Photo above, people fleeing El Fasher (social media)
This report is produced in collaboration with the Sudan Crisis Research Network (SCRN), an association set up by displaced scholars affiliated with STPT
(November 12, 2023) In the last few weeks, as Rapid Support Forces (RSF) pressure on Nyala, Zalingei and El Geneina increased in late October, security conditions in El Fasher began to deteriorate. Members of the RSF in the east and northeast of the city began wreaking havoc, looting and killing citizens, until the situation exploded, and violent clashes began between the two parties on October 26, 2023, following on the fall of the military base in Nyala. The initial clashes lasted for more than four hours, during which artillery, heavy weapons and Antonov aircraft were used, sparking panic among the citizens inside the city. According to the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, in the first 24 hours, 10 people were killed and 42 were injured. Approximately 100 households fled. In addition, shops and homes in the northeastern neighborhoods were looted by the Rapid Support Forces. The clashes were the most violent in the state since the beginning of the war. Fighting continued for a second day, as the two sides exchanged shells across residential neighborhoods. Indiscriminate bombing by both sides using aircraft and artillery has continued over the past week.
Map courtesy of OpenStreetMap.org
Throughout the month of October, El Fasher suffered from the lack of water and deterioration of health conditions, including wide spread of fevers. There is only one government hospital operating in the city and most private medical clinics have closed their doors due to the displacement of their staff.
El Fasher is the capital of North Darfur State with a population of more than one million people. It hosts the two largest camps for displaced people in the state: Al-Salam (Abuja) in the city’s northeast, with a population exceeding 200,000, and Abu Shouk (Naivasha) Camp, whose population exceeds 300,000.
Two weeks after the outbreak of war, the state’s Good Offices Committee, which included a number of community figures, intervened to stop the parties from clashing inside the city. Among the conditions of the truce were that the RSF stay on the eastern side of the city and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on the western side, where the army headquarters are located. The police and Joint Protection Forces (the force formed by the signatories of the Juba Peace Agreement of 2020 in response to the war) were responsible for protecting the city center, markets, and government institutions.
Although the agreement was imperfect and residents of the eastern part of the city where the RSF operated camp under attack, it spared the city from the chaos and violence that took place in cities like El Geneina, Zalingei, Nyala, Kutum and Tawila. This helped make El Fasher a shelter for displaced people coming from these cities. Despite the efforts of the committee, the parties violated the agreement more than once, killing a large number of civilians. However, many residents of the eastern part of the city fled to the northern and southern parts of the city and were accommodated in schools.
The armed movements that signed the Juba Agreement, although present in the area, have gotten mixed reviews in relation to civilian protection. Although they provided some protection in previous clashes, their presence was limited, focusing on markets. They have hired out their services, protecting the commercial convoys that move to and from Kosti for as much as 1,000,000 SDG (approximately USD 1,600) per vehicle. One of the last convoys escorted by the joint forces of the armed movements to reach El Fasher consisted of more than 1,300 trucks and took eight days to cover the 700 kilometers from Kosti in White Nile state. Fuel and consumer goods enter El Fasher from Libya through the town of Mellit and cost less than consumer goods coming through Kosti. Fuel imported from Libya helped to maintain the supply of water to the city, although El Fasher has gone without electricity for the last five months.
Residents accuse the forces of the armed movements (especially those of the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Darfur’s regional governor Minni Minawi) of focusing on protecting the areas and neighborhoods in which their Zaghawa ethnic brethren are the majority, including in the south of the city of El Fasher and the villages located between El Fasher and Dar es Salaam. On November 8, Ayin reported that a patrol of the joint protection force (of which the armed movements are members) was killed while attempting to secure the flight of civilians to Shaqra. The forces reported that they would not abandon the mission of protecting civilians, but also noted that the situation strained their efforts to balance civilian protection and neutrality in the conflict as increasingly protecting civilians runs the risk of coming in direct confrontation with the RSF.
The recent fighting has displaced large numbers. Residents of the northern and northeastern neighborhoods and the camps of Abuja and Naivasha began to flee to the south of the city, which is considered somewhat safe. The northern and northeastern areas of the city have become depopulated, with an estimated 85% of the population fleeing. Some of those who fled headed for safer areas of El Fasher, while others fled to neighboring cities like Mellit and still others to Libya.
Because most of the population has few resources to allow them to travel outside the city, hundreds of families have turned to seven large schools that were already being used by previous waves of displaced people for shelter. They are joined by residents of West, Central Darfur, and South Darfur, Kutum and Tawila. On October 29, the North Darfur governor made a statement, circulated on social media platforms, begging both sides of the conflict to allow citizens to evacuate. In response, the exodus of the city’s residents accelerated.
According to eyewitnesses in the Shaqra area, about 20 km west of the city of El Fasher, hundreds of families from the Abu Shouk (Naivasha) and Abuja camps have been displaced to Shaqra and neighboring villages, as the camps are caught in the crossfire between the belligerents.
The influx has strained absorptive capacity. Most are living in tents in very poor humanitarian conditions, lacking health services and water and battling the high cost of living. Many people are twice displaced, having been forced from their original villages, most of which were destroyed during the 2003 war. Now, the camps which received them after that calamity have come under fire, exposing them to both violence and want.
Many families who have relatives in villages around El Fasher have fled there. More than 400 families form Abu Shouk camp, and more than 200 from Al Salam camp have reportedly moved in this way. There are scenes of the displaced carrying their belongings on their shoulders, along with children and the elderly, searching for safety. Approximately 300 families fled to Mellit, approximately 60 km away. Although schools are being opened for the displaced, Mellit is unable to accommodate this number of displaced people. And the influx is continuing, with an estimated 30 to 40 buses or minibuses arriving per day. In the past week, the cost of a ticket from El Fasher to Mellit increased from 8,000 SDG (USD 13) to between 25,000 SDG (USD 40) and 35,000 SDG (USD 60). Most of those left behind in these unsafe neighborhoods are mostly unable to leave due to lack resources or serious medical or physical constraints.
Given the progress that they are making across Darfur and the reality that El Fasher now remains the last serious SAF holdout, the RSF are likely to intensify their efforts to overthrow the 6th Infantry Division in El Fasher to cement their control over all of Darfur, which will strengthen their negotiating position in the ongoing Jeddah negotiations.
If the RSF take full control of El Fasher, there will be a major humanitarian catastrophe, including in the areas that are for now considered safe. Hundreds of thousands more are likely to flee, exacerbating the displacement crisis that has already forced nearly 6 million Sudanese from their homes. This chaos may then extend north. In part because of the IDPs that it hosts, the city of El Fasher is considered the bridge that connects the states of Darfur with the rest of the states of Sudan, and it has been used as a hub for providing food, medicine and fuel to the states of South, West and Central Darfur. All this stands to be disrupted if the RSF take the city.
The eventual takeover of El Fasher will further expose the inability of the RSF to govern territories and population centers it militarily controls. In Nyala, Zalingei, and in El Geneina and Ardamata, RSF fighters have systematically unleashed mayhem, mass pillage and widespread civilian killings. Speaking after seizing Nyala, Sudan’s second largest city, Lt.-Gen. Abdelrahim Dagalo announced the appointment of an RSF military sector commander as divisional commander for South Darfur and another general to head the police force. However, he also invited native administration and civil society leaders to administer their own affairs. If they take El Fasher, the RSF Is likely to deploy a similar, security-heavy administrative system that is ill-equipped to respond to the population’s vital needs.
The international community should take action to pull the belligerents back from the brink. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has already called for a cessation of hostilities in El Fasher, warning that continued fighting would put civilians in “extreme danger.” However, the international community, including the Security Council, could do much more. At the same time, humanitarians should pre-position supplies in Chad with a view to improving response for the likelihood of mass displacement to come.