‘No way to leave’: Sudan paramilitary traps civilians in breadbasket state

After capturing Gezira state two weeks ago, the Rapid Support Forces have prevented civilians from fleeing.

RSF Sudan
Fighters from Sudan's Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group at a rally in Mayo district south of Khartoum [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

When Sudan’s second largest city, Wad Madani, fell to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on December 18, Afnan Hind and her family fled to a nearby town to stay with relatives. But the paramilitary group came there too and prevented residents from leaving.

Hind and her family were trapped by a group that kills civilians, rapes women and girls, and loots citizens of their wealth. Days later, she said, RSF fighters stormed their apartment to steal a car parked outside.

“My uncle just gave them the keys without resistance. He feared for [the girls in the house],” Hind, 21, told Al Jazeera. “There was immense terror of what the RSF were going to ask for.”

According to civilians, UN agencies and local monitors, the RSF is obstructing people from leaving towns and cities in Gezira state, whose capital is Wad Madani. Gezira is the breadbasket for the rest of Sudan and was a haven for hundreds of thousands of displaced people who relocated from the war-torn capital, Khartoum, earlier in the war, which began in April.

About 300,000 people fled – many for a second time – to regions under army control when the the paramilitary attacked Gezira, but many are now denied passage through RSF checkpoints.

Those stuck in Gezira said the RSF has committed a myriad of human rights abuses, including subjecting women and girls to sexual violence and killing people for refusing to leave their homes. However, many people don’t have a way to escape, even if the RSF lets them.

“The RSF came to our village and looted all the markets and all the cars,” Hind said. “We are left with no food and no way to leave.”

‘No way out’ 

Four days after the RSF entered Gezira, Mohamad Ahmed* and his family were looking to flee. They wanted to go south to nearby Sennar state, yet the road was too dangerous due to clashes between the army and the RSF.

Ahmed said his family decided to walk to a nearby coast where they found a boat to take them to safety.

“The boat basically takes 60 people and it works with paddles. It’s a really old boat,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “We are really blessed because we were so exhausted and it seemed that there was no way out for sure.”

Others haven’t been so lucky, according to Alain Ouattera, the deputy head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan.

He told Al Jazeera that people still in Gezira face a worsening cholera outbreak and the RSF’s attacks may have spoiled a harvest required to feed people across Sudan.

He added that the army impedes aid shipments to RSF-controlled areas, compounding the challenges of delivering life-saving supplies to civilians stuck in Gezira.

“For us to get aid to [civilians in Gezira], we have to cross all these regions under [the Sudanese army’s control]. But to get the travel permit required to take aid from one state to the other takes ages,” Ouattera said.

“It’s not only risky to get supplies [to civilians], but it’s also so challenging because of all the impediments.”

Humanitarian corridors

Relief agencies, civil society groups and the UN are calling for the RSF to establish safe corridors out of Gezira.

“The idea is to have a sort of humanitarian corridor not only for us to access people but also for people to safely leave active conflict zones,” Ouattera said.

The Sudanese journalist syndicate also recently called on all international bodies to “facilitate safe passage for hundreds of thousands of women, children and elderly civilians stranded in hazardous regions”.

But Yousif Ezat, the RSF’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that fighters are not preventing people from fleeing or looting cars. He claimed the RSF was cracking down on highjackers by confiscating cars and trucks from drivers unable to prove they own their vehicle.

“To my knowledge, all roads are open out of Gezira state,” he said.

The UN envoy for Sudan, Clementine Nkweta-Salami, echoed calls for warring parties to establish safe corridors.

“Parties to the conflict must allow civilians safe passage. People fleeing conflict – especially women, children and those with special needs – must be able to do so safely,” she tweeted on Thursday.

Trying to govern? 

The RSF is trying to trap civilians in Gezira to prove that they can govern, according to Kholood Khair, a Sudanese expert and the founding director of the think tank Confluence Advisory.

She told Al Jazeera that the RSF wants to give the impression that “everything is fine” even though most people fear for their lives under its rule.

“It’s clear the RSF is trying to set up some kind of governance model, but we are also hearing real-life accounts … of people feeling desperation, anxiety and stress. These reports counter any narrative that the RSF and their supporters are putting out about their ability to make people feel safe,” Khair said.

Women in particular risk being subjected to sexual violence. Just last month, local monitors reported that the RSF shot and killed one woman for resisting rape. She was three months pregnant.

Yara Kau*, 21, said her family forced her to flee from Wad Madani. They had already tried to drive out of the city together, but they were turned back at RSF checkpoints, she said.

On Tuesday, Kau, her younger sister and two male relatives escaped on foot. They walked 40km (25 miles) towards a small town on the outskirts of Gezira. Along the way, two RSF fighters stopped and robbed them.

They also threatened to hurt them, but they let them ago after seeing Kau’s sister break down into tears and clasp her Quran. Hours later, they reached a family friend who gave them his car, so they could drive for the last stretch of their journey.

Kau is now in Sudan’s eastern city of Kasala, but she misses her parents, who are still in Wad Madani.

“I was never scared of the RSF shooting me dead. Getting raped was the only thing urging me to flee from these maniacs,” Kau told Al Jazeera. “My whole family urged us to leave because we are girls.”

* Some names have been changed to protect people from reprisals. 

Source: Al Jazeera