By Abdi Latif Dahir
As Sudan is ripped apart in a battle between rival generals, one question was swirling around the country Wednesday: Where is former dictator Omar al-Bashir?
Al-Bashir, who was deposed in 2019 after three decades in power, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In Sudan, he still faces charges related to the 1989 coup that propelled him to power, and he faces a death sentence or life in prison if convicted.
The uncertainty over his whereabouts was another sign of Sudan’s descent into lawlessness and could deal a blow to the receding hopes of bringing democratic rule to the country.
The latest developments came as a 72-hour cease-fire brokered by the United States that began Tuesday held “in some parts,” according to the U.N. envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes. Some residents of the capital reported a lull in fighting Wednesday, but others were still caught amid clashes and reported hearing heavy gunfire and shelling.
Amid the chaos, it was thought that al-Bashir, 79, was being held in the Kober prison in Khartoum, the capital, serving a two-year sentence for money laundering and corruption. But then a former official being held with al-Bashir said Tuesday night that he had left the prison along with some other, unnamed officials, without mentioning the former dictator.
That followed a statement by the Sudanese army that inmates had been released after supplies of food, water and electricity to the prison were cut.
Then Wednesday, the army compounded the confusion when it said that al-Bashir and four other top former officials were being held in a military hospital and had been at the facility for health reasons since before the conflict began almost two weeks ago.
In its statement, the army said that al-Bashir and the four other officials were “still in the hospital under the guard and responsibility of the judicial police.” But it did not provide evidence or photographs of al-Bashir.
In an audio clip circulated on social media and played on television channels across the Arab world, the official who had been imprisoned with al-Bashir, Ahmad Muhammad Harun, said that he and other former government officials had left the prison because of safety reasons and would be responsible for their own protection. He did not mention al-Bashir.
Harun, a former Cabinet minister and senior official in al-Bashir’s government, is also wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western Sudanese region of Darfur from 2003 to 2004. Harun said that he would surrender to authorities and appear in front of the judiciary once government agencies were functional again.
The latest developments underscored the immensity of the political turmoil roiling Sudan and how the infighting between the generals poses a serious threat to the process of restoring democratic civilian rule. At least 459 people and more than 4,000 others have been wounded in the fighting, now in its 12th day, according to the World Health Organization.
With limited access to basic services, thousands of people have also fled the country, making arduous journeys by road into neighboring nations including Egypt, Chad and South Sudan. And foreign governments have been evacuating their nationals and diplomatic staff.
The fighting in Sudan, which has spread across the country, has pitted the army, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, against a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. Both leaders were long loyal to al-Bashir and linked to a wave of genocidal violence in Darfur that, from 2003 to 2008, left some 300,000 people dead and 2.5 million others displaced.
In 2019, the two generals helped oust al-Bashir after a popular uprising swept the country. But they also united in undermining a transition to democratic rule and in late 2021 engineered a coup that scuttled a power-sharing agreement between civilian authorities and the military.
Their cooperation lasted until this month, when the two generals and the forces they command clashed in the streets. As they vied for supremacy, both generals have cast themselves as the guarantor of peace and democracy and urged civilians to take their side.
Early Wednesday, both the army and the paramilitary force referenced Harun’s audio and accused each other of helping Harun escape prison. In a statement, the Rapid Support Forces said that his release was part of a process “aimed at restoring the deposed regime.”
In turn, the Sudanese army accused the paramilitary group of attacking several prisons in Khartoum and in the city of Omdurman and of forcing prison officers to release inmates. The army also distanced itself from Harun, who in his audio message had called on the public to support it.
“We are very surprised that he referred to the armed forces, since it does not have any relationship with Ahmad Harun, his political party, or the administration of the country’s prisons, which fall under the responsibility of the Sudanese Ministry of Interior and police,” the army’s statement said.
Addressing the U.N. Security Council by video from Sudan late Tuesday, Perthes, the U.N. envoy, said there was “no unequivocal sign” that either side was ready to negotiate, and he warned of increasing criminality and attempted sexual assaults as thousands fled the country.
“As fighting continues, law and order will further break down,” he said. “Sudan could become increasingly fragmented, which would have a devastating impact on the region. And even if one side wins, Sudan will lose.”