A barrage of artillery shells hit a poor neighborhood on May 31 in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
Residents recount the attack kill at least 18 civilians and injured 106 others in a local market, but no one knows whether it was from the Sudanese army or the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the two sides that plunged the country into war in an attempt to to overcome.
Residents said the RSF deployed to the neighborhood soon after the incident, leading to continued street fighting with the army and fears that more civilians could die in the crossfire.
“The area is still shelled following the clashes between the two sides,” said Fadeel Omer, 25, an activist from Mayo, the area where the attack took place.
“But with [the RSF’s] deployment in the area, they are feared more than the [army’s] bombing,” he added.
The market attack could be the start of a serious escalation to come. A day earlier, the army withdrawn from ceasefire talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The announcement suggests that army commander-in-chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is preparing to carry out a major offensive to retake the capital from the RSF, residents and experts told Al Jazeera.
Al-Burhan said he was open to to resume talks three days later, yet the RSF claimed that the conditions imposed by the army were impossible to meet. An army official reportedly said the army had called on the RSF to stop occupying homes and hospitals before resuming negotiations.
Both parties have since been under US sanctions in order to target their war chests. With neither side moving, some civilians feared they would bear the brunt of a sharp increase in violence. Others said they supported a major military attack.
“If that’s what it takes to get rid of the RSF, so be it,” said Khartoum resident Mohamad Jamal. “We are abused by them.”
Dead in the water?
RSF, whose stronghold is in the western province of Darfur, has never had a large constituency in Khartoum, a city historically home to Sudan’s middle class and business elite.
Despite the lack of support, the militia has made no effort to win hearts and minds in the capital, despite claiming to support democracy on its social media.
Instead, the group spread throughout the city to terrorize residents by looting homes, kidnapping young men and raping women, residents and victims told Al Jazeera.
RSF’s human rights abuses have led many to view the army as the lesser of two evils, with some overlooking its indiscriminate air campaign. According to ACLED, a non-profit organization that collects real-time conflict data, the military regularly hits civilian targets such as hospitals, schools and homes.
Kholood Khair, a Sudanese analyst and founding director of think tank Confluence Advisory, told Al Jazeera that a major military offensive could jeopardize their support if it inflicts too much damage on the civilian population.
“The army cannot afford to lose any support – be it historical or symbolic – from its citizens in Khartoum, because then they will really be dead in the water,” she said.
“The RSF are waiting and inciting the army to bomb the city so that their people [human rights] abuses may pale in comparison to those killed indiscriminately in army attacks,” she added.
Despite the risk a major army offensive poses to civilians, Khair said the army is likely to press on in order to prove to its supporters that it can liberate parts of the city.
An assault would also be aimed at gaining much-needed leverage before resuming negotiations with the RSF, she said.
“[An army] offensive would have two objectives. First, it is to demonstrate that they can achieve military victories against the RSF, and [the second] is to save face before entering a new dialogue platform.
Preparing for battle
In Mayo, the neighborhood where residents were killed and seriously injured three days ago, Omer said many people were taking precautions to avoid the impending offensive.
Some fled to other parts of the city, while others were thinking of fleeing Khartoumif they can.
“Indeed, we fear a military attack in [Khartoum]Omer told Al Jazeera. “The Jeddah talks represented a beacon of hope for [everyone] to get out of the crisis. But after the army withdrew, some people’s dream of ending the war faded.
Since the beginning of the war, many people have sought refuge in Port Sudan, a city in the east that is completely under the control of the army. But the military recently stopped allowing buses into the city, blaming an alleged plot by RSF to sneak in on spies.
According to the army statement, people fear that RSF will launch attacks on Port Sudan in response to a major offensive on Khartoum.
“THE [army] has already shut down the Port Sudan area and no one understands why,” said 25-year-old Sammer Hamza, who fled Khartoum last week.
“At night, you hear the exchange of gunfire and bullets, but no one knows what is going on. I just hope nothing will happen here. If a war breaks out in Port Sudan, we will lose all of Sudan,” she added.
Back in Khartoum, the militants are preparing to face an increase in the number of victims. Omer said he spends most of his time at a local hospital helping rescue those who survived the attack in the market.
“We [activists] are doing all they can to save lives and mitigate damage [in our neighbourhood] providing health assistance,” he said.