28 May 2024

How Sudan’s Frankenstein’s monster led to war that threatens to destroy country

International Editor

Extreme situations bring out the best and worst in people, and few situations are more extreme than the war in Sudan.


Extreme situations bring out the best and worst in people, and few situations are more extreme than the war in Sudan. I first visited Omdurman market in the 1990s when it was full of traders selling everything from fish to camel-leather slippers. Now it’s a landscape of bullet-marked walls and wrecked cars, utterly destroyed. Just nearby, an intact façade hid the depravity to which humankind can sink.

The house had been used as a base by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the militia that controlled Omdurman for nearly a year, until being driven out by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in March. We picked our way through old clothes, furniture and papers to a small room at the back. A rough pit had been dug in the floor, and a hook with a pulley suspended from an iron bar on the ceiling. It was a torture chamber.

Waleed Ahmed, a neighbour who had discovered the horror two weeks earlier, was still in shock. “Something terrible must have happened here,” he said. We found a crumpled sheet of paper listing people accused of  “great betrayal”, presumably not supporting the RSF. What had happened to 31 year old Omar Ahmed Adam? Had he been killed after being suspended from the hook? And what about a 30 year old woman, Manal Hasan? The RSF has a terrible reputation for rape. Wherever they go, they seize women and girls to violate and use as sex slaves.

The conflict in Sudan started a year ago, but its roots go back further. In 2019, Sudanese rose against the quasi-military regime that ruled the country for four decades. But in 2021, the weak civilian government was toppled in a coup. The two most powerful men were now General Abdul Fatah Burhan, the leader of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and General Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemedti, commander of the RSF. It was a case of Frankenstein’s monster: back in the early 2000s, the government had created a militia to fight an uprising in the western region of Darfur. Known as the janjaweed, “devils on horseback” it had committed many atrocities. The janjaweed had morphed into the RSF, but the army couldn’t control its own creature. Last April, Hemedti moved against Burhan.

The war started as a struggle for power between two men; now it threatens to destroy Sudan as a country. Regional powers are backing one side or another, destabilising neighbouring countries. The UN says more than eight million Sudanese have fled their homes, and 25 million Sudanese are at risk of starvation, yet the international community is doing little to bring peace or aid.

Which brings me back to how extreme situations bring out the best in people. Dr Mohammed Benaga could have left Omdurman for somewhere more comfortable, but he chose instead to stay and help those who could not afford to leave. Gathering money from the Sudanese diaspora and local businesses, he started a soup kitchen. I watched as people queued up for the simple lentil stew he was serving. I asked if he hadn’t been afraid of being killed in the fighting. He laughed. “You can only die once,” he chuckled. “Not twice!”

Similarly, Mohammed Yahya, a young man who had taken part in the civilian uprising that overthrew the military government in 2019 is now running shelters for those who’ve lost their homes. When the war is over, Mohammed said, he and his friends will be back on the streets calling for the restoration of civilian rule. In the meantime, they’ll just help their fellow Sudanese.

As we left Omdurman, driving two days across the desert back to Port Sudan, to fly to Nairobi and home, I thought how easy it is to despair about Sudan. I’ve been going there for forty years, covering civil wars, floods, famines, droughts and dictatorship. But this time – when Sudan is in many ways in a worse state than I’ve ever known – I left with just a glimmer of hope, because I had seen the best as well as the worst of the Sudanese and of humanity in general.