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Refugees who crossed from Sudan to Ethiopia wait in line to register at IOM (International organization for Migration) in Metema, on May 4, 2023. More than 15,000 people have fled Sudan via Metema since fighting broke out in Khartoum in mid-April, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, with around a thousand arrivals registered per day on average. (Photo by Amanuel Sileshi / AFP) (Photo by AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

Getting aid into Sudan

Getting aid into Sudan


Continuing violence in Sudan has made it difficult for aid agencies to get help into the country. What’s daily life now like for people still in Sudan?

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.

Six weeks into Sudan’s deadly power struggle between two warlords, shortages of food, fuel, water and healthcare are making life intolerable for those left behind. 

Fifteen million Sudanese already needed humanitarian aid before the war began. Since then 1.3 million have been displaced, several ceasefires have quickly broken down and hundreds have been killed.

The continuing violence makes it difficult for aid agencies to get help to those who need it, and more than 125 hospitals – 70 per cent of the total – have been closed. 

As the aid supply chain slows to a trickle, many of its lorries and warehouses are being looted and aid workers are being attacked. 

While thousands of Sudanese are internally displaced, many have chosen to leave the country and head to neighbouring countries like Chad and Ethiopia. Most of those leaving are women and children. 

“It was bad before and it has the potential to get massively worse, at the moment, the basic conditions for a large-scale humanitarian response are simply not there.”

Aid agencies like the IRC are trying to move people away from the border areas and into existing camps so that they can have access to basic resources, but it’s a race against time. 

“We are just coming to the rainy season and there’s a lot of fear that is really going to disrupt the movement,” one aid worker says.

The rains will make some of the roads inaccessible, cutting off many of the border areas that refugees have to cross. Even when they do arrive in camps, they’ll have limited resources. Before this war started, Chad was already hosting around 600,000 refugees, the largest refugee population in central Africa.

Vortex. For now, the fight is between the army and the Rapid Support Force (RSF), a paramilitary group. But Sudan’s neighbours are worried. As the conflict drags on, it risks drawing in them and turning Sudan into a messy proxy battlefield.

Sudan has seen 15 attempted and successful military takeovers since independence, the most of any country in Africa, the world’s most coup-prone region.

Unsurprisingly, the military is the nation’s biggest power broker. Its generals have taken control of much of the economy, building sprawling business empires that dominate banking, farming and health.

The RSF was built by former dictator Omar al-Bashir partly as a counterweight to the military, which he feared might topple him. It started life as the Janjaweed, a group of Arab militias which crushed a rebellion by African ethnic groups in Darfur during the mid-2000s.

Its campaign of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan’s western periphery, was labelled a genocide by the US State Department in 2004.

Since then, the RSF has swapped its Kalashnikovs and horses for rocket-propelled grenades and pickup trucks. With 100,000 fighters to call on, its leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, controls much of Sudan’s gold trade and runs profitable smuggling routes into the Sahara. 

Hemedti also has his own foreign policy, building friendly relations with Libyan warlords, Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and sending troops to help the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

“The RSF started off as a set of regional militias, but it has got bigger than it was ever supposed to be,” says Harry Verhoeven at Columbia University. “It has grown to be a state within the state”.

Why are they fighting?

The RSF and the national army have always eyed one another other uneasily, each seeing the other as a threat to its economic and political interests. But they have also worked together when it suits them.

In April 2019 the two rivals united to overthrow al-Bashir, who was facing a revolution from grassroots resistance committees calling for democracy.

Afterwards, the military entered a power-sharing agreement with pro-democracy civilians. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan became head of the country’s ruling council, while Hemedti was sworn in as his deputy.

The two men orchestrated another coup in October 2021, overthrowing the civilian prime minister and derailing a democratic transition. After much political haggling, the RSF was due to be folded into the army under the terms of a political framework agreement thrashed out in December.

That agreement was supposed to set Sudan back on the path to democracy, but the RSF and the army couldn’t agree on the details. In early April, they missed a series of key deadlines to hand power back to the civilians. 

Gunbattles erupted in Khartoum soon afterwards.

How bad could it get?

Despite predictions the RSF would collapse, the group has managed to fight the army to a stalemate in Khartoum, mostly by hiding in densely populated areas. This has nullified the army’s airpower, even if the RSF is struggling to bring reinforcements into the city across the exposed desert. 

The tactic has also transformed one of Africa’s largest metropolises into a wasteland, strewn with burnt-out cars and home to roving gangs of looters. 

If the RSF is eventually forced from Khartoum, it will likely retreat west to its Darfur homeland. Such a scenario would lead to a protracted war and likely draw in Sudan’s neighbours. 

They have mostly hung back so far, refraining from wholeheartedly supporting either side, but could feel compelled to act to protect their geopolitical interests.

That would be terrible news for an already deeply troubled region. 

South Sudan and the Central African Republic to the south are still recovering from their own civil wars and are home to a bewildering array of rival armed groups.

Chad to the west is in a similar position. Insurgents killed its leader, Idriss Deby, in 2021 and his son is struggling to bed in his new, shaky regime. Conflicts in Darfur have a habit of spilling over the porous border.

The UAE might be tempted to bolster Hemedti’s forces. If that happens, Egypt, the powerhouse neighbour to the north, could intervene to help its allies in the Sudanese military and secure the Nile, its lifeblood.  

Saudi Arabia has serious business interests in Sudan, ploughing billions of dollars into farm projects over the last decade.

“You have all the ingredients for a lingering war that worsens and widens,” says a security analyst who draws parallels with the chaos in Libya.

All the while ordinary Sudanese are paying the price. A third of the population already relied on food aid before the fighting started. Now the banking and healthcare systems have collapsed, fuelling an impending sense of state failure.

“It was bad before and it has the potential to get massively worse,” says William Carter, Sudan head for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “At the moment, the basic conditions for a large-scale humanitarian response are simply not there.”