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Fears that deadly Sudan conflict could spill into other regions

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

About a month ago, fighting erupted in Sudan. The story grabbed headlines. But I admit, even as someone who spends a lot of time consuming international news, it seemed complicated to understand why exactly this conflict had started. Ultimately, the way I've come to understand it is that this conflict is a power struggle between two opposing military leaders, two men fighting over who will ultimately control the country and its wealth of resources.

The warring factions are led by Sudan's de facto military leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his former deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. He's the head of the Rapid Support Forces, or the RSF. And neither leader wants to cede control to a civilian government. The fighting began about a month ago, and it's quickly become a story of broken cease-fires, constant clashes, mass displacement and an exodus of refugees.

Fighting that began in the capital Khartoum has now spread across the country. Over 600 people have died. Thousands more are injured, and people are fleeing Sudan in droves. And there are fears that this conflict could spread to other countries in what is already a volatile region. For help in understanding the situation in Sudan, we reached out to three people who've been following the events in Africa, as well as the foreign policy decisions that are playing out here in the U.S. First, we've got NPR's Africa correspondent, Emmanuel Akinwotu.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KHALID: We're also joined by NPR's Middle East correspondent, Aya Batrawy in Dubai.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi.

KHALID: And NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us from the State Department here in Washington, D.C. It's great to have you all.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: So Emmanuel, I want to begin with you. How did Sudan get to this point? I mean, if you could go back four years ago, there was a revolution in Sudan and a promise of a civilian government after years of military rule. So what happened?

AKINWOTU: Well, primarily the stunning collapse of this country over the last four weeks, month of fighting. Over 500 people have died, thousands injured. Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, has been the epicenter of this fighting. And we've seen residential areas, commercial areas completely destroyed, taken over by fighters, shelled, subjected to air raids. People have been dying while sheltering at home. You know, we spoke to the family of one woman, a doctor, Nagwa Khalid Hamad. She was killed in her living room by shrapnel. Several thousands of people have fled. The U.N. say up to 850,000 could end up fleeing.

The humanitarian crisis has been appalling and tragic. You know, a lack of very basic medical supplies, only a few dozen health centers functioning across the entire country - so really, just a truly desperate situation. You know, hundreds of thousands of people have fled already. I'm in Chad, a country to the west of Sudan, where, you know, several tens of thousands of people have fled to in a situation where Chad had already - was already hosting about half a million refugees. And so it's an incredibly tense situation that is growing more severe by the day.

BATRAWY: Yeah. And I'll add to that that I've heard from multiple people in Egypt, where the most number of Sudanese have fled, that there have also been deaths at the border on Sudan's side because there's no aid agencies on the ground there and because the Sudanese government is just absent as far as offering medical care. I mean, I just got a message before we started this call from a woman who works at the U.N. who left. She's Sudanese, and she said a family friend of theirs, their grandson, was in their 20s. He died at the border from a heart attack. And this is just maybe the sixth story I've heard like that in just the past week.

KHALID: I want to ask you more about just the sheer numbers of people who are trying to flee from the situation in Sudan. You've reported from Saudi Arabia, where foreigners have been given safe passage from Sudan. What is the scene like?

BATRAWY: So I saw a lot of grief and exhaustion but also relief being in Saudi Arabia and being in safety because it feels like a completely different world when you get there. And the Saudis are using their naval ships to evacuate thousands of foreigners from Sudan, but they're not taking in refugees. So these are people who have other passports. They can get out, and they have short-term visas when they get to Saudi. But the U.S. also joined other countries in deploying their naval ships to help with these evacuation efforts across the Red Sea. And that's how I met Mohammed Kodak, a British Sudanese father who was with a toddler, his wife and a newborn baby. He'd been on a U.S. naval ship about 12 hours crossing the Red Sea from Sudan until he got to Saudi Arabia. Here's what he told me it feels like to leave Sudan.

MOHAMMED KODAK: It's a relief. But we all left people behind and friends and family and life, really, overnight. Things have changed, so it's pretty tough. Yeah. I was telling her earlier, you know, like, even saying goodbyes to people, it's quite tough. I left my - both my mother and father and my brother.

BATRAWY: So for a lot of people, it's not just fleeing to safety. It's also leaving behind friends and family and not knowing if you're going to see them again and not really being able to help them.

KHALID: Michele, I want to bring you into the conversation here. You know, hearing the situation that Aya describes, I'm left wondering, what is the United States' involvement here? Where's the international community?

KELEMEN: Well, right now, they're taking part in talks in Saudi Arabia just to get the guns silenced long enough to get aid into the country. I mean, when this whole thing broke out, the first focus was evacuating the American embassy, getting Americans to safety and then helping other Americans who were kind of stranded and caught in the crossfire. Now, it seems like they're trying to get to some sort of cease-fire between the two generals and mostly to get aid flowing, because that's really, you know, a crucial issue right now.

KHALID: So Michele, you're based at the State Department for NPR. And I do want to ask, you know, did the Biden administration, did the United States see this conflict coming?

KELEMEN: Well, critics say they should have. Sudan had been seen as this possible success story. It was a country that was coming out of decades of dictatorship with a lot of hopes. But these two generals really upended the country's transition in October 2021. And, you know, I was talking this week to Jeff Feltman, who was the U.S. envoy at the time, and he says he came back to Washington calling for sanctions. It was a battle that he lost.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: You know, one argument against my position was, well, Jeff, if we put sanctions on these guys, not only do we cut off the channels, the people we need to get in line to put this transition back on track, but they aren't going to have an impact anyway because the Gulf countries are not going to follow suit. And the assets that these guys have would be in the Gulf, not in the United States.

KELEMEN: So, you know, he's not really sure that it would have made a difference. But he does think that if the U.S. took stronger action against the generals, that it would have at least maintained some sort of credibility with Sudanese civilians, who are really angry at the U.S. role here. The State Department is defending its approach, saying that the reality is you have to talk to the guys with the guns. U.S. officials thought they were getting close to a deal between these two generals, but that really went up in flames in April. And now we see this kind of spiraling out of control.

AKINWOTU: Just to add to that, Michele, you know, these talks going on in Jeddah at the moment, they've been going on for several days, and we're no closer, at least seemingly, from - to a humanitarian cease-fire. And we've obviously seen several cease-fires be announced and not really come to fruition. And even the talks themselves have also attracted a lot of criticism from civilian actors from civil society in Sudan, who are saying that the fact that the talks exclude civilian actors and are primarily focused on the RSF and the army is a reflection of the same - or it mirrors the same strategy that perhaps got us here in the first place.

KHALID: Michele, you mentioned these talks in Saudi Arabia. Beyond that, what is the United States' role, would you say, in diplomacy, in trying to find an end here in this conflict?

KELEMEN: Well, there are a couple of things. I mean, one is to try to make sure that rebels from surrounding countries - you remember Sudan neighbors a lot of very fragile states - making sure that you're not seeing an influx in rebels and others trying to join this fight. The other is just trying to manage all of the countries that are involved in Sudan. There are a lot of countries with interests there.

You know, again, Jeff Feltman was telling me that other countries could actually be helpful, not just Saudi Arabia but Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and others. He says no one wants Sudan to collapse and become another Syria or Somalia. That's in no one's interest. The problem is that if this conflict drags on longer, outsiders like those countries might become more tempted to try to tip the scale in favor of the general that they back in the crisis. And that's just a recipe for disaster.

KHALID: Aya, you're based in the Middle East, and we've been talking here about these talks that are occurring in Saudi Arabia right now. What sense do you have of the influence that some of the other countries in the Middle East are having on the conflict in Sudan?

BATRAWY: Well, if we take a step back, you look at Sudan, and you see that it straddles Africa and the Middle East, and it's perched on the Nile and the Red Sea. So that makes it a very important country to a lot of countries. And also, you know, it looks to me like there are certain countries that want to see their side come to the negotiating table with the upper hand. And so there's an interest in, actually, this dragging on until that happens.

I mean, Cairo wants to ensure a friendly government in Khartoum. It is their stability. They see this as a strategic red line that cannot be crossed. They cannot have a militia leader in charge in the capital, Khartoum, at their border. So they support the army. And guess what? Many of those generals, including Burhan himself, trained in Egypt's military academies. So there are deep links between the two countries' militaries.

Ethiopia also borders Sudan, and Egypt and Ethiopia are at odds over Nile water rights. But then there's also countries like we mentioned, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They have relied on Sudanese forces from Hemedti's fighters in their war in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia still has some of those forces in Yemen and pays the RSF for that. So there's real concern that the fighting is drawing in a lot of very influential players with very different and deep interests.

KHALID: Emmanuel, before we wrap up this conversation, I want to ask you about the human toll. I know we've spent a lot of time talking about geopolitics - right? - and what this means kind of for a foreign policy context. But you've been in touch with people in the capital, Khartoum, the center of this conflict. You've been in touch with those folks since the beginning of when this fighting started. What stories have stuck with you the most?

AKINWOTU: There was a story of a Dr. Hadi Mohammed (ph), who I spoke to last week, and she talked about - she was at a hospital in Khartoum that she worked in. And she was on the children's ward when the conflict started, and she wasn't able to leave the hospital. She was trapped in there as the fighting erupted. And she talked about, you know, floods of patients coming in to the hospital - bullet wounds, shrapnel wounds. She - it just sounded absolutely bleak. And she talked about how rapidly medical supplies diminished to the point where they didn't have basic medical equipment, didn't have anesthetic treatment. So they were having to make calls on whether to operate on someone, knowing that they'd probably die if they didn't operate on them, but they could die if they did.

There's also the story of a woman Duaa Tariq, who is an activist, a member of a local resistance committee in Khartoum. And these are committees that sprung up during - and some before - the revolution and were incredibly important during the revolution and have been in the last few weeks, especially in the context of a real lack of humanitarian support in the country. They've been helping to pool resources, to be there for people, to coordinate help. Duaa really sticks with me because of how, despite the circumstances she describes, is so determined, is so fearless. She talked about how her and a few others have been going out at night on the streets in Khartoum, spraying words no to war on the walls and chanting so that people who are trapped at home can hear them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Oh, revolutionary, continue chanting. Tell the people of the neighborhood I'm coming, as long as I'm alive. You're safe. Don't be scared. Also, bringing songs to show you how to hold up - and don't forget, even when it gets dark and ugly, we're here around you, holding you down.

AKINWOTU: And those words have stuck with me and their resilience and the small but incredible ways in which people find ways to make their voice heard even in the midst of this just unreal situation is kind of incredible.

KHALID: That was NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu, Aya Batrawy and Michele Kelemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.