Sudan crisis: UN envoy on the struggle to de-escalate ‘enormous tensions’, delays to humanitarian aid and staff ‘held at gunpoint’

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“None of the ceasefires have been respected in total,” Volker Perthes, United Nations special representative for Sudan, has told Sky News.

As Sudan’s political centre collapses under the chaos of urban warfare, Mr Perthes is regrouping with his team in the new peacetime capital of Port Sudan.

In an exclusive TV interview, Sky News sat down with Mr Perthes to discuss the points of contention in a crisis that has rapidly swallowed the country – killing hundreds of people and displacing millions of people in the first two weeks.

As the man at the helm of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), Mr Perthes is often perceived to be the main mediator between the Sudanese parties vying for power since former military dictator Omar al Bashir was ousted in 2019.

After sustained pro-democracy protests, army chief Abdel-Fattah al Burhan and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces leader Mohamed “Hemedti” Dagalo partnered to remove their former ally al Bashir.

Special Representative for Sudan, Volker Perthes.
Volker Perthes spoke to Sky’s Yousra Elbagir in Port Sudan

In January 2021, Mr Perthes was assigned by the UN to assist with the transition to democratic elections. In October 2021 a military coup staged by the generals brought this transition to a deadly pause.

During this period, both men and the civilian political opposition they have wrestled with for command of the country, have had a seat at his negotiation table.

“In the last two weeks, there was no table to negotiate,” said Mr Perthes. “When we still were speaking about a political process, they were all in the room – signatory, civilian, military, non-signatories in different forms. Now, we have been speaking individually to them.”

In the first few days of fighting, presidents from Djibouti, South Sudan and Juba offered to fly to Khartoum and lead mediation efforts.

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In an interview with Sky News, army chief al Burhan said that the climate of clashes was not suitable for their arrival. Now, there are discussions of peace talks being held in a neighbouring country like Saudi Arabia, UAE or South Sudan.

“The idea is to actually bring them physically together to agree face-to-face on some of the modalities of a ceasefire – which is more than just a declaration of ‘we’re going to stop the fighting’.”

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‘How could you let this happen?’

In the past two weeks, Mr Perthes’ mission has been a target of anger and frustration. Those who believe he overestimated the generals ask “how could you let this happen?”, and those who believe he underestimated the generals ask “how could you not see this coming?”

“We saw enormous tensions between the leadership and the RSF leadership, and we struggled particularly in the last two weeks before 15 April – before the outbreak of hostilities – to de-escalate,” Mr Perthes said.

“But of course, we did not see it coming Saturday morning.”

Many more people are fleeing from Sudan - even as international aid arrives
International rescue missions have allowed hundreds to flee Sudan

Like the forensic timeline of a brutal crime scene, Mr Perthes detailed the 24 hours before that shocking morning.

“We knew there was a risk of an outbreak of hostilities. We warned against it on Friday afternoon. We thought we, others and civilian actors from the Sudan had reached some progress because the two leaders had agreed on forming a military committee which was supposed to meet Saturday morning,” he said.

“So we went to bed and said well, maybe we have de-escalated it a little bit – and then we were woken up by the fighting.”

‘Stock of humanitarian aid was looted’

Early on Sunday, the first signs of international relief arrived at Port Sudan in the form of eight tonnes of humanitarian cargo sent by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A two-week lag time that I asked him to explain.

“Much of the humanitarian aid which we had in stock was looted,” he said.

“All the warehouses. WFP, UNHCR and others in Darfur were looted. Vehicles from the humanitarian agencies were looted. The offices of my own mission as well as offices, agencies in most of the towns of Darfur were looted. Food trucks were looted.

“WFP lost like 4,000 metric tons of humanitarian goods. So if all this is looted – you cannot distribute it.”

Many more people are fleeing from Sudan - even as international aid arrives
International efforts, with support of a UK war vessel, are under way

Also at the port, are white containers stamped with the UN logo and rows of UN-branded armoured vehicles.

UN staff and personnel involved in the mission have also faced extreme dangers, Mr Perthes said.

“Staff members were held at gunpoint. Staff members were thrown out of their houses by armed fighters who took positions, and houses were broken into. We had at least one case of attempted sexual assault… on a female staff member. And many of the houses and apartments were hit by stray shells and bullets.”

In the first week of fighting, three World Food Programme (WFP) staff members were killed in north Darfur and as a result the WFP suspended all operations in the country.

“So what we need to resume humanitarian activities is a ceasefire – a ceasefire that holds, and then we can start again,” Mr Perthes said.

“We are trying to get humanitarian supplies in.”

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