Journalist says parts of Sudan’s capital are now ‘almost unrecognizable’

Foreign journalists have mostly been unable to gain access amid Sudan’s ongoing civil war. But New York Times Africa bureau chief Declan Walsh was able to travel across the country for several weeks and told The World what he saw on the ground.

For more than a year, Sudan has been gripped by a devastating civil war — between the Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Few foreign journalists have managed to get inside the country, much less spend significant time witnessing the violence there.

But Declan Walsh, Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, managed to get access and traveled across Sudan over several weeks, along with photographer Ivor Prickett. Their reporting crystallizes the toll of the war.

Marco Werman: What has the impact of the war been like on the capital, Khartoum?
Declan Walsh: Parts of the city are almost unrecognizable at this stage. We were mostly in Omdurman, which is in the western part of the capital, and we were in areas that were controlled by both the Sudanese military, but also areas that the Sudanese military had recently recaptured from their enemy (paramilitary group), the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). And in those areas, it was a picture of utter devastation. There were entire streets where all of the buildings had either been damaged by fighting or had been looted. There was a lot of evidence of missile and shellfire. We spoke to residents, a couple of whom had actually stayed on during the fighting, and they described just how intense it had been. And broadly speaking, hospitals are destroyed or closed and you’ve got these large parts of the city that have either been ruined by the fighting or are still being contested by these two sides.
Yeah, and just looking at the skyline of Khartoum from Omdurman, let’s remember, this was a very big, very developed capital city. What changed?
That’s right. I mean, Khartoum was in the top 10 most populous cities in Africa. It’s a city that had known effectively a century of peace ever since the era of British colonialism, even though there had been a number of very significant wars inside Sudan. They’d mostly been fought in the peripheries of the country, and Khartoum had been left largely untouched. It’s a city that had known some degree of wealth. Sudan had an oil boom during the 1990s. It’s had a great infusion of wealth from gold mining over the last decade. It’s a city that had a lot of deep poverty … but also high-rise buildings with mirrored glass, they had five-star hotels overlooking the Nile (river) [and] a very big international airport right in the middle of the city. Pretty much all of that is gone at this stage. What we could see from across the Nile was this downtown area where there are major government ministries, the presidential palace, luxury hotels. And we know from our reporting, and also from what we could see in the distance, that they’ve been largely destroyed at this point, in many cases burned out or places that have been pocked by so much shellfire because they had been contested by the two sides.
Did you see any sign, Declan, that one side or the other has the upper hand in Khartoum, suggesting some kind of end to the fighting?
There had been some advances for the Sudanese military earlier this year. They had suffered a whole series of stinging defeats last fall, principally outside Khartoum. And then, in the new year, they launched an offensive in this area, Omdurman of western Khartoum, and they did manage to snatch back some territory. But still, large parts of Omdurman remain in RSF hands. In the north of the city, we saw evidence of intense fighting, a lot of smoke in the air. So, the short answer is that, no, it doesn’t seem that either side is winning, and instead, both sides are stocking up it seams with weapons, some of them supplied by foreign countries that have piled into this war on either side. And so, the fighting is getting more intense. And at the same time, that’s making the humanitarian situation for those civilians who are still remaining in the city worse than it’s ever been.
People prepare food in a Khrtoum neighborhood on June 16, 2023.AP/File photo
Speaking of the humanitarian situation, from your reporting, it seems one of the most disturbing aspects of this war is how hospitals have become targets. What remains of Sudan’s medical infrastructure?
It’s really on the point of collapse at this point. At least half of the hospitals in Khartoum state are closed at this point. Many of them bombed. And those hospitals that remain are under huge strain. We were in hospitals where people were sleeping two to a bed. Doctors told us that they were receiving hundreds of new cases every day, and they just weren’t able to deal with them. There are huge shortages of medicine and basic supplies. One of the most striking things while we were there was that we didn’t see a single person from an international aid agency or a medical organization the entire time we were there. That’s for security reasons. That’s because those agencies say they have a lot of difficulty even getting permission to travel to those areas. But it also tells you that this is a burgeoning crisis with really very, very limited resources. Probably one of the most disturbing things that we found was there’s just a single pediatric hospital still functioning in the city, and that has a very crowded malnutrition ward, which is largely full of infants who’ve been brought from across the city by often desperate parents looking to give them life-saving medicine and food to try and save them.
Why do you think Sudan has not gotten more attention as a crisis?
Well, in part, it’s just simply because of this lack of access for the international press. Reporters simply haven’t been able to get into the country, for the most part, in the last year. But it’s also a country or a conflict, that’s been overshadowed by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine. I think those are wars that obviously have been much higher priorities for Western policymakers. And there’s been a sense that the war in Sudan is smaller stakes. But it seems to me that as the involvement of outside powers in this war is increasing — countries like Russia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates — there’s now a sense that the sort of geopolitical stakes of the Sudan war are increasing, and it seems to be starting to get at least a measure of greater attention abroad than it was before. For the large part, many people are really despairing. They feel that the world has forgotten their plight, that the world is not really watching the suffering and isn’t taking account of the vast scale of what’s going on in Sudan.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: The US is helping the ICC investigate war crimes in Sudan, diplomat says

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