As Sudan’s Capital Burns, the Darfur Region Negotiates a Fragile Truce

REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
Smoke is seen rise from buildings during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan. April 22, 2023.

NAIROBI – Civilian-led peace committees have brokered temporary cease-fires in much of Sudan’s Darfur region and they have largely held, a glimmer of hope after a week of brutal fighting across the country between the military and a heavily armed paramilitary force.

Efforts to bring peace to Sudan gained more momentum late Monday, when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the two warring forces had agreed to carry out a 72-hour cease-fire beginning at midnight local time. He said the agreement came after intense negotiations over the previous two days and called on the two sides “to immediately and fully uphold the ceasefire.”

He added: “To support a durable end to the fighting, the United States will coordinate with regional and international partners, and Sudanese civilian stakeholders, to assist in the creation of a committee to oversee the negotiation, conclusion, and implementation of a permanent cessation of hostilities and humanitarian arrangements in Sudan.”

It remained unclear, however, whether the nationwide cease-fire would be honored. An agreement last week for a three-day nationwide cease-fire that was supposed to take effect over the Muslim holiday of Eid starting last Friday did not silence the guns, with witnesses reporting that fighting had continued in the capital, Khartoum, El Obeid and other cities.

Fleeing residents say the capital city of Khartoum has become a ghost town heavy with the stench of smoke and death after of fierce fighting involving airstrikes, artillery and combat in the heart of the city. A resident of Khartoum said he heard explosions and gunfire in his neighborhood on Monday and that many people could not flee because the price of gasoline had spiked amid massive shortages. Some citizens who have fled have been robbed and killed by paramilitary forces.

Although the western region of Darfur has been hard hit by violence, truces in four out of the five states in the region have held since Thursday night, said Salah al-Din Muhammad al-Fadl, the head of the Native Administration in Darfur, a government forum with representatives from all tribes. Both sides have committed to hold their current positions, and now leaders are working on humanitarian corridors to deliver aid and collect bodies, he said.

Darfur’s leaders “do not want war at all because they have tasted it for many years,” he said. “The initiative includes representatives of all tribes and civil society . . . We are trying to generalize this initiative in all parts of Sudan.”

Fighting erupted ten days ago between the Sudanese military, commanded by de facto head of state Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, universally referred to Hemedti, who controls the heavily armed paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

They have fought street-by-street in the capital, and carved up much of the country. The military controls most of the route to the strategic town of Port Sudan on the Red Sea, home to an oil pipeline terminus, port and airport. The RSF controls swaths of territory to the south and west, and most of El Obeid city, a trading hub and airport. Diplomatic missions and the United Nations have scrambled to evacuate their staff, but most nations, including the United States, have not evacuated their other citizens. Around 16,000 Americans, many of them dual nationals, remain behind.

Darfur saw some of the most brutal of last week’s fighting. Militias fatally shot three staffers working for the United Nations; ransacked warehouses containing food, medicine and other aid; and battled the military for control of airports and the cities. Mortars dismembered children cowering in their homes. Locals began to form vigilante groups against looters, raising fears that the region could splinter under the control of different factions.

The Darfur region is still healing from two decades of war, which ended with a 2020 peace deal. African fighters, who blamed Khartoum for starving the region of resources and power, had launched a revolt, and the government responded by unleashing militias against them largely drawn from local Arab tribes. With military support, the militias, known as the Janjaweed, burned villages, gang-raped women and killed civilians on such a scale that the International Criminal Court indicted the Sudanese president at the time, Omar el Bashir, for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Bashir, fearful of a coup, had cultivated the Janjaweed as an alternative power base. Eventually the Janjaweed morphed into the RSF, becoming so powerful that it rivaled the military both in armaments and extensive business dealings.

Drawing on past lessons, Darfuri activists, religious leaders and local officials have managed to pause the fighting, with police protecting civilian infrastructure in the two main towns: Nyala in South Darfur and El Fashir in North Darfur.

The governor of North Darfur, Nimr Mohamed, said his history as a rebel helped persuade both sides to listen. “For 19 years I was fighting,” he said by phone from El Fashir. “We know every fighting ends in talks. Do we destroy everything first?”

He said he had succeeded in getting the army’s divisional commander and the sector commander from the RSF on the phone and requested a cease-fire to allow locals to collect the dead and help the injured. Now there are two committees – one to help the civilians and one to monitor the cease-fire.

Ahmed Gouja, a human rights monitor in Nyala, said the RSF controls the city’s north, the airport and other areas, and the military are protecting their headquarters downtown. Police were deployed around public institutions, the market and other public areas. “Markets and shops are open and people are doing their daily activities,” he said. The only emergency we have is we don’t have medicines. All of those have been stolen.”

Nyala’s peace initiative was begun by five religious leaders working in secret for fear it might fail, said Ahmed Kalil Abaker, head of the Nyala office for the Sudan Social Development Organization. Then Nyala University’s Center for Peace Studies and 15 other grass roots organizations became involved.

It’s not clear yet how long the cease-fire will hold or whether it can be more widely replicated. Both Burhan and Hemedti see the crisis as an existential fight.

With most international aid agencies having suspended operations, civilians in various parts of Sudan are stepping in. Resistance committees, which once organized pro-democracy demonstrations, are mapping escape routes and arranging medical assistance after about three-quarters of the country’s 76 hospitals were forced to shut, either because they were struck by mortar, occupied by fighters or ran out of blood, water, staff or supplies.

Amid the chaos, other countries have struggled to evacuate their citizens.

Blinken, speaking to reporters on Monday, said the United States was working to assist American citizens remaining in Sudan. “In just the last 36 hours since the embassy evacuation operation was completed, we’ve continued to be in close communication with U.S. citizens and individuals affiliated with the U.S. government to provide assistance and facilitate available departure routes for those seeking to move to safety via land, air and sea,” Blinken said.

The Pentagon has sent two naval vessels to Sudan’s coast and has deployed aerial drones to scan for roads that ground convoys could safely traverse, said Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman. “The idea,” he said of the ships, “is to have these capabilities offshore available should we need, for example, to transport citizens to another location, should we need to provide medical care, those kinds of things.”

France helped around 500 foreigners from 36 nations – including a handful of Americans and British citizens – leave Khartoum, the French foreign ministry said. Some countries, like India, have arranged road convoys. South Korea, Holland, Indonesia, and other countries have also begun evacuating their nationals, and China said it was sending a task force to help evacuate its citizens.