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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Looting, roadblocks: Paramilitary is a scary neighbor in Sudan’s capital

The fighters have moved into homes and taken over stores and hospitals, alternatively terrifying and wooing civilians. In one neighborhood, a resident said, they handed out milk.

By Lynsey Chutel and Abdi Latif Dahir

In the 12 days since war broke out in Sudan, the residents in the capital of Khartoum have learned to survive, living side by side with armed fighters.

Civilians negotiate with a feared paramilitary faction at roadblocks for safe passage, grudgingly share food and water with them, and sometimes receive warnings about an upcoming battle — giving residents time to either bolt or run back inside and lock their doors.

The fighters have moved into homes and taken over stores and hospitals, alternatively terrifying and wooing civilians. In one neighborhood, a resident said, they handed out milk. In another, they invited community members to share in the spoils of their looting. In another, they turned vigilantes, punishing petty criminals.

Many residents try to avoid the faction as much as possible.

“Apparently they don’t have anyone that gives them orders so they’re just doing their thing,” said Dania Atabani, who lives in Khartoum. “Very dangerous and chaotic.”

The paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces, was part of a military-led government as recently as this month, but is now combating the regular army for power in Sudan, a northeast African country of 45 million people surrounded by seven nations.

It has been hard to tell which side is winning in the battle between Sudan’s rival generals and the forces they lead, with the army on Thursday calling the situation in the capital “a bit complicated.”

But as a tenuous cease-fire has held in parts of Khartoum in recent days and the most intense fighting has subsided, a picture has emerged. The U.S.-brokered truce is scheduled to end Thursday night, although there have been calls to extend it for another 72 hours.

Speaking by phone and text message, residents from across the capital said RSF troops appeared to control much of the city center and surrounding districts, along with parts of Khartoum’s twin city, Omdurman, penetrating deep into residential areas. The regular military is positioned farther out, where it controls entry and exit, and can still use its warplanes to carry out strikes on RSF targets.

“The RSF remains hyper-focused on winning Khartoum,” said Alan Boswell, the Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. “This is the ultimate showdown.”

In the first few days of the conflict, the RSF engaged in fierce fighting in Khartoum neighborhoods like Amarat and Khartoum 2, close to the city’s international airport, occupying streets where there are many embassies and wealthy residents. They also set up checkpoints in upscale neighborhoods like al-Riyadh, where they placed antiaircraft guns in front of homes to target the circling army planes.

The RSF fighters are usually in groups of five to 20 at checkpoints, residents said, though in the Kafouri neighborhood north of the capital, more than 50 gathered at one point. They usually carry bazookas, Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns, and arrive in Toyota pickup trucks. Some residents said they sometimes even had antiaircraft guns.

“Since the first day, they are spreading through the neighborhoods and they are taking the people as shields,” said Gasim Amin Oshi, an engineer turned activist and community organizer.

The RSF quickly moved into Oshi’s Baitalmaal neighborhood in Omdurman, set up checkpoints on the bridge, then headed straight for the police headquarters, taking it after a short gunbattle. Next, they went for the national radio and television station, then the hospital, a technical school and several buildings. They ransacked the supermarket and looted bakeries. As people evacuated, the fighters began to occupy homes in the neighborhood.

“I can’t move freely, I can’t get my stuff freely. We have a small window to move around in,” Oshi said. In the afternoons, when fighting slows, he risks going out in search of food and medical supplies, but tries not to attract attention since community members said they had been robbed by some fighters.

Oshi belongs to one of the “resistance committees” that make up a grassroots, pro-democracy movement that protested military rule before the current fighting. They have become a lifeline for some residents in Khartoum, distributing food, medicine and cellphone credit. To do this, they have had to learn to play both sides, especially the RSF.

When a source within the RSF warns of a strike to come, or someone within the military or secret services cautions that escalated fighting can be expected, the committee issues a social media alert, Oshi said.

In a largely residential neighborhood in Khartoum, RSF fighters moved into four apartment buildings in one area, turning the streets into a war zone, said a member of the area’s resistance committee, who asked not to be named out of concern for her safety.

She said the committee has had to negotiate with RSF fighters to allow some families to leave, begging their way through checkpoints, where fighters have not asked for money but have asked for water or food. Most residents oblige, trying to survive, the member said.

Others simply hide, living in fear of a force with a terrifying past.

The RSF originated from the notorious Janjaweed militias, which in the early 2000s helped former dictator Omar al-Bashir brutally quash a rebellion in the western region of Darfur. Analysts and Western officials estimate that the unit has 70,000 to 100,000 fighters, and that they are better trained and equipped than the army.

The RSF leader, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, was a commander with the Janjaweed who rose through the ranks to become one of the closest backers of al-Bashir, before turning on him. After al-Bashir was deposed in 2019, Hamdan grew in power and stature, becoming the second-ranking figure behind the army commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, now his enemy.

Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese researcher and political analyst, said that in the capital, the RSF had been using “hit-and-run tactics to attack and capture the positions held by the Sudanese armed forces.”

The army, he said, has responded by using its key advantages, which include helicopters, tanks and heavy machinery, to recapture some of those positions.

In some neighborhoods south of Khartoum, the army has the upper hand. The suburb of Abu Adam is close to a military base. Musab Abdullah, 24, a resident there, said he usually saw soldiers in uniform or driving armored vehicles. When he ventures beyond his neighborhood though, RSF checkpoints await.

They are usually searching for weapons or interrogating people to find out if they are linked to the military, Abdullah said. Despite the relative safety of living close to an army barracks, the paramilitary’s reputation terrifies him.

“At any time they could break into my house, kill me or use me as a human shield for them,” he said via text message.

Members of Khartoum’s medical community have felt particularly vulnerable. Rumors abound that the RSF is abducting doctors and nurses, forcing them at gunpoint to treat their wounded fighters. So some doctors have treated people in their homes, but the fear of the RSF has driven many of them out of Khartoum.

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