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War, Hunger, Pain: Dismal Accounts From My Sudan Diaries Prove Nothing’s Changed

Even though the civil war in the South had ground to its bloody conclusion, ethnic cleansing was far from over.

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Civil wars, ethnic conflicts, quashing of movements for democracy and massacring of peaceful protestors, food and water shortages, and army and warlords raiding and looting their own people—seem to be a way of life in Sudan. The ongoing conflict between the two army factions, once allies who orchestrated the 2021 coup, has killed over 500 people, wounded more than 4,000, displaced about 100,000, and razed large parts of the capital, Khartoum.

When I visited Sudan in 2006 as the leader of the Gondwanaland Expedition, the civil war in the South had ground to its bloody conclusion. However, wholesale genocide was taking place in the western part of the country, in the Darfur region. Over 450,000 African Muslims had been killed by the Arab Muslims in the continuing "ethnic cleansing”.

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A ‘Politically Charged’ Sudan

After an extremely challenging 26-hour drive across the Sudanese part of the Sahara Desert and another full day of off-road driving, we made a late night entry into powerless, blacked out Khartoum, a drab overgrown village of brown mud houses, the capital of the largest country in Africa.

The next morning, as we drove through the University of Khartoum’s arched, yellow gateway, we seemed to have entered India. Cyclists rode on the wrong side of the road; cars parked next to 'no parking’ signs; cigarette butts and litter carpeted broken pavements; messy graffiti covered the walls; torn remnants of posters plastered pillars; a stray cow eating the residual grass on the playground; everybody spat with gay abandon; corridors were lined with dusty steel almirahs oozing with files; and acidic smells drifted out of unflushed toilets.

After two hours of discussion with scholars, the expedition scientists were taken by their Sudanese counterparts to their respective faculties. Left alone, I walked the lanes of the university campus, astonished at the country’s ethnic diversity.

To beat the heat, I returned to my Scorpio parked under the shade of a tree overlooking an open field. As I dusted the vehicle’s exterior, a student befriended me and, in the course of the conversation, told me that this was a politically-charged university campus. “The October 1964 revolution and April 1985 Intifada originated from there,” he said, pointing to the adjacent field.

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Sudan Crisis: A Lowdown

In October 1964, the students and faculty of the University of Khartoum initiated open discussions on the need to stop all military operations in South Sudan, an immediate step-down by the junta, and a return to democracy. People came out on the streets of Khartoum in massive peaceful demonstrations.

The Sudan Civil Service went on a strike. Army officers and soldiers rebelled. From the capital, the popular demonstrations spread to other parts of the country. The military rulers were forced to relinquish power and a national government was formed. It didn’t last long. The customary problems of democracy— factionalism and ethnic dissidence—immobilised governance. In May 1969, Col Gaafar Nimeiry staged a coup, became prime minister, abolished parliament, and outlawed all political parties.

In the Third World political system, be it a dictatorship or democracy, the leaders treat the state treasury as their private coffers. While their personal economy booms, the country falls apart, and the hungry people become angry. That’s what happened in Sudan under Col Nimeiry.
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In 1985, with its begging bowl filled with loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Sudanese government was forced to remove subsidies on certain foods. Food prices rocketed and all hell broke loose. The University of Khartoum students demonstrated in the streets holding placards that read: "We will not be ruled by the World Bank. We will not be ruled by the IMF."

While Col Nimeiry was in the USA seeking medical assistance for himself and the ailing Sudanese economy, Lieutenant General Dhahab, the gentlemanly Defence Minister, booted out his boss in what is known as the "1985 Intifada".

True to his word, the genial, mild-mannered Dhahab called an election within a year. Three years later, the democratically-elected civilian government was booted out in an army coup led by Brigadier-General Omar al-Bashir who ruled for thirty years until 2019 when he was ousted in a coup staged by the present warring factions of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s de facto leader since a coup in 2019, and Muhammad Dagalo, the chief of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary unit that was raised from the janjaweed militias that committed genocidal acts in Darfur. 

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Rapes, Arson, Loot: How Exploitation Peaked

Darfur, an arid region of Sudan bordering Chad and the Central African Republic, has been besieged for decades with drought, desertification, and overpopulation. As the desert expanded, camel and cattle-herding Arab nomads, the Baggara, in search of water, had to take their livestock further south, to land mainly occupied by black African farmers, also Muslims. When the black tribes protested, Khartoum ignored them. Rebel groups appeared.

First, the Sudan Liberation Army, and then the Justice and Equality Movement. Weapons from a long-running conflict between Chad and Libya trickled across the border into the hands of these groups. When Khartoum, feeling vulnerable, armed the janjaweed, Arab militiamen, the trickle turned into a flood. To swell the militia's ranks, Arab criminals were released from jail and given horses, USD 100 each, and carte blanche to loot.

When pillaging, they were often supported by the Sudanese air force and the regular army. Airplanes bombed villages to create confusion. As families ran helter skelter, the ground shuddered, and the horizon filled with dust. On cue, a cavalry of the janjaweed would stampede through the village, torching the straw roofs of huts, and killing all the young men they could find, kneeling them in line before shooting them on the back of the head. Children watched their parents die and mothers and sisters being gang raped. The hands of raped women were branded, to make the stigma permanent.

The terrorised survivors fled from the embers of their huts, bullets whistling past them, and trekked for days across the desert, suffering unimaginable anguish from hunger, thirst, and pain, to find sanctuary in neighbouring Chad. Fleeing families separated. On leaving, the janjaweed threw dead bodies in the village wells to poison the water supply. More than 450,000 people, mostly women, and children, perished in the state-sponsored genocide. 
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While we were in Khartoum, negotiations were in progress in Abuja, Nigeria, for a US and African Union-brokered peace accord. An agreement was within reach. When the expedition called upon the Minister for Education and the Minister for Information, we all wanted to know if a settlement had been accomplished in Nigeria. They were on the right track, said both the ministers. The government had signed the agreement, but the “rebels” were dilly-dallying. On 5 May 2006, an accord was signed calling for the disarmament of the janjaweed militia, and for the rebel forces to disband and be incorporated into the Sudanese army. It was short-lived. 

Ever since the fighting began on 15 April, every ceasefire agreement has also been short lived. Due to their gory and dismal record, whichever of the two warring factions wins the war, the poor people of Sudan stand to lose. 

(Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA, Editor of Indian Mountaineer, Akhil Bakshi is an author and explorer. )

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Topics:  Sudan Crisis 

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