Home International Millions of Sudanese go hungry as war disrupts food supply

Millions of Sudanese go hungry as war disrupts food supply

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The number of Sudanese facing emergency levels of hunger – one stage before famine – has more than tripled in a year to almost five million since the war that erupted last April.

A handout photograph, shot in January 2024, shows women and babies at the Zamzam displacement camp, close to El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan. File picture: MSF, Mohamed Zakaria, Handout via Reuters

By Nafisa Eltahir

CAIRO – A mother who skips meals so there is enough food for her two children. A 60-year-old man who eats one meal a day – a lump of dough made of flour and water. People venturing out from their homes in a desperate search for food at the risk of being hit by artillery shells.

Dozens of accounts like these gathered by Reuters show how many people are going hungry in parts of Sudan worst hit by the war that erupted last April, including areas in the capital Khartoum and in the western region of Darfur. The number of Sudanese facing emergency levels of hunger – one stage before famine – has more than tripled in a year to almost five million, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a globally recognised food security index.

In Sudan’s capital, hundreds of thousands of people face a daily struggle to find food as communal kitchens they depend on are threatened by dwindling supplies and a communications blackout across much of the country in recent weeks. In Darfur, some areas haven’t received any aid since the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary, went to war almost a year ago.

Aid agencies, which say they have been unable to deliver food to many areas of the war-torn country, are warning that hunger is set to worsen as Sudan’s April-July lean season approaches – the time of year when food availability is low because farmers are planting.

“We are in grave danger of epic, biblical style famine in Sudan,” Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in an interview after visiting camps in Chad in mid-February where over half a million Sudanese refugees now reside.

Reuters spoke to 30 residents, many of them in war-ravaged areas of Sudan where hunger has set in since the fighting began. Most spoke by phone or on WhatsApp. Some were interviewed in Cairo, where they have sought refuge after fleeing their homes. Reuters also interviewed more than 20 aid workers.

The Sudanese military and the RSF did not respond to questions for this story.

DRINKING UNTREATED WATER

Al Fiteihab, a district in the city of Omdurman across the Nile from Khartoum, is on the front line in the battle between the army and the RSF. Residents searching for food say they have had to brave RSF checkpoints, as well as artillery and sniper fire by the RSF and the army.

People are scared to leave their homes for fear of harassment and beatings. Mahmoud Mohammed, 60, said he was robbed and whipped by RSF fighters when he tried to go to a market last December. “When I got home, my jalabia was covered in blood,” he said, referring to the traditional robe he was wearing. A family member confirmed that Mohammed was bloodied when he arrived home.

Mohammed’s wife then began venturing out in an effort to find food, but stopped after hearing that a group of women had been detained by the RSF and that others had gone missing. Two other residents said they had also heard of women going missing early this year. Reuters was unable to independently confirm these reports of disappearances. Last month, Mohammed and his family escaped from Al Fiteihab.

Electrical and water facilities have been damaged in the fighting, residents said, depriving them of power and running water. Many have suffered from diarrhoea after being forced to drink untreated water from the Nile. The World Health Organization has reported more than 10,000 suspected cholera cases across the country since the outbreak of the war.

In an effort to feed thousands of residents in Al Fiteihab, volunteers set up soup kitchens early in the war that served gruel, rice and flat bread once or twice a day. But the communal kitchens were forced to cut back on these meals when an RSF siege of the area cut short their supplies last July, volunteer Mohieldin Jaafar told Reuters.

The volunteers are part of the so-called “emergency response rooms” – a network that has been feeding and evacuating residents in areas across the country. Three volunteers were killed by artillery shells and stray bullets in Al Fiteihab last year as they tried to help fellow residents, according to two volunteers.

In late February, the Sudanese army made advances in the area, breaking the siege on one part of Al Fiteihab. That has allowed food to start trickling in.

The military and the RSF together staged a coup against long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir in 2019, but went to war when tensions rose over a planned transition towards civilian rule and elections. The RSF quickly took control of most of Khartoum, despite the army’s advantage in air power and heavy weaponry. The paramilitary also tightened its grip on Darfur, which has been racked by more than two decades of conflict and displacement.

The current war has triggered waves of ethnic killing in Darfur. Reuters has chronicled the violence there, which was spearheaded by the RSF and its allied militias. In a series of reports, the news agency exposed how the war unleashed a lethal, racially charged campaign against the Masalit people of West Darfur.

The RSF evolved from militias that were used to crush an insurgency that flared in Darfur in the early 2000s. By 2008, an estimated 300,000 people had died in the violence, many from starvation.

So far, the war in Sudan has killed more than 14,000 people, according to UN estimates, and driven more than eight million from their homes, making Sudan the world’s largest displacement crisis, opens new tab.

‘A DEATH SENTENCE’

Before the conflict, Khartoum had been almost entirely untouched by the fighting that ravaged Darfur. But people in many areas of the capital now find themselves caught in a war zone between the army and the RSF.

Across the Nile from Al Fiteihab, some 2,800 people are trapped in areas around the Sudanese army’s base in Al Shajarah neighbourhood in Khartoum, according to two volunteers who escaped the area at the end of last year.

One of the volunteers, Gihad Salaheldin, said that after running out of food, men began sneaking out under cover of nightfall to search for supplies. Residents have also been drinking untreated water from the Nile, volunteers said.

Across the capital, the communications blackout forced communal kitchens to suspend operations because they could no longer receive donations sent via a mobile banking app. The emergency response rooms in Khartoum state said on March 3 that they had been forced to shut 221 of these kitchens because of the blackout.

Recently, donations have started to trickle in again as volunteers sporadically gain access to the internet using billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink system in some places.

But little international aid is getting into Sudan as humanitarian agencies struggle to get the necessary entry and transport permits from authorities. The United States and European Union have criticized both the army and the RSF for the breakdown in aid distribution.

Swathes of Darfur haven’t received aid since before the war began, according to residents and aid agencies. After previously blocking the entry of aid from Chad into Darfur, a UN official said on March 5 on X that the Sudanese authorities had agreed to the transfer of aid through a border crossing into North Darfur.

Addressing RSF appeals for agencies to deliver aid to areas under its control, army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said in February: “This will not happen until we end this war and defeat these criminal rebels.”

The Sudanese foreign ministry, which is aligned with the army, has accused the RSF of plundering and blocking aid, as have some aid agencies, opens new tab. The RSF has denied looting and has said any rogue actors in its ranks will be held responsible.

An assessment, opens new tab by Doctors Without Borders in January found that in North Darfur’s Zamzam displacement camp, home to some 400,000 people, an estimated one child is dying every two hours. Nearly 40% of children aged six months to two years old were malnourished, the group found.

If aid didn’t reach Darfur soon, it would be “a death sentence for millions in desperate need,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Egeland said.

In South Darfur’s Kalma camp, home to hundreds of thousands of displaced people, adults are struggling to survive on a gruel of sorghum flour and water, while malnourished children are getting infections and malaria, according to aid workers and residents.

Mohammed Omar, a resident of Kalma, said he and his family have been displaced four times since the war began. He receives one meal a day – a dumpling made of sorghum flour and water that would normally be eaten with a meat stew. “There is not a day we don’t go to the cemetery to bury people,” he said.

Fatma Ibrahim was pregnant with twins as the fighting spread last year. She said that after giving birth in December, she was unable to afford baby formula and couldn’t breastfeed because she lacked enough to eat.

Her twin girls, Jana and Janat – Arabic for heaven and heavens – quickly became malnourished and were admitted to a medical centre in Kalma.

Ibrahim, 27, spoke via WhatsApp from the medical centre. “There is no money, no food, no milk,” she said. “There is nothing.”

– REUTERS

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