A general view shows a cloud of smoke in Khartoum, Sudan, April 18, 2023 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Twitter @ayman_amin_/via REUTERS
By Khalid Abdelaziz and Nafisa Eltahir
KHARTOUM/CAIRO (Reuters) -Residents in an affluent district of Khartoum feared there would be trouble when they found their new neighbour was a commander from a paramilitary force that protesters blamed for cracking down on them in the past.
Those concerns proved well-founded this week when people were forced to hunker down in their homes as gunfire, shelling and airstrikes raged across the city in a fierce fight for power between the army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
“We knew a day like this would come,” said Motasim, who lives a few buildings from Abdelrahim Dagalo, deputy leader of the RSF, the one-time militia that has been battling the army since Saturday.
“It’s very dangerous because he lives among us,” said Motasim, a resident of Khartoum’s Al-Riyadh district, which lies near the airport where smoke now billows into the sky.
He asked that only his first name be used to protect his identity.
The unwelcome neighbour, who arrived in 2020, is the brother of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, the leader of the RSF who is at the centre of a fierce rivalry with army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
The fighting has already killed at least 185 people, forced dozens of hospitals to shut their doors and derailed a deal that was meant to bring in civilian government after decades of autocracy and military rule.
Both sides committed to a 24-hour ceasefire from Tuesday evening after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held calls with both leaders. But gunfire continued after the deadline.
From a vantage point in his home, Motasim said that earlier on Tuesday he could see RSF troops aiming anti-aircraft missiles from the street below. Residents from other districts said shops had been looted and people ejected from homes by armed men.
For the first time, many in Khartoum are experiencing the kind of conflict that once only struck far flung corners of the African nation, such as in the western region of Darfur – where the RSF emerged as a force – or in the south where decades of fighting finally led to the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
In the past, the capital of this poor nation that still relies heavily on international aid was spared despite military coups and popular protests, although some demonstrations were met with violence. Protesters blamed the RSF for a bloody crackdown on an anti-military sit-in in 2019. The group denies this.
But now the capital is reeling. In the well-heeled Khartoum 2 district, an area that is home to embassies and RSF offices, residents said RSF troops had stormed homes and raided supermarkets.
An RSF spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment for this article.
“They are pulling people out of their houses,” said one woman in Khartoum 2 who spoke to Reuters by phone as artillery fire could be heard in the background.
“They’ve been asking people for water and food but in some places they’ve told them to evacuate so they can move in,” she said, adding that she had kept the lights off in her home for most of the time to save generator fuel and avoid attention.
RSF buildings and bases are dispersed across the capital, often in densely populated areas that have become a focus for fighting. Battles have also been fought over strategic sites, such as the airport, army headquarters, and the state broadcaster, which are in the middle of residential areas.
Residents and a Reuters witness said troops they have seen on the streets were mostly RSF fighters. The army, as in previous conflicts, appeared to be relying on artillery and airstrikes. Residents said they heard warplanes swoop overhead followed by anti-aircraft fire, shaking their homes.
‘HORROR IS EVERYWHERE’
This mirrors the pattern of fighting seen in the Darfur conflict that erupted in 2003 and lasted several years. At that time, the army and RSF fought on the same side, with the army depending on air power to strike rebels and deploying militias on the ground, such as the Janjaweed from which the RSF emerged.
“Horror is everywhere, the sounds of the artillery and the aimless shooting causing injuries among civilians,” said Sajda Gafer El-Tayeb Mustafa, a resident of Bahri, next to Khartoum.
The capital has sister cities of Omdurman and Bahri that lie on opposite banks of the Blue and White Niles, which join there to form the Nile river.
One witness told Reuters that in a hospital that was still functioning in Bahri, dead bodies of civilians and soldiers were laid outside and on beds, with staff unable to send them for burial or to a morgue.
Sudan’s doctors union said 34 hospitals in the capital had either been forced to close or would have to shut soon due to a lack of electricity and water or because they have been damaged by gunfire or artillery.
Elsewhere in the capital area, several people told Reuters they saw RSF troops dispersing quickly into streets of residential districts when airstrikes began.
In Khartoum’s Al-Daim neighbourhood, a family was shaken by a missile that lodged between two floors of their apartment building. Another family living close to Khartoum airport shared images of their house on fire after it was caught in crossfire.
Some in the city are now trying to find a way out.
Dentist Moaz Suliman, 27, a diabetic who risks running out of insulin, was sheltering with his 75-year-old grandmother, mother, aunt, uncle and brother after a bombardment hit neighbouring houses in Khartoum. His family were weighing up whether to seek shelter with relatives outside the capital.
“Even staying at home is no longer safe because of shrapnel and stray bullets hitting houses,” he said.
Mahmoud Alameen, 38, an aid worker, fled to his hometown in Al-Gezira, fearing his pro-democracy political activism made him a target. “I heard the voices of crying, frightened children from families in my building,” he said. “It was so sad.”