Sudan: even if the RSF militia win, they cannot rule

Interview Omer Ismail Sudanese Former Minister

The battle is still raging in his country, but ultimately “a civilian government must be established in Sudan,” says Omer Ismail, former foreign minister.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan barely gets out of his bunker anymore. Sudan Sovereignty Council president is losing in the war against paramilitary general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. Most of the capital Khartoum is already in the hands of his Rapid Support Forces (RSF). “But even if the RSF fighters win, they will not rule,” says former foreign minister Omer Ismail. “They have lost all their legitimacy and completely alienated the citizens from them through all their looting, murder and rape,” says Ismail, visiting the only independent Sudanese radio station, Dabanga, which broadcasts from Amsterdam.

‘Military mismanagement’

In the war of destruction between the generals, the civilians are sidelined. Still, the Sudanese will see opportunities to come up with an alternative government, as neither side seems to be able to control the country, believes Ismail, who was a minister under Prime Minister Addalla Hamdok from 2020 to 2021. “Eventually there will be a ceasefire that will last. And then there must be an alternative to military mismanagement. One of the most important points: an entirely new army.”

“The people must step forward and say, ‘This is our country,'” he continues. Ismail wants to go back to old agreements with the army that the citizens get all executive power during a transitional regime.

The next step must come from the people and not the army, he says. But who represents those citizens in polarized Sudan is the question. According to the former minister, civilian groups such as Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), which negotiated with the army about a transfer of power to a civilian regime until the conflict broke out, have the best chance.

 “Burhan is not a strategic thinking leader,” says Ismail. The president is confined to the defense headquarters, which is partly occupied by the RSF. He also lost control of part of the grounds on which the presidential palace is located. Although the government army has more men and heavy equipment and an air force, many attacks by its forces have failed. Attacks by RSF on al-Yarmouk, a large arms and ammunition depot, and the police headquarters, were successful.

Ismail calls Al-Burhan street smart, but he says he lacks the vision, strategy or diplomatic agility needed to form alliances to win the battle. “That’s not entirely his fault: he inherited a dislocated army from the fundamentalist Muslims who had been in power for 30 years.”

They transformed the national armed forces into an ideological army, intended to spread and strengthen fundamentalist ideas. The morale of the corruption-riddled government army is also low; for many years a position in the army meant a way to participate in a commercial network that controlled more than eighty percent of the national economy. The army was a place to make money, not a place for professional soldiers. As a result, it seems, it has hardly any fighting power anymore. “It’s just a military facade,” Ismail says.

How different is that for the paramilitary RSF fighters, when they were not yet included in the army until 2014, but did cooperate with it, they were deployed as infantry. With that experience and their fighting spirit, they now dominate the streets of Khartoum.

Oil refinery

The RSF fighters also have the upper hand elsewhere in Sudan. They attacked the strategic city of El Obeid in the south, where there is an oil refinery and a pipeline with oil from South Sudan. In the western region of Darfur, government soldiers are on the defensive: El Geneina is in the hands of the RSF, the regional capitals of Nyala and El Fashar are still being fought over.

The battlefield has become even more complex because two rebel groups have also joined the fray: in El Fashar, the fighters of Minni Minawi are taking on the RSF, in the Nuba mountains, the insurgent group of Abdulaziz al-Hilu has taken over government army barracks.

The civilians are victims of crimes, especially by the RSF. Three million Sudanese have been displaced since the war between the two generals began. Help barely reaches them. The only structures that function are those of civilian resistance committees: they still manage to distribute aid.

“We have to go back to basics, with a citizen representation,” says Ismail. “We have the power of the people: you cannot kill all 45 million Sudanese.”

This interview, done with colleague Jamila Meischke, took place in Amsterdam.

The article was fisrt published in NRC on 5-7-2023

Sudans national heritage is in danger

Sudan is undergoing a war of destruction, with not only a humanitarian crisis and destruction of infrastructure, but also the historical works of art in danger. “Our cultural heritage is in danger of being lost. The National Museum in the capital Khartoum has been attacked in recent weeks. Militiamen broke old pots and opened caskets with mummies,” says Elnour Hamir from his place of exile in Paris. Since the fall in 2019 of former president and autocrat Omar al-Bashir, he has been head of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM), which was established for the preservation of Sudan’s cultural heritage.

In April, two factions of the military plunged Sudan into a brutal power struggle: President of Sudan Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s regular forces and that of the Rapid Support Forces. The RSF is a paramilitary force led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, a militia from the desert in western Sudan that was incorporated into the National Armed Forces. The fighting is concentrated in Khartoum and the Darfur region. The fighters of Hemedti operate in the streets with light weapons on their pick-ups, the army of Burhan hits them with heavy weapons, with fighter jets and drones.

Hemedti’s RSF fighters used the scorched earth strategy in the 2003 war in Darfur. They now fight in the cities with the same attitude: for them the state is a booty and the population a target to rape and rob. They occupy homes, hospitals, schools, and value museums.

“We have forty employees in Khartoum to assess the damage, but they can only leave their homes during the short ceasefires,” says from Barcelona Isber Sabrine, head of Heritage for Peace; an international NGO that tries to protect cultural heritage in war situations.

“They behave like barbarians,” says Elnour from Paris about the RSF soldiers who entered the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum. When they opened containers  with ancient mummies, they proclaimed on social media that they had discovered victims of al-Bashir’s rule. “They are undeveloped, they have no idea of culture and history,” says Elnour. All museum guards have since fled.

 According to UNESCO; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the archives of Ahlia University in Omdurman also suffered significant damage. Thousands of old books and rare documents were lost in a fire in the university library.

Blue Nile

In the words of ancient Egyptian priests, in the Nile “floated in the bottomless water the seed of all things.” Sudan’s cultural history centers around the Nile, where great empires arose. In the capital Khartoum, the most important museums are located on the riverbank.

Sudan is home to two hundred pyramids and has the largest collection of historical cultural treasures on the continent after Egypt. This is partly due to the excavations in the region where in ancient times the legendary Nubian empire of Kush was located, an early black African nation-state with its own script, industry, arts and sciences. The area is located north of Khartoum near several waterfalls in the Nile.

So much of this culture was preserved because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt between 1960 and 1970, which flooded the Nile basin for a distance of 500 kilometers. Archaeologists went busily to work at that time to find and save statues and temples. According to information from the British Museum, which houses a statue of King Anlamani and many other artifacts of Nubian culture, “these rescues resulted in this area probably providing archaeologists with the most thorough documentation of any comparable area in the world.”

The Blue Nile flows in front of the National Museum of Sudan, which houses more than 100,000 objects from Sudanese history. It houses the world’s largest Nubian archaeological collection, such as the granite statue of the king Taharqa, ruler between 690 and 664 BC. Four of the rebuilt Nubian temples are displayed in the museum garden. There are also statues, mummies, and murals from the Stone Age. By a happy coincidence, most of the art pieces were put away some time ago due to a renovation. But being in the middle of the front line, the collection in the garden is in danger of being hit.

Across the bridge of the White Nile, less than three kilometers west of the museum, lies Omdurman, the ancient capital of Sudan. Here lies the tomb of the Mahdi, who established a state in Sudan in the 19th century after a revolt against the British and Turkish occupiers. Also, there is a new museum recently opened in the former home of Khalifa Abdullah ibn Mohammed, who ruled Sudan before being defeated by the British in 1898. In both places the RSF set up a military base and therefore they can become targets of airstrikes or bombings.

Arab merchants

Those who dare to walk east from the National Museum through a neighborhood with many snipers present will arrive at the old and new presidential palaces, both damaged by the fighting. A stone’s throw away is the Ethnographic Museum, where the diversity of Sudan is shown. Sudan is a multicultural country. For hundreds of years since the 7th century, Arab traders traveled south through the Sahara, across the Red Sea and down the Nile, taking their Islamic faith and culture with them.

“In the Ethnographic Museum, we show the diversity of all ethnic groups in Sudan today, of their cultures and traditions, with fascinating statues, masks, jewelry and beadwork of both African and Arab origin,” says Elnour of the Sudanese heritage organization NCAM. “With this collection we want to contribute to solving Sudan’s identity crisis. An elite of Arab or Arabized rulers has always wanted to mold the country into an Islamic Arab state. But we Sudanese are much more diverse, and this museum is proof of that.”

As part of the campaign to show all faces of Sudan, Elnour helped to set up such ethnological museums in Darfur, in Al-Fashir, Nyala and El Geneina, cities where, like Khartoum, a battle of destruction is now taking place. However, many of these new museums had not yet opened their doors when the war began.

The RSF are robbers, not iconoclasts, like the Taliban in Afghanistan back then. “But the RSF do commit crimes for which they can be prosecuted, because the destruction of national heritage is internationally considered as a crime,” warns Isber Sabrine of Heritage for Peace.

NCAM’s Elnour is not yet concerned about art thieves, such as the theft during the war in Syria. However, he fears “the madness of gold”. In the unflooded areas of the Kush empire, pyramids and temples are located in remote places. “Many Sudanese mistakenly suspect that gold is hidden under the pyramids,” he says. “But fortunately these antiquities are protected; since the beginning of the war, local residents have taken up surveillance”. That gives a little bit of hope in these dark days for Sudan.

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This article was first published in NRC on 27-6-222023

Darfur is hell on earth

Darfur is again the scene of large-scale murders and rapes. Earlier in June, Khamis Abdulla Abaker, a regional governor who spoke of a “genocide”, was killed. Journalist Enaam Alnour reported on the violence in her native region and became a victim herself.

“I’m breathing, so I’m not dead. But am I still alive?” The voice of Enaam Alnour (28) sounds affected, confused. She is now safe in neighboring Chad, but her trials in the Western Sudanese town of El Geneina are still vivid in her mind: her abduction, rape and murder of her relatives.

After the war that broke out in April between generals Hemedti and Burhan in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, an old conflict flared up in the western region of Darfur. Khamis Abdulla Abaker, governor of El Geneina in West Darfur state, spoke of “a genocide” by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). He was killed by the RSF on Wednesday the 4th of June, shortly after saying in a television interview that “civilians are being killed indiscriminately and in large numbers.” A bloody video of his body was circulated on the internet.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed deep concern about “the increasing ethnic dimension of violence and reports of sexual violence” in Darfur, “particularly in El Geneina”.

Alnour calls her hometown “hell on earth, worse than what is happening in Khartoum.” Fighting is also fierce in other cities of Darfur, but nowhere as disastrous as in El Geneina, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants, thirty kilometers east of the border with Chad.

Running water and electricity are gone, as are telephone and internet. Not a single hospital or other health facility is still operating; injured are treated at home, without anesthesia. Food and medicine depots have been looted, displaced persons camps have been burned and neighborhoods have been hermetically sealed off by military forces. According to conservative estimates by doctors and activists, more than 1,100 people have been killed in El Geneina since April, when the battle between the generals broke out.

As culprits, residents of the city point to Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces, which, together with affiliated Arab militias, launched an attack in April, causing casualties among the African population, largely from the Massalit tribe. The slain governor Khamis had called on the population to defend themselves against the RSF.

The governor did not need much encouragement for this, because the strategically located El Geneina has already experienced Arab militias attacking the city in recent years and occupying land belonging to African farmers in the area. With the violence now, the war of 2003 in Darfur seems to have resumed, when between 200,000 and 300,000 people died.

Independent journalist

Alnour is an independent journalist and worked as a manager at the Women of Change Organization, which advocates for the protection of human rights and in particular women’s rights in war zones. She has been reporting on the rape and murder of women since April. “Our organization has been able to document the violations, killings and atrocities committed by the Rapid Support Forces and Arab tribes associated with them in El Geneina. We have gathered a lot of eyewitness evidence for these violations.”

She became a victim herself. On May 23, she went to the bakery. She was standing in line when RSF kidnappers forcefully pushed her into a pickup truck and gave her a hard blow to the head, after which she lost consciousness. “When I woke up, I found myself in a room that was locked from the outside. In the evening, eight masked persons came with my laptop and cameras, which they had already stolen from our house in the Tadamon neighborhood, setting fire to our house. They asked me about the war crimes stories I was working on, and when they couldn’t find what they were looking for in the computer and on the cameras, they smashed them.”

Two days later, eight masked men again entered the room, Alnour says. They beat her again. And this time she was also raped. There are reports of rapes from all over the country, from Khartoum and Darfur, especially by the RSF. Alnour lost consciousness, only to wake up the next day with a complete stranger family in Tadamon. She was taken to the house of one of her brothers, where she learned about the murder of another brother and ten other relatives.

Her father decided to flee with her to nearby Chad that same day. But that escape also became an ordeal. “We were ambushed and robbed of all our belongings.” In eastern Chad, she joined the 100,000 Darfuri who have already fled, a flood of people that aid organizations barely manage to feed.


In Sudan, the UN’s World Food Program expects up to 2.5 million people to go hungry in the coming months, raising the number of people in the country affected by acute food insecurity to more than nineteen million. That is 40 percent of the population. Aid organizations in Chad also fear such scenarios.

The thoughts that go on and on in Alnour’s head torture her. At first, like many Sudanese journalists who stubbornly continue reporting, she was courageous. “I was not afraid to become a target when the war broke out. My fear was only the safety of my family.” She now thinks that her relatives have been killed because of her activities. “As journalists, we always have to pay the price for our work.”

This article was first published on the 15th of June in NRC