Sudan war has left 25 million Sudanese needing aid

UN Sudan/Toby Harward Humanitarian aid is packed into a convoy heading to El Fasher, Darfur.

UN News The ongoing year-long war in Sudan continues to spread across the country, and now El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, is surrounded by armed fighters amid the systematic burning of entire villages, escalating air strikes and blocked aid deliveries.

The war has left 25 million Sudanese needing aid, but in El Fasher, an ever tightening siege is cutting off vulnerable civilians who urgently need such basic essentials as food, water and medicines.

UN News’s Abdelmonem Makki spoke to Toby Harward, the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, who described the deteriorating situation in the city, where he just returned from a recent mission.

UN News: Could you please describe the situation in El Fasher?

Toby Harward: The humanitarian situation in El Fasher and in localities surrounding in North Darfur’s capital is catastrophic. During the last weeks, there has been a significant deterioration in the security situation, including increasing arbitrary killings, theft of livestock, systematic burning of entire villages in rural areas, escalating air bombardments of parts of the city and a tightening siege around El Fasher, which has halted humanitarian aid convoys and choked off commercial trade.

There would be victims from every Darfur community, Arab and African, if the warring parties battle for control of El Fasher

As a result, prices of increasingly scarce commodities like food, water and fuel have soared, putting large numbers of people at risk of hunger and disease. International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) like Doctors without Borders (MSF), have described escalating hunger and medical emergencies in pockets of the state, including in the Zamzam camp. Some areas around El Fasher and elsewhere in Darfur now stand on the brink of famine.

The UN and partners recognise that we must do everything possible to scale up our activities in the state. However, in order to respond, we need a calm and conducive environment, and this does not exist at the moment.

UN Sudan/Toby Harward Trucks loaded with humanitarian aid on their way to deliver the supplies to El Fasher, Darfur

UN News: What is the significance of El Fasher?

Toby Harward: El Fasher, or Fasher al-Sultan, as it is known, is the only city in Darfur that has not been captured by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and has a population of around 1.5 million, including about 800,000 internally displaced persons who fled to the city from across the five Darfur states during the earlier 2003 to 2005 Darfur war and during the latest war since April 2023.

If the warring parties choose to fight for control of the city, it will have devastating repercussions on the resident civilians. Large numbers of civilians are going to lose their lives. Civilians who live in the city come from across all Darfur communities. 

There would be victims from every Darfur community, Arab and African, if the warring parties battle for control of El Fasher.

Massive bloodshed of innocent civilians in El Fasher would lead to revenge attacks across the five Darfur states and beyond Darfur’s borders. I am afraid that the world would witness history repeating itself, 21 years after conflict ripped apart Darfur’s fragile social fabric and collapsed its mosaic of communities. We should not allow this to happen again.

UN News: Does the UN have any presence in Darfur right now?

Toby Harward: UN and INGO international staff were evacuated from Darfur after the war broke out in April last year. Many brave local Sudanese staff continued implementing programmes under very difficult circumstances. 

Several INGOs have re-established offices inside Darfur, and the UN has been delivering humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations since August. However, our activities have been restricted by intensive military clashes in central parts of the country and by limitations on cross-border movements imposed by the Sudanese Government. 

I am afraid that the world would witness history repeating itself, 21 years after conflict ripped apart Darfur’s fragile social fabric and collapsed its mosaic of communities

Recently, I visited El Fasher to discuss the humanitarian situation with all parties, to set up a reinforced UN presence in the city, to resolve blockages along two critical aid routes from Port Sudan in the east and from Tine on the border with Chad and to prepare for a comprehensive needs assessment mission.

All parties welcomed the mission, blockages along aid routes were resolved and trucks loaded with humanitarian aid were able to deliver their supplies. I was greatly encouraged by the willingness of the parties to facilitate humanitarian access with the support of the United Nations as a neutral facilitator.

Regrettably, broader tensions between the parties escalated during the Eid Al Fitr period, which forced the UN and some other humanitarian partners to leave the city. 

However, I am confident that, when the security situation stabilises, the UN and partners will be able to resume our work facilitating humanitarian access as quickly as possible. All parties must recommit themselves to the Jeddah Declaration, international humanitarian law and allowing humanitarian actors to access all areas with vulnerable people in need of assistance.

© UNICEF/Shehzad NooraniChildren walking to their shelter at a camp for internally displaced persons near El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, Sudan. (file)

UN News: There are several reports of people in Darfur dying from hunger. Does the UN have any current plans to provide aid to those affected?

Toby Harward: The UN is committed to providing food, nutrition, medicine and other humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations across the five Darfur states. 

However, we have two existential challenges: we cannot provide the volume and scale required unless we have more financial resources to buy and preposition the aid and we cannot reach the vulnerable populations who need the aid unless we have access provided by the warring parties.

We hope that the pledges made at the recent Paris donors’ conference will help resolve our first challenge. As for access, we are constantly advocating with the warring parties, and with those countries who can influence them, to give us the humanitarian access that we need to respond and to alleviate the effects of an expected famine.

UN News: The UN has been repeatedly calling for de-escalation and the protection of civilians in Sudan, but it seems the parties are not yet ready for this. In your opinion, why is that?

Toby Harward: The UN has been calling for de-escalation and protection of civilians since the outbreak of the conflict more than one year ago. However, these calls fall on deaf ears. 

The warring parties are more preoccupied in gaining military advantage on the ground rather than in finding ways to halt the fighting. Unfortunately, soldiers, fighters and militiamen fighting on the ground are not thinking about international humanitarian law and notions like protecting civilians.

A second reason why the parties are not listening to appeals for de-escalation is that the conflict has become increasingly internationalised, with other countries becoming engaged and supporting one side or the other. This results in the conflict becoming more complicated.

A war with multiple international actors becomes harder to mediate and to resolve. It is essential that mediators gather the warring parties and their backers together around the negotiating table and bring the war to an end. 

After more than a year of senseless war, the suffering of innocent civilians has got to stop.