Aid agencies have described a catastrophic humanitarian situation developing in Darfur, a region that has been ravaged by years of violence after fighting has devastated several cities and reignited fears of a new civil war.
Since April 24, witnesses and civil rights organizations have reported massive looting, arson and looting in major cities in the western Sudanese region, some 800 km southwest of the capital Khartoum, targeting critical healthcare infrastructure.
On Monday, residents and aid workers reported that relative calm had returned to el-Geneina, Nyala and el-Fasher, the capitals of western, southern and northern Darfur respectively, thanks to an agreement between local leaders. Yet the devastation was so great that the Committee of the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate on Wednesday warned of an “imminent catastrophe” due to lack of access to drinking water and food.
The spate of attacks came as a rivalry between Sudanese army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, erupted into armed conflict on April 15.
Since then, the intense fighting has mainly concentrated in Khartoum, but the fighting has also spread to Darfur, where it has quickly taken on an intercommunal dimension, resurfacing memories of the war that began in 2003 and ended with a peace agreement in 2020 although the violence persisted intermittently. During the war, mostly non-Arab rebels rebelled against the government of former President Omar al-Bashir, which used Arab tribal fighters – a government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed – to put down the rebellion.
The same armed group, accused by human rights groups of committing mass slaughter in Darfur, later turned into the RSF.
‘A looming catastrophe’
Clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF occurred in el-Geneina on 24 April, but both sides soon moved their forces outside the area. But that did not spare the cities from violence, because according to witnesses and aid groups, an intercommunal conflict broke out between Arab and non-Arab communities. Videos on social media, which could not be verified by Al Jazeera, showed entire streets burned down with buildings and homes turned to rubble.
The el-Geneina teaching hospital, the city’s market, the municipality and the university were looted. The same happened to food depots, schools, public buildings and all United Nations offices in the city, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
“We are trying to return to normal life, but most of the shops in the market were looted by militias and nothing was left for the people,” said civil rights activist Ibrahim Shumo. “Everything they could, they took,” he added.
The UN said 96 people were killed in the violence, but the local non-governmental organization Roots Organization for Human Rights and Violation Monitoring said on Saturday that at least 230 people had been killed. The same number was confirmed by a doctor from a local private clinic who declined to be named.
There have also been several attacks on displaced persons camps, according to the IOM. The camps are informal shelters where people who had to escape previous deadly attacks in 2019 and 2021 had found refuge.
Adam Rojal, spokesman for the General Coordination of Displaced Persons and Refugees in Darfur, said conditions in camps across Darfur were “disturbing”.
“The suffering of the displaced is increasing from bad to worse due to the lack of drinking water, food and medicine,” Rojal said via messages from a refugee camp in central Darfur. The areas most affected by looting and destruction remain inaccessible to humanitarian actors, he added.
At the South Hospital of el-Fasher, the only functioning clinic in South Darfur, Mohamed Gibreel Adam, MSF project coordinator, reported an increasing number of deaths, especially children and people with special needs, due to a lack of adequate medical care.
“The situation is overwhelming,” Adam said via audio message. “Children with malnutrition problems are not fed.”
The doctor described patients reaching the hospital after endless hurdles, including walking through several checkpoints amid gunfire. While the violence has eased, the situation remains tense, with people left in a state of fear as humanitarian workers evacuate the area.
“They feel like they’ve been left alone,” he added.
‘This damn war’
While it is difficult to access food and water throughout the country due to the ongoing conflict, the humanitarian situation in Darfur could worsen more quickly due to the region’s already poor infrastructure.
“The concern is that this is happening because Darfur was already suffering from difficult humanitarian conditions,” said Mohamed Osman, senior researcher for Sudan for Human Rights Watch. “The displaced have been displaced over the years and have already suffered much more than the rest of the country,” Osman said.
The World Food Program estimates that Darfur suffers from the greatest food insecurity in a country where almost a third of the population was already starving before the current conflict broke out.
Darfur is struggling to rebuild after the war in the region, which has left more than 300,000 dead, according to the UN. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2020, hundreds of people have died and thousands have been displaced.
While both sides of the conflict seem to have no incentive to seek peace, civilians remain caught in the middle.
“We are disappointed with this damned war, in which there is no winner and the biggest loser is Sudan and its people… we are paying the price of this war,” said Rojal.