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Monday briefing: Charting the forgotten crisis in Sudan

<span>Sudanese refugees in Renk on 13 February.</span><span>Photograph: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Sudanese refugees in Renk on 13 February.Photograph: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images

Good morning. “There is a certain kind of obscenity about the humanitarian world, which is the competition of suffering,” the UN’s aid chief, Martin Griffiths, said this month. “We must not forget Sudan.”

But with international attention largely focused on Gaza and Ukraine, that is exactly what’s happening. Tens of thousands have been killed in the civil war that broke out last year between the Sudanese army and the RSF militia, and there are now more displaced people – and specifically more displaced children – than in any other country in the world.

The fighting shows no signs of abating. Now, a new report published by the UN has provided the most detailed account yet of the indiscriminate violence being perpetrated by both sides. And as harvest season comes to an end, it is feared that as many as a million people could die as a result of famine.

Today’s newsletter is a primer on the crisis in Sudan: the state of the war, the atrocities faced by civilians, and the barriers to aid that so many desperately need. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Conservatives | Rishi Sunak has been urged to break his silence over a mounting Islamophobia row over Lee Anderson’s claim Islamists had “got control of” Sadiq Khan. After Sunak failed to use the word “Islamophobia” in his statement responding to Anderson’s suspension from the Conservative party, Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi said: “What is it about the prime minister that he can’t even call out anti-Muslim racism and anti-Muslim bigotry?”

  2. Public services | Britain’s stretched public services will buckle under the weight of the spending cuts planned for after the election, economists have warned, as Jeremy Hunt prepares for another round of tax reductions in next week’s budget. The expected spending levels could mean cuts equivalent to those undertaken by David Cameron’s government from 2010 to 2015.

  3. Ukraine | Volodymyr Zelenskiy has given a figure for the number of Ukrainian battlefield casualties in the war with Russia for the first time, acknowledging that 31,000 soldiers have been killed and saying 2024 will be decisive for the outcome of the conflict. That figure is much lower than the US estimate of about 70,000.

  4. Israel-Gaza war | The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is facing a shortfall of $450m from a budget of $880m as it confronts the biggest humanitarian crisis seen in the organisation’s 75-year history. Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the agency, said UNRWA had reached a “breaking point” amid reports that it has been forced to pause aid deliveries to northern Gaza, where there are increasing reports of famine.

  5. Cinema | The owner of the stately home used in the film Saltburn has revealed he has ordered patrols of the grounds to stop trespassers making TikTok videos of themselves dancing to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s hit Murder on the Dancefloor, notoriously used in the film’s final scene, in front of the house. Charles Stopford Sackville said that the undisclosed fee for filming had “100%” influenced him to agree, but that he found the interest “quite weird”.

In depth: The scale of death and displacement in Darfur

The UN estimates that almost 14,000 people have been killed in Sudan since war broke out in April last year. But that figure is a significant underestimate, because much of the country is too dangerous for observers to enter. A leaked UN report seen by Reuters last month suggested that in three months last year between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed in one city, West Darfur’s El Geneina, alone.

More than eight million people have fled their homes since the conflict began. Five million of them are children; 2.1 million are under five years old. And about 25 million – half of Sudan’s population – are in need of humanitarian aid. But there is no sign that the crisis will be alleviated soon.

“For nearly a year now, accounts coming out of Sudan have been of death, suffering and despair,” UN human rights chief Volker Türk said on Friday. “The senseless conflict and human rights violations and abuses have persisted with no end in sight.”

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The origins of the war

The collapse of order in Sudan in April 2023 was very sudden – but, Nesrine Malik wrote then, “the speed with which Sudan unravelled was the first indication that it had all been building up for a long time”. She traces the war’s origins back to a rebellion by tribal minorities in the western region of Darfur 20 years ago, which led the president, Omar al-Bashir, to depute the Arab Janjaweed militia to suppress it rather than deploy the army. The result was a genocide in which up to 300,000 died.

The Janjaweed ultimately morphed into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group. Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship was ended after months of popular protests in 2019; in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup, civilians and the military entered into a power-sharing agreement.

But Sudanese army leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan failed to abide by a planned transition to democracy in 2021, instead declaring a state of emergency and seizing power with RSF leader Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, as his deputy. For a year and a half, tensions between the two sides grew, partly over how the RSF should be integrated into the regular army, before exploding in street-to-street violence in the capital of Khartoum. The conflict quickly spread across the country.

Hemedti has claimed to be fighting against “radical Islamists” and promised to restore democracy; Burhan has also claimed to be willing to hand over power to an elected government once the RSF are vanquished. Multiple ceasefires have collapsed, and most observers believe that the two generals are ultimately hoping to take power for themselves.

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The military situation today

At the start of the war, the RSF quickly took control of most of Khartoum outside of the army’s bases there, the cities of Bahri and Omdurman, and the western Kordofan and Darfur regions. The army holds most of the east, running its operations from the coastal city of Port Sudan. Sudan War Monitor has a useful map of areas of control from November; since then, the RSF has advanced further east and captured Sudan’s second city, Wad Madani, in December.

After months of setbacks, the army appeared to have secured its first major advance since the start of the war earlier this month, when it regained control of part of Omdurman. It has also made breakthroughs in Khartoum and elsewhere. This piece on Middle East Eye cites the arming of civilians, better ammunition supplies, and more effective use of drones to find artillery targets as key causes of the army’s recent successes.

Meanwhile, the conflict may be beginning to fragment. “There are a number of other armed groups being drawn in, alongside new self-defence groups,” Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation wrote for Chatham House earlier this month. “Some RSF-aligned Arab militia [are] pursuing local vendettas and land-grabbing and may fracture when its fighters run out of cities to loot.”

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Atrocities and the scale of the humanitarian crisis

In Darfur, Arab militias linked to the RSF were last week accused of “textbook ethnic cleansing” by the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who said that he heard stories of “sexual violence against women … and the killing of young men en masse”. There have been horrific accounts of the targeted killings of people from the Masalit ethnic group in Darfur by the RSF and allied groups that bear the hallmarks of genocide.

In this devastating piece from December, Hamadi Abdullah, a carpenter in El Geneina, told Fred Harter that he was among 30 men led to a patch of ground and ordered to lie down. “The commander said, ‘Shoot all of them.’ And they starting firing – pop, pop, pop, like this,” he said. “I left everything behind and accepted I was going to die.” He estimated that 17 of the group were killed.

The RSF has also been accused of a campaign of abductions and kidnappings for ransom and forced servitude, often sexual slavery. Nor has the army’s conduct been defensible. Both sides have carried out “multiple indiscriminate attacks … in densely populated areas, including sites sheltering internally displaced people”, according to a UN Human Rights Office report released on Friday. A video posted on social media this month and viewed as credible by the UN shows men in army uniform with the decapitated heads of several students, who appear to have been viewed as RSF supporters because of their ethnicity.

As well as the vast refugee crisis, about 70% of healthcare facilities in conflict areas are now not functioning, the UN says, alongside a rapidly worsening cholera outbreak. About 12 million children have been forced out of school by the conflict, bringing the total out of school to 19 million; the UN has only been able to reach 87,000 of the 4.3 million children it has targeted for educational support.

There is also a rapidly worsening food crisis. A recent report by Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, warns that half a million people will likely be killed by famine by June – and in the worst-case scenario, which it says is still not unlikely, a million could die.

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An absence of international aid

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has requested $2.7bn from donors to help deal with the crisis. To date, it says, only 3.5% of that money has been raised.

Partly, that shortfall is due to the international community’s focus on the crises in Ukraine and Gaza. There is also a broader crisis in humanitarian funding, with only 39% of requested aid for UN appeals provided last year against an average of 58% between 2016 and 2022.

Even when aid can be provided by the UN or NGOs, it struggles to reach those who need it most. A recent telecoms blackout instigated by the RSF has stymied the delivery of supplies, while UN officials on the ground have complained of deliberate bureaucratic obstacles to visas and transport permits. In one example, 70 trucks – enough to feed half a million people for a month – were stuck in Port Sudan for two weeks waiting for clearance to move. Burhan has said he will not allow aid into RSF controlled regions, while trucks have been looted by fighters and aid warehouses were emptied at the beginning of the war.

In this article for the New Humanitarian, the chiefs of aid organisations including Save The Children and the International Rescue Committee say that the UN security council must demand unfettered humanitarian access, and better coordinate diplomatic efforts in search of a peace deal with other players including the African Union. The status quo, they say, represents “the deafening silence of global indifference”.

What else we’ve been reading

  • This wonderful piece by Sophie Elmhirst starts with a question: you’re lost at sea with your partner. How long would you survive? Her exploration of the answer, taking in the remarkable real-world example she wrote about in her new book Maurice and Maralyn, is morbid, pessimistic, and weirdly uplifting, in the end. (My wife says I’d die first.) Archie

  • Twenty-five years after the Macpherson report and 30 after the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence, his mother, Doreen Lawrence, reflects on the lack of progress within the Metropolitan police and the continued resistance to change. Nimo

  • Labour’s agonies over whether to support a ceasefire in Gaza aren’t just a problem of principle, writes Nesrine Malik: they reveal its inability to undertake “the sort of reflection or sensitivity to the public on a matter which doesn’t sit squarely in its matrix of ‘electability’”. Archie

  • Lily Gladstone is the first Native American to be nominated for best actress at the Oscars, for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Now she has shared a list of 42 other Indigenous artists that we should be paying attention to. Lois Beckett spoke with eight of them about their careers and changing the industries they work in. Nimo

  • For three decades, Tracy King believed her father had been killed by a murderous teenage gang. Her account for Saturday magazine of how her understanding of that catastrophe changed is a humane and heartbreaking piece of reporting – as well as a meditation on how hard it is to pin down what we really know about our own lives. Archie

Sport

Football | A 118th-minute header from Virgil Van Dijk was the only goal of a remarkable Carabao Cup final in which an injury-hit Liverpool side full of untested young players overcame a wasteful Chelsea team who have now lost six successive finals. Jürgen Klopp called the triumph “easily the most special trophy I have ever won”.

Cricket | In a nailbiting finish to the fourth test, India have lost five wickets for 121 runs in pursuit of 192 to win the series against England. Three early wickets taken by spin increased England’s hopes of a stunning victory before Shoaib Bashir took two wickets in two balls after lunch. Follow live coverage here.

Rugby | Despite a magnificent showing from Italy and a mediocre one from France, the two teams drew 13-13 at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in the Six Nations. Italy avoided defeat against France for the first time in 15 matches but will come away bitterly disappointed after fly-half Paolo Garbisi hit the post with a penalty kick in the last seconds of the game – after the ball fell off the tee.

The front pages

Today’s Guardian print edition leads with “Sunak urged to speak out as Islamophobia row deepens”. “Tory party ‘in the gutter’ over racism, warns Warsi” – that’s the i, while “Red wall revolt over Anderson sacking” is how the Telegraph approaches the Conservative turmoil. The Daily Mail reports on “Generation sicknote”, asking whether it’s young people’s mental health problems or their “snowflakery” that’s keeping them away from work. “Cleverly warns of AI fakes threat to election” is the splash in the Times, while it’s hypotheticals in the Daily Express: “Damning claims of 250,000 extra migrants a year under Labour”. “Class war” – the Daily Mirror tells of a “Crisis in schools” and how teachers are “scared to even go to work” because of a collapse in student behaviour. Tory cuts to support services are blamed. “TV’s Kate caught in spike epidemic” – the Metro says presenter Kate McCann fell to the floor after “brazen” men put something was in her drink at a club.

Today in Focus

Saldo: Ukraine’s gangster governor – part 1

Vladimir Saldo was swept from Ukraine’s parliament after the Maidan revolution appeared to end his political career. By 2022, police were preparing a case against him as a suspect in a contract killing. Then Russia invaded and everything changed. Tom Burgis reports

Cartoon of the day | Edith Pritchett

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

One of the best things to do on a hot summer day is walk through a lush botanical garden – but they’re not just a beautiful sanctuary for rare plants. A comprehensive study has found that botanical gardens are the most effective green space at cooling surrounding city streets during heatwaves. The research by the Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCCAR) found that sites such as the Chelsea Physic Garden and Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London (pictured), or the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, reduced air temperatures during heatwaves by an average 5C.

And it’s not just botanical gardens: urban parks, wetlands and even green walls, street trees and playgrounds were found to significantly mitigate temperatures. As the climate crisis causes temperatures to soar across the world, the scientists behind this research are hoping that the results will inform policymakers planning cities.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.