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A mutual aid volunteer reflects on a year of war in Sudan

‘This coming famine is a political decision by the warring party.’

ONE year into a devastating war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced nearly nine million, there is one thing flourishing in Sudan: mutual aid.

Since 15 April 2023 – when the Rapid Support Forces and the regular army began fighting each other – we have seen our dreams of a democratic, prosperous nation destroyed, and we have lived through a year of unrelenting atrocities and loss.

Yet at the same time, millions of Sudanese have remained in war-torn areas outside the reach of international aid agencies, finding ways to support each other using local resources and diaspora aid. Others like myself have found a way of helping from afar.

Together, we have formed mutual aid groups known as Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs) that have provided food, health, and other critical services, all while building partnerships, raising funding, and getting recognition as frontline humanitarian aid workers.

Discussions and collaboration with the UN’s aid coordination agency (OCHA), USAID, and ECHO have resulted in increased financial support and advocacy to mutual aid in Sudan. A decolonisation of humanitarian relief seems to be moving forward.

Nonetheless, many international aid groups have struggled to alter their internal systems to allow for a modality that will function effectively with mutual aid, a model that puts community accountability ahead of traditional NGO reporting methodologies.

ERRs still do not have the resources we need to accomplish our critical mission, and our members remain subjected to arbitrary arrests by the conflict parties, with each side accusing us of working as intelligence for the other.

Recognition of our work remains a problem too. For example, diplomats and humanitarian groups met last week in Paris for a conference to raise sorely needed funds for the humanitarian crisis. Guess who wasn’t invited? The ERRs.

A year into this devastating war, Sudan is now speeding head first towards a famine that could strike millions of people – and yet the world seems to be turning a blind eye as if nothing can be done.

What the international community must do is give full support to all aid organisations working in Sudan, and simultaneously withdraw from the Sudanese generals the licence they have been given to kill civilians and play politics with our lives.

Meanwhile, as mutual aid groups, we request faster and more flexible funding free of red tape; a greater chunk of aid spending; and recognition that we are aid workers and long-term partners, not just a stop-gap solution for NGOs facing access challenges.

How emergency rooms work

The ERRs have been built with the same spirit and grassroots organising that toppled the regime of Omar al-Bashir, who ran one of the most notorious dictatorships in the world, holding onto power in Sudan for 30 years.

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ERRs work based on the concepts of the solidarity economy, on local parliaments, and on four pillars of good governance: accountability, transparency, participation, and equality.

The ERR in Khartoum State – one of 18 states in Sudan and home to the capital – now runs 335 communal kitchens, over 40 health clinics, over 75 women cooperatives, and is looking into running alternative education in children centres.

The Khartoum State ERR is divided into seven local districts. A charter that plays the role of a constitution was written and passed by a legislative body comprising three representatives from each district, with at least one of the three being a woman.

An executive branch was created that has programming, finance, reporting, and external communication working committees. It also has offices for health, food, protection, women response rooms, capacity building, data collection, and media.

As the experience and structure was passed on to ERRs in other states, a Localisation Coordination Council was created. This council includes the ERRs from the different states, as well as local NGOs and international NGO partners.

The Localisation Coordination Council has become one of the most important bodies created by the ERRs. It resembles a national parliament, facilitating conversations across a war zone while beginning difficult discussions for building post-war coexistence.

To see how the ERRs have evolved, take the case of Algiraif in Khartoum. Volunteers there started a communal kitchen in one school, providing food daily from 12 June 2023. They are now responsible for five children centres, 22 kitchens, 19 women cooperatives, and two health clinics.

The school today has a library, an art gallery, a sports events space, and a salad garden where children are being taught how to farm. A women’s relaxation room was also set up to deal with issues including gender-based violence.

Newly formed women’s cooperatives, meanwhile, have been set up based on small groupings of 8-15 women who get together to raise funds. They then run either psychosocial activities or small income-generating projects. 

Similar cooperatives are now found throughout Khartoum state and across Sudan.

The challenges we are facing

Doing all of this in the middle of a war hasn’t been easy. We have lost volunteers to bombings, cross-fire, and deliberate shootings. We have had members arrested, and one was raped after being detained while assessing needs in her area.

Our tears still haven’t dried from mourning Omar Munour, one of the hardest-working members of the kitchens in Bahri, an adjacent city to Khartoum. He died earlier this month from complications caused by drinking dirty water and not having medication.

Power outages are also causing huge problems for millions of Sudanese. They depend on drinking water from the Nile or from wells, but the electricity needed to pump it up is in short supply.

I have had recent calls with volunteers, like Abdo, who spoke while the sound of gunfire rattled around him, and who would tell us how he was eating the equivalent of half a meal every two days because of siege conditions.

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Abdo’s ERR – which is in Omdurman’s Fatihab neighbourhood – was involved in nighttime evacuation missions to take tens of thousands of civilians to other states during the siege.

In another meeting that took place after the siege had been broken, I recall Abdo elaborating on how amazing a tomato tasted. It is short moments of relief helping people get through this war.

Yet things have become even tougher in recent weeks for ERRs as a result of a communication blackout imposed by the warring parties, who are deliberately cutting internet connectivity in areas where their rivals are active.

The blackout has impacted online banking services that were a lifeline for millions of people, including ERR volunteers who cannot use cash because of shortages, the risk of looting, and the widespread use of forged money.

Power outages are also causing huge problems for millions of Sudanese. They depend on drinking water from the Nile or from wells, but the electricity needed to pump it up is in short supply.

The number of people facing extreme hunger is increasing throughout the country as is the number of pictures of famine-stricken children.. The prospect now is that millions will be exposed to one of the worst famines the world has seen in recent history.

This coming famine is a political decision by the warring parties, but a full-scale disaster will only be possible if the international community chooses to be complicit – by failing to swiftly fund and empower all humanitarian actors on the ground.

Funding, partnerships, and recognition

To do our part as ERRs in preventing this famine, we need more resources from international humanitarian donors and we need the money that we have been promised to be sent faster.

A year into the war we are still not being invited to conferences like the one in Paris. The organisers felt it was too hard to invite a group as big as us, yet it shows that the aid system still doesn’t have space for mutual aid to be at the forefront.

It is true that our successes have woken people up to the power of mutual aid, and that we have reached the point where we no longer have to prove ourselves as capable of doing this work.

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However, a year into the war we are still not being invited to conferences like the one in Paris. The organisers felt it was too hard to invite a group as big as us, yet it shows that the aid system still doesn’t have space for mutual aid to be at the forefront.

It is also baffling how much legitimacy is still in the hands of the warring parties. Diplomats have allowed humanitarian access to be turned into a negotiation card, and they are looking at the fighting groups to end the war rather than listening to us.

At the same time, there is a limit to what we ERRs can do. Mutual aid, for example, can’t keep running the water stations that require expensive chemicals to keep the water clean.

Preventing the humanitarian catastrophe created by this war from getting even worse requires partnerships between local initiatives like the ERRs, local NGOs, international NGOs, various UN agencies, and even governments run by warring parties.

Still, whatever happens in the days ahead, I am sure that hundreds of volunteers will be waking up each morning to go and cook, heal, and support their communities. We hope you stand in solidarity with us.

Six demands from Sudan’s mutual aid groups
  • Encourage group support over individual aid: Instead of individual cash assistance, consider funding things like communal kitchens and women cooperatives.
  • Speed up funding: We all need to work together to respond to this looming famine and our donors must recognise that inaction is the real risk.
  • Give us 5% of humanitarian aid funding: Emergency rooms are crucial for providing immediate humanitarian assistance – they need more support and direct funding.
  • Recognise volunteers as humanitarian aid workers: Do this through advocacy and by demanding protection for our members.
  • Keep funding flexible: Our donors should recognise the changing and unpredictable situation on the ground. They should cut red tape, and recognise the need for us to stay agile.
  • This isn’t only about access: Recognise the importance of mutual aid beyond when access on the ground is difficult for NGOs and UN agencies.

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The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.

By Hajooj Kuka

External communications officer for the Khartoum State Emergency Response Room

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