In the 12 days since war broke out in Sudan, armed fighters with one of the military factions battling for control have occupied large parts of the capital, Khartoum, setting up roadblocks, moving into homes and taking over stores and hospitals.
Those residents who have not already fled say they have had to learn how to survive living cheek by jowl with the feared, unpredictable troops of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that until days ago was part of a military-led government.
Civilians negotiate with R.S.F. fighters at roadblocks for safe passage, share food and water with them, and sometimes receive warnings from them about an upcoming battle — giving residents time to either bolt or run back inside and lock their doors.
The fighters have alternately terrified and wooed civilians. In one neighborhood, a resident said, they handed out milk. In another, they invited community members to share in the spoils of their looting. In another, they turned vigilantes, punishing petty criminals.
Many residents try to avoid them as much as possible.
“Apparently they don’t have anyone that gives them orders so they’re just doing their thing,” said Dania Atabani, who lives in Khartoum. “Very dangerous and chaotic.”
The R.S.F. and the regular army have been combating each other, led by rival generals vying for power in Sudan, a northeast African country of 45 million people surrounded by seven nations.
It has been hard to tell which side is winning in the battle between Sudan’s rival generals and the forces they lead, the R.S.F. and the regular army. But as a tenuous cease-fire has held in parts of Khartoum in recent days and the most intense fighting has subsided, a picture has emerged. The truce is scheduled to end tonight, although there have been calls to extend it for another 72 hours.
Speaking by phone and text message, residents from across the capital said that R.S.F. troops appeared to control much of the city center and surrounding districts, along with parts of Khartoum’s twin city, Omdurman, penetrating deep into residential areas. The regular military is positioned farther out, where it controls entry and exit, and can still use its warplanes to carry out strikes on R.S.F. targets.
“The R.S.F. remains hyper-focused on winning Khartoum,” said Alan Boswell, the Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. “This is the ultimate showdown.”
In the first few days of the conflict, the R.S.F. engaged in fierce fighting in Khartoum neighborhoods like Al Amarat and Khartoum 2, close to the city’s international airport, occupying streets where there are many embassies and wealthy residents. They also set up checkpoints in upscale neighborhoods like al-Riyadh, where they placed antiaircraft guns in front of homes to target the circling army planes.
The R.S.F. fighters are usually in groups of five to 20 at checkpoints, residents said, though in the Kafouri neighborhood north of the capital, more than 50 gathered at one point. They usually carry bazookas, Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns, and arrive in Toyota pickup trucks. Some residents said they sometimes even had antiaircraft guns.
“Since the first day, they are spreading through the neighborhoods and they are taking the people as shields,” said Gasim Amin Oshi, an engineer turned activist and community organizer.
The R.S.F. quickly moved into Mr. Oshi’s Baitalmaal neighborhood in Omdurman, set up checkpoints on the bridge, then headed straight for the police headquarters, taking it after a short gun battle. Next, they went for the national radio and television station, then the hospital, a technical school, and several buildings. They ransacked the supermarket and looted bakeries. As people evacuated, the fighters began to occupy homes in the neighborhood.
“I can’t move freely, I can’t get my stuff freely. We have a small window to move around in,” Mr. Oshi said. In the afternoons, when fighting slows, he risks going out in search of food and medical supplies, but tries not to attract attention since community members said they had been robbed by some fighters.
Mr. Oshi belongs to one of the “resistance committees” that make up a grass-roots, pro-democracy movement that protested military rule before the current fighting. They have become a lifeline for some residents in Khartoum, distributing food, medicine and cellphone credit. To do this, they have had to learn to play both sides, especially the R.S.F.
When a source within the R.S.F. warns of a strike to come, or someone within the military or secret services cautions that escalated fighting can be expected, the committee issues a social media alert, Mr Oshi said.
In a largely residential neighborhood in Khartoum, R.S.F. fighters moved into four apartment buildings in one area, turning the streets into a war zone, said a member of the area’s resistance committee, who asked not be named out of concern for her safety.
She said the committee has had to negotiate with R.S.F. fighters to allow some families to leave, begging their way through checkpoints, where fighters have not asked for money but have asked for water or food. Most residents oblige, trying to survive, the member said.
Others simply hide, living in fear of a force with a terrifying past.
The R.S.F. originated from the notorious Janjaweed militias, which in the early 2000s helped the former dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir brutally quash a rebellion in the western region of Darfur. Analysts and Western officials estimate that the unit has 70,000 to 100,000 fighters, and that they are better trained and equipped than the army.
The R.S.F. leader, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, was a commander with the Janjaweed who rose through the ranks to become one of the closest backers of Mr. al-Bashir, before turning on him. After Mr. al-Bashir was deposed in 2019, General Hamdan grew in power and stature, becoming the second-ranking figure behind the army commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, now his enemy.
Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese researcher and political analyst, said that in the capital, the R.S.F. had been using “hit-and-run tactics to attack and capture the positions held by the Sudanese armed forces.”
The army, he said, has responded by using its key advantages, which include helicopters, tanks and heavy machinery, to recapture some of those positions.
In some neighborhoods south of Khartoum, the army has the upper hand. The suburb of Abu Adam is close to a military base. Musab Abdullah, 24, a resident there, said he usually saw soldiers in uniform or driving armored vehicles. When he ventures beyond his neighborhood though, R.S.F. checkpoints await.
They are usually searching for weapons or interrogating people to find out if they are linked to the military, Mr. Abdullah said. Despite the relative safety of living close to an army barracks, the paramilitary’s reputation terrifies him.
“At any time they could break into my house, kill me or use me as a human shield for them,” he said via text message.
Members of Khartoum’s medical community have felt particularly vulnerable. Rumors abound that the R.S.F. is abducting doctors and nurses, forcing them at gunpoint to treat their wounded fighters. So some doctors have treated people in their homes, but the fear of the R.S.F. has driven many of them out of Khartoum.
“As a doctor, it’s heartbreaking feeling useless,” said Walaa Mirghani F. Almoula, a doctor who lives in central Khartoum. “We can’t help people.”
After a week of hiding in her home, Dr. Almoula said, she fled with her brother, who is also a doctor. They hid their professional identities through each of the four nerve-racking R.S.F. checkpoints they had to get through on the journey to Wad Madani, a refuge city southeast of Khartoum.
Even as its fighters mount attacks against the army in the capital, the paramilitary unit has become synonymous with one activity: looting. In interviews, residents in the capital said they saw R.S.F. soldiers break into markets, hospitals, university campuses, electronic shops, and in one case, even invite members of the neighborhood to help themselves to a grocery store. The few bystanders declined to follow them into the store, said one resident.
The Sudan Animal Rescue, a nonprofit group that provides sanctuary for dozens of animals including lions, said last week that a member of the paramilitary force had stolen one of its vehicles.
“It was shocking,” said Mutaz Kamal, a volunteer with the center who said he had reviewed footage of the attack. “He broke the windows and just drove away. Just like that.”
Declan Walsh contributed reporting.