On May 22, security officers abruptly showed up at a Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) warehouse in Gedaref, a city under army control in eastern Sudan.
The officers said they needed to check the medical aid, which was supposed to be distributed to civilians caught up in a vicious war between the army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Then, they confiscated the supplies without further explanation.
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“We had a shipment ready to go from Gedaref … to a hospital in North Khartoum but it was all taken,” said Jean-Nicolas Armstrong Dangelser, MSF’s emergency coordinator in Sudan.
An estimated 25 million people – more than half of Sudan’s population – are in desperate need of aid due to an acute humanitarian crisis made worse by the fighting. But as the conflict enters its third month, both sides are accused of attempting to exploit aid deliveries to gain an upper hand on the battlefield.
The RSF and army are both stealing aid, restricting aid access and imposing rent-seeking impediments, according to 12 aid workers, Sudanese medics and experts who spoke to Al Jazeera.
“The army is not allowing many supplies into [RSF-]controlled areas and the opposite is also true. We are suffering because there is a conflict between the two,” said Yousif Ahmed, a medic whose name has been changed to protect him from reprisals.
“Both [RSF and the army] are stealing medical supplies and this is why we have shortages everywhere.”
Al Jazeera contacted army spokesperson Nabil Abdullah and RSF spokesperson Youssef Ezzat for comment, but neither had responded by the time of publication.
MSF’s supplies were confiscated by the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), which was given expanded powers to crack down on aid groups by Sudan’s former authoritarian leader, Omar al-Bashir, in 2006. Today, they operate under the army’s de facto command.
The HAC seemed to be designed to treat Western aid organisations with suspicion, with the government in 2009 going so far as to expel 13 aid agencies for “threatening the security of Sudan”. But rights groups and aid workers said the real reason was al-Bashir’s perception that they had helped the International Criminal Court gather evidence that resulted in a warrant being issued against him for crimes against humanity.
Aid workers told Al Jazeera that they consider the HAC an outfit for military intelligence and that the commission continues to be a thorn in the side of major aid groups and the United Nations today.
The HAC remains tasked with granting visas to aid workers and issuing travel permits to those requesting to move within Sudan. It also monitors the delivery of aid and inspects all aid supplies that arrive at Port Sudan – a city under army control where most aid enters the country and which has acted as the administrative capital since the war erupted in mid-April.
For that reason, most aid workers spoke to Al Jazeera off the record for fear of losing the limited aid access they have been granted.
“We don’t see [HAC] as an impartial actor,” one country director for an international aid agency told Al Jazeera.
The same source said the HAC epitomises the de facto military authority’s suspicion towards international relief organisations. Three relief workers also said aid agencies are not as vocal about the army’s role in aid diversion out of fear of losing the already limited access they have in Sudan.
“There is a sense of treading softly so that you don’t step on the toes of people that you might need for visa renewals or permits or for whatever else is needed in order to deliver aid in Sudan,” one aid worker told Al Jazeera.
The head of the HAC, Najm al-din Musa, denied allegations that the commission was involved in aid diversion.
“These allegations you are hearing are wrong … and they are just lies. I will tell you the truth. The commission doesn’t take any aid from any organisation,” he said.
Stealing medical supplies
Since the war, at least 61 offices and 57 warehouses belonging to aid groups have been looted, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Aid workers said they suspect the RSF was responsible for most incidents.
MSF’s Armstrong Dangelser said that one of their warehouses in Khartoum was looted many times.
“They took many of our logistic items and medical supplies. Sometimes there were a few days of calm, and then they visited our warehouse again,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Confiscations of aid are happening on both sides,” he said.
Local medics also said the army stopped an MSF convoy in mid-May, which agency employees confirmed, and diverted the medical supplies to a military hospital in Khartoum.
Another doctor, Alaa Nugud, appeared on the Arabic news broadcaster al-Hadath on May 26 and accused the army of confiscating half the medical supplies that the World Health Organization (WHO) had brought to Port Sudan.
He also said the army took the supplies to their military hospital in Khartoum.
Two days after his interview, the military arrested Nugud at his home. Al Jazeera spoke to him after he was released on June 8, but he declined to speak about why he was detained and whether he was mistreated.
Al Jazeera reached out to the WHO for comment regarding the doctor’s allegations, but the agency did not respond.
Monitoring and transparency
OCHA told Al Jazeera it has created “a humanitarian information-sharing mechanism” to facilitate aid shipments. The mechanism is voluntary and designed for aid agencies to notify the belligerents of their shipment through an online form.
Guiomar Pau Sole, the OCHA spokesperson, acknowledged that the UN has received dozens of reports related to violence and intimidation against aid workers, as well as the confiscation and looting of relief supplies. But, she added, none of the 274 relief trucks that have gone through OCHA’s humanitarian-sharing mechanism have been confiscated.
Despite the claim, aid workers told Al Jazeera that most relief agencies do not use the UN’s system because they fear it creates a precedent for Sudanese authorities to demand more information about aid shipments than they previously did.
That risks leading to more permanent bureaucratic impediments in the future, relief workers said.
Pau Sole did not specify what information the UN agency shares with the belligerents but said: “OCHA will not share information that will endanger or expose personnel or relief items. So far, no items [through our mechanism] have been looted.”
Sudanese doctors have set up their own system to track medical aid deliveries to Khartoum. The volunteer Doctors’ Committee, which includes all the doctors working at the few functioning hospitals in the capital, have a WhatsApp group to exchange and document what aid shipments have arrived at their facilities.
Two Sudanese doctors from the committee said a convoy carrying medical aid from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was stopped and looted by the RSF late last month.
UNICEF’s Deputy Representative Mary Louise Eagleton denied that any shipments from her agency were intercepted and said the agency cooperates with OCHA’s system.
“It’s possible someone slapped a UNICEF logo on a truck, or a truck that had previously transported UNICEF supplies still had a logo on it, although we take those off when done,” she told Al Jazeera.
Eagleton added that her staff closely monitors each vehicle, which is tracked from “point to point” after leaving Port Sudan, with proof provided by videos, photos and reports.
Asked whether UNICEF checked its deliveries with the Doctors’ Committee, Eagleton said: “We are in touch with the recipient of the health supplies whoever the partner is.”
The Sudan director of another international aid agency told Al Jazeera: “When something happens to the UN, they try to keep it under wraps because they don’t want to harm their reputation.”
On June 5, the army announced that it had created the Supreme Committee for Crisis Management to facilitate the aid response.
Kholood Khair, a Sudanese expert and the founding director of the think tank, Confluence Advisory, believes that the committee was created to capture aid and restrict relief.
“The army is losing control of Khartoum where everything is centralised. This feels like the last gasp by the de facto regime to try and maintain control of aid,” she told Al Jazeera. “But what the army controls in aid pales in comparison to what the RSF controls in terms of arms and money.”
Khair was referring to the huge cash flows the RSF generates from lucrative gold mines in Sudan, as well as its ability to buy and receive arms illicitly for its ground assault – an advantage it has over the army relying on fighter planes to fight the war.
In May, the army attempted to pressure relief organisations to allow armed escorts to accompany their shipments from Port Sudan, three aid sources with close knowledge of relief operations told Al Jazeera.
They said that most international NGOs and UN agencies have hired local truck companies to transport aid since they lack enough cargo vehicles.
But one Western aid worker said truck drivers are often forced to leave with armed escorts, which is considered a red line for relief agencies, according to an internal memo seen by Al Jazeera.
He speculated that truck drivers may be using a part of the money they receive from aid agencies to pay off the escorts and that aid groups and UN agencies prefer to ignore the issue.
All aid agencies that spoke to Al Jazeera acknowledged that armed escorts are a way for belligerents to enrich themselves and that they make humanitarian workers themselves a target. They also denied using them.
However, the Western aid worker insisted that some agencies have used them, despite the negative connotations.
“[Armed escorts] is an absolute last resort measure [for aid agencies] and it puts all our principles at risk,” he said.
The same source said the RSF is beginning to set up a parallel administrative system. In South Darfur, it has begun requesting aid groups to acquire separate travel permits, which must be issued by the RSF.
“Things are definitely not going in the direction that we would like to see things go in terms of reducing impediments,” the Western aid worker said.
The RSF is also accused of attempting to coerce aid workers into doing propaganda videos that aim to portray the group as a benevolent force. On June 9, the paramilitary stopped an MSF convoy and restricted them from delivering aid unless they said on camera – under duress – that the RSF was helping to facilitate relief.
MSF released a statement on Twitter following the incident: “On Tuesday, an MSF convoy was stopped upon departure from our warehouse and checked by RSF forces. The RSF requested we make a statement on camera regarding RSF procedures … we were obliged to do this for our convoy to be able to continue its journey.”
Aid workers and experts say the humanitarian response would be more effective if it supported Sudan’s resistance committees, the neighbourhood groups that spearheaded pro-democracy protests over the last five years.
Since the war, these committees have used their informal networks to provide life-saving aid to civilians throughout Sudan. Despite their vital role, relief workers told Al Jazeera the broader aid community is reluctant to deal with resistance committees since they see them as political – rather than neutral – actors.
“It would be a significant missed opportunity … if such actors were not engaged as part of the broader response moving forward,” said Anthony Neal, coordinator of the Sudan INGO Forum.
Khair said she was “flabbergasted as to why there wasn’t an immediate shift [at the start of the war] to the aid methodology by relying more on [informal networks] already providing provisions and not committing to an overreliance on the state”.
The Norwegian Refugee Council is one of the few aid groups in Sudan that has partnered with neighbourhood activists running four makeshift clinics in Wad Madani, a city southeast of the capital, Khartoum. The initiative required the HAC’s approval, yet the NRC said that the activists consented to the arrangement.
Anette Hoffmann, a senior analyst covering Sudan at the Clingendael Institute, an independent think tank in The Hague, warned that initiatives to support resistance committees should be done discreetly to avoid putting members in danger.
“The safest arrangement would be if resistance committees are not at the forefront in which their names … can be traced in some bureaucracy, which then makes it so easy to target them,” Hoffmann told Al Jazeera.
“Supporting their network members outside of the country – these intermediaries – would be ideal,” she added.
Aid workers who spoke to Al Jazeera agreed that finding innovative ways to bypass the de-facto authorities – and protect activists – is imperative to ensure the aid response does more good than harm.
But they all expressed concern that the broader aid community could compromise on their humanitarian principles to maintain their operations in the country.
“Many people are still very fearful of HAC,” said the country director. “Some people are saying let’s engage with resistance committees. Most others think that if that creates a remote risk of being expelled from the country, then they’re not going to do it.”