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Bombardments, bandit raids and carjackings: Life in Sudan for the Irish aid agency staff

There are 230 Goal aid workers still in the African country where fighting has continued despite multiple ceasefires.

AID WORKERS INSIDE Sudan’s capital Khartoum are reporting daily 5am wake up calls as warring factions begin their bombardment of the city. 

There are 230 Goal aid workers still in the African country where fighting has continued despite multiple ceasefires since the conflict began on 15 April. Their daily alarm clocks are artillery and airstrikes coupled with a constant risk of looting and carjackings. 

But the aid agency staff are refusing to leave – Paul Westbury, the man tasked with keeping them safe, has said they have point blankly refused to flee. 

Westbury is Goal’s Regional Security Advisor for East Africa – he said that the aid workers have opted to stay in the war torn country to deliver aid. 

But Westbury, who spoke to The Journal from his base in Rwanda, confirmed that the aid agency’s office was looted in Khartoum in recent days with vehicles stolen and other equipment. 

While fighting in Khartoum has been heavy at times, it’s hoped a declared ceasefire which came into effect on Monday night will give aid workers a chance to move aid and resupply locations across the country struggling to make deliveries. 

Reports from Tuesday morning from Goal are that there are sporadic clashes between the warring factions, military aircraft are over the city but that the intensity of the bombardment has eased. 

It is a deeply complex picture on the ground – not just with the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Force (RSF) but also with heavily armed criminal groups exploiting the unrest to launch raids against civilians and other infrastructure.  

He also has received reports of militant groups in various parts of the country beginning to look at how they can exploit the unrest for their own aims.

That all feeds into a picture of price gouging on supplies for the civilians who are stuck between the warring sides and a strong risk of destabilisation in nearby locations. There’s also a potential contagion effect which could see trouble across the Sahel region joining with the unrest broader Horn of Africa.

Violence in Sudan broke out between two sides of the military forces – the RSF and SAF -  and it’s a conflict which is entirely about control of the armed forces by two generals.  

A major evacuation of foreign citizens, including more than 200 Irish people, has concluded leaving Sudan now in the clutches of the fighting. 

It is not Sudan’s first conflict and the RSF faction has its origins in the Janjaweed militia, which was involved in the violent suppression of an insurgency in the Darfur region.

There has been strong evidence of genocide in that area perpetrated by members of that group. 

Critical to the work of Goal in the country, Westbury said, are the teams of local people who are providing information to the aid agency but also building plans to help the local populations. 

Westbury has said daily reports from those locals show that the fighting outside of Khartuom, in the rural reaches of the Blue Nile region, South and West Kordofan and El Fasher, is less intense but there is fighting raging in West Darfur and the capital. 

The problems in West Darfur, particularly, are from before the SAF and RSF began their war a month ago. Westbury said that his teams are reporting that local militia in Darfur have seized the opportunity to hit the RSF because they are short on numbers in the region given that a lot of the RSF’s fighters have headed to Khartoum. 

Westbury said that the fact that fighting has calmed in many of the rural areas is not the whole picture and humanitarians working in the region are facing massive issues when moving aid around to resupply. 

smoke-is-seen-rising-from-khartoums-skyline-sudan-sunday-april-16-2023-the-sudanese-military-and-a-powerful-paramilitary-group-battled-for-control-of-the-chaos-stricken-nation-for-a-second-day-s The scene in Khartoum at the start of the war - fighting has continued daily. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“There are checkpoints on the routes between the towns and cities and those checkpoints are about ‘how much I can get out of you to let you through’.

“Coupled with that we’ve got a lot of gangs that work in areas across Sudan and these criminal gangs have come out and taken advantage of the fact that there’s nothing stopping them coming out and doing these raids.

“They’re also responsible for some of the looting that’s been reported as well. These issues are causing the humanitarians more problems, because it’s not easy to police those or know where they are. Yeah. So that gives us major issues with access,” he said. 

This has limited the efforts of Goal, and other organisations in the country, to reach the worst affected areas. These convoys, Westbury said, are particularly vulnerable because there is no way to make the aid convoys more secure as humanitarians cannot carry armed cover.

The security advisor does believe that a United Nations military intervention may happen “further down the line” but that the UN is unlikely to activate a military response rapidly.

“We have to rely on our local teams, getting the information, and we analyse it, and then we just work out how we can mitigate the risk best to the safety of the staff. And then we move where we can,” he added. 


We spoke to Westbury on Monday morning and he had received overnight reports from his humanitarian teams on the ground – he said the next 48 hours would be critical for the humanitarian effort.

He believes the potential for a weeklong cessation of fighting is giving humanitarians “hope” that it will hold because there are observers appointed by both sides and that the deal was brokered over several days. 

sudanese-army-chief-gen-abdel-fattah-al-burhan-seen-among-his-soldiers-in-khartoum Sudanese army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is seen together with his soldiers. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Westbury said that the tactic of attacks on humanitarian groups is not new in conflicts in the area and has happened in the Horn of Africa before. He said there is a new feature in the war as international embassies in Khartoum are now seen as legitimate targets. 

“Attacking of humanitarian agencies goes on, we’ve had it in Ethiopia, we’ve had it in South Sudan. That’s quite common, but the attacks on embassies is definitely a new one. We’ve not seen that before.

“Even the UN agencies get attacked or get looted in a lot of these countries these days.

“There’s not the respect there used to be for humanitarian organisations, whether it be the UN or whether it be an NGO,” he said. 


The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is reporting that the Sudan conflict has caused the displacement of 736,200 people across the country, and 200,000 more people have fled into neighbouring countries, including Chad, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic.

The SAF and RSF have signed the Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan in Jeddah on 12 May but the daily violence continues to escalate.

Westbury said that grocery items are being sold at double the normal price and banks are struggling to stay open while the International Swift service is closed.

Fuel is only available on the black market at $11 per litre, and bus tickets to Egypt have increased from $67 to $832. Of the three mobile networks operating in the country, only Zain is currently working with a weak signal.

Sudanese media have fled Khartoum when their building was destroyed in Khartoum.

John Rynne, Interim Country Director for GOAL Sudan, said this weekend that staff in Sudan were liaising with Irish Aid and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to request vital stocks of non-food items to support the response in Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Rynne said this area is the scene of the largest amount of displaced people crossing the border to get away from the fighting. 

WhatsApp Image 2023-05-22 at 13.39.10 Paul Westbury. Goal Goal

Westbury is in daily conversation with Goal aid workers, known as national staff, who are Sudanese nationals working inside their home country. 

He said they have refused to leave, citing that they wished to stay and help their fellow citizens and stay with their families. 

“I just think for me, we always talk about heroes but Goal’s national staff are just getting on with the job. And I think that message needs to go out loud and clear.

“They are working away no matter what’s going on around them. In messages every day their first thought is, what can they do to help people and any support we can get for them, whether it’s international support, get humanitarian corridors in or just giving us one euro to help with this, then that’s my message that really needs to get out. 

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