When rival generals transform a country of 46 million people into an arena for their personal war, as two have in Sudan, civilians pay a heavy toll.
Khartoum, the capital, has been devastated by the war that broke out on April 15. Battles have spread across the city, with fighters firing from rooftops and torching buildings as warplanes pass overhead. Electricity is spotty, food is in drastically short supply, and there are reports of rape, looting and robberies.
The other focus of conflict is to the west in Darfur, a region already wracked by two decades of sometimes genocidal violence. Civilians have been slaughtered, aid camps burned and refugees who fled previous violence are crossing the border into Chad, vowing never to go home again. By early September, more than 3.8 million people had fled to safer locations in Sudan, and nearly a million others had crossed into neighboring nations like Egypt, Chad, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, according to the United Nations.
As the two generals vie for dominance, the clashes between their competing flanks — the army and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces — have reordered the country with breathtaking speed.
The descent into chaos has dashed hopes that Sudan — Africa’s third-largest country — will be able to usher in civilian rule anytime soon.
Here is a look at what is happening in Sudan.
What is the state of the fighting?
The army, which has access to planes, dominates much of the country, including Port Sudan. But the Rapid Support Forces have been fighting to take control of the capital, Khartoum, along with the adjoining cities of Omdurman and Bahri. The paramilitary group has also tightened its control over West Darfur, and has in recent weeks been battling to seize control of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.
The civilian death toll from the fighting has surpassed 4,000, with more than 6,000 injured, according to the United Nations and Sudan’s minister of health — though the actual toll is probably much higher.
In July, a mass grave was uncovered with the bodies of at least 87 people killed in El Geneina, a city in West Darfur, according to the United Nations.
Multiple cease-fires negotiated by Saudi Arabia and the United States in Jeddah, and agreed to by both warring parties, have been regularly violated. Pleas for the combatants to allow humanitarian aid to reach devastated communities have so far been largely unsuccessful.
Who are the rival generals?
The army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has been Sudan’s de facto leader since 2019.
He rose to power in the tumultuous aftermath of the uprising against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s leader of three decades, who was ousted in April 2019 following a wave of popular protest.
Before that, General al-Burhan had been a regional army commander in Darfur, when 300,000 people were killed and millions of others displaced in fighting from 2003 to 2008 that drew worldwide condemnation for its human rights violations and humanitarian toll.
After civilians and the military signed a power-sharing agreement in 2019, General al-Burhan became the chairman of the Sovereignty Council, a body created to oversee the country’s transition to democratic rule. But as the date for the handover of control to civilians approached in late 2021, he proved reluctant to relinquish power.
General al-Burhan’s main rival is Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, who leads the country’s Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group.
Of humble origins, General Hamdan, widely known as Hemeti, rose to prominence as a commander of the notorious Janjaweed militias, which were responsible for the worst atrocities of the conflict in Darfur.
In October 2021, General al-Burhan and General Hamdan united to seize power in a military coup, making them effectively the leader and deputy leader of Sudan. But they soon fell out.
Many diplomats, including those from the United States, attempted to negotiate an agreement between the two generals that would see them hand power back to civilians.
But they could not agree on how quickly the Rapid Support Forces would be absorbed into the army. In April, after months of rising tensions, their troops went to war against each other.
Why are many other countries invested in the conflict?
Sudan occupies a pivotal position on the African continent. It has a substantial coastline on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. It shares borders with seven countries — the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and South Sudan — many also threatened by instability.
Already, the violence has spread deep into Darfur, home to several rebel groups that could get sucked into the fight, and a base for Wagner, the private Russian military company. Wagner has advised the Sudanese government and received access to lucrative gold mining operations. Russia has sought to allow its warships to dock on Sudan’s Red Sea coastline.
There are fears that the new chaos could draw in neighboring countries.
Leaders of African nations, as well as representatives from the United Nations, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Britain gathered in Ethiopia in early July in order to push the warring generals to engage in direct talks and to establish a safe passageway for humanitarian aid. But the delegation representing Sudan’s Army refused to participate, accusing Kenya’s leader, who was presiding over the summit, of not being neutral.
General al-Burhan dismissed any attempts at mediation in late August, before visiting Egypt, his first foreign trip since the conflict began.