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Death on the Nile: Americans trapped in Sudan are on their own as are poverty-stricken neighboring states

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By John J. Metzler, May 8, 2023

There’s blood in the Nile. The mighty river separating Sudan’s capital city Khartoum has seen fighting erupt between two rival factions of the Army.

What could have been a quick internal flash up between the main military factions which have tenuously ruled this vast land since the 2021 military coup, has morphed into a bitter fight for power on the streets of the capital.

More than 500 civilians have been killed in the crossfire and foreign diplomatic, humanitarian workers and business people have been trying to flee the country.

There are two key military players in the violence, but both sides have layers of support from militias and international meddling. Generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces has spoken about putting the country back to civilian rule. Rival Gen. Mohamed “Hemedti” Dagalo and his Rapid Support Forces, an armed unit with roots in the old Darfur Janjaweed militias, has built a powerful parallel force of 100,000 that has intervened in conflicts such as Libya. Russia’s notorious Wagner paramilitary group reportedly has links with the RSF.

In the midst of internationally brokered ceasefires American, British, French, Turkish and other civilians are being airlifted or convoyed out of Sudan via tenuous links to neighboring states.

While U.S. diplomats were quickly evacuated, shockingly the White House said it has no plans for a government-coordinated evacuation of Americans trapped in Sudan, which could number up to 16,000 private U.S. citizens.

Fully two weeks into the conflict the first Americans were finally evacuated from the fighting.

Volker Perthes, UN Special Representative for Sudan warns, “I urge both sides to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and ensure the protection of civilians.”

Even prior to the current crisis Sudan was in dire social and economic straits. Joyce Msuya, UN Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs briefed the UN Security Council that “humanitarian needs in Sudan were at a record high. 15.8 million people, a staggering one third of the population, needed humanitarian aid…3.7 million people were internally displaced.” She warned, “This conflict will not only deepen those needs. It also threatens to unleash an entirely new wave of humanitarian challenges.” The UN warns that 800,000 people could flee Sudan in the coming weeks.

A little history. Sudan, an overwhelming Muslim country, has been under military control during large parts of its post-1956 independence era. The 30-year rule of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, a general, ended with the military forcing him out in April 2019. He ruled the country and saw it shatter; South Sudan broke away in 2011. Just a few years earlier al-Bashir became the first incumbent head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), for crimes against humanity for his regime’s ethnic cleansing actions during the Darfur crisis. Curiously no-body seems to know where the former leader is hiding.

Sudan has faced a constant churn of military coups, political malfeasance, and corruption which has turned this potentially rich land into one of the continents poorer countries. Though once a major oil exporter, primarily to the People’s Republic of China, the petroleum sector has slumped in the recent years. Sudan however has an expanding gold mining industry which has drawn the attention of both China and Russia. Economic growth is negative 2 percent and per capita in-come is but a mere $770 annually.

Khartoum the capital, presents a city of jarring contrasts; ultra-modern buildings in places juxta-posed with dusty unpaved streets and pitiful levels of poverty which now witness intense but localized fighting and looting.

As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres asserted before the Security Council, “The power struggle in Sudan is not only putting that country’s future at risk. It is lighting a fuse that could detonate across borders, causing immense suffering for years, and setting development back by decades.” SG Guterres implored, “The fighting must stop immediately.”

Sudan’s real danger remains conflict contagion. Namely that this regional crisis will spread to neighboring states.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]
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