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‘Losing hope’: Sudan civilians terrified as RSF attacks second-biggest city

On December 15, Sudanese civilians woke up to sounds of gunfire and explosions in Wad Madani, a city under army control that hosts hundreds of thousands of displaced people from the capital Khartoum and nearby towns.

The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had attacked the city, raising fear that the group would loot homes, kill men and rape women if they captured it.

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“They rape [women] to break the spirits of men,” Omonia Kheir*, a Sudanese woman from Wad Madani, told Al Jazeera. “That’s why people here are not scared of dying or getting shot, because then you die as a martyr. But everyone is scared of [women in their families] getting raped.”

After eight months of war, the RSF is on the verge of capturing Wad Madani, the second-largest city in the country’s heartland, in what will mark a major turn in the conflict. Just last week, RSF leader Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo agreed to meet top army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan later this month under the auspices of the East African bloc IGAD.

But even as RSF commanders call for an end to the war with foreign leaders, their fighters are instigating a new humanitarian catastrophe on the ground.

“My mother and I were shocked,” said Kheir, on Sunday. “In every neighbourhood we saw 10 or 20 families leaving [town]. People were walking, going in cars, lorries and on donkeys.”

Losing faith in the army

While the RSF has reportedly invaded the city and looted banks and shops, the army has responded with air strikes, even as its foot soldiers retreat.

Most residents support the army, yet few believe they’ll regain control of the city.

“People are already heavily criticising the military,” said Kheir. “Wad Madani is the second-biggest city in Sudan and it hosts the largest number of displaced people…everyone expected that the army would protect it [from the RSF].”

“People are now losing faith and hope. Everyone is just hysterical,” she added.

Most aid groups and UN agencies have also evacuated foreign staff and closed operations in Wad Madani, said Will Carter, the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sudan.

He told Al Jazeera that aid groups did not want to get trapped in a situation where the RSF captured the city, prompting the army to respond with heavy and indiscriminate air strikes.

Carter added that the RSF has “shaken” the already hampered humanitarian response, which operates almost entirely out of the army’s de facto capital in Port Sudan.

“Wad Madani was a gateway to reach three or four other nearby cities with aid,” he said. “But if the RSF sweeps Wad Madani, then it really sweeps Sudan’s heartland. Logistically, it will make things quite difficult [for aid agencies] and the question then becomes where the RSF will go next if the army can’t shore up a defence.”

Unlawful arrests and killings?

During the first two days of the offensive, rumours circulated that the RSF had sleeper cells in Wad Madani, prompting the army to unlawfully arrest dozens of young men suspected of cooperating with the group.

Residents say that those detained were targeted based on their accent or ethnicity, which hints that they’re from traditionally neglected regions like Darfur – an RSF stronghold.

In one video circulating over social media platform X, and which Al Jazeera could not independently verify, a young man has both knees on the ground and is surrounded by a crowd of people. He is then interrogated about his job, origins and if he had been recruited by the RSF. The young man denies any involvement.

In a second video that Al Jazeera did manage to verify, corpses of dozens of young men in civilian clothes are strewn on the street of Wad Madani. An army soldier can be heard gloating over what appeared to be an extrajudicial killing.

Justice Amad, a Sudanese activist in Australia, believes that most of the young men who were targeted were non-combatants working low-wage jobs. He added that his close friend was nearly killed after he was arrested and questioned by the army in Wad Madani. When he was released, military intelligence and allied gangs abducted him.

“[My friend] told me that right after he got out of the army’s hands, [he and other detainees] were grabbed and thrown into a Toyota Hilux. As soon as the [Toyota] took off, the kidnappers started hurting [people] and yelling at everyone,” Amad told Al Jazeera.

“[My friend] and a few others risked [escaping] and jumped out while the truck was moving. He thinks two people got hit by bullets when they did that.”

Al Jazeera asked army spokesperson Nabil Abdullah about the reported arrests and killings of unarmed young men, but he did not respond before publication.

Local relief

As more people flee the city, Sudanese volunteers are mobilising to help the most vulnerable among them. Many are members of the resistance committees — neighbourhood groups providing life-saving relief to their communities since the start of the war.

The resistance committee in Wad Madani are buying fuel on the black market to evacuate women, children and men who are too poor to afford a bus ticket out of town, according to Ahmad al-Hassan, an activist.

“The resistance committees are mainly trying to help transfer people out of the area and to nearby towns,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are helping most people reach Sinnar city.”

Sinnar is south of Wad Madani and has absorbed thousands of displaced people over the last four days. Mohamad al-Gaali, who was living in Khartoum before the war, passed through with his two sisters and their children before reaching Gadarif, a city near the Ethiopian border.

Al-Gaali told Al Jazeera that aid agencies were slow to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Sinnar.

“Aid groups have not really started to help there, but there were local initiatives trying to provide us with food and shelter,” he said. “Those people were just locals trying to help us, but there were no contributions from [international aid groups].”

Despite local efforts, Kheir believes that no amount of generosity can save the city and its inhabitants from the RSF. After already being uprooted from Khartoum earlier in the war, she said that her family doesn’t have the resources to relocate again.

“We lost our cars, apartments and all our valuable belongings [to the RSF] when we fled the first time,” she said. “We used all the money that we had left to come here.”

“Now, we are just hoping for the best.”

*Name has been changed for safety reasons.

Source: Al Jazeera

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