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Displaced people fleeing from Wad Madani in Sudan's Jazira state arrive in Gedaref in the country's east on 19 December 2023. The war between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has killed 12,190 people, according to conservative estimates by the Armed Conflict Locations and Events Data project. It has displaced 5.4 million people inside the country, according to the UN, and sent over 1.3 million fleeing abroad. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

With the Sudan Civil War Reaching a Formerly Safe City, Hundreds of Thousands Flee

Sudan’s civil war has now driven hundreds of thousands of residents out of one of the nation’s largest cities, which was once considered safe for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict and where critical humanitarian groups could provides services.

Since the beginning of the war between the nation’s army and a paramilitary force—the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—on 15 April 2023, at least 9,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations. During the fighting, the city of Wad Madani was seen as a safe haven. Prior to the war, it was home to several hundred thousand people, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier in December, RSF troops began advancing on the city, which was previously controlled by the army. Various witnesses reported that fighting began in the areas surrounding the city on 15 December, with RSF troops entering the city by 18 December. On 19 December, the leader of the RSF, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, claimed that the group was in control of the city.

The Sudanese army said it has opened an investigation into the withdrawal of military troops from Wad Madani on 18 December, while the RSF was advancing on the city, according to Sudan Tribune, a news website based in France but run by Sudanese editors and journalists who focus on the region.

More than 300,000 people are estimated to have fled from the city since RSF troops approached and began fighting near and in Wad Madani. Prior to the war, the city was home to roughly 700,000 residents, although that number increased by around 500,000 as people and families sought refuge once the fighting started near Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum.

Humanitarian groups, such as the Red Cross, have now been forced to either leave or suspend their operations, according to the Associated Press. “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,” The Washington Post reported.  

But getting out of the city to avoid the fighting and potential fallout has become increasingly difficult for residents. “As people have been leaving the city over the past few days, the cost of transport has climbed. On Tuesday, no transport was available at all,” BBC News reported, citing one witness who said he walked for three hours to find a safe village.

Several people are reported to have sought refuge in Kosti, a city in southern Sudan, while some non-profit organizations left for the state of Sennar and the town of El-Gadarif. One of the things all these areas share is that there is speculation that the RSF will begin targeting these sites, too.

Wad Madani also sits in the country’s grain-producing region, further stressing the region’s food security because the war disrupted this year’s harvest.

Control of the city adds another feather in the RSF’s cap, which has captured four of the five regional capitals in Sudan’s western region, Darfur, as well as army bases in the area. These events, like the war itself, have been marked by mass killings.

“The military has repeatedly bombed civilian neighborhoods, and the RSF, which is allied with several ethnically Arab militias, has been blamed for multiple attacks on hospitals and mass killings, as well as ethnically motivated attacks in the western region of Darfur,” the Post reported.

According to witnesses who spoke to the Post, once the RSF was in control Ardamata—a capital city in the Darfur region—they orchestrated large-scale killings and arrests of families and civilians.

“In Khartoum and cities in Darfur that the RSF has already taken, residents have reported rapes, looting, and arbitrary killing and detention. The group is also accused of ethnic killings in West Darfur,” Al Jazeera reported. “The RSF has denies those accusations and said anyone in its forces found to be involved in such crimes would be held accountable.”

In 2021, Dagalo and the leader of the military, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, staged a coup d’etat against the civilian prime minister and killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters. Since the power grab, Dagalo and al-Burhan struggled to share leadership, with tensions escalating until they broke out into war in April 2023.

With Wad Madani now under the RSF’s control, civilians and some within the military are calling for al-Burhan to step down.