Refugee Crisis Grows as Darfur War Crosses a Border
Refugee Crisis Grows as Darfur War Crosses a Border
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Op-Ed / Africa

Refugee Crisis Grows as Darfur War Crosses a Border

The chaos in Darfur, the war-ravaged region in Sudan where more than 200,000 civilians have been killed, has spread across the border into Chad, deepening one of the world's worst refugee crises.

Arab gunmen from Darfur have pushed across the desert and entered Chad, stealing cattle, burning crops and killing anyone who resists. The lawlessness has driven at least 20,000 Chadians from their homes, making them refugees in their own country.

Hundreds of thousands more people in this area, along with 200,000 Sudanese who fled here for safety, find themselves caught up in a growing conflict between Chad and Sudan, which have a long history of violence and meddling in each other's affairs.

"You may have thought the terrible situation in Darfur couldn't get worse, but it has," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement. "Sudan's policy of arming militias and letting them loose is spilling over the border, and civilians have no protection from their attacks, in Darfur or in Chad."

Indeed, the accounts of civilians in eastern Chad are agonizingly familiar to those in western Sudan. One woman, Zahara Isaac Mahamat, described how Arab men on camels and horses had raided her village in Chad, stealing everything they could find and slaughtering all who resisted.

The dead included her husband, Ismail Ibrahim, who tried to prevent the raiders from burning his sorghum and millet fields. Like so many others in this desolate expanse of dust-choked earth, she fled west with her three children, much as people in Darfur have been forced to do in recent years.

"I have lost everything but my children," she said, her face looking much older than her 20 years. She is now a refugee, with thousands of other displaced Chadians, in Kolloye, a village south of here.

"We have three bowls of grain left," she said. "When that is gone, only God can help us."

The spreading chaos is a result of two closely connected conflicts in the neighboring countries.

In Darfur, rebels have been battling government forces and the janjaweed, Arab militias aligned with the government, in a campaign of terror that the Bush administration has called genocide.

The United Nations Security Council has agreed to send troops to protect civilians, but they will take months to arrive. In the meantime, President Bush has said, NATO should help shore up a failing African Union peacekeeping mission there, but a surge of violence has chased tens of thousands of people from their homes in recent weeks.

In Chad, the government is fighting its own war against rebels based in Sudan and bent on ousting Chad's ailing president, Idriss Déby.

The rebels include disgruntled soldiers who defected and tribes tired of being ruled by members of the president's tribe, the Zaghawa, who represent just a small percentage of the population but have long dominated politics and the military.

In a sign of how inseparable the two conflicts have become, President Déby has accused Sudan of supporting the rebellion against his government, and Sudan has long suspected members of Mr. Déby's family of supporting Zaghawa-led rebels in Darfur.

Both sides agreed at a summit meeting in Libya in early February to stop supporting rebels on each other's territory and to tone down the belligerent talk. But Chadian rebels have remained on the Sudanese side of the border, and it is not clear whether Mr. Déby has the capacity to stop members of his clan from supporting Darfur rebels.

If unchecked by international intervention, this complex and volatile mix of government forces, allied militias and at least a half-dozen rebel groups in a remote region awash with weapons will almost inevitably lead to disaster, said John Prendergast, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and an expert on the Darfur conflict.

"The principle strategy of all these actors, both state actors and proxy militias, is to displace people in order to destabilize and undermine the support base of your opponent," he said. "We are going to see an increasing spiral of displacement on both sides of the border and an increasingly dangerous environment for humanitarian workers."

In Chad, the trouble began in December when rebel groups attacked Adré and two other strategic border towns. The Chadian Army repelled the rebels, but it withdrew its troops from garrisons along the border to fortify Adré.

The withdrawal has left a security vacuum into which the janjaweed have rushed. The once well-traveled road between Adré, a bustling border town, and Kolloye has become a terrifying gantlet roamed by bandits and Arab militias. Dozens of villages have emptied; some have been burned. The few aid agencies working in this lawless region avoid the road, using a circuitous route farther west to reach Abéché, the regional capital.

In six days of traveling along the frontier, a reporter and photographer for The New York Times saw just four policemen to keep the peace, equipped only with horses and armed with battered AK-47's. Outside of Adré, only one military patrol was visible.

What appeared to be another military patrol just south of Adré, four soldiers commanded by an aging officer with thick glasses and rheumy eyes, was in fact a search party for the missing cattle of the commanding officer, Adoum Allatchi Gaga. His cows had been stolen by raiders across the border. Asked about the security situation in the region, Mr. Gaga said: "I don't have any idea. I am just looking for my cows."

At the hospital in Adré, the number of gunshot victims in December and January almost doubled, to about 100 a month, relief officials said, a grim sign of the growing lawlessness.

In one ward lay Fatime Youma, a 13-year-old girl with a tube draining the gunshot wound that had punctured her lung.

She was shot, her father explained, by janjaweed who happened upon her and her 16-year-old sister, Zenab, who lay in the next room with a gunshot wound to her arm.

"I was just looking for firewood with my sister," Zenab said softly. "When the raiders saw us we ran away but they shot at us."

Adré's police chief, Mahamat Lony, said he was short of both officers and weapons.

"We have a very catastrophic situation," he said. "We have a very long frontier with Sudan, and many heavily armed raiders on the other side. There have been many incursions, and they attack the population. We have many displaced, and no one is helping them."

The man charged with defending Chad's border and protecting refugees and civilians is Gen. Abakar Youssouf Mahamat Itno, 38, a nephew of President Déby who was dispatched here the day of the rebel attack.

"Sudan wants to export the war in Darfur to us here," General Itno said at his camp in the hills above Adré. "They want to use the janjaweed they armed to terrorize Darfur, to terrorize our population. We will not allow it."

Even so, he acknowledged his inability to patrol the border areas. "It is a long border," he said. "We cannot be everywhere at once."

That Chadian rebels have found sanctuary in Sudan is beyond doubt. Geneina, the capital of Western Darfur, resembles a garrison town; armed men from at least six forces are visible on the streets, as are Arabs in street clothes carrying AK-47's. Local residents identify them as janjaweed.

In the market in the evening, Chadian Army deserters wearing their distinctive turbans sit drinking tea, submachine guns beside them. Freshly dug machine-gun pits surround the police and army stations, and aid agencies are putting sandbags around their offices. The Chadian rebels have new weapons, uniforms and vehicles, aid officials in Geneina said, leading many to conclude that they are getting support from the Sudanese government.

With so much firepower on the Sudanese side of the border, residents in villages like Adé, south of Adré, have borne almost daily attacks.

"There is no security here," said Hisseine Kassar Mostapha, secretary general of the local government in Adé. "We are out here completely on our own, with no one to protect us."

The lack of security means little assistance from international aid groups. In Kolloye, 10,000 Chadians, refugees like Ms. Mahamat, live in roofless grass shelters that give little protection from the frigid night air and no shelter from the punishing desert sun. Water is scarce and food supplies are low, villagers said. The only assistance is a mobile clinic run by Doctors Without Borders that operates three times a week.

One refugee, Kaltam Abdullah, cradled her year-old son in her lap; his head lolled on his neck, his eyes were glazed and his limbs slender.

"He has had running stomach for 10 days," Ms. Abdullah said. "He is coughing. But there is no doctor."

Meanwhile, Sudanese refugees continue to arrive in Chad. Last month there were 1,500 arrivals, up from 1,000 over the previous three months, said Claire Bourgeois, the deputy representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Abéché. She said all the camps were full except one, and that it was filling up quickly.

Several camps holding tens of thousands of refugees will be moved further west, Ms. Bourgeois said, to protect the refugees from the violence. But safety remains a serious problem, she added, and "if there is no security, the humanitarian actors will leave."

Sudanese refugees who have arrived in recent weeks recount grim tales of slaughter, rape and plunder.

Ibrahim Suleiman Mahamat, a herder from the Masalit tribe who lived along the border, said janjaweed had stolen his livestock: 40 cows, 20 goats and sheep, 2 camels and 2 horses. Penniless and terrified, he had little choice but to cross into Chad with his two wives and six children. Dozens of relatives left behind plan to join him, he said. Even in the relative safety of the Gaga Refugee Camp, far west of the border, he said, he does not feel safe.

"We are in a very dangerous situation," Mr. Mahamat said. "What happens if there is a war in the country you are from and the country you have fled to? We are nowhere. There is nowhere for us to go."

Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.

In a 1 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Dr. Comfort Ero testified on the escalating situation in Sudan and outlined four main recommendations for the U.S. to help restore the civilian-led transition to democracy.

Good morning/afternoon, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch and distinguished members of the Committee. My name is Dr. Comfort Ero, and I am the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously I served as the organization’s Africa program director and I have spent my professional and academic career focusing on peace and security issues in Africa. The International Crisis Group is a global organisation committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Sudan dates back more than two decades.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°281, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, 21 October 2019; Jonas Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168, The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the deteriorating situation in Sudan today. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Not for the first time in its history, the military has turned its back on the demands of the Sudanese people for more just and representative rule by violently seizing power. The coup on October 25 brought a sudden halt to a civilian-military coalition that since 2019 has been charged with steering Sudan toward elections and full civilian rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, op. cit.; Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, op.cit. It was a major reversal in a transition that had brought hope to so many in the Horn of Africa and beyond. I will share with you my analysis of the current situation in Sudan and recommendations for steps the United States might take to help guide it back on the path toward greater democracy and stability.

By way of background, the transition that was interrupted on October 25 followed 30 years of rule by the notorious strongman Omar al-Bashir.

  • After coming to office in a coup in June 1989, Bashir maintained his hold on power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in the country’s peripheries and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditure that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was mandated to lead the civilian-military transition in August 2019, listed as an ambition driving down military expenditure to 20 per cent of the national budget. He said in some years, that budget line had stood at 80 per cent. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote
     
  • The patronage system that Bashir built eventually bankrupted the country and contributed to the strongman’s ouster. A small cabal of favoured cronies including Bashir’s Islamist allies from the National Congress Party, senior military officers (many of them drawn from the tiny riverine elite that has dominated Sudan’s military and politics for decades) and newly minted allies such as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was blamed for some of the worst violence in the western region of Darfur, benefited substantially from Sudan’s rigged, lopsided economy.[fn]“Who are Sudan’s RSF and their Commander Hemeti?”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote These same actors continue to try to preserve their privileges atop Sudan’s political, economic and security establishment.
     
  • Popular frustration over political repression, rising prices and a sclerotic economy that could not absorb Sudan’s ranks of unemployed youths helped trigger the protests that eventually drove Bashir from power. The uprising began in the south-eastern towns of Damazin and Sennar, where crowds took to the streets on 13 December 2018 in response to a tripling of bread prices. By the time the protests reached Atbara, the historic bastion of unionism in Sudan, demonstrators were demanding regime change. Against long odds and despite heavy repression, the protesters eventually overwhelmed the security forces, who staged a palace coup against Bashir on 11 April 2019.  
     
  • The military tried to maintain the upper hand but was forced under pressure both from the protest movement and external actors to compromise and accept to share power with civilians. International revulsion over a 3 June 2019 massacre of protesters encamped outside the military headquarters was particularly important in forcing the generals to cede to the will of the Sudanese people.[fn]“Sudan commemorates the June 3 Massacre”, Dabanga Sudan, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote Under the terms of a 17 August Constitutional Declaration, the country would be governed by a hybrid civilian-military coalition for 39 months leading up to elections.
     
  • The task before that coalition was enormous. The new cabinet headed by the technocrat and diplomat Abdalla Hamdok was charged with breathing new life into Sudan’s anaemic economy, reforming political institutions to lay the ground for elections and delivering justice to the many Sudanese victims of atrocities during Bashir’s rule – and in the weeks following his fall. Despite the formidable obstacles the authorities faced, that coalition represented the country’s best hope for emerging into a stable, prosperous and democratic future and was a source of hope for those supporting democratic renewal in other countries in the region.
     
  • Always reluctant participants in the alliance, the generals barely disguised their opposition to the Hamdok administration’s reforms and were particularly opposed to efforts to deliver justice and to reshape the country’s economy. In defiance of the United States government and others who warned them against doing so, they seized power and ousted the civilians.

Today, unfortunately, the picture looks grim. The military violently applied the brakes on the transition in the early hours of October 25 when they placed Hamdok under house arrest, rounded up numerous other civilian officials in the administration, declared a state of emergency and dissolved key institutions including the cabinet. Since then, Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken a series of steps to reverse the reforms the civilian-led administration had rolled out, including by disbanding a committee charged with reclaiming public assets, by packing the Sovereign Council, which serves as the country’s executive, with his allies and by appointing Bashir-era figures into key posts including in the judiciary and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List 2022, 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote The military attempted some window dressing when it reinstated Hamdok on 21 November, a move Sudanese protesters rightly dismissed as an effort to legitimise their power grab. Some efforts to stimulate talks among Sudanese actors to find a way out of the crisis continue although the prospects of a resolution appear dim.

[Sudan] has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup.

Overall, the country has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to stick to their commitments under the August 2019 constitutional charter, and in particular to give him a free hand to appoint a new cabinet. In the meantime, the public’s frustration has been growing. For the past few weeks, Sudanese people across the country have taken to the streets to signal their revulsion at the military’s power grab. The general’s response to the protests has come right out of the Bashir playbook. The security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds, killing dozens, according to human rights groups and the UN.[fn]“Bachelet condemns killings of peaceful protesters in Sudan”, UN, 18 November 2021.Hide Footnote A late December decree by military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan gave the police effective immunity for their actions. Still, the Sudanese people continue to risk their lives by staging protests, work boycotts and other strike actions.

While it is not yet clear who will come out on top in this contest between the security forces and the street, there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. This is a different Sudan from the one in which the army captured control of the state at least five times in the past, including in 1989 when Bashir took office.[fn]"A history of Sudan coups”, Statista, 25 October 2021.Hide Footnote Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world.[fn]“After the Uprising: Including Sudanese Youth”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2020.Hide Footnote Six in ten Sudanese are aged between fifteen and 30 – and the current generation rejects the notion that the country should go back to being governed by an unaccountable, out-of-touch elite.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, The Horn (Crisis Group podcast), 26 January 2022.Hide Footnote This mobilised, youthful population showed its power at the end of 2018 when it rose up in protest at Bashir’s repressive, kleptocratic rule. The protest movement captured the imagination of pro-democracy campaigners well beyond Sudan with its diversity, with the prominent role that women played – sometimes outnumbering men in demonstrations – with its tenacity, and ultimately with its success. Against what many viewed as tall odds, it brought a halt to Bashir’s rule. Since the coup, this movement has again shown its strength by mobilising millions of Sudanese to take to the streets and send a clear signal to the generals that they will not, as past generations of officers did, get away with imposing their will on the Sudanese people.[fn]“Deaths Reported in Sudan as ‘March of Millions’ Demands Restoration of Civilian Rule”, Voice of America, 30 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States and other regional and international actors in the strategically important Horn of Africa – where Sudan sits between major regional powers Ethiopia and Egypt and shares a border with seven countries, several in the throes of conflict themselves. Support for Sudan’s transition would comport with the U.S. government’s stated commitment to champion democratic values and to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people”[fn]“President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy”, White House, 11 August 2021.Hide Footnote . It would also be the surest pathway to medium- and long-term stability in the country.

The United States is one of Sudan’s most important external partners. It provides about half a billion dollars in assistance annually and was a champion of efforts to reconnect Sudan’s economy with international financial institutions. Given these ties and the United States government’s relations with all the main regional actors, the U.S. is well positioned to support efforts to reverse the military’s power grab and set Sudan back on a path toward elections and representative government. Specifically, it could:

  • Press the generals to immediately halt violence against protesters and coordinate targeted sanctions to hold them to account: As outlined, Sudan’s security forces have responded to peaceful protests by indiscriminately shooting into crowds and sometimes reportedly even pursuing fleeing and wounded demonstrators into hospitals.[fn]“Sudanese security forces ‘hunt down’ injured protesters in hospital”, France 24, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote This pattern of behaviour, on top of its grave human cost, threatens to poison relations between the parties and render a resolution even further beyond reach. In coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the European Union, the United States should make clear that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they continue to kill unarmed demonstrators. The White House should simultaneously convene an interagency process to design a targeted sanctions programs aimed at key figures in the military and outline that it is willing to deploy these against individuals that continue to sanction the killing of protesters or obstruct progress toward elections more broadly.
     
  • Support Sudanese-led efforts to rerail the transition: The United States has already signalled its backing for efforts to stimulate negotiations among the generals and civilian groups including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition that spearheaded the protest movement and neighbourhood resistance committees, which play an integral role in the day-to-day organisation of protests and have proved a particularly effective channel of resistance to the military coup. The United States should warn the generals against taking precipitous measures that could derail these potential talks, including refraining from unilaterally appointing a new prime minister. It should further insist that these talks are maximally inclusive and in particular that they should take on board the views of the resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections.
     
  • Withhold financial assistance until the military reverses its coup: In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the United states suspended $700 million in assistance to Sudan. This was the right step given the generals’ brazen decision to terminate the power-sharing agreement. The United States should make clear to the generals that this support will not resume unless they accept to return to the path toward elections laid out in the 2019 power-sharing agreement. In the meantime, the United States should advance with efforts to repurpose some of its support to civil society groups and also to work with partners including the UN to offer direct assistance to Sudan’s long-suffering people.
     
  • Urge all regional actors to back a return to a civilian-led dispensation: Many on the Sudanese street perceive some external actors, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as tacitly backing military rule.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such perceptions will ultimately be damaging to those countries’ standing in Sudan if it is able to reinvigorate its transitional process. But it is still possible for these key regional actors to play an important role in helping Sudan return to a civilian-led transitional process, thereby protecting their relations with the Sudanese people. Given his strong background in regional diplomacy, Special Envoy Satterfield should be well positioned to engage these actors and urge them to use their privileged relations with Sudan’s generals to convey to them that the power-sharing agreement they torpedoed remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal they all profess to share. With the welcome appointment of a new ambassador to Khartoum, the United States could play a key role in marshalling a coalition of actors within and outside Sudan that can help steer the country back toward the path to elections.


Sudan is at a historic hinge-point. The military’s power grab has derailed a transition that was an inspiration well beyond Sudan, and still could be, if the generals step back and allow Sudan’s civilians to steer the country to elections. With a piling set of challenges – not least an economy in deep distress, resurging violence in Darfur and elsewhere, and a tottering peace deal with armed groups – the generals can hardly afford to stonewall the Sudanese people’s demands for change. The world – and the United States – should stand with Sudan’s people in their quest for a more democratic and accountable government, an outcome that represents the country’s best hope for achieving long-run political, social and economic stability.

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