"We must make sure this war does not drag on"

UN special envoy to Sudan Volker Perthes rejects accusations that the West is to blame for the current crisis in Sudan. In interview with Kossivi Tiassou, he warns of "bounty hunters" and mercenaries from abroad joining the conflict while tens of thousands of Sudanese citizens flee their country

By Kossivi Tiassou

Mr Perthes, you arrived a few days ago in the Sudanese port of Port Sudan, from where people are trying to flee the fighting by ship. Civilians in Sudan are very frustrated. You were greeted on arrival by demonstrations. What message did you take with you?

Volker Perthes: We were not greeted by demonstrators, but by the governor of the Red Sea State, the federal state in which Port Sudan is situated. But you are right: a few days previously, about 150 people from a certain political camp demonstrated against both the presence of the UN and my presence. This is part of the political dispute here in Sudan between Sudanese parties and forces.

There is fighting in the capital, Khartoum, and in other parts of the country like Darfur or Kordofan. American intelligence predicts a drawn-out conflict. Do you agree?

Perthes: We in the United Nations are working together with other international partners, and especially with Sudanese society, to make sure that this war does not drag on. The first step must be a solid cease-fire. Not just a declaration of cease-fires, but a cease-fire with a monitoring mechanism.

From there, the next step must be towards talks between the fighting parties in the hope of re-establishing a functioning government in a more stable situation. American intelligence has its own assessments; I will not comment on those. But our goal is to prevent just that: a long war that would likely bring the country to the brink.

Map showing the areas in Sudan where fighting is taking place and recent population movements (source: DW/UNHCR)
As Sudan's population seeks refuge in neighbouring countries, migration is also occurring in the direction of the hostilities: "bounty hunters" and mercenaries – and there are quite a number of them – from the Sahel states, from Mali, Niger and Chad are coming to support one of the warring parties, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), in Sudan

What role do Sudan's northern neighbours, Egypt and Libya, play in all this? Some observers assume that the conflict cannot be resolved without Egypt and the Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, two supporters of the belligerent Sudanese generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.

Perthes: Haftar is the supporter of one of the two parties, but he has no decisive role in this war. You are right to ask about the neighbouring states: Egypt, South Sudan, and others too. We need the contribution of these neighbouring countries for a solid solution, a solution that stabilizes the country. South Sudan has already been very active. The current ceasefire – which is not, however, being fully observed – was negotiated by Salva Kiir, the South Sudanese president. Egypt is also pushing for a ceasefire as a first step towards ending the war.

There is also speculation that mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group, which is present in the country, are involved in this conflict. What can you tell us about this?

Perthes: I have no concrete evidence that there are Wagner mercenaries fighting in this war. I can neither confirm nor deny that.

Sudanese Army soldiers walk near armoured vehicles stationed on a street in southern Khartoum, Sudan, 6 May  2023 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Fighting continued in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, at the weekend even as envoys from Sudan's warring parties met in Saudi Arabia for talks that the international community hopes will bring an end to the conflict. Pictured here: Sudanese Army soldiers walk near armoured vehicles stationed on a street in southern Khartoum

Ceasefire agreements have not stopped the violence; the humanitarian situation is getting worse. What can be done now?

Perthes: The United Nations is here to continue providing humanitarian assistance under the restricted circumstances we currently face. The onset of war has made this difficult: the World Food Program warehouses in Darfur were looted, and a number of trucks carrying food aid were attacked and looted on their way to Darfur.

In Khartoum, we have great difficulty getting access, for example, to supply hospitals with medicine. A World Health Organization ship has now docked in Port Sudan, but we are still waiting for permission to unload it.

We can at present work in those areas where there is no fighting, especially in the east and centre of Sudan. We can provide effective help in these areas – be it providing goods, money for refugees, medicines, equipping hospitals or providing the chemicals or equipment needed to provide clean drinking water.

Sudanese refugees gather for aid distribution in Chad (photo: Gueipeur Denis Sassou/AFP)
"War always destabilises, and of course neighbouring states will be affected in one way or another by a war such as this," says Volker Perthes. Pictured here: Sudanese refugees gather for aid distribution in neighbouring Chad

Aid workers have raised concerns about the plight of refugees, some of whom have fled to nations like the Central African Republic or Chad, which themselves face difficulties. How great is the risk that the region will be further destabilised?

Perthes: War always destabilises, and of course, neighbouring states will be harmed or affected in one way or another by a war such as this. You mentioned one aspect: the migration of refugees.

But there is also migration in the other direction: "bounty hunters" and mercenaries – and there are quite a number of them – from the Sahel states, from Mali, Niger and Chad are coming to support one of the warring parties, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), in Sudan.

This is not an official policy of these states, but rather the case that individuals are coming to Sudan looking for opportunities, in many cases just opportunities to steal and enrich themselves.

Some have blamed the international community and in particular the West for the current situation because of Western states' past dealings with the two generals. Do they bear a certain responsibility for this war?

Perthes: Responsibility for this conflict lies first and foremost with the Sudanese military figures, and by that I mean the leaders on both sides, and the military institutions that are at war with each other.

Both sides are trying to gain international support. In my position as a UN representative, I cannot comment on the policies of individual member states, but my advice to the Sudanese is to lay the blame at the door of those actually fighting the war, and not with foreign actors who have actually tried to reduce the tension in one way or another. However, I am sure that somewhere down the line, history and journalists will judge whether we did enough and whether we did it vigorously enough.

Was part of the problem not that the democratic movement in Sudan received too little support?

Perthes: Well, this criticism of what the international organisations do – including the United Nations – says we didn't give the democratic movement enough support or that after the military coup of 25 October 2021, we pushed too hard for a return to civil government and democracy ... all this refers to same phenomenon, so either you say that international organisations did too much of one thing, or they did too little.

I think the international community tried to help all sides in Sudan to find a way back to the transition to democracy after the military coup in 2021. We supported everyone who was willing to talk and work together to find a new basis for negotiation.

The international community does not necessarily share the same opinion. But there are plenty of international actors here – the United Nations, the African Union, the regional IGAD [whose members are the East African nations of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda – ed.], as well as UN member states, all trying to bring about a cease-fire.

Parts of the Sudanese civil society are certainly calling for a more active policy in terms of African or international troops, but this also needs international consensus, for example in the Security Council, which we would certainly not have in this case.

Interview conducted by Kossivi Tiassou

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Cai Nebe and Aingeal Flanagan