“The international community should take action to pull the belligerents back from the brink” as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are likely to intensify their efforts to expel the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) from El Fasher, their last serious holdout in Darfur. “Continued fighting would put civilians in extreme danger,” the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker (STPT) wrote in a field report on the capital of North Darfur.
The report, published yesterday in collaboration with the Sudan Crisis Research Network of displaced scholars, explains the history of fighting in the city, which has a population of more than one million and is home to the two largest camps for displaced people in the state.
Security conditions began to deteriorate rapidly in El Fasher in late October as the RSF intensified pressure on Nyala, Zalingei, and El Geneina, the capitals of South, Central, and West Darfur respectively.
“Members of the RSF in the east and northeast of the city began wreaking havoc, looting and killing citizens, until the situation exploded, and violent clashes began between the two parties on October 26, 2023, following on the fall of the military base in Nyala.”
According to the STPT, the clashes were the most violent in the state since the beginning of the war. In the first 24 hours, at least 10 people were killed and 42 were injured, whilst shops and homes were looted by the RSF.
In the past weeks, indiscriminate bombing and shelling have continued.
As a result, humanitarian essentials are in short supply and the healthcare system is struggling. Fevers are spreading amidst a lack of drinking water whilst only one hospital is still in operation in the city.
Many residents have sought refuge in schools in El Fasher and many others have tried to leave the city altogether.
El Fasher is not only home to more than a million residents but has also served as a place of refuge for residents of other key Darfur towns that faced more intense fighting since April.
Civilian peace initiative
The situation has not always been this violent in El Fasher. Two weeks after the outbreak of the war in April, community leaders intervened and stopped the warring parties from fighting in Fasher. According to the deal, the RSF would stay on the eastern side of the city and the SAF on the western side, where the army headquarters are located.
The police and Joint Protection Forces formed by the signatories of the Juba Peace Agreement of 2020 were responsible for protecting most of the city.
“Although the agreement was imperfect and residents of the eastern part of the city where the RSF operated camp under attack, it spared the city from the chaos and violence that took place in cities like El Geneina, Zalingei, Nyala, Kutum and Tawila,” the STPT explained. Residents from these towns and cities therefore frequently fled towards El Fasher.
Nevertheless, residents in the east of El Fasher suffered from RSF attacks and the rebel movements that are part of the joint forces have “gotten mixed reviews” on how they protected civilians. They charged high prices for protecting commercial convoys with essential goods and the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Darfur governor Minni Minawi was accused of only protecting neighbourhoods where their fellow Zaghawa tribesmen were the majority of the population.
Since October 26, this relative peace has thus been disturbed by violent clashes.
The fighting has led to mass displacement. An estimated 85 per cent of the population has left the northern neighbourhoods, either leaving for safer areas in the south of El Fasher or fleeing to Mellit or even Libya.
‘Most of the population has few resources to allow them to travel outside the city’
“Because most of the population has few resources to allow them to travel outside the city, hundreds of families have turned to seven large schools that were already being used by previous waves of displaced people for shelter. They are joined by residents of West, Central Darfur, and South Darfur, Kutum and Tawila.”
Most of the displaced are living in tents in very poor humanitarian conditions and lack health services, water, and other essential goods, which have become very expensive.
For many families, this is the second, if not third, time they have been forced to flee. A lot of displaced were originally forced to leave their hometowns and villages as they were destroyed in the civil war that started in 2003 and led to the Darfur genocide.
Now, many of the camps for the displaced that became their new homes have come under fire, exposing residents to more violence and destruction.
Hundreds of families have decided to leave the camps around El Fasher and more to Mellit, but the town is struggling to accommodate the huge influx. 30 to 40 minibuses are arriving each day and bus ticket prices have soared from 8,000 SDG to as much as 35,000 SDG.
“There are scenes of the displaced carrying their belongings on their shoulders, along with children and the elderly, searching for safety.”
Most of those left behind in unsafe neighbourhoods and camps are unable to leave because they lack the (financial) resources or because they suffer from medical or physical constraints.
The RSF have been making progress in Darfur and the army base near El Fasher remains the last serious army holdout. As a result, “the RSF are likely to intensify their efforts to overthrow the 6th Infantry Division in El Fasher to cement their control over all of Darfur, which will strengthen their negotiating position in the ongoing Jeddah negotiations”.
“If the RSF take full control of El Fasher, there will be a major humanitarian catastrophe, including in the areas that are for now considered safe. Hundreds of thousands more are likely to flee, exacerbating the displacement crisis that has already forced nearly 6 million Sudanese from their homes,” the STPT warned.
‘If the RSF take full control of El Fasher, there will be a major humanitarian catastrophe…’
The city is strategically important as well. It is considered a ‘bridge’ that connects Darfur with the other Sudanese states and has been a logistical hub for food, medicines, and fuel for South, West, and Central Darfur. “All this stands to be disrupted if the RSF take the city.”
There are also fears because the RSF have “systematically unleashed mayhem, mass pillage,” and the widespread killing of civilians in the other Darfur territories it has occupied.
RSF troops and allied militias are widely held responsible for the violence that killed many thousands in West Darfur in what has been described as ethnic cleansing and a continuation of the Darfur genocide.
The RSF have also appointed militia members for important governance positions, creating a militia-heavy administrative system “that is ill-equipped to respond to the population’s vital needs”.
To avoid such scenarios, the STPT urges the international community to take action. “The international community, including the [UN] Security Council, could do much more” than it currently has.
It also advises humanitarian organisations to prepare and set up facilities and supplies in Chad to improve its response to the likely mass displacement that is to come if a ceasefire deal is not achieved soon.
As a result of the violence throughout Darfur, the situation in Chad is already extremely difficult.
On Friday evening alone, 23 wounded Sudanese arrived at Chad’s Abcha Regional Hospital and underwent surgery. The refugees were ambushed by the RSF on their way out of El Geneine in West Darfur. A Radio Dabanga correspondent said the wounded were transferred from the hospital in the Chadian city of Gereida.
Another Radio Dabanga correspondent confirmed that more than 20 wounded Sudanese were injured while fleeing the city of El Geneina and are still receiving treatment at the hospital in the Chadian border town of Adré under the supervision of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The suffering of new Sudanese refugees who fled from El Geneina to refugee camps in eastern Chad has increased dramatically. One Sudanese refugee told Radio Dabanga that the new refugees have no housing or tents, and food supplies are very limited.
He explained that refugees, including women and children, arrive in Adré on foot. Many arrive wounded and need to be transferred to hospitals by aid organisations for treatment.
The refugee appealed to humanitarian organisations to provide more food and shelter to the new refugees.
The United Nations is aware of the problems. It has warned that the armed conflict in Sudan between the army and the RDF is turning into an ongoing crisis.
Clementine Nkwita Salami, acting head of UNITAMS, told reporters: “We continue to receive horrific and uninterrupted reports of sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and serious violations of human rights and children.”
“We have recently received disturbing reports of escalating violence and attacks on civilians, including what appears to be on an ethnic basis in Darfur,” Nkweta Salami said.