YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Leading Catholic experts have warned that Sudan’s deadly war not only is creating a severe humanitarian crisis inside the country, but its lethal consequences are also spilling across the border into neighboring Chad.
“In seven weeks, Chad has registered more than 150,000 new refugees, among which 92 percent are women and children,” said Jean-Marie Bihizi, Catholic Relief Services’ country manager for Chad.
War broke out in Sudan on April 15 when the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) engaged each other in battle in the search for political control.
To date, the conflict has left at least 500 people dead and over 4,000 injured, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee.
“The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported that nearly 2 million people have fled their homes and more than 24 million require humanitarian assistance,” said Paul Emes, CRS’ country representative for Sudan.
In an exclusive interview with Crux, Bihizi and Emes talked about the humanitarian impacts of the war in both Sudan and Chad and what the CRS and other humanitarian NGOs have been doing to help.
Crux: As a humanitarian organization, how would you assess the war in Sudan that broke out on April 15?
Paul Emes: When any conflict occurs, regardless of how it begins, Catholic Relief Services is focused on the impacts on the families in the affected communities. In Sudan, we are working with local partners and donors like USAID to ensure that vulnerable households have things like food and ongoing access to healthcare.
Since the outbreak of the war, CRS Sudan has adapted to keep our presence in the country, and we are dedicated to remaining in Sudan and helping people here for as long as possible.
There are reports that women and girls are being raped. Have you heard of such cases, and what do you think fighters want to achieve by raping women?
Emes: Actions like this shatter the dignity of women and girls and can be devastating physically, emotionally, and mentally. Those who have experienced sexual assault are in our constant prayers and we have programming in place in Sudan to keep health clinics functioning for those in need of medical attention.
In Chad, CRS and other humanitarian groups are taking actions to protect refugees and ensure safe spaces for women and girls are available so they can find respite.
How would you assess the humanitarian situation in terms of the number of people forced to flee from their homes and in terms of their basic needs?
Emes: In different locations in Sudan the situation is very severe. The most affected areas are Khartoum, West Darfur, and the capital of Central Darfur, Zalingei.
Besides the ongoing conflict in Khartoum, residents have been subject to looting and harassment. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported that nearly 2 million people have fled their homes and more than 24 million require humanitarian assistance.
According to OCHA’s latest report, more than two-thirds of hospitals in conflict-affected areas are non-operational, which means people with chronic diseases have not been able to access medication. People have also faced difficulties accessing food, water, shelter, and many marketplaces have been destroyed or are inaccessible.
I understand that Chad has become a major destination for the fleeing refugees?
Jean-Marie Bihizi: In seven weeks, Chad has registered more than 150,000 new refugees, among which 92 percent are women and children.
In arrival sites near the border, with the rainy season starting at the end of May, there is a pressing need to relocate the maximum number of refugees so that they are not cut off on the other side by the strong torrents of rainwater. As of June 15, only about 17,000 people have been relocated.
With drastically increasing numbers of Sudanese refugees, the needs are huge, and the resources are lacking for refugees in transit/arrival sites, which are in remote zones with difficult access. Right now, the immediate needs for Sudanese refugees in Chad are food, screening and treatment for malnourished children, boreholes for water, latrines, basic healthcare, and protection of vulnerable groups including unaccompanied children, pregnant women, and elders.
Can you describe the sense of loss they feel, and are they welcomed by host communities?
Bihizi: The refugees arrive in Chadian territory exhausted and with nothing except the few items they could carry. Those arriving in Chad have said that most men remained in Darfur to protect their families’ homes and other assets, like farms and livestock. At all levels, the government of Chad and hosting communities are welcoming the refugees and no incidents have been reported.
Sudan is bordered by several countries in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti is relatively stable, but other Horn of Africa countries – Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia – are all in the throes of severe domestic turmoil. How do you think the war in Sudan could constitute an imminent danger for regional stability?
Emes: No matter where we live, we should be concerned and pray for the safety and stability of our neighbors. Along with our local and international partners, CRS is dedicated to helping families in Sudan stay safe and healthy. We have faith that, if the international community comes together to support NGOs like CRS, we can uphold the dignity of people living and working here.
How has CRS been responding to the crisis?
Emes: When the fighting began on April 15, the security situation was so severe that CRS offices were temporarily closed as staff relocated to safer areas and options for resuming operations were assessed. We’ve been working with the World Food Programme (WFP) to distribute food to vulnerable families across West and Central Darfur. With assistance from USAID, we’ve also been focused on keeping health clinics in Central Darfur operational.
So far, we’ve distributed about three months’ worth of supplies to 21 health clinics so they can continue helping their communities. Despite the volatile security situation, CRS is continuing with its programming in Sudan. Since Khartoum is still inaccessible, we opened an office in Port Sudan (east of Sudan) to provide support for our programs. We are also planning to work with farmers in East Darfur to help them grow and harvest this season, which is starting soon.
Bihizi: In Chad, via the Diocese of Mungo through Caritas AURA (Association Union Réflexion et Action), CRS will provide emergency food aid, as well as distributions of supplies like mattresses, sheets, blankets, cooking pots, jerrycans, buckets, mosquito nets, and hygiene items like soap to more than 2,000 people currently living in Andressa, along the border of Sudan. Due to its remote location, CRS is one of the only humanitarian organizations currently working there.
Why, in your opinion, are the warring factions finding it hard to reach a compromise?
Emes: As a humanitarian organization, CRS’ focus is the families that are impacted by the ongoing fighting. We have not been involved in any way with the negotiation attempts for a ceasefire and therefore, cannot speak to the terms for a peaceful resolution. As long as CRS continues to find a way to operate safely, we will remain in Sudan to support those living and working here.