A barrage of artillery shells hit a poor neighbourhood on May 31 in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.
Residents say the attack killed at least 18 civilians and wounded 106 others in a local market, yet nobody knows if it came from the Sudanese army or the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the two sides that have plunged the country into war to try to vanquish one another.
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Residents said the RSF deployed to the neighbourhood shortly after the incident, resulting in continuing street battles with the army and fears that more civilians will die in the crossfire.
“The area is still being bombed as a result of the clashes between the two parties,” said Fadeel Omer, 25, an activist from Mayo, the area where the attack took place.
“But with [the RSF’s] deployment in the area, there is more fear of them than the [army’s] bombing,” he added.
The market attack could be the beginning of a serious escalation to come. A day earlier, the army pulled out of ceasefire talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The announcement suggested top army commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is preparing to wage a major offensive to retake the capital from the RSF, residents and experts told Al Jazeera.
Al-Burhan said he was open to resuming talks three days later, yet the RSF claimed the army’s conditions were impossible to meet. An army official reportedly said the army called for the RSF to stop occupying people’s homes and hospitals before resuming negotiations.
Both sides have since been hit with US sanctions in an effort to target their war chests. With neither side budging, some civilians feared they would bear the brunt of a sharp uptick in violence. Others said they supported a major army attack.
“If that’s what it takes to get rid of the RSF then so be it,” said Mohamad Jamal, a resident in Khartoum. “We are being abused by them.”
Dead in the water?
RSF, whose stronghold is in the western province of Darfur, never had a large constituency in Khartoum, a city historically home to Sudan’s middle class and business elite.
Despite the lack of support, the militia has made no effort to win hearts and minds in the capital despite claiming to support democracy on its social media networks.
The group has instead spread itself across the city to terrorise residents by looting homes, kidnapping young men, and raping women, residents and victims told Al Jazeera.
RSF’s human rights violations have pushed many people to view the army as the lesser of two evils, with some overlooking the latter’s indiscriminate air campaign. According to ACLED, a non-profit collecting data on conflicts in real-time, the army routinely hits civilian targets such as hospitals, schools and homes.
Kholood Khair, a Sudanese analyst and founding director of the think tank Confluence Advisory, told Al Jazeera a large army offensive could jeopardise their support if they inflict too much harm on the civilian population.
“The army can’t afford to lose any support – whether that be historic or symbolic – from its citizens in Khartoum because then they will really be dead in the water,” she said.
“The RSF is just waiting and egging on the army to bomb the city so that its own [human rights] abuses can look pale in comparison to the people being indiscriminately killed in army attacks,” she added.
Despite the risk a major army offensive poses to civilians, Khair said the army is likely to proceed in order to prove to their supporters they can liberate parts of the city.
An assault would also aim to secure some much-needed leverage before re-entering into negotiations with the RSF, she said.
“[An army] offensive would have two objectives. First, it is to demonstrate they can achieve military victories against the RSF, and [the second] is to save face before entering into a new platform for dialogue.”
Bracing for battle
In Mayo, the neighbourhood where residents were killed and badly injured three days ago, Omer said many people are taking precautions to avoid the looming offensive.
Some have fled to other parts of the city, while others were thinking of fleeing Khartoum, if they can.
“Indeed, there is fear of a military attack in [Khartoum],” Omer told Al Jazeera. “The talks in Jeddah represented a glimmer of hope for [everyone] to get out of the crisis. But after the withdrawal of the army, some people’s dreams of ending the war faded away.”
Since the start of the war, many people have sought refuge in Port Sudan, a city to the east that is entirely under the army’s control. But the army recently stopped allowing buses into the city, blaming an alleged plot by RSF to sneak in spies.
The army’s statement has people fearing RSF could launch attacks on Port Sudan in response for a major offensive on Khartoum.
“The [army] has already closed the region of Port Sudan and nobody understands why,” said Sammer Hamza, 25, who escaped to the city from Khartoum last week.
“At night, we hear the exchange of gunfire and bullets, but nobody knows what is happening. I just hope that nothing happens here. If a war happens in Port Sudan, then we are going to lose all of Sudan,” she added.
Back in Khartoum, activists are preparing to deal with an increase in casualties. Omer said he is spending most of his time at a local hospital to help rescue people who survived the attack on the market.
“We [activists] are doing everything possible to save lives and mitigate the damage [in our neighbourhood] by providing health assistance,” he said.