Sudan’s mass grave is the latest development in a brutal conflict

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The violence is further destabilizing the region.

The discovery of a mass grave containing 87 people n Sudan’s Darfur region is yet another atrocity in a brutal, three-month-long conflict in the country and an echo of infamous horrors of Sudan’s recent past.

Just two years ago, Sudan seemed a tentative success story after years of conflict, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and a decades-long dictatorship. But since April, conflict between the nation’s military and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group has essentially halted Sudan’s hopes for a democratic future, created a humanitarian crisis, and threatened fragile regional stability. A series of ceasefires have failed to contain the violence, which began with rival military leaders battling for control after ousting the civilian transitional prime minister — offering little hope for an end to the brutality.

United Nations investigators announced the existence of the mass grave on Thursday, on the eve of a mediation effort hosted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi and other regional leaders have convened in Cairo in an effort to keep the conflict in Sudan from spreading and further destabilizing the neighboring countries.

The bodies in the grave include members of a non-Arab-speaking ethnic group called the Masalit, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as others allegedly killed by the RSF forces and allied militia in the region over eight days in June. The dead include seven women and seven children, as well as people who died because they were unable to seek medical treatment for injuries sustained in the violence.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the killing of civilians and hors de combat individuals, and I am further appalled by the callous and disrespectful way the dead, along with their families and communities, were treated,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a statement Thursday.

UN: 87 civilians killed, buried in mass grave in Sudanâs Darfur
Elmurod Usubaliev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The mass grave in West Darfur is a reminder of recent history. In 2003, the Sudanese government employed militias known as janjaweed — out of which the RSF eventually developed —to brutally suppress an uprising by the non-Arab population in the Darfur region. The janjaweed also brutalized the civilian population, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and displacing more than 2 million people.

The conflict in Darfur officially ended in August 2020 with a peace agreement between rebel groups in Darfur and the transitional government, but the violence continued, with militias targeting ethnic minority groups and many thousands of people still displaced.

Surrounding nations like Egypt and Ethiopia have a vested interest in keeping the conflict from spiraling even further and affecting their own countries — whether that’s via a spillover of the violence, or due to external displacement. But if past efforts are any indication, any end to the violence will be impermanent and unsatisfactory.

The African Union and a coalition of countries including the US and Saudi Arabia have attempted to broker peace between the two warring parties in the past three months, to no avail. Representatives from the RSF and the SAF headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Saturday to resume talks after a series of deadly clashes in Bahri and Omdurman, Reuters reported.

But given the repeated ceasefire violations and both the RSF’s and SAF’s efforts to derail Sudan’s transition to democracy, lasting peace is difficult to envision. The current conflict began out of the RSF’s desire to remain independent from the regular military, and the two sides have thus far proven unwilling to have substantive talks about a lasting ceasefire.

Furthermore, neither side appears invested in putting the country back on the path to democratic civilian rule, which the Sudanese people have been demanding for years.

The humanitarian crisis in Sudan shows no signs of stopping

After widespread civilian protest and a military coup overthrew dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, former Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok al-Kinani was fairly capably leading the country in its transition to democratic civilian rule.

But the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abd-al-Rahman interfered with that process, ousting Hamdok in October 2021. Though Hamdok was briefly reinstated a month later, he formally resigned in January 2022, and al-Burhan has been the de facto head of state since.

The conflict between al-Burhan and the RSF’s Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti, spilled over into widespread chaos and violence in the capital Khartoum in the early morning of April 15. Since then, several ceasefire attempts to allow for humanitarian aid and access have failed, around 2.8 million have been displaced according to the UN International Organization for Migration. Accurate information about the number of deaths in the conflict have been difficult to obtain, but may be as high as 3,000.

The fighting has spread from Khartoum, where it was initially concentrated, to the cities of North Khartoum, Omdurman, and Bahri, and to the Darfur region.

The humanitarian situation remains dire throughout the country; on Saturday, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths condemned the violence and highlighted the challenge of delivering humanitarian aid in conflict.

“We cannot work under the barrel of a gun,” Griffiths said in a statement. “We cannot replenish stores of food, water and medicine if brazen looting of these stocks continues. We cannot deliver if our staff are prevented from reaching people in need.” Griffiths also estimated that 13 million children, or around half of those remaining in Sudan, are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

But without an enduring ceasefire, delivering such aid will be a persistent challenge, Griffiths wrote.“We need predictable commitments from the parties to the conflict that allow us to safely deliver humanitarian assistance to people in need, wherever they are.”

The SAF and RSF signed the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan on May 11 of this year under which both sides promised to honor “our core obligations under International Humanitarian Law to facilitate humanitarian action to meet the needs of civilians” in the conflict.

International humanitarian law requires that “the dead are honorably interred,” preferably in individual graves and according to the religious rites of their society or group, and clearly marked with the dead identified should circumstances necessitate group burials.

The mass grave in Darfur seems to violate those standards, particularly given that evidence that civilians were prevented from collecting and identifying their dead — not to mention burying them in a manner accordant with both IHL and local custom.

The existence of the grave is also an indicator of targeted violence against non-Arab ethnic groups, in a brutal echo of the RSF’s beginnings as the janjaweed militias in 2003. The International Criminal Court, which charged the former dictator Bashir with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide for his part in the Darfur conflict, announced Thursday that it will again investigate killings in Darfur, as well as reports of mass rapes and gender-based crimes, looting, and crimes against children.

Multiple humanitarian groups also accused the RSF of holding more than 5,000 people — an estimated 3,500 of whom are civilians, including women and foreign nationals — in deplorable conditions in Khartoum, Reuters reported Friday. The RSF denied those allegations.

Airstrikes in urban areas like Khartoum and Omdurman have also been particularly destructive; a SAF strike on the RSF supply route through Omdurman on July 8 killed at least 22 and injured dozens more.

Sudan’s conflict threatens to further destabilize the whole region

Egypt’s attempt to mediate Sudan’s conflict has roots in its own concerns about its internal stability and economy, as Giorgio Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics wrote in Al Jazeera Wednesday. Egypt is poised to default on its debts, further downgrading its creditworthiness; inflation is at an all-time high; and wealthy Gulf nations that have lent the country billions over the years now seem uninterested in handing out any more money without guarantees that it will be put to good use.

Around 256,000 Sudanese refugees have fled north, but the Egyptian state and its social safety net lack the resources to properly support them. Furthermore, as Cafiero notes, Sudan was previously an important trading partner to Egypt, supplying agricultural products like beef and buying manufactured items in return. Without those agricultural imports, food prices will continue to risenever a good sign for Egypt’s stability.

Thousands of Sudanese refugees have also come to Ethiopia, itself a site of ethnic strife and civil conflict. Though both Ethiopia and Sudan seemed to be on the on the path to more stable and democratic societies in 2019 under Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed and Sudan’s transitional council, that stability was short-lived. Abiy and the Ethiopian armed forces came into conflict with the ethnic Tigray region and its Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, sparking a brutal civil war in 2021.

Conflict in both countries increases the possibilities of further disputes in the region, including over Al Fashaga, a lush agricultural area on Sudan’s eastern flank, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a massive hydroelectric dam which is located about 30 kilometers from Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. Instability in Sudan also has the potential to worsen violence and humanitarian crises in neighboring Chad, as a May Economist Intelligence Unit report outlined. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees entered Chad even before the conflict began in April, but large swathes of the country are already facing food shortages due to bad harvests and internal instability.

Neither party in the Sudan conflict has the impetus to back down, and appealing to the safety and security of the country and its people has thus far failed to produce any real stop to the bloodshed.

Though Egypt and other regional actors have a vested interest in keeping the violence from spilling over into their own territories, they may not be able to stop what may soon become a full-scale civil war.

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