Millions go hungry as war and waves of ethnic killing disrupt food supply in Sudan

Al Fiteihab, a district in the city of Omdurman across the Nile from the Sudanese capital Khartoum, is on the front line in the battle between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Residents searching for food say they have had to brave RSF checkpoints, as well as artillery and sniper fire from the RSF and the army.

People are afraid to leave their homes for fear of harassment and assault. Mahmoud Mohammed, 60, said he was robbed and beaten by RSF fighters when he tried to go to a market last December. “When I came home, my jalabia was covered in blood,” he said, referring to the traditional robe he was wearing. A family member confirmed that Mohammed was bloodied when he arrived home.

Mohammed’s wife then began setting out in an attempt to find food, but stopped when she heard that a group of women had been detained by the RSF and that others had gone missing. Two other residents said they had also heard of women going missing early this year. Reuters could not independently confirm these reports of disappearances. Last month, Mohammed and his family escaped from Al Fiteihab.

Electricity and water supplies have been damaged in the fighting, residents say, leaving them without power and running water. Many have suffered from diarrhea after being forced to drink untreated water from the Nile. The World Health Organization has reported more than 10,000 suspected cases of cholera across the country since the war broke out.

Mohieldin Jaafar helped set up soup kitchens early in the war, but he said supplies were running low. Said Sheashaa/Reuters

In an effort to feed thousands of Al Fiteihab residents, volunteers set up soup kitchens early in the war, serving porridge, rice and flat bread once or twice a day. But community kitchens were forced to cut back on these meals when an RSF siege of the area cut off their supplies last July, volunteer Mohieldin Jaafar told Reuters.

The volunteers are part of so-called ’emergency response rooms’ – a network that feeds and evacuates residents in areas across the country. According to two volunteers, three volunteers were killed in Al Fiteihab last year by artillery shells and stray bullets as they tried to help fellow residents.

At the end of February, the Sudanese army advanced into the area, breaking the siege of part of Al Fiteihab. This caused the food to start trickling in.

The army and the RSF jointly staged a coup against former autocrat Omar al-Bashir in 2019, but went to war as tensions rose over a planned transition to civilian rule and elections. The RSF quickly took control of most of Khartoum, despite the army’s advantage in air power and heavy weapons. The paramilitaries also tightened their grip on Darfur, which has been ravaged by more than two decades of conflict and displacement.

A man inspects the damage as he walks through the rubble of a wrecked car outside a house that was hit by an artillery shell in southern Khartoum in June.AFP via Getty Images

The current war has caused waves of ethnic killings in Darfur. Reuters has chronicled the violence there, which was led by the RSF and its allied militias. In a series of reports, the news agency revealed how the war unleashed a deadly, racially charged campaign against the Masalit people of West Darfur.

The RSF emerged from militias used to put down an uprising that flared in Darfur in the early 2000s. By 2008, an estimated 300,000 people had died in the violence, many from hunger.

To date, the war in Sudan has killed more than 14,000 people and displaced more than eight million from their homes, according to UN estimates, making Sudan the world’s largest displacement crisis.

‘A death sentence’

Before the conflict, Khartoum had been virtually untouched by the fighting that ravaged Darfur. But people in many parts of the capital now find themselves in a war zone between the army and the RSF.

Across the Nile from Al Fiteihab, about 2,800 people are trapped in areas around the Sudanese army base in Khartoum’s Al Shajarah district, according to two volunteers who escaped the area late last year.

One of the volunteers, Gihad Salaheldin, said that after running out of food, men began sneaking out under the cover of night to look for supplies. Residents also drink untreated water from the Nile, volunteers said.

Gihad Salaheldin said that after running out of food, men began sneaking out under cover of nightfall to look for supplies.Said Sheashaa/Reuters

Across the capital, the communications outage forced community kitchens to suspend operations as they could no longer receive donations sent through a mobile banking app. Emergency services in Khartoum state said on Sunday that they had to close 221 of these kitchens due to the power outage.

Donations have started to trickle in again recently, as volunteers in some places gain sporadic access to the internet through billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink system.

But little international aid is arriving in Sudan as humanitarian organizations struggle to obtain the necessary entry and transport permits from authorities. The United States and the European Union have criticized both the military and the RSF for the aid distribution failure.

Displaced people line up for help from a charity organization in Gedaref in December.AFP via Getty Images

According to residents and aid organizations, parts of Darfur have not received aid since the start of the war. After previously blocking the access of aid from Chad to Darfur, a UN official said on Tuesday on X that Sudanese authorities had agreed to the transfer of aid through a border crossing into North Darfur.

Responding to the RSF’s call for agencies to provide aid to areas under its control, Army Commander General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said in February: “This will not happen until we end this war and defeat these criminal rebels.”

A charity kitchen that provided food to displaced people in a camp in Wad Madani, the capital of the Sudanese state of al-Jazirah, in June.AFP via Getty Images

Sudan’s foreign ministry, which has ties to the military, has accused the RSF of looting and blocking aid, as have some aid agencies. The RSF has denied the looting and said all rogue actors in its ranks will be held responsible.

A study by Doctors Without Borders in January found that an estimated one child dies every two hours in the Zamzam displaced persons camp in North Darfur, home to around 400,000 people. Nearly 40% of children aged six months to two years old were malnourished, the group found.

If aid did not reach Darfur quickly, it would be “a death sentence for millions in desperate need,” said Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In South Darfur’s Kalma camp, home to hundreds of thousands of displaced people, adults struggle to survive on a porridge of sorghum flour and water, while malnourished children suffer infections and malaria, aid workers and residents said.

Fatma Ibrahim’s twin babies, Jana and Janat, are being treated for severe malnutrition.Presented via Reuters

Mohammed Omar, a resident of Kalma, said he and his family have been displaced four times since the war began. He gets one meal a day: a dumpling made from sorghum flour and water, normally eaten with a meat stew. “There isn’t a day we don’t go to the cemetery to bury people,” he said.

Fatma Ibrahim was pregnant with twins when the fighting spread last year. She said that after giving birth in December, she couldn’t afford baby food and couldn’t breastfeed because she didn’t have enough to eat.

Her twin girls, Jana and Janat – Arabic for heaven and heaven – soon became malnourished and were admitted to a medical center in Kalma.

Ibrahim, 27, spoke via WhatsApp from the medical center. “There is no money, no food, no milk,” she said. “There is nothing.”

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