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Sudan's civil war started in April 2023 and has shown no sign of letting up (Faiz Abubakr)

The Crisis in Sudan and the Unseen Resilience of Mutual Aid

Where the state and international agencies fail, grassroots activists step in.

Words: Fatima Qureshi
Pictures: Faiz Abubakr

On Feb. 28, the International Rescue Committee suspended operations to Port Sudan, a key hub for aid delivery in the region, due to escalating attacks on foreign vessels in the Red Sea. More recently, on March 2, Sudan’s foreign minister went a step further and rejected a request to bring humanitarian aid from the United Nations’ World Food Programme through Chad’s borders, alleging that it could “compromise the security and stability of the country.”

This refusal of international humanitarian aid comes at a critical time. Some 25 million people in Sudan urgently need humanitarian assistance. Internet blackouts and increasing food and fuel prices have worsened the crisis. 

While it may seem bleak and beyond hope, a global, self-organized, grassroots movement is meeting the survival needs of civilians on all fronts. Sudanese volunteers in the diaspora are collectively organizing mutual aid efforts by fundraising from the diaspora and leading on ground provisions by distributing food, shelter, and life-saving psychosocial services.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said the Sudanese civil war had created the largest internal displacement crisis in the world (Faiz Abubakr)
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said the Sudanese civil war had created the largest internal displacement crisis in the world (Faiz Abubakr)

Mutual aid is where people in a community come together to provide material support for one another, collectively meeting each other’s needs without the help of official institutions like the state or NGOs.

For nearly a year, mutual aid networks have acted as lifelines for millions of civilians in Sudan whom fighting between the army and paramilitary forces has displaced and forced to flee the country.

These same forces once allied to topple the former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, but then hostilities and tensions grew between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), backed by Egypt, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), funded and supported by the UAE, during negotiations to integrate the RSF into Sudan’s military as part of plans to restore civilian rule. Clashes broke out on April 15, 2023, and neither side has shown a willingness to de-escalate or reach a ceasefire.

“Slow Strangulation”

“It’s been devastating,” said Dallia Abdelmoneim, a former journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. “Not being able to check in on family and friends, not being able to support them in all manners — be it financially or just emotionally — took its toll.”

Abdelmoneim used to run a baking business in Khartoum before the war broke out. Although she now works for a Sudanese think tank, the loss of life, displacement, and flight across borders, along with the massive destruction of private and public property and infrastructure at home, make it painstakingly difficult to carry on. “We are far luckier than most but that doesn’t mean our life is normal, it isn’t and I don’t think it will be for quite some time,” she said. “I still struggle with the fact I am not at home and that I can’t go back home and I don’t know when I will.” 

According to Abdelmoneim, the ongoing internet blackout has given rise to life-threatening situations in large parts of Khartoum and Darfur, and areas in Kordofan, Sennar, Al Jazirah, White Nile, and Blue Nile. “Speaking to people involved with on-the-ground responders, the [internet] blackout is having a huge detrimental impact on the humanitarian assistance level,” Abdelmoneim explained. “Communal kitchens are affected, having access to medical care and seeking secure passageways. This is a slow strangulation of civilians.” 

On March 1, the UN human rights chief released a statement warning that the blockade of humanitarian workers and aid delivery may constitute a war crime. Sudanese activists, however, have been calling on the international community for months on end. They have documented countless atrocities and war crimes that have subjected women to sexual violence. They have also responded to instances where access to food or medicine is impeded.

The Sudan Solidarity Collective

Based in Tiohtià:ke (or Montreal), Duha Elmardi is a volunteer at the Sudan Solidarity Collective (SSC). The outfit funds emergency response rooms, or ERRs, in Khartoum, Nyala, and Alfashir. “The ERRs are youth-led community-based networks inspired by models of rich Sudanese mutual aid traditions [and] the Resistance Committees (RCs), as well as humanitarian NGOs,” Elmardi said. 

ERRs also provide “food security services such as soup kitchens, medical aid and other basic needs associated with shelters and evacuation,” Elmardi added. 

This is a slow strangulation of civilians.

– Dallia Abdelmoneim

Also known as localization, this mutual aid network is an empowering, participatory kind of movement. It builds people’s ability to mobilize as state actors fail. Historically, mutual aid organizing is where people have banded together to organize community care efforts because of a shared understanding that the systems in place aren’t coming to meet them or not fast enough if at all.  The ethos? They can do that together right here and now. 

Grassroots Organizing

Abdelmoneim also explained that “the on-ground emergency room responders and civic grassroot initiatives are in effect operating as the state and ensuring civilians trapped in besieged towns and those internally displaced are helped in any shape or form.”

These conditions, Abdelmoneim said, underscore the critical necessity of mutual aid networks. Largely made up of women, these networks cover immediate and essential health-related provisions for all Sudanese people. They often rally to action in the space where international aid agencies cannot or will not.

Mutual aid networks have stepped in to fill the gaps left by the state and international agencies (Faiz Abubakr)
Mutual aid networks have stepped in to fill the gaps left by the state and international agencies (Faiz Abubakr)

This isn’t the first time we are witnessing Sudanese women mobilizing and organizing at the grassroots level and with neighborhood committees. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in and outside of Sudan have fought at the forefront of the revolution, leading protests and demanding equal representation since the 2019 political transition negotiations following the fall of Omar El-Bashir.

Mutual aid movements as such centrally organize because people come into them to get their immediate needs met and want to help others facing disastrous living conditions as a result of war or climate catastrophes. When they are a part of these efforts like the SSC, they can build a shared analysis asking questions like: “Why don’t we have food?” ; “Why don’t we have shelter?”; and “What systems are in place that we want to get to the root causes of?”

Abductions and Sexual Slavery

In a report published by the Center for Violence of Women and Girls, the head of the center, Sulima Ishag, stated that their researchers are reporting widespread cases of abductions and sexual slavery by RSF members in South Darfur, North Darfur, and Khartoum. 

In the email interview, SSC co-organizers Elmardi and Safiya Abbadi, also based out of Canada, wrote that RSF members are “using rape and sexual attacks on women and girls.” They have also heard “stories of girls being forced into marriage by the militia, or kidnapped.” On social media outlets, they have seen posts women and girls in Sudan about where to obtain Plan B pills or rape kits. Other posts describe “support from women who are victims and survivors of sexual violence by the militia.” 

Armed groups have targeted and demolished hospitals and clinics, leaving them acutely under-resourced and understaffed. Amid these attacks, mutual aid networks like the SSC have stepped up. Such groups share online resources and available medication for women who have no functional medical support if they are pregnant or require urgent post-rape healing and care. 

Selective Media Coverage

Elmardi, Abbadi, and Abdelmoneim have all denounced the mainstream media’s failure to adequately cover the crisis in Sudan, further pushing activists on a global and localized scale to co-organize and lead their own innovative responses from care systems and solidarity networks to solidarity funds, that is gender-just and centered on people and environments. 

Sudanese activists, in other words, have had a rude awakening from the “global apathy” towards Sudan. Their blighted hopes, they no longer trust in any form of support for the Sudanese community.

“There is a level of global apathy that allows this suffering to continue without enough outrage or action — and as [a] byproduct, little aid and support has been able to reach those within war-torn Sudan,” Elmardi and Abbadi said, explaining that “the limited coverage can be oversimplified at times, which can distort the reality on the ground and perpetuate misconceptions.” 

“Inherent Bias”

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Yassmin Al-Magied, a Sudanese-Australian author and activist, similarly reproached the international media’s radio silence, or selective coverage of the war, which has left many Sudanese people feeling betrayed and abandoned. Abdelmoneim echoed Al-Magied and many other activists’ sentiments, suggesting that “it’s a combination of conflict fatigue and inherent bias and racism; it’s another conflict in Africa. And even though [onlookers and non-Sudanese viewers] may understand but [they] don’t accept it”. 

As part of a newly organized collective, Elmardi and Abbadi said that apart from meeting material needs through fundraising, it is important for them to provide “political education around the context of the war, the humanitarian situation, and ways that Sudanese diaspora and allies can support the work towards an end to the war and adequate response to the scale of the crisis”. Once again, the locally led mutual aid responders are also standing in to report and document on social media and in student circles where the international media has fallen short..

What Can the World Do?

Despite the mass disillusionment in traditional and patriarchal political parties, Sudanese women are organizing much more effectively, leading to a global shift in solidarity engagements within and between feminist spaces. 

“The warring factions have retaliated against a lot of civilians that have been raising awareness around the atrocities, or have been community organizing, and involved in activism,” Elmardi and Safiya said.

As a call to action, they said, “it’s important that we all make a solid effort in ensuring that it’s not in vain by staying informed, amplifying voices, and donating to the many grassroot efforts and mutual aid funds supporting people in Sudan.”

Throughout the crisis, activists have sounded the alarm about sexual and gender-based violence (Faiz Abubakr)
Throughout the crisis, activists have sounded the alarm about sexual and gender-based violence (Faiz Abubakr)

Writing on behalf of the SSC, they urge folks to donate to the Sudan Solidarity Fund to help shore up volunteer-led ERRs in Khartoum and Darfur that carry out life-saving efforts for their communities.

In order to effectively support Sudan, Elmardi, Safiya, and Abdelmoneim said that it is imperative to engage in several key actions such as diversifying the sources of news and information concerning Sudan by following and amplifying independent Sudanese journalists and activists. This ensures access to firsthand accounts of the situation inside the country.

Support Online and Offline

It is also equally important in this biased media landscape to amplify Sudanese voices and support their organizing efforts on social media platforms. And because these organizations possess a deep understanding of local needs and can offer targeted assistance to those most vulnerable, financial support is a major necessity to give a leg up to grassroots organizations and mutual aid initiatives that are directly helping Sudanese communities affected by the conflict. 

As Sudanese activists courageously challenge the status quo, they’re not just reshaping narratives — they’re saving lives. By standing with them, we aren’t just supporting them with aid: we’re actively bolstering the very fabric of collective resilience in Sudan. Activists and journalists alike are calling for the world to humanize Sudan in a way that transcends headlines and statistics. The key message: amplify Sudanese voices and support their tireless efforts, lighting the path toward hope for millions in Sudan.

All photos are courtesy of Faiz Abubakr, whose work is on Instagram here: @faizabubak.

Fatima Qureshi

Born and raised in Hong Kong to Turkish-Pakistani parents, Fatima Qureshi is a writer and content creator who supports grassroots advocacy with a sharp focus on refugee and asylum seekers’ rights, gender justice, and decolonization. She is a trained journalist and combines her passion of activism with storytelling.

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