Sudan’s civilians pick up arms, as RSF gains and army stumbles

When the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) called on young men to enlist last June, Zakariya Issa* went to the nearest recruitment centre. He was one of thousands of young people who trained for 10 weeks in Wad Madani, a city just south of the capital Khartoum.

In September, he was deployed with 500 people to fight the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a group stronger than the army and backed by the United Arab Emirates. Many of his friends and peers were killed or wounded within a couple of weeks.

“I lost five of my friends,” Issa, 20, told Al Jazeera from Saudi Arabia, where he now lives. “They were more than friends. They were my brothers.”

The Sudanese army and allied groups are relying on young men with little or no military training to fight as foot soldiers against the RSF. Over the past week, recruitment has picked up across River Nile State since the RSF captured Wad Madani, Sudan’s second-largest city.

River Nile state is a traditionally privileged region that has produced many of the political and military elites in Sudan’s modern history. But now, army officers and figures from Sudan’s political Islamic movement, which ruled for 30 years under former autocratic president Omar al-Bashir, are calling on young men from this region to thwart the RSF.

New recruits told Al Jazeera that they are motivated to pick up weapons due to the risk that the RSF could attack their cities, loot their belongings and subject women to sexual violence.

Most view the RSF – which is primarily made up of tribal nomadic fighters from Sudan’s neglected province of Darfur – as invaders and occupiers. While the group has evicted thousands of people from their homes, army supporters are also exploiting ethnic undertones to recruit young men.

“I picked up a gun to defend myself, my ethnic group and my homeland,” said Yaser, 21, from Shendi, a city in River Nile State where thousands of people have reportedly picked up weapons in recent days.

“The RSF are not just at war with the army. They are at war with civilians,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘Cannon fodder’: Civilians arming themselves

After Wad Madani fell to the RSF, civilians across eastern and northern Sudan were devastated. The city was a haven for internally displaced people who fled Khartoum and surrounding towns earlier in the war. They are now on the move again.

“People mostly think that the army can’t protect them now,” said Suleiman al-Sadig,* a lawyer from Atbara, a city in River Nile State.

Recent RSF advances have compounded the panic. Photos and videos surfacing across social media show what appear to be children and young men arming themselves in River Nile State. According to residents and journalists, some of those recruits have gone to Wad Madani to fight the RSF, while others are staying behind in case of an attack.

“The calls to get armed are not coming from the army. They’re mostly coming from civilians themselves,“ al-Sadig, told Al Jazeera.

Sulieman Baldo, the founder of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker think tank, believes arming young men is irresponsible.

“For me, these young recruits are really cannon fodder for ideological reasons,” he told Al Jazeera. “Sudan’s [political] Islamic movement is pushing for this kind of mobilisation in areas that are beyond the RSF’s control.”

In one photo on social media, which Al Jazeera could not independently verify, one of the young recruits is seen captured by the RSF and tied to the windshield of a car.

A former soldier, who is in close contact with officers in the army, added that new recruits are often the first people to die in battle.

“They have no combat or military background and they just carry weapons. They die quickly,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ethnic targeting

Over the last two decades, River Nile State has attracted many young men from Arab and non-Arab tribes in search of work and stability. Many were uprooted by the state-backed Arab tribal militias – later repackaged as the RSF – which crushed a mostly non-Arab rebellion in Darfur in 2003.

These young men are now being accused of spying on behalf of the RSF based on their ethnicity and tribal affiliations. According to local monitors, many have been arrested, tortured and even killed by military intelligence and by civilians carrying arms in northeastern cities.

On December 19, Zeinab Noon* spoke with her male cousins who are all between the ages of 16 and 20. They told her that they captured RSF spies in Shendi.

“[They said] they’re torturing them, so there is a sense of paranoia,” Noon, who lives outside of Sudan, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think they know [for sure if they’re really spies].”

The Darfur Network for Human Rights (DNHR), a local monitoring group, said in a statement that these attacks are “linked to incitement to ethnic violence” in River Nile cities.

Jawhara Kanu, a Sudanese expert with the United States Institute for Peace, said that the ethnically targeted attacks risk pushing vulnerable people from Darfur and Kordofan, a province in central Sudan, into the arms of the RSF.

“These people are going to find themselves in a situation where they are going to be tortured [by parties aligned] with SAF unless they choose to join the RSF for protection.”

Ending the war

Despite growing calls to bear arms, some activists are pushing for an end to the war and for young men not to fight. So far, their efforts appear to be in vain, according to al-Sadig from Atbara.

He said that there was a protest held in his city on December 23. Young men were demanding that the governor arm them, so that they could defend their city and join the army in battles across the country.

RSF abuses in Wad Madani are also fuelling calls for mobilisation. More than 300,000 people are fleeing the city, mostly on foot. RSF fighters are also reportedly looting cars, hospitals, homes and markets, adding to a hunger crisis.

In one video circulating on social media and which Al Jazeera could not independently verify, an RSF fighter declares that it is “his right” to rape women in cities he conquers.

Al-Sadig says that news of abuses travels wide and is terrifying civilians in the River Nile region.

“Every single day, young men are being told by people in their community that the RSF is going to come and get you and that they will take your homes, kill your children and rape your women,” he told Al Jazeera.

Non-violent activists like al-Sadig hope that the war will stop soon. On December 22, local media reported that top army chief Abdel Fatah al-Burhan had agreed to sit down with RSF leader Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo.

While an agreement could spare Sudan further bloodshed, al-Sadig is waiting to see where the RSF attacks next. He told Al Jazeera that he will pick up a weapon if he has to.

“I don’t want to pick up arms. But if the RSF targets my home, or my children or my wife, then of course I will defend them,” he said.

*Some names have been changed for safety reasons. 

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