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While the eyes of the world are fixed on the awful events currently taking place in Ukraine and in Palestine, there is another large-scale power struggle that is not nearly gaining as much attention. Beatrice Fanucci reports on the full-blown war that erupted in Sudan in April 2023, killing over 12,000 people and causing what the United Nations deemed the world’s largest human displacement crisis. This article contains distressing content.

“We're looking at crazy statistics of 7.2 million displaced, 1.5 of them, if not more, having to have fled to neighbouring countries. And these are not exact numbers. This isn't a country that has the kind of infrastructure for exact numbers,” said a representative of the organisation, Liberate Sudan, who wishes to remain anonymous (referred to as A from here on).

While fighting has been mostly concentrated in the capital, Khartoum, the military conflict is also impacting other regions. In Darfur, a region in western Sudan, there have been reports of mass killings and ethnic cleansing. The war is a power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), two military groups that both have historical ties to genocide.

Sudan has a long history of military rule and violent civil wars, experiencing nearly 35 coups since it gained independence in 1956. Its history of military regime is the result of the complex interplay of internal and external factors and its roots can be traced back to colonial rule.

In the 1820’s, Sudan was invaded by the Turco-Egyptian forces of Muhammad Ali, who took control over the region. After this colonial rule was eventually brought down in the 1880’s, Sudan enjoyed a brief period of self-rule, before British invasion led to its annexation to the colonial Empire. For the first half of the 20th century, Sudan became a joint protectorate of Egypt and the United Kingdom, known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.

“Sudan exists at the precipice of something very unique, which is both Arab imperialism and Western imperialism. Sudan exists there, having been a victim of both. And that doesn't go away,” said A from Liberate Sudan.

When the British left the colony, they handed over state control exclusively to an Arab Muslim elite in a highly diverse state. Soon after independence, violence broke out in the south of Sudan, a region that had been largely marginalised under colonial rule. The structural roots of civil violence in Sudan, as scholars have pointed out, are to be found in the deep injustices and inequalities that were created during the two waves of colonisation.

The divide between the northern regions, wealthier and with an Arab and Muslim majority, and the southern region, less-developed and where most people were Christian or animist, was at the centre of two civil wars, (the second of which split the country in two in 2011). The war in Darfur that broke out in 2003 was condemned by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a genocide against non-Arab populations, such as the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit peoples.

During these wars, both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the country’s official army, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a military group funded to repress rebels, were involved in the atrocities committed, and acted on orders of authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir. “The reason why a lot of Sudanese people say that the SAF and RSF are the exact same thing is because they answered to the exact same person,” A explained.

For his role in the Darfur conflict, al-Bashir faced charges of crimes against humanity by the ICC, but was never tried. “I grew up believing that Omar al-Bashir was going to be tried in the International Criminal Court,” said A. “That was something that I was always taught because he committed genocide. He said ‘do genocide’ and they did. That's never happened, which is sort of insane.”

Then in 2018, a revolution broke out in Sudan over access to basic needs, calling on al-Bashir’s regime to be overthrown. The SAF and the RSF turned on him, joining forces for a coup in 2019 that ended al-Bashir’s dictatorship. However, it wasn’t long before the two militia started to get violent against the population, beating and killing protesters.

In 2021, the two forces staged another coup, which ended the transition to a democratic government and intensified tensions that eventually led to the war that started last year.

On April 15, 2023, a series of explosions shook the Sudanese capital, along with heavy gunfire. Both the SAF and RSF accused the other of initiating the violence.

A described the terrible consequences of this war, saying: “People are dying, there is a public health crisis, we're looking at a terrifying amount of rape and intimidation. We are looking at people disappearing, being kidnapped by both RSF and army. And there is no clear solution on hand because every solution appears to be one which allows either side to continue existing in one way or another.”

Reports of abuses and rape carried out by the militias keep coming in since April, painting a horrifying picture of what women and even young girls face in Sudan. After the RSF took hold of Madani, the second largest city in the country, the reality of rape and sexual assault in the region became crystal clear.

“We started seeing tweets from women asking ‘Is it permissible for me to commit suicide from an Islamic perspective? Because I am so scared of something that feels inevitable’,” explained A. “One of the things we have to warn people about is to be careful when trying to induce abortions. Because obviously there is no access to the pills that are needed and things like rape kits are very limited.”

The war has consequences even beyond the borders of Sudan, affecting all the people in the diaspora around the world. “We all want to go home to see if there's something still left there,” A said. “I haven't been home in so long that I don't remember what it looks like. But now I know that whatever it is that I do remember is not true to form anyway. And that's a really horrific thought.”

Despite the scale of the current war, the situation in Sudan has gained very little attention internationally. Many people are not even aware that a war is happening in this part of the world. “The international community's silence on this is nonsensical, considering how similar our war is to what is happening in a lot of different places,” A continued. “And that we're home to a large community of refugees, including Palestinians who have had to flee.”

Moreover, both sides in the current war in Sudan have “connections from the UAE and Russia, China, so a lot of the players who are very heavily involved in other wars and conflicts, which makes the silence on this situation, on our war, on our genocide, very confusing.”

Amid this humanitarian crisis, queer people in Sudan are facing unique challenges. Same-sex activity is prohibited under the Penal Code 1991 in Sudan, a law that was initially inherited from the British during the colonial period. There has been evidence of the law being enforced in recent years and LGBTQ+ people in Sudan are vulnerable to discrimination, harassment and abuses.

“But what the queer community always does anywhere in the world is build support systems, build networks, find your people. And that's what happened: people were able to create families,” A described. But when war broke out in the country, that was all gone. “You no longer have access to your communities, you no longer get to see the people who are your family, who make you feel safe and make you feel like there's nothing wrong with you. And I know that that's relatable to every queer person. That something in you breaks when you don't have access to your community anymore, even for the smallest reason, as having to go home for Christmas.

“But then we're talking about mass displacement. And when you're displaced, you're displaced with your family. So for example, any gay man who might have been away from home for long enough that he would not feel the need to perform masculinity suddenly has to do all that. And so people are returned into a world of performance. And it is the same thing for any queer person, any trans person. It's performance, it's being deadnamed, it's being put in situations where your every move is now under scrutiny.

“These are people who've built support systems out of nothing. And then you’re turned back to an environment that, no matter how decent your family, is an environment that doesn't get it. And let's be very honest, how could they get it when all they've known post colonisation is military rule? Where's the room to get it? Where's the room to look at a different perspective? Because you need lots of privilege to be able to sit down and say ‘I'm looking at a different perspective’. No matter how necessary it is, and no matter how much it does not excuse behaviours, it is a privilege.”

A questioned how can people see the situation in Sudan on the news and not wonder themselves: “How many of these people are queer?”

“It’s that no one sees themselves in us,” A. said. “That's the thing really, is that no one sees themselves in us. People can see themselves in Ukrainians, but they can't see themselves in us.”

A told me about having organised or been to protests and demonstrations for Sudan in Dublin where only Sudanese people or people that are in some way personally affiliated with the cause showed up, but no one else. “I am now so scared to be disappointed again, that it is almost preventing me from wanting to organise again. Because of the fact that, again, no one sees themselves in us, even though we live here, we're here, there's so many of us. Everyone has a Sudanese classmate, or friend or a doctor, or whatever.”

Calling on people to stand in solidarity with Sudan, A said, “We don't rely on politicians. We don't rely on the UN, the UN is nothing. The International Criminal Court is nothing. I don't need the BBC or Sky News, or Al Jazeera or whatever. That's not what I need. What I do need is the queer community. We need people to donate directly to Sudanese fundraisers, to show up if someone says, ‘Hey, there's a protest.’”

“We need people to show up for Sudanese people if there is an actual humanitarian and activist spirit in anyone.”

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