Bodies litter the streets of Sudan’s capital, but it is too unsafe to bury the dead, residents have warned, as fierce clashes between the army and a powerful rival paramilitary force continue to rage.
More than 180 civilians, including UN aid workers, have been killed since Saturday when fighting erupted between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces in the capital and other cities.
The true death toll is believed to be higher as first responders have struggled to reach the wounded while the clashes – the fiercest in decades – have intensified, with airstrikes and tank fire sounding across Khartoum.
Huddling in their homes, as gunfire echoed in the background, residents of the capital told The Independent families were fast running out of food and water and that looting had begun. Despite promises of humanitarian corridors, they said it was not even safe to hastily collect and bury the dead, let alone secure badly needed medicines and supplies.
“We hear the sound of gunfire all the time, it is very risky to go outside. We have people who were not able to get home sheltering with us right now,” said Samia, 75, who lives in a northern suburb of Khartoum and described thick plumes of smoke hanging over the capital from explosions.
“There is nowhere to go. There are no ambulances, and it is too unsafe to bury the dead. I was sent a video by a student at the University of Khartoum where over 80 people are sheltering.
“One of the students has been killed and another is badly wounded. One old man tried to go out during Sunday’s supposed safe corridor and was shot dead.”
In the video that was shared with The Independent a Khartoum University student said there were 88 people trapped in total and they do not have food or water.
Several hospitals – some of which have been shelled – meanwhile put out desperate pleas for help as supplies were running short. In one Whatsapp message shared with The Independent Gaafar Ibnauf Children’s Emergency Hospital in the centre of the city said that it was housing more than 80 children but they had run out of food and water.
“They are going hungry… share as widely as possible,” the message read.
The fighting erupted as the crescendo to a power struggle between General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the commander of the armed forces, and General Dagalo or “Hemedti” who leads the RSF paramilitary.
The two powerful generals – who hold the two top positions in Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council – had initially joined forces to orchestrate a coup in October 2021 just two years after the 2019 ousting of long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir during mass protests.
But in recent days they have clashed over internationally backed efforts for a full civilian transition. The political agreement was due to be signed earlier this month and would have seen the RSF merge with the army. Both sides have accused each other of trying to derail the project.
This outbreak of violence threatens to extinguish any hope of a peaceful transfer to civilian rule and even raises the spectre of a civil war just four years after al-Bashir was ousted.
It has spilled into Darfur, a western region that from 2003 was plagued by years of bloody warfare that killed as many as 300,000 people and displaced 2.7 million.
Both sides claimed to have made gains on Monday.
Hemedti called on the international community to intervene against “the crimes of Sudanese general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan”.
He called the army leader “a radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air” in a tweet.
Later General Burhan ordered the RSF to be dissolved, branding it a “rebel” group.
An alarmed US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said an immediate ceasefire was needed and that the fighting potentially posed a threat to the wider region.
China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UN Security Council, the European Union and the African Union have also appealed for a quick end to the hostilities. UN chief Antonio Guterres urged a return to calm, saying an already precarious humanitarian situation was now catastrophic.
But a senior United Nations official with deep knowledge of the situation in Sudan told The Independent that the West had been “totally unprepared” for this eruption of violence despite multiple warnings.
“The West fundamentally did not understand the situation in Sudan. This was completely predictable and avoidable,” the official said.
The official added that calls for talks at this point were “tone deaf” as the situation was so grave.
“There will be no talks. The talks are happening with the guns right now.”
The UN envoy to Sudan said more than 180 people have been killed in the fighting. Among the dead were three World Food Programme workers who were killed in the crossfire in Darfur, forcing the WFP to shutter its vital operations. Several other humanitarian aid groups have been forced to do the same.
Walaa ElBoushi, a Sudanese activist and former minister of youth and sports for the country’s transitional government, warned the true death toll from the clashes is likely far higher because there is no way of counting the casualties.
Speaking to The Independent from the UK, she said friends and family in the country warned people were going missing.
“There are so many bodies scattered in different areas people are not even able to bury them. There are some missing people, one of the youths I was in contact with said he had lost a lot of friends,” she continued.
“Some people are locked inside hospitals without food or water – there are those who were trapped in their working places.”
There are also concerns the unrest could ricochet well past Sudan’s borders as both sides have powerful foreign backers.
Egypt, which has long been wary of political change in Khartoum, is the most important backer of Sudan’s armed forces. General Dagalo or Hemedti has meanwhile cultivated ties with several foreign powers including the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
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