Sudan civil war: Why is the world ignoring one of its worst crises?

Aid and advocacy organisations say the conflict is being sidelined.

Published : Jun 15, 2024 17:28 IST - 5 MINS READ

The year-long civil war in Sudan has been overshadowed by the conflict in Gaza and the war in Ukraine.

The year-long civil war in Sudan has been overshadowed by the conflict in Gaza and the war in Ukraine. | Photo Credit: Joao Daniel Pereira/Atlantico/ZUMA/picture alliance

The list of war-time atrocities in Sudan is long and getting longer. A maternity hospital bombed, causing the roof to fall onto babies inside. Refugee camps shelled, mass executions, streets filled with corpses, aid blocked, systematic sexual abuse, and other war crimes: Since the civil war started a year ago in the northeast African country, an estimated 16,000 people have been killed.

Sudan’s war has also created the world’s worst displacement crisis, with just under 10 million people forced to move to find safety. Last week, the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration reported that of the millions of Sudanese displaced, 70 per cent were “now trying to survive in places that are at risk of famine”.

Despite this week’s call for a limited ceasefire from the UN Security Council, the situation is not improving, all the aid and advocacy organisations involved say.

How did the war start?

Since mid-April of 2023, two military groups inside Sudan have been fighting: The Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, and the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF. They began fighting in 2023 after disagreeing about how to share power following a military coup in late 2021.

Also Read | No end in sight to widening gulf in Sudan

The SAF has about 2,00,000 personnel, is headed by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and works more like a regular army. The RSF is estimated to have 70,000 to 1,00,000 personnel and is headed by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, and is more like a guerrilla force.

Most recently, the RSF has been gaining some ground in the western region of Darfur. In April, it took control of the strategically important city of Mellit and is now laying siege to El Fasher, a metropolis where over 1.5 million people are thought to be sheltering. “They [the combatants] are not patriots,” Adam Rojal, a spokesperson for displaced people and refugees in Darfur, told media outlet Voice of America on June 10. “They are fighting [only] for their own interests. The only loser is the society of Sudan. People have lost everything,” he said. “Words can’t describe how serious this crisis is.”

UN ambassador: ‘Unforgiveable silence’

Despite the intensifying levels of violence and deprivation in Sudan, many human rights and aid organisations say that the rest of the world has been ignoring this conflict.

In April 2024, on the anniversary of the start of the fighting, an international donor conference pledged $2.1 billion (€1.95 billion) more in humanitarian aid for Sudan. However, in a letter written at the end of May, senior members of the UN complained they had only received 16 per cent of the total $2.7 billion they needed.

“You can’t help but watch the level of focus on crises like Gaza and Ukraine and wonder what just 5 per cent of that energy could have done in a context like Sudan and how many thousands, tens of thousands of lives it could’ve saved,” Alan Boswell, an expert at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy magazine in late May. In March, the US ambassador to the UN also pointed this out in an op-ed for The New York Times titled “The Unforgivable Silence on Sudan”.

Civil war has “turned Sudan into a living hell”, Linda Thomas-Greenfield wrote. “But even after aid groups designated the country’s humanitarian crisis to be among the world’s worst, little attention or help has gone to the Sudanese people.”

Why is no attention being paid to Sudan?

In mid-April, Melissa Fleming, the under-secretary-general for global communications at the UN, wrote a self-published op-ed in which she explored this question. One reason for the lack of attention might be what is known as “psychic numbing”, Fleming wrote. “The term … refers to the sad reality that people feel more apathetic towards a tragedy as the number of victims increases.” Other crises happening simultaneously can also have a numbing effect, she added—everything from climate change to the conflict in Gaza and the Ukraine war.

It may also have to do with the nature of the Sudanese conflict. Research has previously shown that civil wars especially those seen as internal matters in a faraway country—get less attention than conflicts where one country attacks another.

“I’ve been really grappling with this question basically since I started working on Sudan issues in 1997,” said Roman Deckert, a Geneva-based independent expert on Sudan when asked why the dire situation there does not get more attention. “Like so many things in life, the answer is a mix of things,” he said. One factor is the complexity of the situation, where neither side is obviously “good or evil”, he suspects. Another may be a deeply ingrained, potentially even subconscious, racism or Eurocentrism, he suggests, where outsiders incorrectly perceive the fighting as somehow “uncivilised” or “typical”.

Deckert, who mostly works for a Berlin-based media development organisation, recounts how when he first started researching Sudan, it was the war in the former Yugoslavia that was getting more attention than the emerging famine in Darfur. “A [German] journalist was talking about this at a conference and she said the landscape [in Yugoslavia] looks like central Europe. The people look like us. The houses look like ours. So it feels closer and people can relate more easily,” Deckert recalls. “Maybe that is comparable to Ukraine now.”

More attention would help

Another factor that makes things difficult in Sudan is the involvement of international actors, Deckert explained, some of whom Western nations consider allies and important trading partners. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are known to back the SAF while the United Arab Emirates support the RSF. “That is an inconvenient truth [for their Western allies],” Deckert argued.

Also Read | Sudan conflict sees cultural treasures destroyed

But that is also why more attention on Sudan could help, he suggested. Governments sensitive to public opinion should be pressured to apply diplomatic force to external actors keeping the Sudan war going, he said. More focus on Sudan might also help the humanitarians struggling to work there.

In a 2021 study, a team of journalism researchers interviewed senior policymakers in the world’s largest donor countries. While annual decisions about aid funding were made earlier and not necessarily impacted, “the majority of these bureaucrats believed that sudden-onset, national news coverage can increase levels of emergency humanitarian aid allocated to a crisis,” the researchers concluded.

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