Focusing on survival in Sudan war zone, Khartoum residents have little faith in talks

Air strikes, artillery shelling and heavy gunfire have transformed capital into a battlefield

Families rest in a mosque in Wadi Halfa after fleeing Khartoum on their way to Egypt through the Qastul border crossing. Reuters
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In a country where civil wars have raged for decades, Khartoum residents say they have little faith in talks to end fighting between Sudan's army and a rival paramilitary force.

It is hoped negotiations in the Saudi city of Jeddah will produce a deal that would spare residents more death and destruction caused by fighting, which broke out on April 15 and is focused in Khartoum.

Nearly a month on, the Nile-side city is ravaged by battles fought on its streets between the army and Rapid Support Forces, with air strikes, artillery shelling and heavy gunfire transforming it into a war zone.

Officially, at least 500 civilians have been killed and thousands injured, but the actual death toll is believed to be much higher. Hundreds of thousands have fled Khartoum, either to neighbouring countries or rural areas.

The number of people internally displaced by the fighting stands at more than 700,000, the UN's International Organisation for Migration said.

“Only immense pressure put by foreign powers on the warring sides will end the fighting and produce a peace deal,” said Moaez Bekheit, 38, a Khartoum resident.

“Both sides seem to think they can win when in fact neither side will be able to decide this battle militarily. They have placed us in a dark tunnel.”

Yazid Al Redah, 36, another resident, said: “There is zero optimism that the talks will end this war. We must have a blanket truce if we as civilians are to have a chance of survival.”

Already, the objective of talks between the army and the RSF in Jeddah is to reach an enduring ceasefire that would allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians, not a peace agreement that would restore Sudan's democratic transition, derailed by a military coup in 2021 and made a low priority by the fighting.

Sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia, the talks are aimed at extending the fragile truce now in effect and reach a deal on the provision of humanitarian assistance.

The top UN aid official, Martin Griffiths, has proposed “a declaration of commitments for the two parties to guarantee the safe passage of humanitarian relief”, said a UN spokesman in New York.

“Together now [the US, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations], we are pressing the warring parties in Sudan to put down their guns and allow life-saving aid to reach the Sudanese people,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday.

US and Saudi diplomats, he added, were “deeply engaged in talks”, working with the UK, the UAE, the African Union and other partners.

Here's what a Dubai doctor saw happening in Sudan before he escaped

Here's what a Dubai doctor saw happening in Sudan before he escaped

A series of ceasefires have been breached since the conflict began, with the two sides blaming each other for the violations.

Khartoum has seen reduced hostilities in recent days, but the fighting escalated on Wednesday with clashes and air strikes, witnesses said. They reported ground battles in several Khartoum neighbourhoods and heavy gunfire in the north of Omdurman and in Bahri, two adjacent cities separated from the capital by the Nile.

Since Tuesday, the army has been pounding targets across the three cities as it tries to root out RSF forces that have taken control of residential areas and strategic sites since early in the conflict.

Khartoum is showing clear signs of a city gripped by civil war, a first despite Sudan's long record of military coups, some violent, and the nation's series of protracted conflicts in the west and south.

Millions have either died or been displaced in this violence since Sudan's independence in 1956. South Sudan alone saw two civil wars, one from 1955 to 1972 and another from 1983 to 2005. The mostly animist and Christian south seceded in 2011.

Some who chose not to flee the city spoke of a lack of power or water, food shortages and a scarcity of medicines. Sudan's state commission for human rights says pockets of severe hunger have emerged in parts of Khartoum.

A third of Sudan's 44 million people needed humanitarian assistance even before the fighting began, according to UN estimates.

On Tuesday night, the commission called on the RSF to pull its fighters out of the hospitals, health centres and private homes they have occupied.

It has also urged authorities to ensure that food, water and power are available at prisons across the vast Afro-Arab nation. It said it was investigating reports that prison guards have shot dead inmates in some jails.

'We have erected barricades'

“We demand that both sides issue straight and clear orders to their combatants to stop storming private homes and occupying them for military reasons,” it said.

Some residents spoke of young men arming themselves for self-defence.

“We have erected barricades on our streets to stop the combatants from coming in,” said Bashir Bakry, 42, from Omdurman. “Some of the young men have armed themselves.

“It is essentially a war between two militias in which we serve as fodder.”

The army, suggesting the RSF could have planted booby traps, warned residents against touching “unidentified” objects and instead leaving them for technical teams.

The RSF on Tuesday night said air strikes carried out by the army's jet fighters have destroyed the historical part of the Nile-side Republican Palace, Sudan's traditional seat of power that dates back to the 19th century. The claim could not be independently verified.

The palace was captured by the RSF early in the fighting, along with part of the armed forces' headquarters, the interior ministry and the state radio and television complex in Omdurman.

Updated: May 10, 2023, 11:22 AM