Sudan’s civilians pick up arms, as RSF gains and army stumbles

Al Jazeera :
When the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) called on young men to enlist last June, Zakariya Issa* went to the nearest recruitment centre.

He was one of thousands of young people who trained for 10 weeks in Wad Madani, a city just south of the capital Khartoum.

In September, he was deployed with 500 people to fight the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a group stronger than the army and backed by the United Arab Emirates. Many of his friends and peers were killed or wounded within a couple of weeks.

“I lost five of my friends,” Issa, 20, told Al Jazeera from Saudi Arabia, where he now lives. “They were more than friends. They were my brothers.”

The Sudanese army and allied groups are relying on young men with little or no military training to fight as foot soldiers against the RSF. Over the past week, recruitment has picked up across River Nile State since the RSF captured Wad Madani, Sudan’s second-largest city.

River Nile state is a traditionally privileged region that has produced many of the political and military elites in Sudan’s modern history.

But now, army officers and figures from Sudan’s political Islamic movement, which ruled for 30 years under former autocratic president Omar al-Bashir, are calling on young men from this region to thwart the RSF.

New recruits told Al Jazeera that they are motivated to pick up weapons due to the risk that the RSF could attack their cities, loot their belongings and subject women to sexual violence.

Most view the RSF – which is primarily made up of tribal nomadic fighters from Sudan’s neglected province of Darfur – as invaders and occupiers.

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While the group has evicted thousands of people from their homes, army supporters are also exploiting ethnic undertones to recruit young men.

“I picked up a gun to defend myself, my ethnic group and my homeland,” said Yaser, 21, from Shendi, a city in River Nile State where thousands of people have reportedly picked up weapons in recent days.

“The RSF are not just at war with the army. They are at war with civilians,” he told Al Jazeera.

After Wad Madani fell to the RSF, civilians across eastern and northern Sudan were devastated.

The city was a haven for internally displaced people who fled Khartoum and surrounding towns earlier in the war. They are now on the move again.

“People mostly think that the army can’t protect them now,” said Suleiman al-Sadig,* a lawyer from Atbara, a city in River Nile State.

Recent RSF advances have compounded the panic. Photos and videos surfacing across social media show what appear to be children and young men arming themselves in River Nile State.

According to residents and journalists, some of those recruits have gone to Wad Madani to fight the RSF, while others are staying behind in case of an attack.

“The calls to get armed are not coming from the army. They’re mostly coming from civilians themselves,” al-Sadig, told Al Jazeera.