Are Sudan’s civil society activists being targeted by both warring sides?

Sudan’s warring parties are using food as a weapon and targeting local activists for feeding their communities.

A volunteer distributes food to people in Omdurman, Sudan,
A volunteer distributes food to people in Omdurman, Sudan, September 3, 2023 [El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters]

In Sudan’s war, even making food for the poor is dangerous.

On March 23, Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) arrested activists from the Sharq al-Nile neighbourhood in the war-torn capital, Khartoum, while they were supervising soup kitchens feeding thousands of hungry people every day.

The recent arrests in Khartoum are only part of a broader strategy of the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) – who are fighting for power in the country – to clamp down on civil society actors by arresting volunteers, limiting access to aid and obstructing the arrival of relief, according to local volunteers and aid groups.

“More arrests could affect the many poor people who depend on the [soup kitchens] to survive,” Musab Mahjoub, a human rights monitor in Sharq al-Nile, told Al Jazeera as a nationwide famine looms.

The reason for the March arrests is unknown.

“We tried to contact the RSF to ask … but they didn’t respond,” Mahjoub said, adding that the RSF had arrested activists running soup kitchens last month too, although they were all released days later.

Local relief groups have called on Western donors to support and protect them from warring parties they believe are profiteering off controlling humanitarian aid.

The response from the belligerents, the activists say, has been to arrest, kidnap, rape, and even kill local relief workers to maintain a tight grip over aid operations.

With soup kitchens now in the crosshairs, these violations are exacerbating the food crisis in Sudan, where more than 18 million people are coping with acute levels of hunger and five million are suffering “catastrophic” hunger.

People board a truck as they leave Khartoum, Sudan, Monday, June 19, 2023. Sudan's warring parties have begun another attempt at a cease-fire after more than two months of brutal fighting — and ahead of an international conference to raise funds for humanitarian assistance. (AP Photo)
People board a truck to leave Khartoum on June 19, 2023, before an international conference to raise funds for humanitarian assistance [AP Photo]

Settling scores

When Sudan’s civil war erupted on April 15 last year, members of the resistance committees – neighbourhood pro-democracy groups that were instrumental in bringing down then-President Omar al-Bashir – set up “emergency response rooms” (ERRs).

ERRs started as local initiatives tasked with ferrying vulnerable people out of neighbourhoods where clashes were occurring and administering first aid to the wounded.

Over time, the ERRs grew distinct from the resistance committees and began soliciting donations from abroad to feed their hungry communities. But they are now facing similar threats to other civil activists in Sudan.

ERR volunteers operating in RSF-controlled areas say that total lawlessness puts them in constant fear of being arbitrarily arrested, beaten or raped.

Other ERR activists, who operate in SAF-controlled areas, say they are targeted by military intelligence and security factions tied to the “Kizan” – a common name for members of Sudan’s political Islamic movement that ruled alongside al-Bashir for three decades.

Key Kizan figures have come out of the shadows to support the army since the war, with activists saying they are targeting civil society in revenge for it overthrowing them in 2019.

Just last month, ERR spokesperson in Khartoum Hajooj Kuka said activists were targeted after the army recaptured neighbourhoods from the RSF in Omdurman, one of the three cities in the national capital region.

“Two youths were assassinated by the army … in the communal kitchen of a Sufi sheikh, called Wad Elamin. But now the army is OK with the sheikh and he’s working and opened another kitchen,” Kuka told Al Jazeera.

“We also have members who had to flee because one of the militias fighting with the army – called al-Baraa bin Malak – started seeking out people who were part of [pro-democracy] protests.”

Al Jazeera contacted SAF spokesman Nabil Abdallah to ask about the military’s purported targeting of local activists, but he did not respond.

Obstructing food aid

Weeks after war erupted, United Nations agencies and global relief groups that had evacuated Khartoum finally set up field offices in Port Sudan on the Red Sea – SAF’s de facto administrative capital now – which enabled the army to control the humanitarian response, aid groups told Al Jazeera.

Since then, the army has severely restricted UN agencies and aid groups from delivering relief to RSF-controlled regions, according to these aid groups.

“I’m worried that there is an underlying policy position in general [from the army] to starve out certain parts of the country for direct or indirect reasons and to divert aid elsewhere,” said the country director of one international relief organisation, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing even more access to deliver aid.

Supporters of the Sudanese armed popular resistance, which backs the army, ride on trucks in Gedaref in eastern Sudan
Sudanese armed popular resistance supporters, who back the army, in Gadarif, eastern Sudan, on March 3, 2024 [AFP]

In the last month, no aid has reached RSF-controlled areas from Port Sudan, according to the spokesperson of one UN agency, who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardising current negotiations for aid delivery access.

The spokesperson told Al Jazeera that even when the UN obtains “some clearances” to move aid from Port Sudan, they are not given security guarantees from RSF fighters.

“The RSF is requesting payment in exchange for security guarantees,” the spokesperson said. “But that’s something that [we] won’t do, and can’t do.”

Al Jazeera sent questions to RSF spokesperson Abdulrahman al-Jaali, raising the allegations that the paramilitary was attempting to profiteer from aid convoys, but he did not respond.

Humanitarian imperative?

A Western aid worker in Sudan, who was not authorised to speak due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Al Jazeera that UN agencies and other global relief groups should be prioritising their “humanitarian imperative” over respecting the sovereignty of Sudan’s de facto military authorities.

For months, global relief organisations and UN agencies have lobbied for aid delivery access from two land borders via South Sudan and Chad. But in March, Sudan’s army-aligned Ministry of Foreign Affairs revoked the World Food Programme’s (WFP’s) permission to provide food to West and Central Darfur from the Chadian town of Adre.

The ministry cited security reasons, saying the border had been used for arms transfers to the RSF.

Three days later, SAF approved WFP food shipments via Tina, Chad, a border area that connects with North Darfur, where both army and RSF troops are present. However, hundreds of thousands of people across West and Central Darfur are still starving.

“There is a global issue at play whereby global sovereignty is emerging as the international norm over our humanitarian imperative. Sudan is one of a multitude of contexts where we privilege state sovereignty over getting aid to vulnerable people,” the anonymous Western aid worker said.

Al Jazeera contacted Leni Kenzli, WFP spokesperson, to ask if the agency may bypass permission from the Sudanese army to regularly deliver aid into West and Central Darfur from Adre, especially if thousands of people begin dying from starvation.

Kenzli declined to comment citing the sensitivity of the matter.

Meanwhile, the Western aid worker said many of their peers were frustrated that global relief agencies are not demonstrating more “courage” to get food to starving civilians, effectively abandoning the task to underfunded and unprotected local relief workers despite the grave risks they face.

“We are living by this idea that the consent [of the army] in Port Sudan matters more than the people starving in [West Darfur],” they told Al Jazeera.

“[The UN] privileges the legal concept [of sovereignty] over a legitimate other legal concept, which is that people have a right to survive.”

Source: Al Jazeera