Fleeing Darfur: Tragedy in Sudan


In 2023, 4.3 million Sudanese individuals were displaced, with 1.1 million fleeing to neighboring countries due to the escalating conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces (“SAF”) and the Rapid Support Forces (“RSF”). The ongoing hostilities have sparked the deployment of heavy artillery weapons in densely populated areas, posing a great risk to civilians and their homes. Moreover, critical infrastructure has been severely damaged, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has issued a warning, indicating that nearly five million Sudanese civilians were at risk of catastrophic hunger in the coming months.[1]

This blog discusses the human rights implications of the conflict in Darfur and explores potential solutions to this humanitarian crisis.

A. History of the Region

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has a rich and extensive history. For the initial half of the twentieth century, Sudan was a joint protectorate of Egypt and the British Empire.[2] While the country was under British rule, it was divided into two distinct regions: North and South Sudan.[3]

The division between the northern and southern regions extends far beyond geographic boundaries, encompassing significant differences in politics, religion, and cultural. Northern Sudan is characterized by religious homogeneity, with the overwhelming majority adhering to Sunni Islam.[4] South Sudan is populated by many sub-Saharan tribes practicing a variety of different forms of religion.[5] However, the region has traditionally been dominated by the two largest ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka.[6] While these two ethnic groups share similar cultures and common ancestry, conflicts often arise as both groups must migrate to wetter areas as the seasons change.[7] As a result, the groups must compete for land to graze and water for their cattle.[8]

During colonial rule, British Authorities formalized the division between the two regions by implementing the “Southern Policy,” which entailed an unequal distribution of resources and capital favoring the North.[9] British officials stated their intention to keep the North and South as separate entities, aiming to segregate the “Arab” North from the “African” South.[10] The Southern Policy included measures such as the Closed District Order and the Permits to Trade Order, which mandated special permits from the British government for individuals to cross borders into the South.[11] As a result, these restrictions led to significant disparities in industrial development, education, and wealth in the South, as merchants and investors were not able to travel to the southern region.[12]

Even following Sudan’s independence from the British Empire in 1956, pervasive underdevelopment prevented Sudan from achieving true freedom.[13] The North continued to exploit its power dynamic, further destabilizing the South.[14] This division illustrates how policies previously implemented by the British not only fractured the country along geographical lines but also manufactured hostile dynamics between cultural groups.[15] The devastating effects of Britain’s colonial policy resulted in a manufactured divide within the nation, which ultimately contributed to the outbreak of the Sudanese Civil War.[16]

The First Sudanese Civil War began in 1955, one year before the country gained independence.[17] The war arose after southerners were promised and then denied the right to govern themselves.[18] The violence continued until 1972, ending with the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement, a peace agreement between the central government and southern rebels.[19] However, this peace proved unsustainable as the northern military regime dissolved the institutions of southern self-government and enforced Islamic sharia law throughout the south in 1983.[20] Given that the majority of Southerners were Animists and Christians, they rebelled against the North once again.[21]

Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir

As the Second Sudanese Civil War consumed the nation in 1983, the death toll rose to catastrophic numbers. In 1989 the number of civilian casualties because of famine alone was estimated to be as high as 250,000.[22] The same year, then Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir (“Al Bashir”) conducted a military coup, seizing power from the democratically elected civilian government and forming a totalitarian military regime.[23] Al Bashir dissolved the country’s government, banned political parties and activity, and strictly limited freedom of the press.[24]

Al Bashir’s rule was fraught with human rights violations, as he utilized military power to maintain control throughout the country.[25] In 2003, rebel groups in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, attacked the Al Bashir-led government in response to mistreatment by authorities.[26] Al Bashir responded with a sweeping counter-insurgency campaign, deputizing Janjaweed militias known for their horrific violence.[27] The Janjaweed went on to commit despicable acts in Darfur, ultimately displacing over 2 million people and killing over 300,000.[28]

The Al Bashir-led government, by way of the SAF and Janjaweed militias, killed thousands of Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa, which are local tribes that are native to Darfur; killing and raping villagers, destroying villages and mosques, and driving more than a million civilians into camps where they were barely kept alive.[29] In 2005, the United Nations’ International Criminal Court (“ICC”) opened an investigation into Al Bashir’s war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.[30] On March 4, 2009, an arrest warrant was issued for Al Bashir from the ICC.[31] This was the first time that the ICC sought the arrest of a sitting head of state.[32]

In 2011, South Sudan officially declared independence from Sudan’s central Al Bashir-led government.[33] This move posed a significant threat to the Sudanese economy, given that a majority of the oil fields were located in the south.[34] This economic pressure, along with growing paranoia of a potential coup, formed the basis of Al Bashir’s plan going forward. As part of his plan, Al Bashir aimed to formally integrate the Janjaweed militias into a separate government-affiliated military force, operating under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (“NISS”).[35] The military group became known as the Rapid Support Forces (“RSF”), with General Mohamed Hamdam Dagalo (“Hemedti”) appointed by Al Bashir to lead it.[36]

Hemedti and the RSF

In 2017, Al Bashir placed the RSF, led by Hemedti, directly under his command rather than depending on the NISS.[37] The RSF was as a border guard force, a source of mercenaries for the Saudi coalition in the Yemeni war, and a repressive force against political uprisings.[38] The RSF also negotiated with Russia and Wagner Group mercenaries in exchange for access to lucrative gold mines.[39] This created massive wealth for Hemedti and increased his geopolitical influence even though two-thirds of the Sudanese population lived in poverty.[40]

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (“al-Burhan) had a long military career serving in the central Sudanese government’s armed forces, known as the Sudanese Armed Forces (“SAF”).[41] While serving as Chief of Staff for the SAF, al-Burhan worked alongside Hemedti’s RSF to remove Al Bashir from power, ending his nearly thirty-year rule.[42] Subsequently, protestors took to the streets of Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum, demanding a democratic, civilian-led government.[43] In response, the military formed a Transitional Military Council (“TMC”), led by al-Burhan.[44] Alongside envoys deployed from the African Union and Ethiopia, the TMC negotiated with the Forces for Freedom and Change, a civilian-led pro-democracy coalition in Sudan.[45]

The interim government led by al-Burhan utilized the partnership between the SAF and RSF to continue operating as security forces for the country.[46] Negotiations between the military and the civilian coalition led to the creation of the Transitional Sovereign Council. Under this arrangement, al-Burhan would lead the Council for the first twenty-one months of the thirty-nine-month transitional period.[47] Subsequently, a civilian member would lead for the remaining months until general and presidential elections could be held.[48]

As anticipated, this agreement did not last, as the military dismissed the civilian leadership of the transitional government in what some believe to be a coup in October of 2021.[49] Furthermore, al-Burhan dissolved the ruling sovereign council in April of 2022, appointing himself as the new leader with a higher council comprised of the SAF and the RSF by his side.[50] At this time, peaceful protests in support of a fully civilian government were being suppressed by the military, killing more than one hundred civilians.[51]

B. War in Sudan

On April 15, 2023, political turmoil escalated even further as fighting broke out between SAF and the RSF in Khartoum.[52] The fighting commenced a new civil war as the relationship between Hemedti and al-Burhan devolved into a full-scale power struggle.[53] Heavy explosives and airstrikes in densely populated areas put civilians at incredible risk.[54] The scale of the damage in Khartoum, which was home to nearly 6.4 million civilians, was so severe that many experts have proclaimed it to be “Africa’s Aleppo.”[55]

In November of 2023, the RSF and their allied militias killed hundreds of civilians in West Darfur.[56] Reports have documented a range of atrocities in Western Sudan, including targeted abductions of civilians, sexual violence, the burning of villages, and house-to-house killings.[57] Most notably was the massacre on June 15, 2023, in El-Geneina, located in West Darfur, where the RSF was responsible for killing between 10,000 and 15,000 people.[58] What initially began as an RSF attack on vulnerable SAF forces escalated into widespread violence, with RSF going door to door, killing civilians, in what is considered the single largest mass killing of the civil war.[59]

West Darfur is home to nomadic tribes and Black African ethnic groups like the Massalit, who have been ethnically targeted by the RSF.[60] During the 2023 war, Massalit men and elders were frequently singled out and executed by the RSF. Volker Perthes, the United Nations envoy in Sudan, addressed the growing ethnic dimension to the violence, stating, “There is an emerging pattern of large-scale targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnic identities, allegedly committed by Arab militias and some armed men in [RSF]’s uniform”.[61]

Currently, the RSF is expanding their control across Sudanese territory. In Khartoum, the RSF has seized the presidential palace, causing al-Burhan to flee.[62] They have also captured four of the five states in Darfur and fighting is expected in El Fasher, the northernmost state in Darfur.[63] Experts warn that such developments would be signal a significant escalation, as the Zaghawa tribe and the Darfur joint rebel forces native to the area would likely spring into conflict with Hemedti’s troops.[64] This would expand the fighting beyond the SAF and RSF, as many of the surrounding militias may try to take advantage of an already chaotic crisis.

C. What Can Be Done?

The most current data shows that more than 6.2 million people have been displaced within Sudan and 1.8 million have fled the country.[65] In addition, about 25 million people, 14 million of which are children, need humanitarian assistance and support.[66] About 17.7 million people face acute hunger, with 4.9 million facing emergency levels of hunger.[67]

If Sudan collapses into a failed state, the consequences would be unspeakable. Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, called for an immediate ceasefire in El Fasher, saying continued violence “would subject civilians, including hundreds of thousands of displaced persons – many of whom only recently fled to El Fasher from other areas – to extreme danger.”[68] However, despite such appeals and efforts, peace talks have failed, and ceasefires have been refused as the conflict continues a grave trajectory. With Hemedti and al-Burhan showing no signs of backing down from their defiant stances, the likelihood of the violence escalating further looms large.

Not only does the violence between the warring parties need to cease immediately, but necessary aid needs to flow into Sudan. Heavy artillery has not only taken the lives of civilians, but it has destroyed civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, necessary to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.[69] We must hope that al-Burhan and Hemedti do not see this as a “zero-sum game” as the human cost of this conflict cannot continue to grow.


[1] Adopting Resolution 2724, Security Council Calls for Immediate Cessation of Hostilities by Warring Parties in Sudan During Ramadan, 9,568th Meeting of the United Nations Security Council, (March 8, 2024).

[2] Lin, David, “The Role of British Colonial Policy in the South Sudanese Civil War: A Postcolonial Conflict Analysis” (2018), in International Studies Undergraduate Honors Theses. (2018).

[3] Mayo, David Nailo N. “The British Southern Policy in Sudan: An Inquiry into the Closed District Ordinances (1914-1946).” Northeast African Studies, vol. 1, no. 2/3 (1994), at 165–85.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/41931103.

[4] Id. at 7.

[5] Pew Research Center, Report, Sub-Saharan Africa (April 2, 2015).

[6] “Conflict Between Dinka and Nuer in South Sudan,” Case Study, CLIMATE DIPLOMACY. https://climate-diplomacy.org/case-studies/conflict-between-dinka-and-nuer-south-sudan#:~:text=The%20Dinka%20and%20Nuer%2C%20two,their%20cattle%20in%20the%20past.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Fatiha, Dani, Colonial Sudan: The Separate Administration of the South (1920-1933) – an attempt to prevent Arab, Muslim, and Northern Sudanese nationalist influences in the South at 195.

[10] Id. at 192. This policy left North Sudan as the southernmost Arab state, tied with Egypt and the Middle East and South Sudan as the northernmost sub-Saharan state was tied with Uganda, Kenya, and other countries in British East Africa.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] “Tracing the Roots of Discrimination within Sudanese Law”, The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) (August 31, 2021).

[14] Rolandsen, Øystein H. “A False Start: Between War And Peace In The Southern Sudan, 1956—62.” The Journal of African History 52 (2011) at 105–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23017651.

[15] “British Policy in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Bears Some Responsibility for the Deep-Rooted Divisions Between North and South,” Africa at LSE; hosted by the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa (July 2, 2012).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Johnson, Douglas H., The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Old Wars and New Wars (Expanded 3rd Edition). CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS (November 18, 2016).

[19] Id.  

[20] Alier, Abel, Southern Sudan: Too Many Agreements Dishonoured, ITHACA PRESS (1990), at 246-60.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1992, Washington: Government Printing Office (February 1993), at 254-64.

[24] Id.

[25] Situation in Darfur, Sudan (The Prosecutor v. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir [“Omar Al Bashir”]), Pre-Trial Chamber I, International Criminal Court (March 4, 2009).

[26] “Situation of human rights in the Darfur region of Sudan,” Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (May 7, 2004). https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/521370?v=pdf.

[27] Id. at 11. Janjaweed translates to “devils on horseback”- a local term for outlawed and robbers.

[28] Africa Renewal, “Explainer: How Darfur Became a Humanitarian Calamity and Catastrophic Human Rights Crisis,” UN NEWS (December 14, 2023).

[29] Human Rights Watch, Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan (May 6, 2004).: Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa are local tribes that are native to Darfur. https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/05/06/darfur-destroyed/ethnic-cleansing-government-and-militia-forces-western-sudan.

[30] International Criminal Court, Press Release, “The Prosecutor of the ICC Opens Investigation in Darfur” (June 6, 2005).

[31] Warrant for Arrest for Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, The Prosecutor v. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir [“Omar Al Bashir”], The International Criminal Court (March 4, 2009).

[32] Human Rights Watch, Supra, note 27.

[33] Resolution 1996, Adopted by the Security Council at its 6,576th Meeting on 8 July 2011, United Nations Security Council (July 8, 2011).

[34] Cascão, Ana Elisa, Resource-Based Conflict in South Sudan and Gambella (Ethiopia): When Water, Land, And Oil Mix with Politics, STOCKHOLD INTERNATIONAL WATER INSTITUTE (June 2013), at 148.

[35] Human Rights Watch, “Men With No Mercy: Rapid Support Forces Attacks Against Civilians in Darfur, Sudan” (September 9, 2015).

[36] Id.

[37] Center for Preventative Action, Civil War in Sudan, GLOBAL CONFLICT TRACKER (November 19, 2023). https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/power-struggle-sudan.

[38] Hilary Matfess, The Rapid Support Forces and the Escalation of Violence in Sudan, ACLED (July 2, 2019).

[39] Abdelaziz, Khalid; Georgy, Michael; El Dahan, Maha; Exclusive: Sudan Militia Leader Grew Rich by Selling Gold, REUTERS (November 26, 2019).

[40] Id.

[41] “Who is al-Burhan, Sudan’s Military de Facto Head of State?”, AL JAZEERA (April 16, 2023). Notably, al-Burhan served in Darfur in the early 2000s.

[42] Adams, Laura; Forrat, Natalia; Medow, Zack; How Civic Mobilizations Grow in Authoritarian Contexts, Sudan Case Study, FREEDOM HOUSE (2022).

[43] United Nations Security Council, Meeting Coverage, “Sudan’s New Transitional Government Presents Chance to Restore Long-Term Stability in Darfur, United Nations, African Union Officials Tell Security Council,” 8603rd Meeting (August 26, 2019).

[44] Id.

[45] Id. “This is an opportunity to put a definitive end to the conflict in Darfur”.

[46] Id.

[47] Embassy of Sudan in Washington D.C., Press Release, “Sudan’s Sovereign Council Sworn In” (August 24, 2019). https://sudanembassy.org/sudans-sovereign-council-sworn-in/.

[48] Id.

[49] Amin, Mohammed, “Sudan to Dissolve Sovereign Council After New Gov’t,” AA (April 7, 2022). https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/sudan-to-dissolve-sovereign-council-after-new-gov-t/2630098.

[50] Id: Hemedti was al-Burhan’s second in command.

[51] Human Rights Watch, Report, “Sudan: Ongoing Clampdown on Peaceful Protesters” (February 3, 2022).

[52] Human Rights Watch, Report, “Sudan: Fighting Erupts Between Armed Forces” (April 15, 2023).

[53] SRSG For Sudan and Head of UNITAMS Volker Perthes, Remark to the Security Council on 13 September 2023, United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (September 13, 2023).

[54] Fact Sheet: Conflict Surges in Sudan, ACLED, published April 28, 2013, (May 24, 2023). Over two-thirds of the fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces has taken place in cities of over 100,000 people. https://acleddata.com/2023/04/28/fact-sheet-conflict-surges-in-sudan/

[55] Khan, Omar, “Sudan Civil War Intensifies as Peace Talks Collapse,” UCL DIPLOMACY SOCIETY (December 4, 2023).

[56] Human Rights Watch, “Sudan: New Mass Ethnic Killings, Pillage in Darfur” (November 26, 2023).

[57] Id.

[58] Sudan Situation Report 14, Displacement Tracking Matrix [DTM Sudan] (July 25, 2023). https://dtm.iom.int/reports/dtm-sudan-situation-report-14.

[59] Nashed, Mat, “Corpses on Streets’: Sudan’s RSK Kills 1,300 in Darfur, Monitors Say,” AL JAZEERA (November 10, 2023).

[60] Human Rights Watch, Supra, note 54.

[61] Press Release, Statement by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan and Head of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), Mr. Volker Perthes, On the Situation in Sudan, United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (June 13, 2023).

[62] Amin, Mohammed, “Sudan’s Burhan Escapes Siege to Start a Sabre-Rattling Tour,” Middle East Eye (August 29, 2023). Al-Burhan has relocated to the coastal city of Port Sudan.

[63] Report, “Sudan: The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Gains Ground in Sudan,” ACLED (January 12, 2024).

[64] ‘‘Last redoubt’ – North Darfur capital braces for RSF onslaught, RADIO DABANGA (November 27, 2023); “Darfur leaders urged RSF to cease attack on El-Fasher, Idris says”, SUDAN TRIBUNE, (December 12, 2023).

[65] Sudan: Situation Report, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (last updated April 4, 2024).

[66] Id.

[67] Id.

[68] Blinken, Antony, Press Statement, “The United States Calls for an Immediate Cessation of Attacks in El Fasher, North Darfur, Sudan,” United States Department of State (November 2, 2023).

[69] Supra, note 62.