by Priti Gulati Cox and Stan Cox
Various versions of the aphorism “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography” have been making the rounds ever since the rise of U.S. imperialism in the late 1800s. The quip (which, despite legend, appears not to be attributable to Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, or any other famous person) has proven all too accurate when the war in question directly involves American troops. When, however, non-U.S. combatants and civilians suffer and die from conflicts relatively unrelated to Washington’s “strategic interests,” our media outlets tend to avert their eyes, aid agencies get stingy, and Americans learn no geography whatsoever. Oh, and given this country’s power and position on this planet, millions suffer the consequences of that neglect.
Terror Days in Khartoum
Let’s start with Sudan. A civil war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Force (RSF) is now dragging into its seventh month with no end in sight. Since the conflict erupted, Washington has issued only a few token calls for the fighting there to end, while providing insufficient aid to desperate millions of Sudanese. The assistance that did go out has proven microscopic compared to the vast quantities of humanitarian, economic, and military aid our government has poured into similarly war-torn Ukraine.
In the first five months of brutal fighting in Sudan, 5,000 civilian deaths and injuries to at least 12,000 more were reported — and those were both considered significant underestimates. Meanwhile, more than a million people have fled that country, while a staggering 7.1 million have been displaced in their own land. According to the International Office of Migration, that represents “the highest [number] of any internally displaced population in the world, including Syria, Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Human Rights Watch reports that “over 20 million people, 42% of Sudan’s population, face acute food insecurity and 6 million are just a step away from famine.”
Try to take that in for a moment and wonder, while you’re at it, why you’ve heard so desperately little (or nothing at all!) about such an immense human tragedy. Worse yet, the Sudanese people are hardly the only ones being treated shabbily by Uncle Sam and other governments of the rich North while suffering deadly deprivation. Sudan is, in fact, at the center of a region stretching from the Middle East deep into Africa in which countries suffering some of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies are largely being ignored by the Global North.
Given the near vacuum of news on the Sudan conflict in our media, we contacted Hadeel Mohamed, an educator we know who fled Sudan for neighboring Egypt, but is still in frequent contact with her neighbors who stayed behind in the capital city, Khartoum. We asked her for an update on what people still living there were telling her they were enduring after six months of unending civil war.
Every house in their neighborhood, she’s heard, has been looted by combatants. In the process, her friends and neighbors say that they’ve experienced “terror days when their houses were being invaded or even re-invaded to see if there’s anything left.”
“When it starts to get dark outside,” she told us, “that’s scariest, because you never know who’s going to come in and attack.” If female household members are there, what grim fates are they likely to suffer? And she adds, “If you have males in the house, are they going to be abducted and what’s going to happen to them?”
We asked whether atrocities were being committed by both the Sudanese Army and the RSF? “Yeah, both sides,” she responded. “Listen, I’m not validating any side, but when you’re in war, you really don’t know who’s coming at you or who’s a threat to you. So, everyone is seen as a threat.” And that, she adds, leads the combatants to act violently toward the civilians who’ve stayed behind.
Food is especially scarce in Khartoum, because travel in and out of the city is so dangerous for the usual suppliers and, as Hadeel points out, “Most of the stores have been looted, but in certain areas, some bread and other food is available for a few hours per day per week. There’s no fixed schedule, though.” Worse yet, wherever there’s active fighting, electricity and water supplies are normally cut off. “Some people can have electricity for weeks, while others will not have it for weeks.” Some engineers have bravely remained in Khartoum trying to keep power and water supplies flowing, but it’s often a hopeless task.
“People are on such unstable ground,” Hadeel concludes. “They really don’t know when their next food supplies are going to come in or when they’re going to be able to refill their water.” They have to watch for opportunities to slip outside in relative safety to “find something to keep them and their neighbors going.”
And what exactly has been Washington’s response to this ongoing horror? Well, the State Department issued a toothless admonishment that the army and RSF “must comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, including obligations related to the protection of civilians.” And that was about it, other than ineffective sanctions applied to the leader of the RSF. Meanwhile, international efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting have collapsed, and humanitarian aid efforts have been hopelessly bogged down. Anyway, who has time for Sudan when arming and backing the Ukrainians has the attention of everyone who matters in the United States?
“Severe, Extreme, or Catastrophic Conditions”
Mind you, that paucity of interest is anything but unique to the crisis in Sudan. For example, U.N. World Food Program (WFP) Director Cindy McCain recently told ABC’s This Week that there isn’t enough food-assistance money for desperate Afghanistan, filled with starving people, to “even get through October.” In addition, the WFP has had to cut food aid to other countries in desperate need, including Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Jordan, Palestine, South Sudan, Somalia, and Syria. As for explaining that shortfall, McCain was blunt, blaming the rush of rich nations of the Global North to support Ukraine which, she says, “has sucked the oxygen out of the room.”
Typically, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that its famine-prevention program for war-ravaged Yemen is now receiving just 30% of the funds it needs, putting millions of Yemenis at risk. OCHA points to the peril facing Fatima, a 60-year-old woman living in the village of Al-Juranah. The program supplies her family with wheat, peas, and oil, but delivery is sporadic, a reality about which Fatima is all too matter-of-fact. “We receive a sack of wheat,” she says, “and sometimes we get only half a sack. They also give us roasted peas and oil. If this support stops, we will starve to death.” And sadly enough, that support is now anything but guaranteed.
Two years after a ceasefire in that brutal civil war fed by Saudi Arabia (with U.S. support), a conflict that received only the scantiest media coverage in this country, more than half of Yemenis — 17 million people — are food insecure. U.N. forecasters predict that without massive intervention, a quarter of those people will experience “acute food insecurity” by year’s end, with three-quarters of them reaching “crisis levels of hunger.” Such massive intervention is decidedly not in the cards, however, and the continuing neglect is having horrific consequences. National Public Radio’s Fatma Tanis did, in fact, report on this from a Yemeni hospital in August:
“We head next to the intensive care unit for newborns, often born with complications because of malnutrition. As we enter, a nurse pulls a sheet over a baby who just died. The parents aren’t here. Often, families use all their resources to bring their child to the hospital but can’t afford to return again. So the hospital has to take care of burials too, without them.”
The people of Syria are similarly striving to recover from the civil war that erupted in 2011 and was finally put on hold with a 2020 ceasefire, but only after a full decade of ferocious warfare and terrible suffering. Like the Sudanese and Yemenis, they remain largely unnoticed and uncovered these days in the American media. In addition to extreme water shortages, a catastrophic 55% of Syrians are officially in the crisis phase of acute food insecurity. In late 2022, OCHA reported that “severe, extreme, or catastrophic conditions” were affecting 69% — yes, you read that right! — of the country’s population. Furthermore,
“Basic services and other critical infrastructure are on the brink of collapse… Over 58 percent of households interviewed reported accessing only between three to eight hours of electricity per day, while almost seven million people only had access to their primary water source between two and seven days per month in June.”
Is the world paying attention? In one respect, Syria is more fortunate than Sudan or Yemen, enjoying its very own annual conference of donor nations. At this June’s conference, hosted by the European Union, donors pledged an increase in total aid, but the amount still fell $800 million short of what the U.N. was seeking for that country. Worse yet, just before the conference kicked off, the World Food Program announced that it would cut food aid to almost half of Syria’s 5.5 million current recipients just when they’re most in need.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, another country in deep distress, finds itself in the global spotlight, but not for the suffering its people are experiencing. Its huge deposits of cobalt, copper, and other mineral elements essential to future renewable-energy economies have finally brought it some attention. However, the Global North, transfixed by those priceless minerals, has remained remarkably blind to the wave of human misery now sweeping the Congo.
Last month, Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, just back from a trip there, told Democracy Now, “It’s the worst hunger catastrophe on Earth. Nowhere else in the world is there more than 25 million people experiencing violence, hunger, disease, neglect. And nowhere in the world is there such a small international response to help, to aid, to end all of this suffering.”
As in Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, hunger and war have gone hand-in-hand in the Congo. Today, Egelend said, an almost unbelievable 150 or so armed groups vie for power in the cobalt-rich eastern part of the country. In the early 2000s, cobalt was valued for its role in mobile phones and laptops. The stakes are far higher now, with vastly larger quantities required to produce the lithium-ion batteries essential to the development of sprawling new power grids and a vast global fleet of electric vehicles.
Collateral damage radiating from the Congo’s ongoing violence includes a hunger crisis, an epidemic of sexual assault by combatants on tens of thousands of civilian women, and so much more. The U.N. sought $2.3 billion in humanitarian assistance for the Congo in 2023. It has, however, only received a measly one-third of that sum, enough to help just one of every 18 people now in desperate need.
On Democracy Now!, Egeland put his finger on the terrible calculations of global economics and diplomacy: “Congo is not ignored by those who want to extract the riches of that place. It is ignored by the rest of the world… As humanity, we’re really, really failing Congo now, because it’s not Ukraine, it’s not the Middle East.”
As a refugee from Sudan, Hadeel Mohamed worries every day about these kinds of terrible calculations being made in the North. As she puts it,
“This war has really opened our eyes to a lot of things. Although we saw the news of what’s happening in Yemen and Syria, and all these countries where wars erupted, we never really understood the depth of it. A worry of ours is that what’s happening to Syrian refugees is going to happen to Sudanese refugees… where your prospects are not going to mean anything… where you’re limited in your work transactions, you’re limited in your educational abilities.”
Because organizations like the U.N. and the International Red Cross were activated “quite late” in Sudan, she points out, some who fled the country, especially youth, “started forming groups to help people cross borders to get out, to find jobs, and to raise funds for food and water aid for those still in Sudan.” Hadeel herself is involved in such efforts. “But progress is a bit slow, because we’re still trying to rebuild our own lives in parallel.”
“If the war is not contained in Khartoum,” she adds, “the chances of it spreading are very high and we’ve seen a lot of spreading recently, whether it’s in Port Sudan or Madani or surrounding cities.” Violence has been raging for months in the Darfur region of western Sudan as well. The conflict could also be significantly prolonged by the desire of both sides to control northeastern Sudan’s vast gold deposits, which play a role analogous to that of cobalt in the Congo.
With no relief in sight, says Hadeel, the people of Khartoum, understand that lacking true humanitarian aid, “you really come back to more of community-based aid. With our limited resources, with our limited abilities, we still find people rising up to take care of each other.” Nevertheless, for refugees, “there are only two possible outcomes here: either you go back and fight for your country and potentially die or you go on living and establishing yourself outside of Sudan.”
Meanwhile, on the Outskirts of Democracy…
Tyranny, civil war, systemic breakdown — it can’t happen here, right? Or can it? We privileged folk in the United States may still think we live in a democracy, but so many of us don’t. In truth, the 140 million poor and low-wage folks, Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous, along with about one-third of White people, live on the outskirts of our “democracy.” Like the people of Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, they dream of being in a country where there’s equality and justice, and where democracy, while not complete, is at least not dying.
The United States never was, and by the looks of it, now has little chance of becoming a truly pluralistic, multiracial democratic system. If we were, we’d be spending every free hour raising hell to make sure the possibility of democracy doesn’t die in next year’s election. The media are replete with dystopian scenarios of its end and the rise of Trumpistan. We’re scared shirtless about that, too, and it’s a gut punch to realize that, if we had a truly functioning democracy, there’d be no way it could be toppled by a single guy like Donald Trump.
Ask a Sudanese or a Syrian or an Egyptian or an Afghan what it’s like to live under autocracy. Then ask marginalized Americans what it’s like to live on the outskirts of democracy. For the latter, democracy is like Sudan’s gold and the Congo’s cobalt. There may be a lot of it, but very few get any.