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‘Living in Khartoum is a hell’: Food and water shortages leave civilians desperate as Sudan conflict rages on

Aid has become a battleground in the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, with a third of the population facing acute food insecurity

People displaced from Sudan's Jazira state arrive in packed vehicles to the entrance of the eastern city of Gedaref, amid the ongoing conflict between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

“We are looking for help, we are looking for humanity,” is the message from one of the many people trapped in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as temperatures top 40 degrees and civilians die unrecorded deaths from unknown causes – the consequences of a devastating conflict now in its second year.

War has been raging across Sudan since April 2023, when an alliance between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group broke down. It has triggered what the United Nations calls the world’s largest displacement crisis. The International Organisation for Migration said the number of internally displaced people topped 10 million this month, including 2.8 million who were displaced before the current war. More than 1.89 million people have fled the north African country, with most sheltering in neighbouring states, including more than 600,000 in Chad and 500,000 in Egypt.

Many others, including the elderly, people with disabilities, refugees who had already fled different regional crises and those without financial means have ended up living amid fighting. The man living in Khartoum, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told The Irish Times through WhatsApp messages that the situation there remains desperate.

“We are trapped, we can’t go out from Khartoum and living in Khartoum is a hell. Many people could die [from the] lack of food,” he said, adding that the current hot season was exacerbating suffering: “No water, no electricity.” People get sunstroke while walking the streets searching for drinking water, he said. Queues 100-long line up at water pipes, he said. People’s other option is to pay for poor-quality water that tastes of salt.


Some die from “dehydrating, collapsing”, he said, while others have died in their sleep and gone undiscovered for days.

The man said he had no idea which fighters control the area he is in. “We don’t know who is who but [they are] armed. During the night [they’re] killing and robbing.”

He said that some mosques were providing free meals, but not enough to alleviate the crisis.

Last December, the US state department determined that both sides in the conflict had carried out war crimes, while the RSF and allied militias had also carried out ethnic cleansing.

In May, Tom Perriello, the US special envoy to Sudan, said the death toll from the war could be as high as 150,000. “I think we know we are in famine,” Perriello told Reuters on June 11th. “I think the question is how much famine, how much of the country, and for how long.”

The UN’s World Food Programme has warned that Sudan – which has a population of roughly 47 million people – could become “the world’s largest hunger crisis unless fighting stops”.

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In a report in March, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a globally recognised hunger monitor, said it recorded “unprecedented levels of acute food insecurity” in Sudan in 2023. By February, more than a third of the country’s population were facing “high levels of acute food insecurity”, and 10 per cent – or 4.9 million – were at “emergency” levels, just short of famine.

Amid this, aid has become a battleground. “Both belligerents – but particularly the army – are blocking food aid,” the International Crisis Group think tank said last month.

In an online press conference in April, Médecins Sans Frontières operations manager Abdalla Hussein said the aid agency’s staff were not being allowed to enter Sudan or move around it, while supplies they tried transporting to Khartoum were being searched and things meant to treat the war wounded removed. “An inhumane policy of filtering” meant they lacked the necessities to care for women who needed Caesarean sections, for example. “We need access for humanitarian personnel, we need access for medical supplies ... we need a simplified visa and permit process. We need the ability to cross front lines of different parts of the conflict ... we are overwhelmed,” he said.

People shop at a vegetable market in Gedaref city in eastern Sudan. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

MSF was calling on the UN to scale up its response, he said. Despite the huge need, the UN’s humanitarian response plan for Sudan, assessed at requiring $2.7 billion (€2.5 billion) in 2024, is currently just over 16 per cent funded.

The war has also prompted a discussion around the importance of investing in local initiatives, after international organisations had their work halted or disrupted by its outbreak. Dominic MacSorley, the Sudan Country Director for Concern Worldwide, which has operated there for decades, told The Irish Times it was necessary for international organisations to leave Khartoum when fighting started. “Nobody expected Khartoum to fall and everybody assumed when they were leaving that this was a conflict that would probably get resolved within a matter of weeks,” he said.

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Many organisations eventually established headquarters in Port Sudan, a city by the Red Sea roughly 800km from Khartoum by road. Of about 150 Sudanese staff that Concern Worldwide had before the war started, MacSorley said it was down to about 95. “Many of them moved to different parts of the country, and others fled across different borders.” About a third of the agency’s past employees, who were previously working in West Darfur, were now living in refugee camps in Chad, he said.

One of the obstacles with raising funding for the aid response is a false perception that it’s “impossible to deliver” anything during an active conflict, MacSorley said. Out of 25 million Sudanese in need, only 8.1 million were reached with some form of aid between April and December last year, according to UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). . In mid-May this year, the OCHA said 1.8 million people had received food assistance through the World Food Programme since the beginning of 2024.

MacSorley said Concern Worldwide had maintained access to health facilities it supported in Port Sudan, Kordofan and Darfur, despite looting and a lack of supplies.

“Sudan has never been an easy country, just in terms of the scale, the size, the infrastructure ... but it has become massively more complicated and more costly as a result of the conflict,” he said. Another new challenge was that vessels laden with aid were taking longer routes to avoid the attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have been disrupting shipping in the Red Sea in support of the Palestinians in Gaza. For example, MacSorley said, “essential drugs that we’ve ordered from [the] Netherlands that would have taken maybe two months to deliver are now taking between four and six months”.

Along with other international organisations, he said, Concern was looking at new ways to get aid in, such as utilising local traders who already crossed the borders between Sudan and South Sudan.

“Sudan has been challenging the international community to find alternative ways [to do things],” he continued. “It has forced ... donors and agencies to kind of rethink how to support and how to supply people that are on the ground.”

The humanitarian response to the war has been complicated by a widespread internet shutdown. Some Sudanese citizens get around it by using Elon Musk’s satellite internet service, Starlink, though the company operating it, SpaceX, has threatened to remove unauthorised access. In May, nearly 100 humanitarian groups warned Musk this would have a “disproportionate impact on civilians and the aid organisations who are trying to reach them”.

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Poor communications have hampered Sudanese volunteer groups across the country that raise money – including through crowdfunding – to deliver free meals to people in need. In March, a volunteer in Khartoum, who asked not to be named, told The Irish Times they were struggling to access donations from abroad because of the lack of internet access.

In Khartoum they feel like they are living in “isolation” due to the absence of communications, she said. There were no education opportunities and there was little work, while people used to receiving financial assistance from relatives abroad could no longer receive bank transfers. “Stress is very high within all people,” she said. Particularly suffering were “children, pregnant and lactating women”, and people with chronic illnesses.

Most aid for civilians was coming through community responses, she added, with Sudanese civilians creating centres to distribute cooked food, lentils, oil, flour and some free drugs. Demand kept rising while resources were limited. “We need help to transfer our voice as a community to [get] humanitarian support during and after the war.”

Yusuf, a Sudanese man based in London, who also asked that his full name not be published for safety reasons, was involved in setting up Khartoum Aid Kitchen, an initiative that has fundraised nearly €300,000 since April. It began by supporting already existing volunteer-run kitchens in Khartoum. “We recognised the importance of the work that these kitchens were doing, particularly in bridging this huge gap between the needs of civilians in Sudan and the level of support being provided by international aid organisations – which if we’re being honest, is simply inadequate to address the scale of the crisis,” Yusuf said.

He said that “contrary to what many people may think”, there was enough food in much of Sudan, but people didn’t have the money to buy it.

“Most of those who donate to our initiative are actually non-Sudanese,” he said. “Although the conflict in Sudan doesn’t garner much attention in the media, there are still many people who have been keeping up to date with the conflict through social media, realise the gravity of what’s happening in Sudan right now and want to help in what way they can.”

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