The UN sent a mission to the centre of Sudan’s civil war. Here’s what they found

There’s plenty of food in Sudan’s most populous state, says Jill Lawler. People just can’t afford it.

Lawler, chief of field operations and emergency for UNICEF in Sudan, has just returned from a United Nations mission to Khartoum State, a focal point of violence in Sudan’s 11-month ongoing civil war.

In the city of Omdurman, she walked past bustling markets with hanging meats and piles of produce on display. Yet everywhere she went, she says, people were starving. 

“When we heard from the doctors and the caregivers about increased malnutrition rates, and they spoke a lot about anemia as well, we asked, well, why is that?” she told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

“And they said it’s because of the price of food, and being 11 months into a conflict that has shut down income opportunities for families.”

Lawler and 12 UNICEF staffers toured Omdurman on a fact-finding mission to get a sense of how the war is impacting children in Sudan. 

It was the first UN mission to Khartoum State since the current conflict began, and its findings paint a grim picture of constant gunfire, maimed children and a population on the brink of famine.

She delivered her mission report on Monday at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

What is the war about?

The war in Sudan is between the nation’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a group that grew out of the so-called Janjaweed militias, who were accused of war crimes and genocide in Darfur under Sudan’s former autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir. They’ve also been accused of committing mass ethnic killings during the current conflict.

In 2019, the army and the RSF fought side-by-side to topple al-Bashir’s government. Two years later, they together enacted a coup against the civilian transitional government.

The army and RSF were supposed to sign an internationally-backed plan to transition the country to a civilian government in April 2023. Instead, they turned their guns on each other, each side pinning the blame on the other.

Two men walk down a garbage-strewn dirt road carrying large guns. Both are wearing blue camouflage pants and T-shirts and looking over their shoulders at the camera. One has a black face mask.
A member of Sudanese armed forces looks on as he holds his weapon in the street in Omdurman, Sudan, on March 9. (El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters)

Those clashes quickly developed into an all-out war that has displaced nine million people inside the country and forced more than 1.7 million to flee, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Inside the country, the situation is dire. The international charity Save the Children said Wednesday there are 220,000 severely malnourished children and over 7,000 new mothers in Sudan could die in the coming months from hunger unless more funding for humanitarian relief is provided.

Aid groups, including UNICEF, have called for a ceasefire to get more aid to those who need it most. 

But this week, the army said it would not consider international ceasefire unless the RSF agrees to a major military withdrawal. Army Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said in a statement that his troops would keep fighting the RSF “until complete victory is achieved.”

Overcrowded hospitals, hundreds of amputations

In the meantime, Lawler says, it’s innocent civilians — especially women and children — who are suffering.

She’s particularly haunted, she said, by the people she met at Al Nau hospital, one of the only hospitals in Khartoum with a functional — yet extremely overcrowded and under resourced — trauma ward.

“Just seeing patients who recently had limbs amputated, young people who, before all of this … were able-bodied people,” she said.

Doctors there informed UNICEF that they had performed 300 amputations in the last month alone, she said. 

Four young boys stand outside a building in the sun next to a brick pillar.
Displaced Sudanese children stand in the courtyard of a school where their families took refuge near Gadaref, Sudan, on March 6. (AFP/Getty Images)

She also learned about women and girls who have experienced sexual violence during the war and came to hospital pregnant. 

“These young women often coming alone, because of the stigma associated with it, coming, delivering, and leaving their child at the hospital,” she said.

“I don’t know the exact numbers, and I don’t know if we ever will know the exact numbers because of, again, the stigma associated with it. But it’s just heartbreaking. It really is.”

‘The malnutrition figures are scary’

The No. 1 concern everywhere, she said, was hunger. 

Nearly 3.7 million children are projected to be acutely malnourished this year in Sudan, according to UN figures, including 730,000 who need lifesaving treatment.

“The malnutrition figures are scary. They should really be frightening, and be something that the world talks about,” she said.

“The possibility of famine should be something that we should all be mobilized and trying to do our level best to address. And It’s just very difficult to get that kind of attention.”

A group of people sit outside next to bright green mats lined with bowls of food and colourful plastic drinking cups.
Internally displaced Muslim devotees wait to break their fast at a courtyard during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Gedaref on March 13, 2024. UNICEF and other aid groups have called for a ceasefire during the holiday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Lawler is one of many people trying to draw international attention to a conflict they say has been ignored as the international community focuses its money and attention on Ukraine and Gaza.

In February, Jan Egeland of the Norweigian Refugee Council told As It Happens the world had turned its back on Sudan.

Ashraf alTahir Ahmed, president of the Sudanese Canadian Community Association, echoed that sentiment in an interview a few weeks later.

“It’s the forgotten crisis. And for those who seek power, for those who are fighting in Sudan, that’s the optimal situation where they can continue their atrocities,” he said. “No one on the international stage is holding them accountable.”

Ahmed and other Sudanese Canadians are struggling to get their loved ones out of harm’s way to Canada. 

Laywer says the world needs to step up.

“We need highest level advocacy for a ceasefire. We need highest level advocacy for this war to stop and for humanitarians to have sustainable access to the hardest to reach places,” she said.

“In the holy month of Ramadan, if there’s ever a moment for that pause, it’s now.”

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