Paramilitary force takes city in heart of Sudan’s breadbasket, 300,000 flee

Paramilitary force takes city in heart of Sudan’s breadbasket, 300,000 flee

NAIROBI — The paramilitary force fighting the Sudanese government has stormed into a major city in the heart of the nation’s grain-producing region, residents said, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

Wad Madani, south of the war-torn capital of Khartoum, had been an area of relative security for the past eight months of fighting and was one of the few havens for humanitarian operations in the war-ravaged nation.

Sofie Karlsson, the spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the situation was a “nightmare.” More than 300,000 people had fled the city in the past four days.

“Horror in Sudan continues. Where are people going to go?” she tweeted.

The advance of the Rapid Support Forces into Wad Madani, the capital of the southeastern Jazira region, is another major victory for the group, following its capture of four out of five regional capitals in the western region of Darfur. It was unclear whether the RSF, led by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, had seized the town entirely from the military, which is led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

Resident Ahmed Ali, 37, said fighting had been going on since dawn Tuesday near the main army base, which was under RSF control. The central bank building was burning, and distant shooting could be heard. He added that RSF fighters were stealing cars and setting up checkpoints.

The RSF issued a statement calling on residents to stay, civil society leaders to open markets and hospitals, and police to continue their duties. But Ali said that most were trying to flee, that markets and hospitals were closed because they had no supplies.

The Sudanese military said in a statement that soldiers had withdrawn from Wad Madani the day before, adding that “an investigation is underway into the reasons and circumstances that led to the withdrawal of forces from their positions.”

Fighting between the two rival forces exploded on April 15 after months of escalating tensions over power-sharing. Their leaders had seized power in a 2021 coup against a civilian prime minister — killing hundreds of pro-democracy protesters — but soon turned on each other.

Sudan, a nation of 49 million people in the Horn of Africa, rapidly became one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The capital has been a battleground, and around half the population needs aid, but efforts are severely underfunded as international attention has focused on Ukraine and Gaza.

Wad Madani had a population of around 700,000 before the fighting broke out, but that swelled by another 500,000 as families fled there to escape Khartoum, where air force planes bombed civilian neighborhoods and paramilitary fighters invaded homes, robbing, raping and killing.

Humanitarian agencies had mostly left Khartoum but were able to operate in Wad Madani, providing food and medical services. During previous occasions when the RSF seized territory, hospitals and humanitarian warehouses were often attacked and looted.

Sami Atabani, a Canadian citizen whose adopted sister had sought refuge in Wad Madani, told The Post that she had messaged him to say that there were no seats on any vehicles leaving town.

She was trying to flee with seven children, he said, and the RSF held the bridge leading east out of town. He was terrified her ethnic background might make her a target; witnesses have said RSF fighters and associated militias have repeatedly targeted certain African tribes during fighting in Darfur.

“It was heartbreaking to receive a message from her asking me to advise her what to do. I worry that if I tell her to go here or there, I will make a fatal mistake,” he said.

The social media service X — formerly known as Twitter — quickly filled with heartbreaking posts of those trying to escape. Hamid Khalafallah, a political analyst, tweeted about how his father was fleeing for the fourth time since May. “I cannot imagine how it feels to keep reliving this nightmare.”

In other tweets, women traded tips on how to prevent pregnancy or induce abortions in case they were raped. One, 21-year-old Oomnia Elgunaid, left Tuesday morning and shared pictures of numbed families trudging down dusty streets dragging suitcases. “I can’t express the heartbreak,” she wrote. “May god avenge us.”

Another woman, Shahad Elfaki, said: “My mom just called her neighbor in Madani. A militia man answered the phone.” They later made contact with members of the family, who said the RSF had broken into their home, she told The Post.

Wad Madani is the heart of Sudan’s grain-producing region. The harvest has already been disrupted because banks have closed and farmers were unable to purchase fertilizers and other equipment. It is also the gateway to Kosti, another major humanitarian hub.

Kholood Khair, founding director of the Sudanese think tank Confluence Advisory, said the fighting threatened to make the war even longer and more fractured.

“The public opinion tide is turning on [military chief] Burhan, following the fall of Medani and he’s got none to blame but himself. He’s invested in foreign trips to project an image of a head of state more than he’s invested in winning battles,” she tweeted.

An RSF victory is unlikely to bring stability, Khair said. Sudan is home to many heavily armed ethnic militias, some of which are poised to enter the fight if the RSF were to declare victory.

“If the RSF think they can claim victory and take over, they have gravely underestimated the political cauldron that created them,” she tweeted.

Foreign powers have been fueling the conflict and that may be about to get worse, said Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The UAE has their finger on the scale on the side of Hemedti and the RSF,” Hudson said, referring to the paramilitary leader by his common nickname. He said the United Arab Emirates had sent weapons such as armored vehicles, light armor, rockets and drones, adding that the RSF was now building an air base in northern Darfur to allow more supplies.

The Sudanese military has not had the same level of support, he said, but is trying to reactivate an old alliance with Iran following a couple of meetings. Burhan has also met twice with the Eritrean president, he said. Eritrea shares a long border with eastern Sudan and has a large, forcibly conscripted military that recently intervened in Ethiopia — and was accused of massive human rights violations.

“There’s a lot of concern now that the SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] will reach out and activate any partnership in the region that they can — the two most problematic ones and the ones highest on their list are the Iranians and Eritreans,” he said. “It’s something Washington is watching very closely and is suspicious may have already begun.”

Hafiz Haroun in N’Djamena, Chad, contributed to this report.  » …
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