Always a target: What life looks like caught in the crossfire of war in Sudan

The reality of war for women is often ugly and the current situation in Sudan is no exception. TW: This article contains mentions of sexual violence. Please read at your own discretion. Proceed with caution.

Gynecologist Howida Alhassan was frantically trying to give life-saving support to her patients at Alban Jaded Hospital, right at the heart of Khartoum’s Eastern Nile district, when it became the epicenter of a raging war between Sudan's two most powerful armed groups.

With the health system coming to an almost complete halt as a result of the conflict, Alhassan was struggling to save her patients who surpassed the due date of their C-sections. She says women who undergo miscarriages are left to fend for themselves.

With almost no resources, the 53-year-old doctor and unionist says she has to make daily choices, offering support only to women whose lives are more at risk than others.

“At one point, I wished one of these flying rockets to hit us all so that we die. Death is much better than living with the daily pain of impunity, without being able to help everyone,” she said.

Millions of civilians in Sudan are currently caught in the crossfire of a power struggle between the country’s armed forces, and the powerful paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The fighting erupted over a disagreement between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy and RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo over the future of the paramilitary group.

RSF emerged from al-Janjaweed militia which fought in the 2003 Darfur war to suppress a rebel movement against the regime of former president Omar al-Bashir. Named as a group of “Men with no mercy” according to Human Rights Watch, the militia’s violations against civilians amounted to war crimes, including abuses against women.

“There is a history of sexual harassment and rape that cannot be forgotten,” 22-year-old volunteer medical student Zainab Ezzeldin said.

“Women share advice on their online private groups to not go out in the streets. RSF are everywhere in the city,” she said.

Volunteering at the same hospital where Alhassan works, Ezzeldin carefully calculates her daily commute from her home in the Eastern Nile district to the nearby hospital.

Car pickups have been arranged for the few women working there. One night, they were tipped that RSF vehicles are approaching the hospital. All the women were escorted out of the hospital from a backdoor, for fear of rape or abduction.

“I’m constantly scared, I don’t know what the future has for us. Our normal lives are gone. I’m more worried at home than when I’m at the hospital. At least there I’m doing something useful,” she said.

Dallia Abdelmoniem left her home in Khartoum to Port Sudan and later evacuated to Cairo, where she took a flight to London and brought her aging mother to safety.

While in Khartoum, her biggest fear was the safety of four female foreign house helpers of a young age. One day, armed men were in the front yard of her house.

“My immediate thought was how I can make sure nothing happens to them. Because once they (men believed to be RFS members) get into your house, there is nothing you could do. If they saw these girls, they would definitely rape them,” she explained.

She was referring to unconfirmed reports of rape against women of African nationalities. She was only assured when she discovered the two men were embassy guards who escaped into their house.

RSF has repeatedly denied allegations of violations against civilians, adding that the group works to restore democracy in Sudan and fights what it describes as disinformation in global media regarding the war.  

“So, at the back of your mind, regardless of how a strong woman you are, you are always seen as the target,” Abdelmoniem said.

Period poverty

Security and lack of access to health services are not the only layers of hardship faced by women in Sudan. With pharmacies running out of stock due to a collapsing supply chain and looting, women also struggle with a lack of much-needed sanitary pads in the war-torn capital.

“I had an early period this month because of the stress, many other women I know had the same problem. There are no sanitary pads,” Ezzeldin said.

Addressing period poverty is considered a taboo in the country’s conservative society, with women and girls struggling during their monthly periods to maintain their hygiene, UNICEF said.

Embarking on a 26-hour journey from Khartoum to Port Sudan, Abdelmoniem experienced firsthand the struggle of women on the run to other cities or even neighboring countries to maintain their menstrual health and hygiene. Having little to no pads and no access to clean bathrooms, young women traveling on the same bus as Abdelmoniem stayed for hours, sometimes days without changing their pads.

“Unless you have gone through the whole ordeal of having blood coming out of you every month, you will never understand what a woman goes through.”