Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2023
Explosive Weapons Use in Sudan
The devastating impacts on civilians of bombing and shelling in Sudan’s towns and cities
Katherine Young, Research & Monitoring Coordinator, Explosive Weapons Monitor
Since the eruption of conflict on 15 April 2023, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have used explosive weapons in towns and cities in Sudan that have killed and injured civilians, damaged and destroyed civilian infrastructure, and disrupted services essential to the lives and well-being of civilians. As a result, civilians live with a dangerous shortage of food and water, unreliable access to electricity, and impeded access to healthcare. To prevent this foreseeable pattern of harm and mitigate risk to civilians, armed forces and groups in Sudan – and elsewhere – must avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
On 15 April 2023, civilians in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, knew conflict had come by the sounds of fighter jets in the air and the firing of artillery rounds in the streets. That day, fighting erupted between Sudan’s military, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The fighting, led by rival military leaders who had jointly overthrown Sudan’s transitional government at the end of 2021, spread quickly from Khartoum to other parts of the country, including Darfur region and the Kordofan states.[i]
Khartoum has since been devastated by nearly five months of conflict. Entire sections of the city have been destroyed, and civilians who could not flee now face critical shortages of water, electricity, food and medicine as a result. In West Darfur – a region yet recovered from decades of pre-existing violence – aid camps, health facilities and markets were destroyed. Paramilitary forces fired heavy artillery and, when civilians desperate for food and water in the 100-degree heat began fleeing the city, shot and killed people in the streets.[ii]
This conflict has played out largely in Sudan’s towns and cities – in many cases densely populated areas where civilians live and work. While RSF fighters on the ground spread throughout these populated areas armed with artillery and anti-aircraft weaponry, SAF fighter planes, attack helicopters and drones launch missiles and drop bombs from above. In one case, a Khartoum resident told Human Rights Watch about the RSF fighters deployed in front of her home, some of whom she found sleeping inside her building. Outside, they fired anti-aircraft cannons “each time there was a plane” during fighting she described as unrelenting for the first three days of the conflict.[iii]
The resulting damage and destruction of civilian infrastructure has had devastating impacts on the provision of essential services. As a result, civilians live with a dangerous shortage of food and water, unreliable access to electricity, and impeded access to healthcare. Millions of Sudanese have fled to other parts of Sudan or to neighboring countries, including Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Others have remained trapped as fighting continues around them, with little access to humanitarian aid.[iv]
While the impacts on civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Sudan are devastating, they are also foreseeable. For more than a decade, civil society and international organisations have documented the patterns of harm from the use of explosive weapons, in which civilians overwhelmingly bear the brunt of their use in populated areas. Despite the well-documented risk to civilians, explosive weapons are frequently used in populated areas in conflicts across the globe. To prevent harm and mitigate risk to civilians, armed forces and groups in Sudan – and elsewhere – must avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Civilian Death and Injury
The concentration of fighting in populated areas in Sudan has resulted in high numbers of civilian deaths and injuries caused by the use of explosive weapons. Action on Armed Violence – an armed violence monitor which records civilian casualties reported in English-language media sources – identified at least 524 civilian deaths and 721 injuries from the use of explosive weapons in 71 incidents from the beginning of the conflict through August 2023.
In the conflict generally, where gun and tank fire often accompany explosive weapons use, the United Nations (UN) envoy for Sudan on 14 September 2023 estimated that at least 5,000 people have been killed and 12,000 wounded since the conflict began. As tracking casualties has been difficult in the context of diminished healthcare capacity, the actual figures are very likely higher.[v]
Air-launched Explosive Weapons Use by the Sudan Armed Forces
As airstrikes and artillery attacks intensified in residential areas of Khartoum in September, an airstrike by the SAF killed at least 40 people in a market in southern Khartoum on 10 September 2023. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operates the nearby Bashair hospital, estimated that at least 60 others were injured, many of whom lost limbs. This strike was part of a broader pattern of air- launched explosive weapons use by the SAF, which has on multiple occasions bombed and shelled markets filled with crowds of civilians in Khartoum. Al Jazeera reported two other attacks on markets in June, which killed at least 36 people in total. In parts of Omdurman city the week before at least 51 people were killed by airstrikes over the course of two days.[vi]
Damage and Destruction of Infrastructure and the Disruption of Essential Services
A significant proportion of civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in Sudan comes from the resulting effects of damage and destruction of civilian infrastructure and the disruption of essential services. On 12 September 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, when addressing the Human Rights Council on Sudan, said that thousands of public buildings and homes have been destroyed as a result of airstrikes and shelling. This, in turn, impacts the provision of essential services.
Homes and shelters
Fighting in urban areas in Sudan has often resulted in the deaths and injuries of civilians while sheltering at home or in places where they sought safety. In Khartoum, for example, a woman told Human Rights Watch that her two-year-old niece was killed when a munition struck her relative’s home on 17 April 2023.[vii]
Schools and universities were frequently used as shelters by those displaced by the conflict. In El Geneina, the capital of West Sudan, dozens of civilians were killed and injured by repeated attacks with ground-launched explosive weapons that were fired at women’s dormitories at El Geneina University, where mostly women and children were sheltering after fleeing their homes nearby.[viii]
Water and electricity
Water and sanitation services have been greatly impacted during five months of conflict in Sudan. On the first day of the conflict, the station supplying parts of North Khartoum with water was damaged, leaving about 300,000 people without water through at least the end of May. Damage to water infrastructure from air-launched explosive weapons affected water pipes and water treatment plants, making water service for civilians unreliable and intermittent. Without reliable access to drinking water, civilians sought water from other sources, including the Nile River in Khartoum. Civilians sometimes waited for days in their homes for breaks in fighting to go to the Nile to collect water.[ix]
On the same day in Omdurman and Um Bada, near Khartoum, two electric transformers were destroyed, putting water pumping stations out of service. As of 11 September 2023, the transformers had yet to be replaced. As water pumps rely on electricity to function, near constant power outages have affected the supply of drinking water. Power outages have resulted from both damage to infrastructure and the absence of workers as civilians flee conflict-affected areas. Making repairs has also been difficult, as conditions are unsafe or access is blocked for engineers and technicians.[x]
A Khartoum resident told Human Rights Watch:
“Whenever [we get] water or electricity, we have to make quick decisions about what to do with that … you never know when it is going to be cut again. You can hear kids crying, [but don’t know if it is] because of the sound of gunfire or explosions, or because they are hungry and thirsty.”[xi]
The provision of healthcare in Sudan has also been significantly impacted by conflict concentrated in populated areas. Insecurity Insight, for the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, recorded 30 attacks on healthcare with explosive weapons in Sudan since the beginning of the conflict through 30 August 2023, the majority of which were recorded in Khartoum. At least seven healthcare workers were killed by explosive weapons while inside health facilities or in their homes.
The WHO estimates that about 65 percent Sudan’s population is without access to healthcare, and more than 70 percent of health facilities in conflict areas are not functioning. The implications of this are devastating. For example, nine patients that require renal dialysis die each day, as dialysis centers have closed due to a lack of supplies.[xii]
Reverberating Effects of Conflict in Populated Areas
Bombing and shelling by the SAF and RSF in Sudan’s towns and cities, as well as other forms of violence experienced by civilians during the conflict, will have longer-term effects on communities and infrastructure that extend their impact, in different forms, to a wider population over a longer period of time.
Since mid-April, about 5.25 million people have left their homes and fled to other parts of Sudan or to neighboring countries, including Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt and South Sudan. More than 4.1 million people are displaced within Sudan, the majority of whom (69 percent) are originally from Khartoum,[xiii] while more than one million people have crossed into neighboring countries.[xiv] Sudan now has the highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) globally, as this number has nearly doubled since conflict began to include nearly 7.1 million people, 3.3 million of which are children.[xv]
As the number of people in Sudan in need of humanitarian assistance increased by 30 percent to nearly 14.1 million since the beginning of the conflict, the ability of agencies to deliver this much-needed aid has decreased. At least 19 humanitarian workers have been killed, making Sudan “one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a humanitarian,” according to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.[xvi]
This conflict-induced insecurity, fueled in part by the particularly devastating impact on humanitarian access by explosive weapons use, has caused aid agencies in Sudan to scale down programmes and evacuate staff into safer parts of the country.
Areas where fighting continues in Central Darfur have been particularly challenging. In early September, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had unconfirmed reports from community leaders that hundreds of people were killed and injured in IDP camps across the region.[xvii] In one incident, a journalist was killed when the Hasaheisa IDP Camp was shelled. In South Darfur, three refugees were killed by shelling of their camp in April shortly after conflict erupted, leaving the camp with a shortage of water, food and medicine.
The reverberating impacts of conflict in Sudan will likely drive 20.3 million people into high levels of food insecurity between July and September 2023, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), with the highest percentages of food insecurity concentrated in areas most affected by the conflict.[xviii] In Sudan, increased food insecurity is also driven in part by water scarcity, as lack of water can drive up food prices and the consumption of unsafe drinking water can aggravate conditions such as malnutrition.
Fighting in Sudan’s towns and cities contributes directly to increased food insecurity. Between 15 April and 14 September 2023, Insecurity Insight recorded at least 26 incidents in which explosive weapons reportedly affected food security in Sudan. Most frequently, these incidents involved airstrikes, shelling and artillery strikes on markets.
The use of explosive weapons in fighting between the SAF and RSF in Sudan has resulted in unexploded ordnance left in the country’s towns and cities. In Nyala city, in South Darfur, for example, civilians have been put at increased risk from unexploded ordnance found on public roads and in residential neighbourhoods.[xix] This includes unexploded artillery shells, mortars, air-dropped bombs, and anti-aircraft weapons, according to the UN Mice Action Service (UNMAS).[xx]
Five months of conflict in Sudan’s towns and cities has had devastating impacts on civilians. The damage and destruction to civilian infrastructure from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, in particular, has left civilians with a dangerous shortage of food and water, unreliable access to electricity and impeded access to healthcare. These foreseeable impacts on civilians – where damage and destruction of civilian infrastructure has severe impacts on the provision of essential services, leading to long-term consequences for entire communities – are well-documented in conflicts throughout the world.
To prevent harm and mitigate risk to civilians, armed forces and groups in Sudan – and elsewhere – must take steps to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Sudan has not yet endorsed the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,[xxi] which requires states to place limitations on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and to support impacted communities.
[i]Amnesty International (2023). ‘Death came to our home: war crimes and civilian suffering in Sudan’.
[ii] Dahir, A. and Engelbrecht, C. (2023). ‘Darfur, Blighted by Genocide, Faces a New Catastrophe: War’. New York Times. 7 June 2023.
[v] Lederer, Edith. (2023). ‘UN envoy for Sudan resigns and warns that the conflict could be turning into full-scale civil war’. AP News. 14 September 2023.
[vi] Nashed, Mat (2023). ‘Sudan’s armed forces fails to protect civilians during air raids: Activists’. Al Jazeera. 13 September 2023.
[viii] Amnesty International (2023). ‘Death came to our home: war crimes and civilian suffering in Sudan’, p. 34.
[ix] Agence France-Presse (2023). ‘In Sudan's Capital, Residents Risk Death in Search of Water’. 26 May 2023.
[x] ACAPS (2023). ‘Sudan: Impact of the current conflict on WASH needs’. 11 September 2023. See also Human Rights Watch (2023). ‘Sudan: Explosive Weapons Harming Civilians’.
[xii] World Health Organization (2023). ‘WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing – 6 September 2023’.
[xv] Save the Children (2023). ‘Number of children displaced across Sudan now highest in the world’. 8 September 2023.
[xvi] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2023). ‘Sudan: Türk says conflict must stop before it is too late to pull the country back from disaster’. 12 September 2023.
[xviii] Integreated Food Security Phase Classification (2023). ‘Sudan: Acute Food Insecurity Situation June 2023 and Projections for July - September 2023 and October 2023 - February 2024’.
[xix] Dabanga Sudan (2023). ‘Streets of South Darfur capital littered with UXO/ERW’. 13 September 2023.
[xxi] Ireland Department of Foreign Affairs (2022). Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.