Famine Looms in Sudan After a Year of War

Ishaan Tharoor / The Washington Post
Famine Looms in Sudan After a Year of War Displaced persons, mostly women and children, in North Darfur, Sudan. (photo: Hamid Abdulsalam/UNAMID)

It’s been almost a year since a ruinous civil war flared in Sudan. Close to 25 million people — roughly half the country’s population — need humanitarian assistance, according to U.N. estimates. Close to a fifth of the country’s population has already been forced from their homes by the conflict, marking the largest population of internally displaced people in the world right now.

The war pits the country’s armed forces, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, universally referred to as Hemedti. Burhan and Hemedti worked hand-in-glove in 2021 when the two collapsed a civilian-led government that was presiding over the country’s fragile transition to democracy after years of dictatorship. But power-sharing disputes and turf wars fractured their alliance and led to an entrenched, sprawling series of battles across the African nation — shaped, in part, by the competing interests of a number of outside powers.

Countless civilians are caught in the crossfire: Artillery bombardments and airstrikes pounded urban areas, while warring militias pursued tribal vendettas and carried out hideous ethnic massacres. There’s no clear overall death toll since the war began last April, though it’s believed to be in the tens of thousands. The slaughter of civilians in November by the RSF and allied factions in and around the city of El Geneina, in the war-ravaged region of Darfur, may have seen as many as 15,000 people killed.

A rights group used satellite imagery to track more than 100 towns and villages razed, mostly by rampaging RSF fighters. The outfit traces its origins to the notorious Janjaweed, the Sudanese Arab militia linked to a host of war crimes and atrocities committed in Darfur a generation ago. Separately, a chilling recent report in Sky News Arabia detailed how in the capital, Khartoum, protracted, grueling urban warfare has led to a spike in the migration of European vultures and a boom in the population of stray dogs, all drawn to the city’s carrion.

And then there’s the toll on the living. The officials behind the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the U.N.-backed global authority tracking food insecurity and hunger, warned Friday that immediate action is needed to “prevent widespread death and total collapse of livelihoods and avert a catastrophic hunger crisis in Sudan.” Security conditions and lack of access meant the agency was unable to update its assessments from December, when it found that some 18 million people in Sudan were facing acute food insecurity, while some 5 million people may be on the brink of famine.

Some estimates forecast that almost as many as a quarter of a million children, pregnant women and newborn mothers could die of malnutrition in Sudan in the coming months. The chaos of the war has spawned a spiraling set of pressures driving hunger — food prices have skyrocketed, crops have been left unattended in a nation already coping with waves of drought, the health-care system is reeling in many areas and aid groups have struggled to reach needy communities.

“Sudan’s cereal production in 2023 was nearly halved, according to a report published last week by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),” noted Al Jazeera. “The sharpest reductions were reported where conflict was most intense, including the greater Kordofan state and regions in Darfur where FAO estimated production was 80 percent below average.”

“Aid alone will not fix this,” said Kholood Khair, a leading Sudanese analyst, speaking to Britain’s Channel 4. “It’s much more about safeguarding the next agricultural season, which starts in two months’ time.” She added that little was being done on this front, while the warring parties were playing partisan games with regards to the delivery of aid.

“The food security situation in Sudan is dire, and as the country prepares to enter the lean season, the worst is yet to come,” Shashwat Saraf, East Africa regional emergency director at the International Rescue Committee, said in an email statement last week. “From our experience in conflict zones and crisis settings, we are certain people must already be starving to death.”

But help is barely on the way. The country’s two feuding warlords have engaged in fitful but inconsequential rounds of talks; a series of cease-fires failed within moments of being agreed. The battles between their proxies have little end in sight. Moreover, the Sudanese Army Forces are allegedly thwarting shipments of aid from across the border in Chad into Sudan, while the RSF has looted warehouses storing critical aid in the country.

The international community has failed to muster much support. A desperate U.N. humanitarian appeal for Sudan has only received 5 percent of the funds required. As global attention and passions swirl around crises elsewhere — most notably the war in Gaza — Sudan’s civil strife has fallen out of view, a reflection of both geopolitics and the reach and resources of international media.

Sudanese civil society groups recount the horrifying tales of desperation and exploitation, including a surge in gender-based violence as women engage in “survival sex” with militiamen to feed themselves and their families. RSF fighters, as my colleagues Katharine Houreld and Hafiz Haroun reported in February, have also started a terrifying campaign of kidnapping, ransoming and enslavement.

“Some of the victims said they have been enslaved and sold to work on the farms of RSF commanders, and others recounted being held while their families were forced to ransom them. Some victims said they were seized several times,” they wrote. “Among those abducted, witnesses and activists said, have been girls and young women who were chained, bound and sold as sex slaves.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has attempted to rally global efforts to reckon with Sudan’s humanitarian calamity. “Through the sounds of gunfire and shelling, the people of Sudan have heard our silence,” she wrote in a recent op-ed. “They ask why they have been forsaken; why they have been forgotten.”

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