Starving to death is as scary as the war for Sudanese refugees in Chad

The looming famine in Sudan is pushing thousands of civilians from Darfur to flee to Chad, say refugees and aid groups.

Sudanese women from Darfur take refuge in Adre, Chad
Sudanese women wait to register with UNHCR in Adre, Chad, after escaping the war-torn region of Darfur. [curtesy of UNHCR/Nicolò Filippo Rosso]

Adre, Chad – Under the scorching sun, Awatef Adam Mohamed has found refuge beyond the porous desert border between Sudan and Chad.

She arrived on June 8, joining tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the horrors that war brought to Sudan’s vast western region of Darfur.

But recently, another layer of crisis started pushing people out of Sudan, a vast hunger that is threatening millions.

Seeking safety, seeking sustenance

Since a power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) erupted into civil war on April 15, 2023, the two sides have plunged the country into a devastating crisis.

Some 10 million people are displaced – the highest figure in the world – and famine-like conditions are taking hold across the country.

About 756,000 people are facing “catastrophic levels of hunger” with an additional 25.6 million people facing acute food shortages, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the United Nations’ hunger-level scale.

As a result, people are moving, seeking physical safety and enough food to sustain life, and more than 600,000 have ended up in Chad, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Many are barely surviving, dependent on food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP).

Awataf Mohamad, 27, came to eastern chad with her five children. They fled the war-torn region of Darfur in Sudan.
Awatef Mohamad, 27, with her five children [Mat Nashed/Al Jazeera]

However, a lack of funding has forced the WFP to reduce food assistance, cutting refugees’ daily calories by nearly 20 percent over the last two months, according to Vanessa Boi, WFP emergency officer in Chad.

With only 19 percent of WFP’s funding calls met by donor countries and more and more refugees crossing into Chad from Darfur daily, the UN agency may have to reduce food assistance to each refugee even further.

“We’ve seen the impact of the reduction as more people became malnourished,” Boi said.

Malnutrition occurs when the human body is deprived of vital nutrients, not just calories.

But refugees sometimes have no choice but to trade their WFP rations – designed to provide certain percentages of protein, fats and carbohydrates – for less nutritious but bulkier food that can fill stomachs for a few days longer.

Omima Musa, 27, exchanges her food kit for white rice at the market so she can feed her baby and two other children three times a day for a bit longer, she explains as she rocks her baby gently in her arms.

But even though Omima’s baby girl is less hungry, she is malnourished, which makes her susceptible to illnesses – like malaria.

Musa Maman – who supervises and monitors medical activities for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF – says the rains, prime malaria season, have started and will last at least two more months.

“We’re going to see an increase in malaria. August is the worst month,” Musa told Al Jazeera.

Trauma, uncertainty

Twenty-seven-year-old Awatef’s children are also malnourished – that is why she, like many Darfuris, used the only means of transport available and walked for miles to eastern Chad.

Now safe from the violence at least, the Masalit tribeswoman stands in the shade of a wall looking out at the world, wearing a colourful thobe that contrasts with the dark circles under her eyes.

The Masalit are one of the largest tribes in Darfur and are more sedentary and focused on farming, which leads to them being referred to as “non-Arabs”. The RSF and its allies attack the tribe often.

Awatef holds her baby, wrapped in a red shawl, in her arms and her four other children cluster around, listless.

Her husband disappeared when the RSF and allied nomadic militias (referred to commonly as Arabs) raided her Masalit village in West Darfur some months ago, looking to kill men and teenage boys.

Two of her brothers were killed in front of her during the attack.

“They were martyred in the house,” she says matter-of-factly, not discussing how they were killed. “I saw them being murdered.”

After the attack, Awatef struggled to feed herself and her children, pushing her to come to eastern Chad.

There they joined countless women and children huddled in the hot desert, waiting to register with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be given food and medical treatment.

Throttled aid, brewing tensions

Rights groups say the RSF and the army are creating the food crisis in Sudan.

The former has looted cities and markets and spoiled harvests by attacking and expelling farmers, while the latter has restricted aid groups from reaching beleaguered populations in RSF-controlled areas.

In March, the Sudanese army denied permission to aid groups to ship food across the Chadian border to West Darfur, citing security reasons, saying the border has been used to provide weapons to the RSF.

The army later approved food shipments via Tina, Chad, which borders North Darfur, where army and RSF troops are present. But that did not help West Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to find food, possibly leading to an uptick of new arrivals into Chad, according to Boi.

“[The WFP] is not doing distributions on the other side – since access is really difficult – so the [refugees] are coming to [Chad] because they know there is a possibility to have access to assistance,” she said.

The RSF emerged from the government-backed Arab tribal militia known as the “Janjaweed” that fought Khartoum’s war against a rebellion in Darfur. They stand accused of war crimes during the Darfur war, which began in 2003 and officially ended with a peace deal in 2020.

In a broader campaign to crush the non-Arab armed groups rebelling against the marginalisation of their communities, the group burned entire villages to the ground, their success leading to their repackaging as the RSF in 2013 by then-President Omar al-Bashir.

They are again targeting non-Arab communities in Darfur, which they now have almost complete control over. But even Arabs are starting to flee to Chad due to the hunger crisis.

Yassir Hussein, 45, came to Adre from Ardamata Camp in West Darfur, an area where the RSF and allied militias killed some 1,300 Masalit men in October 2023.

Sudanese Arab man from Darfur crosses into Adre, Chad.
Yassir Hussein, 45, is an Arab from Darfur who fled to Chad due to the hunger crisis [Mat Nashed/Al Jazeera]

“The [RSF] didn’t touch me [in Ardamata] because they could tell I was Arab from my look and my hair,” Yassir tells Al Jazeera, adding that he came to Chad to seek food and adequate shelter.

Adre’s Governor Mohamad Issa fears that the arrival of Sudanese Arabs could cause the Darfur conflict to spill over into Chad.

He stressed that more humanitarian support is needed for all refugees – including poor Chadian communities – to mitigate ethnic conflict.

“There is a possibility that some conflicts between the Arabs and Masalit might cross the border. We now have some Arab refugees fleeing the famine [in Sudan] and this could lead to tensions,” Issa told Al Jazeera.

Yassir hopes the conflict won’t follow him into Chad. He said he has “no problems” with the non-Arab Masalit and that he just wants the war to stop.

“There is no difference between us,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’re all the same in front of God.”

Source: Al Jazeera