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Academe in wartime: Oxford’s response to the war in Sudan

Six months into the war in Sudan, and the situation is bleak. Humanitarian workers are despairing at the broken supply lines and the outbreaks of communal violence – both centred in the capital, Khartoum, and and in the Darfur region. 

To understand the perspective of Oxford’s own academics on the state of Sudan, I spoke to co-founder of the Oxford Sudanese Programme, Dr Ahmed al-Shahi. He aims to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict, amidst the fast-paced news cycles which seem to have left it behind.

Dr Al-Shahi is a social anthropologist who has been studying and visiting Sudan for over 50 years. “Do I have family there? Biologically, no, but socially yes,” he said. “I have a very wide range of friends there: academics, politicians, merchants, since 1965, or even before.” Having taught at the University of Khartoum until 1970, Al-Shahi donated his anthropological books and journals to the University library. Since the war broke out in April, he has not been able to send anything: “You don’t know whether it will arrive or not.”

To Al-Shahi, “Sudan is a wonderful country, it is very diverse – ethnically, religiously, linguistically, ecologically. Sudanese are lovely people, they are very kind people. They render great assistance to people, especially foreigners.” Before I began asking questions, Al-Shahi made it clear he thought that “what’s happening now is totally in contradiction to the true nature of Sudanese people. They are very peaceful people. So the army is doing all the damage at the moment.” 

So what is happening now in Sudan? 

The war began in April 2023: fighting broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), after failed attempts to merge the two under a civilian transitional government. Sudan has a long history of military coups, and under the ex-leader Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade rule, he used both groups as quasi-independent armed forces to maintain power. While the RSF and SAF cooperated to oust him from power in 2019, neither look likely to back down from the current power struggle.

At the time of writing, at least 5.4 million people have been displaced in the last 6 months. Families have been divided, without money to escape the fighting. RSF fighters have been accused by civilians of evicting people from their homes, or looting their belongings.  “Such looting and destruction has never really happened before,” Al-Shahi told me. Many of his friends have fled the country, and though he was able to call a friend in Northern Sudan, it was purely down to good luck. “Communication is very difficult because all the internet has been cut. And thus deliberately, so that people from the outside cannot call asking what’s happening.”

I asked Al-Shahi how effective aid could be in alleviating the humanitarian crisis, but the fact is that aid is compromised due to the precarity of the situation. There are problems with politics, military, transportation, movement. It’s very difficult for aid to reach ordinary people. And you cannot bring aid unless you have approval from the government – to accept it. But which government? There is a problem with legitimacy, to know who is in charge.”

This problem has persisted for decades. He recounted a memory from 1985, the year of the military coup d’état against President Nimeiry. The new government under Dahab would later be overthrown by Al-Bashir in 1989. Aside from political instability, Western Sudan was also suffering from serious drought and threat of famine. 

Al Shahi recalled, “A woman, with her 3 kids, was sitting by a tree. I greeted her – she said, ‘I’m from Darfur, my husband was killed. So we fled.’ I asked her, ‘to where?’ She said, ‘I don’t know. The villagers all along the Nile are very kind to us. They put us up, they feed us, and off we go. We don’t know where we will end up.’ I asked her if she got any aid. ‘You’d think so, but the aid goes to the merchants… you find it at the market being sold.’” 

“I’ve seen it myself,” he assured me, noticing my disbelief. “The sacks with the United States label – you buy it at the market. It’s supposed to go for free.” The situation seems to be quite similar today. Food supplies are running out, and the World Food Programme has issued warnings of a hunger emergency amongst those crossing the border into South Sudan. In June, international donors promised almost $1.5 billion in additional aid for Sudan’s humanitarian crises. But even with this donation, as l-Shahi said, “you need a chain of people who can deliver aid honestly and fairly among the people who are in need.” This chain has been broken in Sudan: a UK UN representative warned that Sudan is now among the worst in the world for aid access

I told Al-Shahi about my college’s charity fundraiser. A close friend at my college is Sudanese; she and I organised a bake sale in May to raise money to go towards humanitarian aid. At the time, we were so happy with the result. As far as bake sales go, it was very successful – it felt like we could make a small, tangible difference with the money we raised. After hearing everything he had said, I was no longer so sure. Raising money is only the first step in a long journey to making a difference. “You raise money, but where does it go? Who’s in charge of it? I fear the money may be swallowed on the other end. Corruption is rife [in Sudan]… It’s also a moral issue. You give aid to help people, but then this aid is going to the army who kill people.” 

So what can we do here, at Oxford? 

In preparation for the interview, I had questions written down about the financial responsibility Oxford could hold in this situation. But this far into our conversation, I felt less hopeful about what the University could do in the face of a crisis which requires international cooperation. Dr Al-Shahi told me about two students who reached out to him for advice. “Their parents fled, their businesses destroyed. Some of them are supported by their parents, so suddenly their income declined, if not, became nonexistent. There is a Sudanese organisation for Oxfordshire. They’re trying to do their best… They offer moral support, certainly, and they try to make them [Sudanese members of the university] feel part of a wider community. That they are not forgotten.” To his knowledge, Al-Shahi has not heard of any Sudanese student who has had to cease their studies due to lack of funding.

I asked him whether the University should be involved in raising awareness rather than money. “Yes, they need to raise awareness. If they raise money, it should help the Sudanese students here at the University.

“Heads of colleges should write to any Sudanese students saying, if you have any problems or difficulties, come and see us and see in what way we could help. That is very important – to give them assurance that somebody is there for them. And to give them stability and continuity.”

In the official University response to the situation in Sudan, the University stood “in solidarity with all students and staff affected by the crisis”. It was stated that the University had “written to staff and students from Sudan, to offer welfare and other types of support”, and money was available via the Hardship Fund for assistance. 

At the end of the interview, I asked Al-Shahi what he wanted readers to take away from this article. He told me the reason he accepted this interview was to raise awareness amongst students and members of the university. “When the media confront an international crisis, they get all geared up. Gradually, there is another problem in the world… Suddenly, Sudan is at the bottom of the pile.” The situation for journalists in Sudan is very difficult at the moment. “It’s difficult for journalists to get into the country, and movement is difficult because of the fighting, they are risking their lives.” It has  been reported that journalists critical to authorities have been ‘threatened from both sides’, and the situation is similar in South Sudan.

“The readers should understand this –  The conflict has nothing to do with ordinary people, who are suffering the most. The conflict is between two military organisations, the state army and the RSF, who vie for power and control of resources.”

I thought I would have a more optimistic way of ending this article, but I’m not sure I do. The situation continues to this day –  it’s important not to forget it. 

With thanks to Dr Al-Shahi for the interviewIf you would like to learn more about academic perspectives on the state of Sudan, please visit https://www.sudaneseprogramme.org/

This article was emended on 17/10/2023 to correct information about an Oxford student’s relationship to Sudan.

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