Stuck in the crossfire: Civilians try to survive as conflict between security forces continues
16 April 2023
Since Saturday morning, Sudanese citizenry has found themselves caught in the crossfire of Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in at least eight different cities across the country.
In what analysts claim is a battle to maintain control of the country, army head Lt.-Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (known as “Himmedti”), have pitted attacks against each other. While both sides blame one another for launching the attack, the divergent forces are primarily targeting each other’s military installations and potential supply routes, including airports.
By Sunday morning, the Sudan Doctors’ Committee estimated around 74 civilians had died from the crossfire, but medical sources across the country believe the total figure may be much higher. Rocket shells hit multiple residential neighbourhoods in the capital, Khartoum, such as in Buri East where residents told Ayin unexploded shells fell inside their homes.
Even medical centres are not safe. The prominent medical centre, Bashaer Hospital in southern Khartoum, reported that armed men shot dead three civilians inside the hospital on Saturday.
As citizens were preparing for the last 10 days of Ramadan, clashes began Saturday morning south of the Sudanese capital, where SAF targeted a sports stadium that had been converted into an RSF base. Warplanes also bombed the main RSF camps in the “Tiba” area, south of the capital, the Riyadh camp east of Khartoum, and the Soba camp southeast of the capital. Clashes yesterday also included Khartoum’s centre, near the headquarters of the army’s general command; a fire was seen rising from a main RSF building near the Ministry of Defence after an air missile strike.
The surprise conflict has paralysed public life, especially at Khartoum Airport, where RSF stormed the facility, according to the pictures circulated on social networks, and detained some workers and travellers before army units later regained control. Saudi Airlines has confirmed the suspension of flights to and from Sudan after one of its Airbus planes was exposed to a shooting incident. Neighbourhoods east of the Nile turned into military barracks as SAF and RSF fought each other near Mansheya Bridge and neighbouring residential areas.
Khartoum did not sleep Saturday night, as civilians lay awake amidst the terrible sounds of shelling and warplanes, which bombed several sites, including an RSF site in the Al-Rai al-Masry area, south of Khartoum. Saturday morning, SAF requested all citizens to remain indoors as they conduct a “full aerial survey of RSF positions.”
The central area of Khartoum and the vicinity of the presidential palace and Defence Ministry also witnessed violent confrontations on Sunday, and pictures showed a fire in the building of the naval forces at the General Command of the Army. In the evening, an aviation fuel depot was burned at Khartoum International Airport, and clouds of smoke covered the sky of the capital, adding to the state of panic, according to witnesses.
Muhammad Ahmed from Kalakla neighbourhood in Jebel Awlia, south Khartoum, told Ayin his family has had to remain under their beds throughout this period, fearing the very real potential for stray munitions hitting their house. Worse, with the markets closed, Ahmed says his children have been stuck without milk since yesterday.
Both sides of the conflict, however, agreed to a United Nations request to allow a humanitarian corridor into the city today for a three-hour period from 4 – 7 pm.
In Khartoum’s sister city, Omdurman, fighting took place in the Mohandessin area on Saturday, which is the headquarters of the Sudanese Army Corps of Engineers. Many eyewitnesses told Ayin they were going to flee the area. Another hotspot since yesterday is the Karari region which includes some of the largest RSF camps as well as army bases. Local residents told Ayin the confrontation went through the night and in the early hours of Sunday morning. One resident in the neighbouring al-Manara area told Ayin she and her family were ordered to evacuate the area, a harrowing experience as they feared moving in the streets amid news of looting and assaults in the area. “We were told to abandon our homes because the situation will escalate and the RSF are expected to return,” she told Ayin.
Some residents decided it was safer to stay put. “The shooting reached our neighbour’s house, then a shell fell on a nearby house and a female resident was killed,” says Mohamed Abdulaziz, a political analyst and local resident. “The power was out since 11 am yesterday (15 April), and the water is out as well. Although there is a great danger from random shots and shells, especially after the air force engaged, it is safer for people to remain inside their homes.”
By Sunday, the Sudanese army announced the control of Jebel Sarkab, the largest military base of the RSF in Karari and the seizure of all its equipment.
Other cities outside the capital faced less intense attacks. “Yesterday, RSF troops refused to surrender and leave their camp, so the army gave them a deadline,” says Kassala resident Hamid Ali.* “This morning, around 3 am, we were shocked by the loud sound of heavy artillery shells, the attack lasted about an hour before the RSF surrendered and the army took over the camp.” Some of the shells explode in residential areas such as Munira, he added, compelling many families to flee the city.
According to eyewitnesses, the RSF and SAF clashes have killed at least 22 people and injured many more as they fought near the command of the 16th Infantry Division. “The situation is getting out of control, and people in our area received orders to evacuate, it is increasingly difficult to move around the city,” says Nyala resident Ahmed Abdelhafez.* The fighting went up to 3 am last night, Abdelhafez told Ayin, with RSF taking over the airport while the military controls the army command and other military facilities. “They both have 50-50 percent control over the area –each force is trying to extend their power and they both pretend to have conquered the other by issuing statements that support their claims,” he added.
Large numbers of armed motorists coming from Nyala looted the food stores of the World Food Program in the city, eyewitnesses told Ayin. The UN food aid agency has temporarily halted operations due to the insecurity as three WFP employees have died in the violence from clashes in Kabkabiya, North Darfur.
According to an El-Fasher resident Azim Dafallah in North Darfur State, heavy shelling from both sides continued throughout most of today causing considerable injuries to residents caught in the crossfire. “The fighting started around the main market, extended to the airport area, then reached the Army’s General Command and other military locations,” Dafallah told Ayin. “Unfortunately, most of the army facilities are inside the city, surrounded by residential neighbourhoods.” While the central doctor’s committee has not finalised its tally of dead and injured, Daffalah said they have confirmed at least 20 deaths and over 100 injuries. “In my neighbourhood alone, three people were killed and more than 10 were injured yesterday as a result of the random shooting and falling shells.” Dafallah believes El-Fasher residents may be stuck with this insecurity for quite some time since neither side appears to be winning.
While many in Khartoum were surprised by the violence, Dafallah says residents in El Fasher were aware something was brewing and saw the preparations for war a week ago. “The military took some of its armoury and tanks and sent them to the capital, the RSF increased its presence in the city and positioned their security checks in vital areas – there was already a state of tension and readiness among the army leaders while they spoke openly against the RSF.”
It is difficult to assess who fired first since both Burhan and Himmedti have claimed the other side initiated the attack, just as both sides have made several false claims of military victories. In many ways, the media war has dominated the course of events in Sudan. Whenever one party claimed control of strategic sites, the other quickly denied it. The Rapid Support Forces broadcasted through their digital platforms videos allegedly confirming their control over the presidential palace in Khartoum, the buildings of the General Authority for Radio and Television, and several bases belonging to the army. Then the army countered these spurious assertions by making similar, equally bogus, claims.
A statement from the civilian parties who were about to sign an agreement with the warring factions, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), suggest the former regime have orchestrated the attack. “We in the Forces for Freedom and Change have been sounding the alarm about the plans of the remnants of the defunct National Congress Party regime to drag the country into war with the aim of blocking the road to restoring the path of a civil democratic transition,” the statement reads. “And here are their plans clearly revealed after igniting the fuse of the battle, to make it clear, they are the party that mobilised for this war, and they are the ones who hope to harvest its results.”
While it is difficult to point blame at this stage, the FFC statement does seem to resonate with some of the foreboding speeches made by members of the former National Congress Party (NCP) just weeks ahead of this conflict. Former NCP Head Ibrahim Ghandour, for example, spoke recently at an iftar, where he referred to a broad base of Islamist support in Sudan ‘waiting for the signal to move’. Similarly, the former prime minister under the NCP government, Muhammad Tahir, threatened an armed insurrection against the framework agreement while addressing an iftar in Port Sudan. “Today we are more capable than yesterday of carrying arms and taking our rights into our own hands. Tomorrow, Sudan will witness new stages, in which there is no place for the framework or anyone else.”
According to the Sudanese think-tank, the Sudan Policy and Transparency Tracker, the former ruling party had planned this day for quite some time. “Loyalists of the former regime have been in hyperdrive, adding fuel to the fire through a coordinated outreach campaign, including both social media messaging and direct public addresses that called on the SAF to crush the RSF and walk away from the political process for fear that this would block their return to power and empower pro-democracy actors.”
On the verge of signing
Prior to the violence, the FFC, army, and RSF were ostensibly on the verge of signing the Political Framework Agreement that would have led to a civilian government. The contentious issue of integrating all armed groups into the army –and who would lead this process and in what time frame– placed both Burhan and Himmedti at loggerheads. Tensions were piqued last Tuesday when RSF forces relocated from North Darfur to the Meroe region in northern Sudan and stationed themselves near the airport. The army reacted via an abnormally acerbic statement two days later that described the RSF’s move as a “clear violation of the law” and risked creating more tensions as Sudan goes through what it described as a “dangerous juncture.” At the time, analysts said the RSF’s move was a political ploy to improve their standing at the negotiation table vis-a-vis the political framework agreement and to potentially expose Burhan’s close relationship with the Egyptian army in Meroe. In hindsight, the RSF move may have been to prepare for war.
According to Abdulaziz, Sudan should not have been surprised by the violence. “What happened was not a sudden move, it has roots. The military and RSF were disagreeing since the coup of 25 October, their agendas differed since, and their interests conflicted. Their confrontation was a matter of time.” He adds that the two parties started a media war of statements and each of them started to rally their troops and summon their forces to the capital. “In the past few days, the military brought armed forces and tanks to Khartoum, while the RSF brought in troops and armoury; this was accompanied by a media campaign led mainly by the NCP, as they are the main beneficiary of the conflict.”
What happens next remains painfully opaque. According to Mohamed al-Amin, a military analyst, the RSF may have superior ground forces but the SAF have air capabilities which balance their powers and could result in a protracted conflict. Worse still, writes the Tracker, is the real risk that the SAF-RSF fight may trigger “widespread inter-communal clashes in different regions where the parties have used ethnic mobilisation to advance their claims to power –but have limited control over local actors and conditions.”
Despite these risks, the voices opposing the violence and calling for a return to the negotiating table continue to place pressure on all sides. On Sunday, members of the UN Security Council expressed their deep concern over the clashes between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces and the resulting loss of life and injury. The members of the Security Council urged the parties to immediately stop hostilities and restore calm and called on them to return to dialogue to resolve the current crisis in Sudan.