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Sudan faces massive humanitarian disaster as 5 million at risk of starvation

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Hanin Ahmed, who has a master’s degree in gender and development from Ahfad University for Women, is an activist in the field of women’s and youth rights from Omdurman, Sudan.

Critical infrastructure has been looted and destroyed, farmers have been forced to abandon their farmlands, and the price of basic food commodities has been driven up by 83%. In the coming weeks and months, 222,000 children could die of malnutrition in Sudan.

I still haven’t recovered from the shock that struck me when the brutal war started between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on 15 April 2023. 

But like many Sudanese, I put my fears aside and organised an effort with my neighbours to address the most pressing needs of our community. We organised an emergency response room (ERR) for a central section of Omdurman, my home city on the west bank of the River Nile opposite the capital of Khartoum.

Hundreds of ERRs – decentralised, non-hierarchical and driven by youth – have sprung up across the country since the outbreak of the fighting, representing the frontline of the humanitarian response as the situation in Sudan continues to worsen.

Our work is in desperate need of international support. Since the start of the war, more than 8 million people have been displaced inside and outside of Sudan. Half of Sudan’s population – 25 million people – needs humanitarian assistance and protection. The UN estimates that more than 17 million are facing acute food insecurity. About 5 million people are on the brink of famine.

The situation in Sudan is “truly the stuff of nightmares,” Edem Wosornu, director of operations and advocacy in the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in testimony before the UN Security Council on 20 March 2024.

She described how critical infrastructure has been looted and destroyed, how farmers have been forced to abandon their farmlands, how the price of basic food commodities has been driven up by 83%. Sudan is “one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory”. In the coming weeks and months, 222,000 children could die of malnutrition, she said.

Yet most international aid agencies have suspended work and evacuated international staff. According to a recent UN report, “more than 3,000 humanitarian organisations have ceased working in Sudan due to the fighting, including 2,900 national organisations and 110 foreign and regional organisations.”

The warring parties have hindered the delivery of humanitarian assistance into hard-to-reach areas. The report describes “bureaucratic and administrative obstacles, including long delays in issuing visas and travel permits for staff of United Nations and other humanitarian organisations”.

Our ERR for Old Omdurman, a part of the city that includes 18 neighbourhoods, doesn’t have a physical room where we coordinate actions, which would be too dangerous. Instead, our “room” is a series of WhatsApp groups that enables us to communicate with each other when connectivity permits.

We have about 100 members – students, labourers, homemakers, engineers, doctors, accountants, IT experts, and gender specialists (like me). Many of us were part of the pro-democracy resistance committees that organised mass protests to end the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

Basic necessities

We strive to provide basic necessities, often working in coordination with colleagues who are part of a larger ERR network in Khartoum state. Our ERR in Old Omdurman established 15 soup kitchens that offer Sudanese dishes like balela (cooked chickpeas) and ful medames (cooked fava beans) and food baskets with sugar, beans, chai, onions, flour and other staples. 

Ten of the soup kitchens are located within evacuation centres, where displaced families shelter until we are able to arrange for their resettlement. Makeshift schools have been established in some of the evacuation centres to keep the children occupied and out of harm’s way. 

When we learn about a person who has been injured, we organise the delivery of medical supplies or arrange for transportation to a working healthcare facility. We provide rape protocols and psychological support for women who have been sexually assaulted. A group of volunteers collects the bodies of the deceased – sometimes soldiers from the warring parties – and follows the rituals for burial according to the Muslim religion. We have organised the repair of downed power lines and damaged water stations.

Our work can range from training volunteers on how to provide protection to issuing warnings via social media when we learn that a military attack is going to happen. 

Such indispensable work is happening throughout Sudan. In Darfur, where the RSF and allied militias have been accused of conducting a terror campaign of ethnic killings and sexual violence, a network of ERRs has been established with more than 96 soup kitchens. In the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, community-led mutual aid efforts are ongoing. 

My family suffered through a difficult few months after the war started. Whenever our house shook from the roar of MiG warplanes or the blast of anti-aircraft fire, we would hide under our beds. I tried to reassure my terrified 13-year-old brother, telling him, “We are in a war but we are with you and God is with us, so do not be afraid.”

During quiet moments, when we heard the mosques’ call to prayer or the tolling of church bells, I felt a kind of reassurance.

But in fear for our lives, we decided to leave Omdurman, all 18 members of my family. I eventually reached New York while the rest of my family remain for now in Egypt.

From my base in the United States, I am working with other ERR representatives from across Sudan and the diaspora to urge the international community to support our efforts on the ground. In January, a group of us met with UN officials in New York and US government representatives in Washington.

We are asking international donors to minimise bureaucratic requirements and streamline reporting mechanisms to ensure that funding can be speedily delivered, either directly to ERRs or via international partnerships.

ERR volunteers should be recognised as humanitarian workers who should receive the same protections and considerations as other humanitarians working in conflict zones.

The world can take inspiration from what Sudanese volunteers have been able to achieve amid global inaction and indifference. The work of the ERRs offers a guide on how the Sudan of the future can be governed: cooperative, peaceful, people-centred and dedicated to the common good. 

We ask you to support us. The future of Sudan may depend on it. DM

Hanin Ahmed, who has a master’s degree in gender and development from Ahfad University for Women, is an activist in the field of women’s and youth rights from Omdurman, Sudan.

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  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    The weaponising of food in conflicts is a disturbing trend, the red cross and UN the once respected symbols in all sides of a conflict is a thing of the past, it started with superpowers ignoring international bodies rulings.
    A well respected UN body just declared a cease fire due to a humanitarian crisis of feminine proportions and a world superpower ships 2000kg of bombs to fuel the conflict.
    Back to Sudan it will just get worse because African wars are treated like one of those barbaric nuisances the world can do without, so the war lords are making a killing supplying the unmonitored weapons.
    Sadac and the African union should step up, peace keeping forces are not having an impact at all, a combined massive force can do better.
    African peace keepers are not famous for having designs on African conflicts as far as resources are at play.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    The Horn of Africa has been under constant famine crisis, dating back as far as the Bob Geldof, well-meaning, but poorly aimed “Feed the World” band-aid, days. Peter Beard, when talking about the great Tsavo crisis – an area a little south of the horn, but with similar problems, said this in 1965;

    “The horrific Tsavo die-off (35,000 elephants) was nature’s response to an overburdened, over-pressured, rapidly deteriorating finite wasteland of ruined woodlands. Southern African landscapes are now being ravaged by climate change-caused droughts and many other human-caused threats. When will we learn that there are simply too many of us (humans), too many ingeniously adaptive, rapaciously destructive, hungry, fornicating, fundraising, excuse-making Homo sapiens?”

    How did the population explode from about 30 million in the troubled Bob Geldof era – then not sustainable – to the present 150 million?

    We are just one of many species, and we are the ones gifted with a mind, intelligence and the power of logic – when are we going to start taking these responsibilities seriously, and allow a sustainable, many-species World to flourish and survive?

    This should be the burning question of our age – we have foreshortened this to a climate issue, but even more fundamentally, we have a serious issue where one species – Man – is just greedily sweeping up all the land and food.

    • Peppy Anckorn says:

      I couldn’t agree more Jon. The media and governments never mention the unsustainability of the human population growth especially in poor countries. Food aid has not helped as they just have more children. The only solution is education especially of women as better educated people tend to limit the size of their families. Governments need to learn how to manage shrinking economies. We cannot go on and on having growing economies.

  • Stephen Brooks says:

    The media never mention the population displaced in Sudan, the numbers of dead already from the war and the numbers predicted to die soon from starvation. They dwarf the corresponding numbers in Gaza, about which we hear all day, every day. The solution? Get the Israelis to fire off a couple of rockets to land near Kartoum and the figures will be broadcast daily at the top of the news. Maybe the Americans will even remember where Sudan is.

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