Millions in Sudan fight to survive sudden violence

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For the last three days, Howeida al-Hassan and her family have been hunkered down in the first floor of her home in the Sudanese capital, sleeping on the floor as sounds of airstrikes and gunfire surround them.

This is the life of millions of Sudanese trapped in their homes since violence suddenly erupted over the weekend between forces loyal to the country’s top two generals.

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Civilian life has come to a standstill as tens of thousands of heavily armed fighters from the military and its rival, the Rapid Support Forces, battle it out in densely populated residential areas.

For many, food supplies are already dwindling as going out to restock has become too dangerous. So sharing among neighbors has become essential.

On social media, posts are appearing giving information on pharmacies and grocery stores that are still open and able to deliver essential goods to those trapped.

Others post phone numbers or addresses for their homes, offering to take in anyone caught outside and scrambling for shelter when shooting comes close.

Residents have been desperate for at least a temporary cease-fire so they can stock up on supplies or move to safer areas. Media reported the two sides agreed on a 24-hour halt to fighting Tuesday, but when the reported start of the truce in the evening passed, fighting continued to rage in parts of the city.

Nearly 12 million of Sudan’s 46 million population live in the capital area, where most of the fighting is centered.

The toll from the violence has been difficult to determine, since many bodies are left in the street, unable to be retrieved because of clashes. The Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate says at least 144 civilians have been killed and more than 1,400 wounded but that the real number is likely higher.

The UN has put the toll at more than 185 dead and 1,800 wounded, without providing a breakdown of civilians and combatants.

Al-Hassan, a gynecologist who lives in the al-Fayhaa neighborhood of east Khartoum, said her family avoids approaching windows for fear of being killed or injured in the crossfire.

Outside, forces from both sides roam the streets armed with machine guns and automatic weapons, backed by artillery shelling and airstrikes, she said.

“They fight each other in the open. Stray bullets and shelling hit homes,” she said.

Al-Hassan’s family has not had running water or electricity since the violence started and have had to charge their phones in their car to keep up with the latest news.

Al-Hassan ventured to a nearby bakery for bread on Monday. “I stood more than three hours in a long queue while the sound of fighting was heard very close,” she said. She was eventually able to get her bread.

But she hasn’t been able to reach the hospital where she works, though it’s only a kilometer (about a half mile) away. She said she gives remote consultations through her phone to women in need. “This is not ideal, but it’s the only option we have,” she said.

The fighting is a new blow to Sudan’s already faltering economy. Nearly a third of the country’s population, almost 16 million people, was in need of humanitarian aid, including some 11.7 million already facing high acute food insecurity, according to the UN.

“Thousands upon thousands of civilians are trapped in their homes, shielding from the fighting, with no electricity, unable to venture out and worried about running out of food, drinking water and medicine,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk.

In another Khartoum district, Farah Abbas said his family was fortunate since they had stocked up on food, including flour, rice, oil and other essentials ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“This is an annual tradition,” he said. “Every Ramadan, we buy flour, rice, oil and other needs to cover the whole month.”

However, the 65-year-old Abbas and his wife have been unable to go to their regular checkups for age-related health complications. He said the streets in his neighborhood of Mamoura are empty, with no one daring to go out amid the sounds of fighting.

“There is no respect to our lives, the lives of the people,” he said. “Nobody is able go out even to bury bodies littered in the streets. It’s very risky.”

One of Abbas’ sons was killed in 2019 when the military and the RSF — who were allied at the time — stormed a protest camp that pro-democracy activists had been staging outside the main military headquarters in central Khartoum.

More than 120 people were killed and dozens of women raped during the attack on the camp — a major blow to the activist movement seeking to bring civilian rule to Sudan. In 2021, the leaders of the military and the RSF again united in a coup against a transitional government that was supposed to bring civilians to full authority.

Abbas said that over the past two months, there was clear evidence that the two powerful forces were falling out and that war was coming, referring to the statements and counter-statements by the military and the RSF leaders.

“It was just a matter of time. All were pushing to this conclusion,” he said.

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