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Sudan's dire humanitarian crisis has raised alarm bells in the region

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The United Nations is warning that millions are on the verge of famine in Sudan due to the war there. The fighting began in mid-April when forces led by Sudan's de facto president and army chief faced off against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. The U.N. also says that more than 4 million people have fled to neighboring countries like Egypt and Chad. To understand how we got here, we turn to Alex de Waal. He's the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and a Sudan scholar. Welcome to the show.

ALEX DE WAAL: It's wonderful to be with you. I just wish we had something more cheerful to talk about.

RASCOE: Can you catch us up on how things have developed since April? And how did things escalate to this point?

DE WAAL: Well, this war has now been going on for four months, and there seems to be no end in sight. And the two main epicenters of war are the capital city, Khartoum, which is being subjected to some harrowing urban warfare. The paramilitaries, the Rapid Support Forces, have occupied most residential neighborhoods in Khartoum, and they are ransacking and terrorizing them. And the regular armed forces are using their superiority in aircraft and artillery to try and bombard these locations. So civilians are caught in this dreadful trap. And then the other epicenter is Darfur. And many listeners will be familiar with the terrible war and massacres - the United States called it genocide - that happened 20 years ago. And we're seeing pretty much exactly the same scenario of mass killing, mass displacement happening all over again, and that is terribly tragic.

RASCOE: The deputy executive director of UNICEF has said that Sudan is one of the most dangerous places to operate in the world right now. How would you describe the humanitarian crisis?

DE WAAL: Even before the fighting broke out in April, Sudan was in a humanitarian crisis. There had been a number of different wars. There were still 2 to 3 million people displaced from that war in Darfur, living in camps fed by the World Food Program, who'd been living there for 20 years. And the economy was in a terrible nosedive. And millions of ordinary urban people simply couldn't earn enough money from their wages to buy enough food. So it was already in a food crisis. And then you put on top of that the devastation caused by this war, the fact that almost all the hospitals in Khartoum are now closed. It's really hard to imagine quite - not only the scale of the crisis but the complexity, the different layers of collapse of society, of food systems, of medical supplies and so on.

RASCOE: What can aid groups and international groups that want to help - what can they do to get help to people?

DE WAAL: There are three things that I think we need to think about. One is the conventional aid response, which is getting food convoys, getting medical teams in, etc., which is incredibly dangerous because neither of the warring parties is interested in that happening. The second is that the Sudanese themselves are actually very well-organized in trying to help themselves. There were local neighborhood committees called resistance committees that were organized a few years ago to resist the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, and they have been repurposed as front-line responders. But then the big question is, why is this not on the political agenda? Why is this not at the U.N. Security Council? Why is the U.N. Secretary-General just making a few bland statements? So there doesn't seem to be the political pressure necessary to generate a humanitarian response, to pressure the parties or, indeed, to start negotiations for peace.

RASCOE: Do you know why you think that is? - why this hasn't gotten attention? Obviously, all eyes have been on Niger because of the coup in that country. Is the West distracted by that and other international crises like what's happening in Ukraine?

DE WAAL: I think the No. 1 is that we've all been distracted by Ukraine and haven't had time for any African crises, really. The war in Ethiopia was just as devastating - didn't get really any serious policy attention. And I think Sudan is the same. But what I fear is that these crises are now getting so big. They're generating so many refugees, generating the complete failure, the collapse of states - which is what we're seeing in Sudan, we may see in Niger and elsewhere - that the United States, the U.N., others are really going to have to up their game and respond on a much, much bigger scale.

RASCOE: Could there be a political solution to end the violence in Sudan?

DE WAAL: There has to be a political solution. And the U.S. and Saudi Arabia actually very rapidly started cease-fire talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah, but they haven't really got anywhere. And I think the reason why they haven't is because, first of all, there hasn't been any real leverage on the parties. There's no arms embargo. But also, there isn't an overall vision about how this problem is going to be solved. There's no package to say if Sudan is put back on the path to democracy, then the kind of overall economic support to stabilize Sudan, to have a credible democracy in which elected leaders can really chart a future direction of the country - none of this has been put in place.

RASCOE: That's Alex de Waal. He is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Thank you so much for joining us.

DE WAAL: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BARR BROTHERS' "STATIC ORPHANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.