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Can Popular Resistance and Mutual Aid Stave Off Civil War in Sudan?

Sudanese activist Marine Alneel discusses whether local resistance committees can revive the goals of the revolution.

People gather to protest against a framework agreement signed between the military and civilians in Khartoum, Sudan, on April 6, 2023.

In December 2018, a powerful tide of demonstrations erupted in Sudan, beginning in the cities of Ad-Damazin and Atbara and quickly sweeping across the country, becoming what would be called the “December Revolution.” These demonstrations were sparked by the sharp rise in the prices of key commodities such as bread and fuel, as well as the frightening deterioration of economic conditions.

With slogans like “Tasgot Bas” (“Just fall — that’s all”) and “Freedom, peace, and justice,” protesters showed courage and unity and expressed a strong hope for a brighter future, anchored in fundamental ideals of justice and equity. The protests stood against the repressive regime of 30-year president Omar al-Bashir, characterized by authoritarianism, corruption, violence, curtailed freedoms and discrimination.

Despite a state of emergency declared by President al-Bashir, protests intensified, leading to a pivotal moment on April 6-7, 2019, when a large sit-in started in front of the Sudan Armed Forces headquarters in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum. The movement successfully forced out al-Bashir on April 11. Military forces carried out a brutal crackdown on the sit-in on June 3, killing more than 100 protesters. Many others were injured, sexually assaulted, arrested or went missing.

Following the massacre, revolutionaries led a three-day general strike, amplifying people’s voices and applying pressure for change. But the massacre forced a turn to the negotiating table, culminating in a power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian forces. Violence persisted during negotiations, including an attack by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — a paramilitary wing of the military that has risen to prominence — on peaceful student protesters in El Obeid in July. Resistance committees, which emerged in local neighborhoods and became a prominent grassroots element of the revolution, continued to express their concerns and fight for a variety of objectives, including justice for the June 3 massacre victims and economic reforms.

The agreement, which outlined a transition period beginning with the military in control, inevitably led to further counterrevolutionary action by the military, which refused to give up power. In October 2021, the transitional military council conducted a coup d’état against the civilian leaders within the transitional government, arresting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilian officials. The military also shut down communication channels, suspending the internet and telecommunication services. Despite the counterrevolutionary violence, marches and calls to action increased.

But on April 15, 2023, the residents of Khartoum awoke to thunderous echoes of gunfire. Fierce clashes between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the two main military factions, promptly transformed the city into a harrowing battleground, with millions of civilians trapped in their homes. Over the past four months, the RSF have established a stronghold in residential neighborhoods across the tri-city, instilling fear among residents through killing, looting and sexual violence. Meanwhile, the SAF relentlessly bombard the areas from above with artillery, airstrikes and mortars.

The consequences of this war have been devastating, resulting in 3.5 million people displaced thus far, more than 425,000 mixed-border refugees, and thousands injured, missing and killed. The catastrophic violence now extends far beyond Khartoum, reaching various Sudanese cities and towns including El Geneina, El Obeid, Kutum, Sirba, the Kabkabiya District and Zalingei, among others. According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, the situation in the Darfur region in particular has forced hundreds of thousands of individuals to flee their homes in search of safety, seeking refuge from the terror and brutality inflicted upon them.

Sudanese activist and mental health professional Marine Alneel was on the ground in Khartoum for the first two months of the fighting. In this exclusive interview, Alneel discusses the atmosphere in Khartoum, resident-led mutual aid efforts and what’s needed to bring the war to an end. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Duha Elmardi and Shireen Akram-Boshar: The war between the RSF and the SAF has been going on for two months now. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people have been displaced, especially from Khartoum. You have stayed in Khartoum throughout the war. Could you describe what it has been like in the capital city?

Marine Alneel: A month since the start of the war, the RSF seemingly have control of the entire city, while the SAF only appear in the airstrikes that seem to always miss the RSF, hitting civilian homes instead. Six ceasefires have been declared and all have shown to be declarations without any implementation on the ground.

As the war went on, the city seemed to morph slowly into a less significant city; less foreigners, less rich people, less of the fairer-skinned, well-rested looking people. Increasingly, it seemed that mainly people who fit right into the scenes of war, misery and despair remained. Those who remained only did so because they lacked the financial means to leave, had no options for places to seek refuge or were still hanging on to the hope that this nightmare will come to an end soon.

It’s the people of Khartoum who have provided the necessary aid for the people of Khartoum to survive.

Residents of Khartoum started normalizing relations with the RSF personnel on every major street, and with time, this made them look more like any other “law-enforcing” forces who have controlled Khartoum before. At the end of the day, all of the RSF’s weapons and violations in Khartoum were not a novel addition to the city. The SAF and National Intelligence and Security Service, the infamous intelligence agency of the Al-Bashir regime, which has a long history of violence and violations, have done that for decades before them.

For example, the SAF since the peak of protests in Sudan in 2018 and until mere days before the start of the war, had been killing, kidnapping and violently oppressing protesters, using the same artillery that is now being used against them by the RSF. However, this time the reach of the violations is beyond what used to be expected. It doesn’t follow the rules of who suffers in Khartoum and who thrives. It can hit anyone.

How are the people who are still in Khartoum surviving while the RSF and SAF are at war? We’ve heard that resistance committees are providing mutual aid. What does that look like?

Shopkeepers who can keep their shops open are doing so, doctors who can keep their services available are remaining, women who used to cook for a family might be cooking for two or three now, and so on. It’s the people of Khartoum who have provided the necessary aid for the people of Khartoum to survive.

In some areas, resistance committees have successfully taken control over local health centers and coordinated services, with volunteer doctors prescribing, sometimes, medication seized from locked storages, or coordinating ambulances and the transportation of people in need of medical attention. Very few hospitals are functioning in Khartoum currently, and they are mostly supported by volunteer and popular efforts. Many challenges face the volunteers, including RSF personnel seizing medical supplies from volunteers and doctors.

These popular efforts and people-to-people aid are what made it possible for the residents of Khartoum to survive the cruelties of the war, yet it is not sufficient to cover the basic necessities of the remaining approximately 5 million residents of Khartoum. We hear incidents of people starving while trapped in their homes, elderly residents unable to evacuate from the city, and injured people dying just because no ambulance or doctor was able to reach them, sometimes for hours.

What is the attitude of the civilians who have remained in Khartoum toward the SAF and RSF? Has it changed at all?

Broadly speaking, it seems that those who rooted for the SAF prior to the war still root for its victory. Those who were pro-RSF remain so, and the majority that is against both remains on neither side as well, emphasizing saying no to war.

There is however a certain disappointment at the performance of the SAF from those who supported it, feared it, loathed it or were neutral toward it. The speed at which the RSF took hold over the capital [raised] the question, what does the SAF do with 82 percent of Sudan’s budget? A hot topic in many houses in Khartoum. Many joked in the early weeks of the war that if you watch the media, you know the SAF has control of most of Khartoum, but if you walk out your door, it’s apparent that it’s the RSF in control.

Residents of Khartoum, whatever their stance regarding the war, RSF and SAF, are forced, at times, to normalize relations with RSF personnel that are based in different neighborhoods of Khartoum, as they have become part of almost every major street. Residents have been forced to normalize social relations with RSF personnel in the neighborhoods of Khartoum, in part by allowing them to use the bathroom if they ask, for example, or by selling homemade pots of food to the officers in nearby RSF checkpoints.

Despite this forced normalization, many residents see the RSF as the Janjaweed — the militia responsible for ethnic cleansing in Darfur, from which the RSF originated — who cannot be trusted. This stance is fortified by incidents where young men in Khartoum who have formed a sort of friendship with some RSF officers are surprised by them casually loading a weapon in their faces and accusing them of being informants, or just ordering them to stop roaming in the streets of their own neighborhood.

I’m reminded of a scene where a tea lady served myself and several friends tea, two or three other groups were also sipping coffee or tea there, when we were suddenly joined by five RSF officers, all looking no older than 20, carrying their AK-47s on their backs, and wearing camo. As if a prior agreement was made, we all rushed to prepare five chairs for them to the side while the rest of us huddled closer to the tea lady, seeking some sort of psychological refuge and sense of safety. We had to accept their presence, but we could not hide our fear and desire to ostracize them.

RSF “checkpoints” are present at every major street, some neighborhoods are devoid of residents and have been completely replaced by RSF forces, and no neighborhood has been spared by having at least a few houses in it being raided by them.

Some activists have talked about the danger of a protracted war and political polarization pressuring civilians to pick a side in the war. Can you talk about that dynamic?

The risk of this war dragging civilian parties to it is terrifying. It signals the start of a war with too many complexities to end soon. There are many calls for unconditional support to the SAF, as they represent the sovereignty of the state, a stance oblivious to the history of the SAF and its role in creating the RSF. Both social media and family discussions are ripe with back-and-forth accusations. Those rooting for the SAF accusing the ones calling for an end to the war of being agents for RSF, and those saying no to war accusing SAF supporters of rooting for more death and violence.

This is the true revolution; the popular efforts developing systems that fulfill the demands of the revolution.

Personally, I find calls for arming civilians the most terrifying. Civilians are not, and cannot, be equipped to face the bloody and arbitrary attacks of the RSF. These calls are not few, and it might lead to RSF targeting civilians and suspecting them even further, putting innocent lives in further danger. It will be unfortunate if we must brutally lose many lives for us to learn a lesson that this fight is not our monkey nor our circus, and any involvement will only further put us at risk and push away the possibility of this violence ending soon.

The brutal war truly is a reminder of a future of either “socialism or barbarism,” as counterrevolutionary forces decimate a city that was key to Sudan’s revolution. If this warfare continues, what might happen? Alternatively, how do you think a return to revolution might come about? What is needed to bring the war to an end?

Just as Khartoum was key to the revolution; it was also key to everything the revolution is revolting against. Khartoum was key to the perpetuation of military rule. Having the military general command in the middle of the city somewhat renders the chant “military to the barracks” moot. Khartoum was key to the plundering of resources from all over Sudan, housing the brokers of the deals in a modern city with modern amenities for those who can afford them and far away from the areas suffering from the plunder. Khartoum was key to the centralization of services, which played a role in educational and medical services in other cities and rural areas being less than sufficient.

At the time being, the residents of Khartoum are developing systems of support making the nonexistent government support that people hoped for obsolete. This is the true revolution; the popular efforts developing systems that fulfill the demands of the revolution.

As for the end of the war, I find it hard to imagine the “how” at the moment. I will utilize a Sudanese saying to explain my view here; in Sudan we say, العترة بتصلح المشي , which translates to “tripping rectifies your walk,” and can be interpreted as figured out the “how” through action. In this situation, I believe popular action will lead Sudan back to the goals of the revolution and bring about peace. True, the steps are still not clear, however, only the road will tell.

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