilians” in Omdurman last Saturday morning.

Since mid-April a war of dominance between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has rocked Sudan, killing thousands and displacing nearly 3 million in the process. The war has also been fought online, with both sides accusing each other of perpetrating attacks against civilians. Amidst the accusations and counteraccusations, the main victims in this conflict are almost always the Sudanese people.

Sudan’s health ministry posted a video showing dead bodies on the ground in the Omdurman neighbourhood with people trying to pull the dead from the rubble. In some of the videos, the sound of people crying can be heard. The attack is one of the deadliest to date in the capital area.

“On Friday evening we heard a violent explosion that shook the earth,” said Muhammad al-Mahi, a resident of the suburb of Umbudda al-Hara, adjacent to Dar el-Salaam from the eastern side. “The bombing targeted gatherings of the RSF, who are heavily deployed in this area since there are barbecue restaurants and tea shops. They (RSF) come to spend time eating food, so the army targets them with indiscriminate bombing.” But sometimes, al-Mahi added, it is not only airplanes that target the population but also ground missiles.

Rapid Support Forces in a training exercise (social media)

Indiscriminate attacks from both sides

According to local residents, it is sometimes difficult to determine which warring party was responsible for the attack and which weapons caused the damage. While SAF have control of the skies with warplanes, the RSF possesses anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weapons –making it possible for either party to indiscriminately bomb non-military, civilian targets and accuse the other of being the perpetrators.

“Sudan’s warring armies are showing reckless disregard for civilian lives by using inaccurate weapons in populated urban areas,” said Mohamed Osman, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Rockets, bombs, and other types of explosive weapons are killing and wounding civilians and damaging infrastructure critical for access to water and medical care.”

The military expert, Muhammad Hajo, told Ayin that “it is difficult to guarantee a commitment to protect civilians, especially if these strikes will make progress on the ground.” Citing the brutality of conflict, Hajo continues to explain that “there are no military tactics in this war as much as there is an attempt to harvest new sites from both sides at the expense of thousands of civilian casualties.”

Yet, it remains unclear whether heavy ordinance strikes have helped either side make progress on the ground. At the beginning of June, the RSF achieved a major military victory by taking control of the Yarmouk ammunition factory in the capital, Khartoum. Possibly to prevent RSF from attaining armaments within the complex, the army carried out a series of air strikes on the factory and surrounding area, hitting several residential homes in the process, according to eyewitnesses. Yarmouk remains in the hands of the RSF to date.

But the SAF airstrike were not the only ones targeting civilian sites. According to Ayman Abu al-Lail, a member of the Omdurman-based, civilian-led, voluntary support groups –-the Emergency Response Rooms– the RSF were also shelling residential buildings. “The RSF fired random shells to place responsibility on the army – knowing that observers would assume the shells were part of the airstrike,” Abu al-Lail said.

A few days earlier in late May, indiscriminate shelling destroyed a market and homes in Mayo, southern Khartoum, a location where formerly displaced South Sudanese civilians primarily reside. Local residents could not say which warring party killed 18 people in Mayo, but both SAF and RSF were quick to point fingers at one other.

According to military expert Hassan Idris, both warring parties are not only accusing one another of committing civilian casualties as a political tactic but are actually goading each other into making these violations. Consequently, domestic propaganda and international condemnation often produce greater advantages for the warring party than the tactical value of the strike itself.

The sale of weapons is promoted by people in civilian clothes and others in uniforms (Ayin)

War crimes

Human Rights Activist Ahmed Othman agrees and believes this tactic used by the warring parties may constitute a war crime. “The African Union’s initiative, which spoke in terms of turning the Sudanese capital into a demilitarized zone, was a stern warning from the African Peace and Security Council so that the two fighting parties stop committing more war crimes,” Othman told Ayin. “But they still continue to carry out large-scale military operations and each side tries to push the other to commit massacres against civilians.”

According to Idris, we should not be surprised by either warring party relying on indiscriminate shelling campaigns to achieve their military objectives. The SAF have relied on this inhumane tactic throughout its existence, Idris said, whether in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, or Darfur.

From the very beginning of the conflict, the expert added, both sides planned for a confrontation in an urban setting, the RSF depend on “urban warfare” as a military strategy. “If we go back months, we see how Himmedti (Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, RSF leader) brought armoured vehicles and fighters to the Sudanese capital before the war started,” Idris told Ayin. “Khartoum was already identified as a theater of war in the power struggle between the two generals.”