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Sudan citizens are hiding from intense fighting between army and paramilitary group

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today marks the third day of intense fighting in Sudan. In the capital, Khartoum, and around the country, citizens are hiding in their homes to avoid airstrikes and machine gun fire. At the center of the conflict are Sudan's army and a powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Force, or RSF. To understand the fighting, you have to go back to 2021, when they worked together to orchestrate a coup. Now the generals leading these two armed factions, former allies, are at war over which should lead the country's defense as Sudan transitions back to a civilian-led government. And both sides are demanding surrender.

Cameron Hudson is here to tell us more about the conflict. He is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa Program and served as a special envoy to Sudan during the Obama administration. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CAMERON HUDSON: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: So let's start with the two groups at the center of this conflict. We have the army and the RSF. Tell us about the army first. Who is in charge, and what is their claim on leadership?

HUDSON: Well, their claim on leadership is really that they've led the country for the better part of the last 50 years. It's a military general named Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who took over the country essentially when the longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, was removed from power back in 2019. He has been essentially running the country for a period of that time. There was a civilian transition that he was working with. But as you said, in 2021, there was a coup that removed the civilian prime minister. And for the better part of the last 16 months, they've been negotiating the conditions under which a new civilian prime minister could return to office.

DETROW: And what do we need to know about the RSF to understand their motivations?

HUDSON: Well, the RSF are a militia group on a mercenary outfit. They emerged from the remnants of the Janjaweed Arab militia, which people will remember terrorized Darfuri civilians for a long time during the conflict there. They were given title and a kind of normalized role in the security services of the country by Omar al-Bashir, essentially as a counterweight to the Sudan armed forces. We've seen the RSF grow very powerful over the last decade because they've been a mercenary army selling their services to the Saudis in Yemen or in Libya and other places. They also control large areas of gold mining operations in the north of the country. So they've become very rich. And with that wealth, they've been able to recruit an army of as many as 100,000 people, which now rivals the power and the strength of the Sudan armed forces.

DETROW: And who's in charge of the RSF? What do we need to know?

HUDSON: The commander in charge of the RSF is a General Hamdan Dagalo, otherwise known as Hemetti, his nom de guerre. He is formerly a camel herder. He's reputed to have been illiterate until very recently. I think the military has tried to paint him as a kind of rube, you know, from the peripheral areas, tried to disparage him as a fighter and as a leader and really kind of keep the RSF at a distance, suggesting that they are not fit to govern the country.

DETROW: You know, Sudan has seen political violence before and military coups before. What's different here?

HUDSON: Well, I think the difference now and the most dangerous element is that this conflict is taking place in cities across the country. The fundamental tension in Sudan for decades has been this tension between the center, the capital, and the peripheral areas, where the capital has been ruled by kind of Arab elites, and lesser tribes have been repressed all throughout the country. This is now being looked upon as an opportunity for those repressed kind of rural areas to rise up and to bring the violence to the capital.

The problem is, of course, that this is playing out in a city of 5 million people in Khartoum, where civilian casualties are at great risk and where civilian infrastructure can be easily destroyed and, frankly, where urban dwellers don't have the kind of coping mechanisms that rural dwellers do if water gets cut off or electricity gets cut off or they can't get to the market to to buy provisions. So it's a real problem for the civilians that are inhabiting and watching their city be destroyed.

DETROW: That's Cameron Hudson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much.

HUDSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.