Sudan’s major floods present first challenge for its new leader

The flood crisis comes at a time of huge transition for Sudan. (File/AFP)
Updated 10 September 2019

Sudan’s major floods present first challenge for its new leader

  • The flooding that has killed scores of people and destroyed more than 100,000 homes is the first crisis to test Sudan’s new PM
  • The communities hit by the floods, which started in July, have been mostly left to fend for themselves or rely on aid with little help from authorities

WAD RAMLI, Sudan: In Wad Ramli, a village outside the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, Alsamani Fathalrahman and his neighbors traveled in blue speedboats through flooded streets trying to salvage their belongings.
“In just five hours, the area was completely flooded, with no prior notice, so people could only save themselves,” Fathalrahman said, as the 27-year-old engineer recovered bed frames and school books from abandoned homes.
The flooding that has killed scores of people and destroyed more than 100,000 homes is the first crisis to test Sudan’s new prime minister, the African country’s first civilian leader in 30 years.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s August 21 inauguration raised hopes that the new civilian-led government would mean a fresh approach, including being more responsive to the needs of the Sudanese people.
But Hamdok is hamstrung by an economy crippled by debt and a legacy of under investment in infrastructure that has exacerbated the flood crisis.
The communities hit by the floods, which started in July, have been mostly left to fend for themselves or rely on aid with little help from authorities, just as they did under the previous regime, according to residents, community groups and charity workers.
“The civilian government is right now an abstract notion,” said Magdi El Gizouli, a Sudanese academic based in Germany and fellow of the Rift Valley Institute, a non-profit research organization. “It will emerge eventually but whether it can exercise power is a totally different story.”
The prime minister’s office and the military declined to comment on the flood response.
The flood crisis comes at a time of huge transition for Sudan, as months of protests ushered in a transitional government that must also tackle a full-blown economic crisis and internal conflicts, issues that helped bring down the three-decade rule of Omar Al-Bashir.
Hamdok’s cabinet was sworn in on Sunday; civilian state governors are yet to be appointed.
In an interview with Reuters days after his inauguration, Hamdok said the flood situation required “immediate and strategic intervention” and that “the government must put in place solutions and plans to ensure that the harm to citizens from floods and rains does not repeat.”
He has announced the formation of a task force to focus on the flood-relief effort and said Sudan should follow the lead of other countries by building damns, channels and other ways to make use of the water. ADMINISTRATIVE VOID
During a visit to Wad Ramli in late August, Hamdok was interrupted by chants from residents demanding that they be resettled to avoid a repeat of situation in the future.
“I hear you very well,” he responded. “Together we will execute this resettlement plan. You have to help us with suggestions.”
Under the power-sharing arrangement between the military council and the main opposition coalition, Hamdok will head a transitional government for just over three years, until an election.
But the formation of the government, which was supposed to be in place by the end of last month, was repeatedly delayed due to political wrangling over cabinet appointments as well as months of negotiations between the military and the main opposition coalition.
Hamdok has apologized for the delay.
That has left a void for the country’s most powerful paramilitary group, the large and well-financed Rapid Support Forces (RSF), to fill in terms of the flood response, said academic Gizouli.
RSF commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is known as Hemedti, is seen by analysts as the most powerful member of the newly-established sovereign council, the joint military-civilian body that oversees to the prime minister and the cabinet. The RSF has also been accused by protesters and rights groups of involvement in killing demonstrators, something Hemedti has previously denied.
The military has supplied some flood assistance, including mattresses and tents, according to state media and residents.
Help has instead come from charities and international organizations like the United Nations, including medical supplies and transport, according to residents and the organizations. Gulf countries including Kuwait and Qatar have also provided assistance.
Khartoum-based charity Nafeer has provided tents, mosquito nets, food, toiletries, and construction equipment to flood hit areas across the country, according to Ghazi Elrayah, a volunteer with the charity who focuses on external communication.
The response from the authorities has been “very weak. It hasn’t really changed this year,” said Elrayah. “We do the emergency relief for this country. What we are doing is not a permanent solution,” Elrayah added.
Joining the flood-relief effort across Khartoum are what are known as neighborhood resistance committees that had previously focused on mobilizing communities to join the anti-Bashir protests that led to his ouster.
The committees are helping distribute supplies they have received largely through donations, and are working with groups like Nafeer, which has provided equipment to dig ditches.
That includes neighborhoods in the region known as Khartoum’s “southern belt” that have been particularly hard hit because of the large number of slums, which are easily demolished by the floods.
A member of one of the committees there, who wished to be identified only by his last name Osman due to security concerns, said the committee had approached local authorities, hoping for supplies and equipment to help dig ditches.
“We didn’t get anything from them. Nothing, no aid,” Osman said. He added that the committees are now focusing on battling waterborne illnesses like malaria, which are spreading as a result of the flooding.
Mohamed Ali Alshareef, general manager for the Jebel Awlia local authority that includes the southern belt, said the authority provided some tents, pesticides and drainage services but that the political changes had impacted its finances.
“The situation was above our capacity,” he said.

Turkey’s Erdogan called out for endangering ‘US national security’

Updated 20 min 34 sec ago

Turkey’s Erdogan called out for endangering ‘US national security’

  • Strong letter by House Foreign Affairs Committee members urges withdrawal of White House invitation
  • Residents of northeastern Syria are fearful and the humanitarian situation is a cause for concern

ERBIL, DUBAI: In a humiliating rebuke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the lead-up to his visit to Washington, members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives have written a strong letter urging US President Donald Trump to withdraw the White House invitation.

The letter says Erdogan’s “decision to invade northern Syria on Oct. 9 has had disastrous consequences for US national security, has led to deep divisions in the NATO alliance, and caused a humanitarian crisis on the ground.”

The Congress members said: “Turkish forces have killed civilians and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a critical US partner in the fight against (Daesh), and displaced over one hundred thousand people from their homes in northern Syria.”

The committee’s concerns are well founded. After weeks of instability and violence following the Turkish incursion, the situation in northeastern Syria remains tense despite the implementation of a ceasefire and an agreement between Russia and Turkey that compelled Kurdish-led SDF troops to withdraw from the border.

According to multiple sources, residents of this part of Syria are fearful for their future and the humanitarian situation is a cause for concern.

Since Turkey launched its assault, shortly after the US troop withdrawal from the border, approximately 180,000 Syrian civilians, primarily Kurds, have been displaced from their homes.

Turkey, with the help of its Syrian militia proxies, has carved out a large swath of territory — about 120 kilometers wide — that extends from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ayn (known by Kurds as Serekaniye).

On Oct. 31 at a gathering in Istanbul, Erdogan boasted that the “safe zones” were the most peaceful and livable places in Syria today. “We did not provide all these services with any expectation, but as our human and moral responsibilities,” he said, adding “when we look around, we see only humans, souls and life.”

Most Kurds of northeastern Syria see the situation very differently. In their view, what Erdogan has undertaken in the name of resettling millions of Syrian refugees in the so-called safe zone is a giant demographic-engineering exercise.

What has reinforced their suspicions have been incidents of Turkish-backed Syrian militias looting civilian homes and businesses, clips of which have flooded social media since the first days of the Turkish invasion.

Sounding a direct warning via Twitter, Mazloum Abdi, the SDF’s general commander, said: “There are efforts by Turkey to achieve its demographic-change goals in Northeast Syria through international organizations. The UN head’s willingness to form a team to study the proposal and engage in discussions with Turkish authorities on the issue is deeply worrying and dangerous.”

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri heads the charity Joint Help for Kurdistan, which is distributing humanitarian aid in the region, and said the humanitarian situation could not be worse.

She said that because northeastern Syria has been practically under an embargo for years: “It’s very hard to find even the most basic items in significant quantities. Even finding and buying simple clothing for the displaced is very difficult and expensive.”

Ghafouri has talked to many people displaced from different areas. Some spoke of how they tried to return to their homes but the presence of the militias, whose roadside executions of Kurds have been filmed and posted on the web, acted as a deterrent.

Among the displaced Syrians Ghafouri spoke to were a pharmacist and a doctor from Ras Al-Ayn who tried to return to their homes.

“They told me about another pharmacist they knew who was arrested along with his son by these militias, who demanded a large ransom for their release,” she said. After being detained for eight hours, both were released without the ransom being paid. Instead, the militiamen “stole everything they could find in their home and their pharmacy.”

The general atmosphere, as inferred by Ghafouri, is one of “suffering and hopelessness.”

Alluding to the resettlement of Arabs on confiscated Kurdish land by Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad back in the mid-1970s, she said: “This is not the first time efforts have been made to change demographics.”

Ghafouri said that even today, on the road from Hasakah to Derik, “you can see where Arab villages have been built on the best agricultural lands in the region.”

On Oct. 24, in an interview to Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT, Erdogan came close to making the case for ethnic cleansing. “What is important is to prepare a controlled life in this enormous area, and the most suitable people for it are Arabs,” he said. “These areas are not suitable for the lifestyle of Kurds … because these areas are virtually desert.”

In actual fact, northeastern Syria, where the country’s largest Kurdish-majority areas are located, is also where Syria’s best agricultural lands happen to be. The region is often referred to as the country’s “breadbasket.”

Ghafouri believes the events of the past several weeks are “all about destroying the landscape and demography of the Kurdish regions for good,” adding: “It has been partially accomplished already.”

Besides Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime have also sent troops to the Turkey-Syria border, but locals Ghafouri spoke to “don’t see the Russian deployment as a cause for hope.”

She said: “Despite feeling betrayed by America, people I’ve talked to there trust Russia even less. It seems that with Russian support, the Syrian regime has achieved what it wants — namely the ‘Arabization’ of predominantly Kurdish areas with the help of Turkey.”

In recent weeks, more than 14,000 Syrians have fled the conflict in the country’s northeast to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, which already hosts a huge refugee population.

Jotiar Adil, a spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said the KRG “does not have the capacity to handle and care for a new wave of refugees coming across the border on its own.

“Therefore, we ask the international community to take a serious stance on this and assist us in sheltering and providing for these refugees.”

While the Russian-Syrian deployment along the border in northeastern Syria is expected to lessen the likelihood of a total Turkish takeover, the agreement with Russia permits Turkey to retain forces in Syrian territories under its control and states: “Joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.”

Nevertheless, Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and head of the Middle East department at the University of Oklahoma, believes: “Erdogan’s resettlement plan is dead. The Russians will fight it and so will the Syrians. There may be some resettlement around Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn, but beyond that, it is hard to imagine that right now. Even in this area, it is doubtful there will be any large-scale refugee resettlement.

“The situation will not be like in Afrin, where the Kurdish population could be chased out to make way for Arab refugees.”

However, the US lawmakers who have called on the White House to disinvite Erdogan believe “his calamitous actions in Syria follow a long list of disconcerting steps”.

Reminding Trump about the resolutions passed last month by the House warning of sanctions against Turkey, the statement said: “Given this situation, we believe that now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the US, and we urge you to rescind this invitation.”