As It Happens·Q&A

Aid worker in Sudan fears the worst if latest ceasefire doesn't hold

Will Carter is the Sudan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian organization that helps people who are forced to flee their homes. He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal on Monday from Khartoum, where he was working with displaced children.

Warring factions agreed to 7-day ceasefire staring Monday night — but previous ones haven't held

A man takes a selfie outside. Behind him, a group of children form a circle and raise their hands.
Will Carter is the Sudan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian organization that helps people who are forced to flee their homes. (@WillCarter_NRC/Twitter)

The shooting is supposed to stop in Sudan on Monday night, but Will Carter isn't holding his breath.

Carter is the Sudan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian organization that helps people who are forced to flee their homes.

And a lot of people have been forced to flee their homes in Sudan over the last month.

The United Nations estimates that 700 people have been killed and more than a million displaced since conflict broke out between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in mid-April. Some have fled the capital of Khartoum, where most of the fighting is taking place, while others have left the country altogether. 

A seven-day ceasefire, negotiated by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, is set begin Monday evening to allow the flow of humanitarian aid to civilians who have been cut off from most basic necessities. Six previous ceasefires have failed to hold. But Carter is hoping this one lasts long enough for him and his fellow aid workers to get the supplies people need. 

He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal on Monday from Khartoum, where he was working with displaced children. Here is part of their conversation. 

How would you characterize the humanitarian situation in Sudan right now? 

We've had over a million people fleeing for their lives within the country, and some across into neighbouring countries. But many hundreds of thousands, if not millions more, are trapped in cities that are under attack. So it's really devastating right now. 

I watched the short video that you posted on social media, and I was struck by the schoolchildren just a bit behind you. They're not facing the camera, but I could see them raising their hands. To me, it was a touching moment. Can you tell me what's happening where you are there? 

One of the things that we're doing to help is to try and help children, girls and boys, who have fled the conflict. And they're being welcomed into some schools in the area. 

They have a very disrupted sense of safety, a sense of normalcy, which has been interrupted or disturbed. So we're trying to help them relax, readjust their sense of space and self, and adjust into a new place. Many of them have been through really traumatic experiences.

It's a very basic level of, you know, self-control and psychosocial support that we're helping them. So a little bit of fun and games, but also some more meaningful activities in there too.

A man rides a bike through sandy streets. Behind him, a woman walks with a basket on her head and a bucket in one hand.
A man rides a bicycle on al-Sittin road in Khartoum on Monday as fighting persists between two rival generals. Gunfire and explosions rocked Sudan's capital Monday morning, hours before a one-week humanitarian ceasefire was due to take effect. (AFP/Getty Images)

What kinds of stories are they telling you? 

Many have just been so worried. Some are separated from one or more parents or other loved ones. Many of them have been in areas which have been under attack with little food or power. So really such uncertainty, and they can sense the panic in the whole communities and household around them. 

One of the children today and their parents told me the bombs kept falling, the house kept shaking. And they were so frightened, they hid under their bed and lay down there. And a few moments later, a spray of bullets came through the wall, and one [came] just a few inches or centimetres between their face and the beds. And now they can't sleep anywhere. Every time [they try], it reminds them of this really near-death experience. And they can't really leave their parents' side. So it's been hugely trying and traumatic for many of them. 

Even though they escaped the immediate danger, it's still a whole nightmare in itself. 

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This latest ceasefire is supposed to allow for the flow of humanitarian aid supplies. Just what exactly is needed, and where, right now?

Visas still aren't issued. Flights still aren't landing. Not all supplies are allowed through so quickly. 

This is the sixth or seventh ceasefire that they've agreed to, and these things last only a few minutes, usually — although this is the first one where they've actually signed something on paper. 

But with this ceasefire, I hope that it paves the way for us to get into places like Khartoum on the scale that we need to, [and] into places like Darfur. 

We've had several conversations with people in the capital or who've been able to flee the capital … pregnant women not able to get the help they need, and the doctors who are trying to help them. Just give our listeners a sense of what it is like in Khartoum.

We've been meeting thousands of people who've left Khartoum and, you know, such disturbing tales, really, not only of the people who left, but the people that they leave behind. 

Some are too old to make the journey, or they have to take care of other loved ones who are ill and can't go. So really heartbreaking decisions within families about whether to stay with nothing to eat and with that risk, or whether to leave. It's so tough on everybody. 

Really, I feel for the mothers out there, ones who are pregnant, ones who have got very young children, many of them without breadwinners or the male family members are injured [or] killed elsewhere for some reason. So … they're already very vulnerable in a very difficult situation, and now having to make choices with so little resources and so little possibilities is, you know, it's exhaustingly depressing. 

A man in a long white robe and a pointy red hat smiles and plays with a puppet while surrounded by children.
A Sudanese volunteer artist plays with children to support their mental well-being in Port Sudan on May 4. (El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters)

What are you hearing from your contacts there about just how stable this ceasefire agreement is? 

I think everyone's trust levels are low, to be frank. And we've got to be hopeful that things will be different. But I think this is the sixth or seventh time that they hear of a ceasefire, and then nothing actually being changed on the ground. You know, there's still airstrikes, there's still lootings, there's still people firing anti-aircraft guns from streets near homes. 

So they're kind of fatigued by this all. They can hope. It does seem slightly more serious. But I don't think anyone's really holding their breath for huge changes right now. 

Hundreds of people — most of them women in brightly coloured clothes — sit on the ground. Those closest smile for the camera.
Sudanese people seek refuge in Chad on May 11. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

If it doesn't hold, then what's going to happen if the fighting continues in the way that it has been? 

We're definitely going into the thousands of people killed directly.

The whole country's economy, food systems, health-care systems, education systems, they've basically stopped, but they might begin to completely crumble, and we might head into a failed state. 

Because this military activity is striking the heart of a country.... So it's moving from the catastrophe of a capital city into something that will wrap up the other 40 million people around the country.

With files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Edited for length and clarity.

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