Church leaders call for return to dialogue after fighting in Sudan left nearly 200 dead
(OSV News) — Catholic bishops have joined diplomats and other leaders across the world in urging fighting factions in Sudan to lay down arms, as the death toll in the four days of violence continued to rise.
Fighting between the regular army and a paramilitary broke out in the northeastern African country April 14, with the two sides firing tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons.
In Khartoum, the capital city, giant mushroom smoke clouds were seen billowing as fighter jets and attack helicopters dropped bombs. Anti-aircraft fire could be heard cracking in response. The latest fighting has raised fears of a civil war for the country, which has been trying to return to democracy after decades of military rule.
"There is fighting all over the country. We are indoors," Bishop Tombe Trille Kuku Andali of El Obeid told OSV News April 17 from Khartoum. "Right now, there are gunshots all over. Thank God, we are safe."
Out of a Sudanese population of 46.8 million, 5.4% are Christians. Catholics account for about 1.1 million people. But the bishops' reactions captured the situation of millions of people trapped by the heavy fighting in their homes and other places.
After weeks of tension, a power struggle between Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), which is the regular army, and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Force (RSF), engaged in full fighting April 15.
In practice, al-Burhan is the Sudanese president, while Dagalo is his deputy, but "the straw that broke the camel's back," many say, was an attempt to integrate the paramilitary into the country's army. The army leader said this was part of the effort to restore civilian rule.
The two generals rose to prominence as leaders of a transitional government formed in 2019, after the ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Bashir had ruled the country for 30 years but was overthrown following months of mass popular uprising.
With al-Bashir out of the way, the Sudanese leaders formed a hybrid government composed of the military leaders and a civilian prime minister. The pact forming the government involved a gradual move to civilian rule, but two coups — in which al-Burhan and Dagalo were involved — forced the civilian part of the government to resign in 2022.
On April 17, reports indicated that Khartoum — a city of 6 million people — was running out of water and food. Most families have been unable to restock supplies as fighting forced the closure of shops and markets.
In Juba, Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mula said Catholic bishops in neighboring South Sudan were saddened by the fighting in Khartoum and other cities. He expressed a deep concern over the loss of lives and properties.
"We are aware many people are trapped by the fighting away from their homes, many in their homes, with no way to access basic needs for their survival and their families. Many have been injured and others have died," Archbishop Mula wrote in a statement April 17. He also called for prayers for Sudan in the spirit of Easter. "We pray for the protection of all people caught in the conflict."
According to the archbishop, the majority of the people were suffering and yearned for peace. "In order to preserve the unity of the country and not to further the suffering of the people, we call for an end to the fighting and a (return) to dialogue," Archbishop Ameyu urged.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the fighting and appealed to the leaders to immediately cease hostilities, restore calm and begin dialogue to end the crisis. "The situation has already led to horrendous loss of lives, including many civilians," Guterres said.
Diplomats were assaulted in Sudan as a U.S. diplomatic convoy was fired at on Tuesday, April 17. The same day the European Union ambassador also was attacked in his home. These attacks were reported as hospitals came under attack and students in Khartum were trapped inside buildings on the campus. The death toll from the fighting was nearly 200 to date. An estimated 1,800 people also have been injured.
On April 15, three employees of the U.N.'s World Food Program were killed and another two injured while on duty in Kabkabiya, North Darfur. The tragedy forced the agency to halt its operations in Sudan.
"Any loss of life in humanitarian service is unacceptable and I demand immediate steps to guarantee the safety of those who remain," Cindy McCain, the World Food Program's executive director, said in a statement April 16.
"Aid workers are neutral and should never be a target. Threats to our teams make it impossible to operate safely and effectively in the country and carry out WFP's critical work," McCain said, adding that it was difficult for WFP's staff to operate after a U.N. Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) aircraft was "significantly damaged" at Sudan's Khartoum airport during an exchange of fire on April 15.
According to agencies, hospitals have been attacked, and medical and other supplies have been looted in parts of the country. The World Health Organization is alarmed that several hospitals treating wounded civilians in Khartoum have run out of blood, transfusion equipment, intravenous fluids and other important supplies.
by Frederick Nzwili, who writes for OSV News from Nairobi, Kenya.