In the besieged and starving city of El Fasher, a deadly battle for Sudan’s Darfur region looms

In-depth: The Rapid Support Forces have surrounded and besieged the Sudanese army’s last Darfur holdout in El Fasher – a city gripped by famine and fear.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have encircled and besieged El Fasher in North Darfur in recent weeks, but fears of an all-out assault on the city have not yet materialised.

El Fasher remains the last capital city in Darfur’s five states where the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) maintain a garrison following their 13-month-long war against the RSF.

A defeat for the SAF and former Darfur rebel groups fighting alongside it would formalise the loss of the army’s control over approximately one-third of the nation’s territory.

Residents of the city are living in a state of heightened fear as armed clashes would devastate civilian life, infrastructure, and private property.

“The main roads leading into and out of the city to Chad, Khartoum, and Mellit have all been besieged by the RSF and because of that foodstuffs are in short supply and have become too expensive to afford,” Mousa Abdelghani, a political observer from El Fasher, told The New Arab.

"The struggle for control over El Fasher not only carries the risk of escalating violence along ethnic lines but also threatens to inflict severe hardship on its civilian population" 

‘Precipice of a massacre’

El Fasher is currently home to between 1.5 and 1.8 million people, 800,000 of whom are internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Estimates vary given the fact that the population of the city has swollen in size due to newcomers escaping fighting in other parts of Darfur, where clashes in November of last year resulted in the RSF seizing four out of greater Darfur’s five constituent states.

In addition, a new flood of displaced people has entered the city in recent weeks after RSF troops razed villages to the north and west of the city and SAF airstrikes targeted RSF positions there, rendering those areas uninhabitable.

Given the geography of the battlefield in El Fasher, residents fear that they will be caught in the middle of skirmishes if they do occur. “The army’s garrison sits in the centre of the city. Civilians will be the first to suffer from any skirmishes,” Abdelghani explained to TNA.

Recent warnings by US officials have also highlighted the likelihood of genocidal violence that would come with an RSF takeover of El Fasher. Following a United Nations Security Council Meeting on Sudan, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told journalists that the city “is on the precipice of a large-scale massacre”.

“The worry is really for the civilians in Darfur and now we have evidence that a lot of civilians say for example, in West Darfur, now captured by the RSF, is now nearly depopulated from the Masalit group,” Mutasim Ali, a Legal Advisor at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, explained to TNA, agreeing with Thomas-Greenfield’s assessment.

Ali is one of the authors of a report published by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre which found that the RSF and its allied militias “have committed and are committing genocide against the Masalit,” a Black African group, which was targeted by the RSF in El-Geneina in late April, just weeks after Sudan’s war erupted in Khartoum on 15 April.

El Fasher is at risk of experiencing the same pattern of violence, given that many of the city’s residents belong to the Zaghawa and Fur ethnic groups. These non-Arabic speaking tribes were targeted by Arab militias, which later evolved into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) after former President Omar al-Bashir formalised and incorporated them into the SAF during the Darfur Genocide, which took place between 2003 and 2005.

The struggle for control over El Fasher not only carries the risk of escalating violence along ethnic lines but also threatens to inflict severe hardship on its civilian population. This is due to the limited opportunities for escape available to those living within the city.

“From El-Geneina, Adre in Chad is within a walkable distance, and therefore an attack on El Fasher would result in catastrophic consequences,” Mutasim Ali, from the Raoul Wallenberg Centre, explained.

El-Geneina is situated approximately 30 kilometres from the Chadian border and many of its residents have embarked on the journey on foot, escaping genocidal violence in their hometowns. In contrast, El Fasher is over 400 kilometres away from Chad, making attempts to flee the country significantly more challenging.

"A defeat for Sudan's military and former Darfur rebel groups fighting alongside it in El Fasher would formalise the loss of the army's control over approximately one-third of the nation's territory" 

Fading hopes for a ceasefire

To make matters worse, the war in Sudan has been described as ‘forgotten’ by various observers and media outlets throughout its 13-month duration due to humanitarian commitments being woefully underfunded for the majority of the war.

Fortunately, high-level attention was finally garnered with an International Humanitarian Conference to support Sudan, organised by the EU, Germany, and France, which hosted the summit in Paris.

The Paris Conference significantly increased humanitarian commitments, raising them from 5% to 50%, but it is still difficult to see how the funds can be deployed in the absence of a ceasefire and with no guarantees to safeguard humanitarian access from the warring parties.

Neither the SAF nor the RSF were invited to the Paris Conference, a move which prompted the military-controlled Foreign Ministry of Sudan to express “its utmost astonishment and condemnation” of the conference for the failure of the convening states to include it as a participant.

The prospects of securing a cease-fire are also struggling to gain any traction. Last week, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, made phone calls to both General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of SAF and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, urging both to “stop the fighting for the protection of state institutions and the nation of Sudan” according to a Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs press statement.

However, both belligerents poured cold water on any prospect of a resumption of ceasefire talks in Jeddah, with Dagalo issuing a press statement, stating that “the other party does not have a real will to stop the war”.

Similarly, Burhan told army troops in Sudan’s Northern State on the same day that the army would continue fighting and would not stop “until we reach El-Geneina”.

Furthermore, despite the US Special Envoy for Sudan, Tom Perriello, informing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that US-Saudi sponsored talks would resume “in the coming weeks,” a source within the RSF confirmed to The New Arab that a formal invitation for a new round of talks had not been received.

Similarly, in a recently televised interview with BBC Arabic, General Burhan’s deputy in the Sovereign Council of the Government of Sudan, Malik Agar, implied that no invitation was received by the Army-led government either. He added that any return to Jeddah would require “that we begin where we left off, with the Jeddah Agreement”.

Agar’s statement referenced the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan, signed by the SAF and RSF in Jeddah on 11 May last year. In addition to facilitating “rapid and unimpeded passage” of humanitarian aid and personnel, the declaration also required warring parties to “vacate urban centres, including civilian houses”.

This provision was aimed at the RSF which, after having lost most of its bases to airstrikes in the early days of fighting, commandeered civilian homes and infrastructure throughout Sudan’s cities into makeshift barracks.

"The UAE has chosen to back the RSF and the Islamist regimes in the region have chosen the Armed Forces. The US and Western countries only issue statements of concern and refuse to do anything more" 

The RSF denies occupying any civilian residences, while the army has conditioned any negotiations with the RSF on its withdrawal from homes and urban centres in various cities under their control, leading to a Catch-22 situation.

Although attempts to mediate a solution seem to have stalled totally, *Zainab Abdulraham, a civil society activist from Omdurman, is still optimistic that a breakthrough is possible if civilians can have a voice at prospective ceasefire talks.

“Some people think civilians shouldn’t be at the talks, but the opposite is the case, civilians are the ones feeding the people.”

Zainab works with mutual aid groups on the ground that help feed struggling families who remain in the battle-scarred neighbourhoods of Omdurman, and expressed optimism that ceasefire talks, when they do eventually occur, could lead to a breakthrough given the decreased tempo of fighting in the capital.

“One of the things we notice is that the fighting has really decreased in Khartoum and many services like water and power are now coming back,” Zainab said.

Mousa Abdelghani in Darfur, however, thinks the international community needs to take a more aggressive stance given the lack of will by either the SAF or the RSF to cease hostilities.

Abdelghani noted that regional efforts to contain the fighting were muted because neighbouring states had a vested interest in supporting their preferred party to victory. Additionally, he criticised Western powers for not doing enough to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

“The UAE has chosen [to back] the RSF and the Islamist regimes in the region have chosen the Armed Forces. The US and Western countries only issue statements of concern and refuse to do anything more.”

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