KHARTOUM – Sudanese families were massing Wednesday at a border crossing with Egypt and at a port city on the Red Sea, desperately trying to escape their country's violence and sometimes waiting for days with little food or shelter, witnesses said.
In the capital, Khartoum, the intensity of fighting eased on the second day of a three-day truce, and the military said it had “initially accepted” a diplomatic initiative to extend the current cease-fire for another three days after it expires Thursday.
The initiative, brokered by the eight-nation East Africa trade bloc known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, would also include direct negotiations between the military and the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary group it has been battling since Apr. 15.
There was no immediate comment from the RSF on the initiative, which, if accepted by both sides, would mark a major breakthrough in more than a week of intense international diplomacy. The two rivals, army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan and RSF commander Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, have until now seemed determined to vanquish the other.
Taking advantage of relative calm, many residents in Khartoum and the neighboring city of Omdurman emerged from their homes to seek food and water, lining up at bakeries or grocery stores, after days of being trapped inside by the fighting between the army and a rival paramilitary group. Some inspected shops or homes that had been destroyed or looted.
“There is a sense of calm in my area and neighborhoods,” said Mahasen Ali, a tea vendor who lives in Khartoum’s southern neighborhood of May. “But all are afraid of what’s next.”
Still, gunfire and explosions could be heard in the city, though residents said clashes were in more limited pockets, mainly around the military’s headquarters and the Republican Palace in central Khartoum and around bases in Omdurman across the Nile River.
With the future of any truce uncertain, many took the opportunity to join the tens of thousands who have streamed out of the capital in recent days, trying to get out of the crossfire between the forces of Sudan's two top generals.
Food has grown more difficult to obtain, and electricity is cut off across much of the capital and other cities. Multiple aid agencies have had to suspend operations, a heavy blow in a country where a third of the population of 46 million relies on humanitarian assistance.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said only one in four hospitals in the capital is fully functional, and that the fighting has disrupted assistance to 50,000 children who are acutely malnourished.
Many Sudanese fear the two sides will escalate their battle once the international evacuations of foreigners that began Sunday is completed. The British government, whose airlift is one of the last still ongoing, said it has evacuated around 300 people on flights out and plans four more Wednesday, promising to keep going as long as possible.
Large numbers of people have meanwhile been making the exhausting daylong drive across the desert to access points out of the country — to the city of Port Sudan on the eastern Red Sea coast and to the Arqin crossing into Egypt at the northern border.
Crowds of Sudanese and foreigners also waited in Port Sudan, trying to register for a ferry to Saudi Arabia. Dallia Abdelmoniem, a Sudanese political commentator, said she and her family arrived Monday and have been trying to get a spot. “Priority was given to foreign nationals,” she told The Associated Press.
She and some of her extended family, mostly women and children, took a 26-hour bus journey to reach the port, during which they passed military checkpoints and small villages where people offered cold hibiscus juice and water to “Khartoum travelers.”
"These folk have very little, but they offered every single passenger on all these buses and trucks something to make their journey better,” she said.
At the Arqin crossing, families have been spending their nights outside in the desert, waiting to be let in to Egypt. Buses were lining up at the crossing.
“It’s a mess — long lines of elderly people, patients, women and children waiting in miserable conditions," said Moaz al-Ser, a Sudanese teacher who arrived along with his wife and three children at the border a day earlier.
Tens of thousands of Khartoum residents have also fled to neighboring provinces or even into already existing displacement and refugee camps within Sudan that house victims of past conflicts.
At least 512 people, including civilians and combatants, have been killed since the fighting erupted on Apr. 15, with another 4,200 wounded, the Sudanese Health Ministry said. The Doctors’ Syndicate, which tracks civilian casualties, said at least 295 civilians have been killed and 1,790 wounded.
The 72-hour cease-fire announced by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to last until late Thursday. Many fear that fighting will only escalate once evacuations of foreigners, which appeared to be in their last stages, are completed.
But a senior British military officer said the U.K. evacuation operation could continue regardless of the cease-fire. Brig. Dan Reeve said conditions at the Wadi Saeedna airfield near Khartoum are “calm” and that the Sudanese armed forces have “good control” of the surrounding area.
Cyprus' Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos said five flights from Sudan arrived Wednesday, with a total of 391 British nationals aboard.
A series of short cease-fires over the past week have either failed outright or brought only intermittent lulls that allowed evacuations of hundreds of foreigners by air and land.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the conflict is not only putting Sudan’s future at risk, “it is lighting a fuse that could detonate across borders, causing immense suffering for years, and setting development back by decades.”
Guterres cited reports of armed clashes across the country, with people fleeing their homes in Blue Nile and North Kordofan states and across Western Darfur as well. Joyce Msuya, the assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council “there have been numerous reports of sexual and gender-based violence.”
Msuya said the U.N. has received reports “of tens of thousands of people arriving in the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.”
In a separate development, Dr. Mike Ryan, emergencies chief at the World Health Organization, appeared to walk back concerns expressed a day earlier by the WHO representative in Sudan over fighters taking over a laboratory where pathogens are stored, including polio, measles and cholera. Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Ryan said the main risk of exposure was to the fighters themselves.
Burhan and Dagalo rose to power after a popular uprising in 2019 prompted the generals to remove Sudan’s longtime autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir. Sudanese since have been trying to bring a transition to democratic rule, but in 2021 Burhan and Dagalo joined forces in a coup that purged civilian leaders. They fell out this month over a new rough plan to re-introduce civilian rule.
Both the military and the RSF have a long history of brutalizing activists and protesters as well as other rights abuses.
Also on Wednesday, the military said al-Bashir was being held in a military-run hospital, giving its first official statement on his location since the fighting erupted. An attack on the prison where al-Bashir and many of his former officials had been held raised questions over his whereabouts.
In a statement, the military said al-Bashir and other former officials had been moved to the military-run Aliyaa hospital before clashes broke out across the country. Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes related to the Darfur conflict in the 2000s.