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‘No elected democrat has lasted’: warring generals plunge Sudan into fresh bloodshed

“Hell opened its doors, now it’s war,” cried Osman Salih as he sheltered at a hospital north of Khartoum. He had just returned from a hair-raising journey to fill a bucket from the river Nile that flows through Sudan’s capital, which has run out of drinking water since fierce fighting erupted last weekend.

“Tanks are firing everywhere. Suddenly they started hitting us with missiles,” said Salih, whose family of 12 is trapped at home and running out of food. Khartoum’s residents reported having to avoid the bodies strewn in the streets as they dodged the rival forces battling for control of the city. “God have mercy on us,” Salih added, as the start of Eid brought little respite for its under-fire citizens. “Half of the city is destroyed.”

The latest attempts at a truce have faltered, with Khartoum hit by air strikes and fresh bouts of gunfire over the weekend, according to residents. At least 400 people have been killed and more than 3,500 injured since the fighting began, according to the World Health Organization. Some 20,000 people have fled over the border into neighbouring Chad.

The battles stem from the breakdown of talks between factions of the security apparatus who were engaged in negotiations as part of Sudan’s long-postponed transition to democracy. The rift morphed into a power struggle between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto president who commands the armed forces, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the paramilitary leader better known as Hemeti who leads the powerful Rapid Support Forces.

Both men rose to power following the ousting of the dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, when months of street protests prompted sections of the Sudanese military to move against a man who ruled the country for 30 years. They cemented their position after a coup against prime minister Abdalla Hamdok in 2021.

For most of its independent history, Sudan has been ruled by military men such as Burhan and Hemeti. Since its independence in 1956, the country has witnessed no fewer than 17 coups, an astonishingly high number even on a continent used to military transfers of power.

This battle for Sudan appears to be far from over in a country that has endured numerous civil wars, including one that led to its break-up and the creation of South Sudan in 2011. Millions of Sudanese have died in various conflicts, including the 2mn people who lost their lives in the 1983-2005 civil war and the 300,000 who died later in the conflict in Darfur.

The latest wave of violence is seen by most of the population as a betrayal of the popular revolution that removed Bashir and raised hopes that Sudan could finally transition to civilian rule.

Burhan and Hemeti rose to power on the back of those demonstrations that have continued, off and on, since 2018. For months on end, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Sudan to demand an end to military rule. And while both generals have paid lip-service to the democratic transition, the violence rocking the country is a reminder why many civilians have lost faith in their sincerity.

“The military have to . . . just stop engaging in politics,” said Hafiz Ibrahim, a veteran activist with Justice Africa, an advocacy group. “We have to go back to a democratic and peaceful transition of power to civilian rule, that’s supposed to be the end game.

“I don’t think it is possible to have a general ruling in Sudan anymore, like what happened during the 16 years of Nimeiry or the 30 years of Bashir. Sudan won’t have stability and peace under a military strongman,” he added, referring to Gaafar Nimeiry, the military autocrat who was deposed by his defence minister following a popular revolt in 1985.

Hamid Khalafallah, who took part in the protests that helped remove Bashir, said: “The current conflict only amplifies how important it is for the military to be sent back to barracks. What has military involvement brought us? It never brought us peace and it never brought us security.”

Yet Sudan’s sunglass-wearing generals have always managed to find a way to power. “If you look at the history of Sudan, no elected democrat has lasted more than a couple of years,” said one of those who was involved in the recent talks around a democratic transition.

And, as in previous episodes of violence between military leaders, it is civilians who are suffering again. “The humanitarian situation is deteriorating by the hour,” said Patrick Youssef, Africa director for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “People have been trapped for days and are now facing a stark choice: stay indoors without food and water or risk leaving and being caught in the crossfire.”

Sudan’s doctors’ trade union said on Friday that 55 of the 78 hospitals in Khartoum state were “out of service”. Some have been bombed and the rest are not able to function owing to a lack of staff, supplies, water or electricity. Ambulances have also been attacked.

“Corpses have been dumped in the streets and the fighting is making it very difficult to retrieve them,” said Maysoon Abdallah, a doctor who co-ordinates emergency rooms in Khartoum.

Yet even amid the destruction, some Sudanese have not given up on their dream of civilian rule. “You can already see civil society and many different revolutionary bodies working to make sure there’s a return to some kind of democratic transformation,” said Reem Abbas, a Khartoum-based women’s rights activist.

This week, graffiti appeared overnight on a wall in the Sudanese capital: “War is destruction,” it read, “but the sky over Khartoum will shine and it will be clear.”

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