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News / Nation & World

World paid little attention to Sudan’s war for a year. Now aid groups warn of mass death from hunger

By Associated Press
Published: April 14, 2024, 5:26pm
4 Photos
FILE - People prepare food in a Khrtoum neighborhood on June 16, 2023. Sudan has been torn by war for a year now, torn by fighting between the military and the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
FILE - People prepare food in a Khrtoum neighborhood on June 16, 2023. Sudan has been torn by war for a year now, torn by fighting between the military and the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. (AP Photo, File) Photo Gallery

CAIRO — On a clear night a year ago, a dozen heavily armed fighters broke into Omaima Farouq’s house in an upscale neighborhood in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. At gunpoint, they whipped and slapped the woman, and terrorized her children. Then they expelled them from the fenced two-story house.

“Since then, our life has been ruined,” said the 45-year-old schoolteacher. “Everything has changed in this year.”

Farouq, who is a widow, and her four children now live in a small village outside the central city of Wad Madani, 136 kilometers (85 miles) southeast of Khartoum. They depend on aid from villagers and philanthropists since international aid groups can’t reach the village.

Sudan has been torn by war for a year now, ever since simmering tensions between its military and the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces exploded into street clashes in the capital Khartoum in mid-April 2023. The fighting rapidly spread across the country.

The conflict has been overshadowed by the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza Strip, which since October has caused a massive humanitarian crisis for Palestinians and a threat of famine in the territory.

But relief workers warn Sudan is hurtling towards an even larger-scale calamity of starvation, with potential mass death in coming months. Food production and distribution networks have broken down and aid agencies are unable to reach the worst-stricken regions. At the same time, the conflict has brought widespread reports of atrocities including killings, displacement and rape, particularly in the area of the capital and the western region of Darfur.

Justin Brady, head of the U.N. humanitarian coordination office for Sudan, warned that potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands could die in coming months from malnutrition-related causes.

“This is going to get very ugly very quickly unless we can overcome both the resource challenges and the access challenges,” Brady said. The world, he said, needs to take fast action to pressure the two sides for a stop in fighting and raise funds for the U.N. humanitarian effort.

But the international community has paid little attention. The U.N. humanitarian campaign needs some $2.7 billion this year to get food, heath care and other supplies to 24 million people in Sudan – nearly half its population of 51 million. So far, funders have given only $145 million, about 5%, according to the humanitarian office, known as OCHA.

The “level of international neglect is shocking,” Christos Christou, president of the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said in a recent statement.

The situation in fighting on the ground has been deteriorating. The military, headed by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the RSF, commanded by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, have carved up Khartoum and trade indiscriminate fire at each other. RSF forces have overrun much of Darfur, while Burhan has moved the government and his headquarters to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan.

The Sudanese Unit for Combating Violence Against Women, a government organization, documented at least 159 cases of rape and gang rape the past year, almost all in Khartoum and Darfur. The organization’s head, Sulima Ishaq Sharif, said this figure represents the tip of the iceberg since many victims don’t speak out for fear of reprisal or the stigma connected to rape.

In 2021, Burhan and Dagalo were uneasy allies who led a military coup. They toppled an internationally recognized civilian government that was supposed to steer Sudan’s democratic transition after the 2019 military overthrow of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir amid a popular uprising. Burhan and Dagalo subsequently fell out in a struggle for power.

The situation has been horrific in Darfur, where the RSF and its allies are accused of rampant sexual violence and ethnic attacks on African tribes’ areas. The International Criminal Court said it was investigating fresh allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region, which was the scene of genocidal war in the 2000s.

A series of attacks by the RSF and allied militias on the ethnic African Masalit tribe killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur near the Chad border, according to a report by United Nations experts to the Security Council earlier this year. It said Darfur is experiencing “its worst violence since 2005.”

With aid groups unable to reach Darfur’s camps for displaced people, eight out of every 10 families in the camps eat only one meal a day, said Adam Rijal, the spokesman for the Coordination for Displaced Persons and Refugees in Darfur.

In Kelma camp in South Darfur province, he said an average of nearly three children die every 12 hours, most due to diseases related to malnutrition. He said the medical center in the camp receives between 14 and 18 cases of malnutrition every day, mostly children and pregnant women.

Not including the Geneina killings, the war has killed at least 14,600 people across Sudan and created the world’s largest displacement crisis, according to the United Nations. More than 8 million people have been driven from their homes, fleeing either to safer areas inside Sudan or to neighboring countries.

Many flee repeatedly as the war expands.

When fighting reached his street in Khartoum, Taj el-Ser and his wife and four children headed west to his relatives in Darfur in the town of Ardamata.

Then the RSF and its allies overran Ardamata in November, rampaging through the town for six days. El-Ser said they killed many Masalit and relatives of army soldiers.

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“Some were shot dead or burned inside their homes,” he said by phone from another town in Darfur. “I and my family survived only because I am Arab.”

Both sides, the military and RSF, have committed serious violations of international law, killing civilians and destroying vital infrastructure, said Mohamed Osman, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Food production has crashed, imports stalled, movement of food around the country is hampered by fighting, and staple food prices have soared by 45% in less than a year, OCHA says. The war wrecked the country’s healthcare system, leaving only 20 to 30% of the health facilities functional across the country, according to MSF.

At least 37% of the population at crisis level or above in hunger, according OCHA. Save the Children warned that about 230,000 children, pregnant women and newborn mothers could die of malnutrition in the coming months.

“We are seeing massive hunger, suffering and death. And yet the world looks away,” said Arif Noor, Save the Children’s director in Sudan.

About 3.5 million children aged under 5 years have acute malnutrition, including more than 710,000 with severe acute malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization.

About 5 million people were one step away from famine, according to a December assessment by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC, considered the global authority on determining the severity of hunger crises. Overall, 17.7 million people were facing acute food insecurity, it found.

Aid workers say the world has to take action.

“Sudan is described as a forgotten crisis. I’m starting to wonder how many people knew about it in the first place to forget about it,” said Brady, from OCHA. “There are others that have more attention than Sudan. I don’t like to compare crises. It’s like comparing two cancer patients. … They both need to be treated.”

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