Picture credit: Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Why are we ignoring the slaughter in Sudan?

There is no excuse for indifference when we pay such close attention to other wars

Around a remote oasis in the Sahara Desert, there is a town known as Amdjarass. Compared to other small settlements in Chad, Amdjarass is very well equipped. It has two schools, a hospital, a market, and a sterile, modern hotel. It also boasts solar powered streetlights, and the country’s first and only windfarm. Satellite imagery however, reveals something even more unusual about Amdjarass: it has its own airport. The asphalt runway – as long as Stansted’s, and the longest runway in Chad – stretches out mysteriously into the sands of the desert.

In June of last year, the residents of Amdjarass found themselves inundated with an unusual number of arrivals. Heavy cargo aircraft began touching down in Amdjarass, at a reported rate of up to four per day, originating from Abu Dhabi in the UAE. In a letter to UN monitors, the UAE stated that 122 flights had landed at the airfield. 

Since the war kicked off in April of last year, the RSF’s conduct in Sudan has been nothing short of horrifying

The UAE claims these flights were part of a humanitarian mission; that they were setting up a 50-bed field hospital to help the local population and refugees fleeing the war in Sudan. But a leaked UN document — reported by the Financial Times — alleges that these aircraft were also carrying weapons and ammunition for the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitary group that evolved from the infamous Janjaweed militia, which is currently engaged in fighting Sudan’s government. The New York Times has reported evidence that the real purpose of the field hospital in Amdjarass was not to treat refugees, but injured RSF fighters. The UAE deny both claims, stating they maintain a neutral stance towards the conflict.

Since the war kicked off in April of last year, the RSF’s conduct in Sudan has been nothing short of horrifying. They have subjected the civilian population to countless massacres, rapes and pillages. In one sense, the RSF is fighting a military conflict against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), but in another, they are enacting a fanatical ethnic cleansing campaign against the Masalit people of Sudan. A UN report estimated that last year in the city of El Geneina alone, between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed by the RSF, and that the RSF appeared to be specifically targeting people of Masalit ethnicity. According to a report from Conflict Observatory, there is evidence the RSF forced Red Crescent aid workers to dispose of the dead. The piles of bodies are visible from orbit.

To make matters worse, the RSF appears to be on the front foot. Heavy fighting is going on in Khartoum between the RSF and the SAF. Although the capital isn’t yet under full RSF control, the government has evacuated to Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. The British Embassy in Khartoum has long since closed. The RSF has gained a foothold in the south-west of Sudan, and has a particularly strong presence in Darfur.

Of course, the SAF is by no means a morally superior force to the RSF. The SAF are also indicted for war crimes and have been jointly responsible for massacres with the RSF before the conflict began. The key difference, of course, is that the only one side in this conflict is actively and currently enacting an ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur — and it’s the RSF.

The RSF’s progress on the battlefield has been in part due to their use of imported materiel, such as MANPADS (Man-portable air defence systems) to interrupt the SAF’s air superiority. With ground-to-air attack capability, the RSF can manoeuvre more easily and safely, with diminished fear of attack by air. Last year, the RSF successfully downed a highly prized SAF MIG-29 jet over Khartoum using a MANPADS. It isn’t entirely clear how the RSF is sourcing these weapons, but the US Treasury has issued a statement claiming Wagner Group acted as the supplier. Of course, such weapons may be being procured by multiple routes. Given the credible reports of materiel being provided courtesy of the UAE, it’s possible some of the alleged weaponry being offloaded at Amdjarass are MANPADS.

What does the UAE get in return from the RSF? Here, it’s important to remember the RSF has control of many of Sudan’s gold mines. In exchange for the arms it receives from the UAE, the RSF channels the spoils of its gold mines through the UAE, using various holding companies. One such company — Al Junaid Multi Activities Co Ltd — was recently placed under sanction by the EU for acting as “a substantial source of revenue for the Dagalo family and the RSF, which enables them to finance and continue the conflict in Sudan”. The EU Council Decision goes on to assert that:

The RSF is also using Al Junaid’s gold production and exports to secure military support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to which most of Sudan’s gold production is smuggled […]

The vast wealth hidden in Sudan’s soil isn’t being used to build homes, schools or sewers, but to buy influence and ammunition from the Gulf.

Aside from expressions of diplomatic “concern”, the United States’ response to the reports of the UAE funding the RSF — given the RSF’s ethnic cleansing campaign — has been decidedly limp. The reason why is geopolitical. The US maintains a strong relationship with the UAE, which is valued by both parties. The two nations have common regional interests, and cooperate for military and intelligence purposes. The prospect of losing such a strong foreign-policy partner in the Middle East would be a disaster in the eyes of the United States. The fact that a close ally is in league with a genocidal paramilitary group in Sudan is simply an inconvenient fact to the United States. The dead Masalit piled high in El Geneina, it seems, are an unfortunate casualty of diplomacy.

In a broader sense, the war in Sudan has not captured the world’s attention in the same way as other recent conflicts. Nobody is putting up Sudanese flags, or boycotting the UAE’s tourism trade as a result of the conflict. It’s difficult to say precisely why. Some speculate that it’s the result of a perceived historical distance between the west and Sudan. When people protest Israel’s invasion of Gaza, many point to the west’s collective role in the establishment of Israel, the British empire, and the sale of western-made armaments to the IDF. 

Sudan was once a British colony. The UAE also buys weapons from the UK

Of course, all of this is true of the conflict in Sudan, albeit in a different way. Sudan was once a British colony. The UAE also buys weapons from the UK. If we have a responsibility to care about Palestine, we also have a responsibility to care about Sudan.

By far the most shameful aspect of the human disaster unfolding in Sudan is that it was wholly predictable, but nothing was done to stop it. This, at least, is the opinion of Nathaniel Raymond, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Research Lab at the Yale School of Public Health: 

This is the most detailed and documented mass killing of the twenty-first century – and we knew about it. We knew. It was allowed to happen not because of an information gap, but a lack of political will.

With respect to the reports of the UAE’s involvement with the RSF, he said the information was “credible, disturbing, and warrants further investigation”.

Very recently, it seems as though the SAF have been making progress in Sudan, and pushing the RSF back. As to how the conflict might progress over the coming months, Raymond emphasised the approaching rainy season in Sudan as a decisive factor:

What happens next will depend in critical measure on the weather: the rainy season is coming. The changing weather will likely benefit the RSF because it will allow for high-tempo operations and complicate road-reliant armour operations.

In simple terms: rain brings cloud cover, mud and flooding. The cloud cover will benefit the RSF because it will make their forces harder to target from the air. The mud will make it more difficult for the SAF to deploy their heavy armour capability against the RSF. 

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan will continue. As of the 7th of April 2024, the UNHCR figure for the number of people forcibly displaced by the conflict is 8,634,859. The majority of these people are internally displaced within Sudan. Hemedti — the leader of the RSF — bears significant responsibility. Hemedti looks like a nobody. He speaks softly, in a quiet voice. But as history shows; it’s often men like this who are the most dangerous. 

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