JOHANNESBURG — One of the world's most brutal conflicts is marking its first anniversary this week, but with the war in Gaza and other events dominating news, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan is going underreported.

Since renewed fighting broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the rebel paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on April 15, 2023, more than 8 million people have fled their homes and more than 14,000 people have been killed, according to conflict monitor estimates.

The actual death toll could be much higher, however, as the country remains nearly impossible for observers to enter. Problems with access, due to ongoing fighting but also heavy bureaucracy around the clearance of aid convoys, are also exacerbating a hunger crisis.

Twenty-five million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to United Nations humanitarian agencies, and nearly 18 million across the country are facing acute levels of hunger. The coming lean season in May, could bring "unprecedented levels of starvation," according to Eddie Rowe, the World Food Programme's Sudan director.

Add to this a campaign of violence, including rape, by the mainly Arab RSF against other ethnic groups in western Sudan's Darfur region; foreign powers using the African country — with its oil and gold resources — as the setting for proxy wars; and an international community preoccupied with other conflicts.

"Sudan is one of the worst crises the world has seen for decades," says Dr. Christos Christou, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, who recently traveled to the country as well as the overflowing refugee camps in neighboring Chad.

Russian involvement

Previously Sudan's warring factions were allies that united after a massive people-power revolution in 2019 to overthrow longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. They promised a transition to democracy — but instead toppled the country's transitional civilian government in a second coup in 2021.

But the erstwhile allies then differed over plans for a new transition and the integration of the RSF rebel group into the regular army. Since April 15, 2023, the Sudanese military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the RSF of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, have been engaged in a power struggle over who gets to run the resource-rich nation that sits at the vital crossroads between North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

Although the war shows no signs of abating, with international pressure for a cease-fire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan failing in March, Sudan's military has recently been making important gains, last month reclaiming territory in the capital Khartoum.

But the presence of foreign groups has added another dimension to the war. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran are all supporting the Sudanese army, while the United Arab Emirates is accused of backing rebel leader Hemedti — something the UAE denies.

Russia, meanwhile, has long had a presence in Sudan. Its rebranded Wagner mercenaries are aligned with the RSF and Washington and others accuse them of arming the militia in return for smuggled Sudanese gold. Experts say some of those riches are being used to fund Moscow's war in Ukraine.

Enter Ukraine. Its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, met Sudanese army Gen. Burhan in September in Ireland and said they discussed their "common security challenges, in particular the activities of illegal armed groups financed by Russia."

The Wall Street Journal, CNN and other international news outlets have reported Ukrainian fighters are now operating on the ground in Sudan, using drones and night vision technology to help the Sudanese army.

"For Russia, the presence of Africa Corps personnel [formerly known as Wagner] not only provides a level of regional influence, but, according to a United Nations Group of Experts report, has involved control over various gold mines and sharing in the proceeds of gold sales. Should the RSF defeat the SAF, it's likely that the Africa Corps will be able to extract even greater wealth and build up the force's strength," said Darren Olivier, director at African Defense Review, a conflict research consultancy.

"Given this, there is strategic sense in Ukraine using special operations forces to both disrupt the flow of gold, harm Africa Corps operations, and support the SAF just enough to help prevent an RSF takeover," he told NPR.

Darfur déjà vu

If the conflict in Sudan seems like déjà vu, that's because in some ways it is history repeating itself. Darfur was wracked by war 20 years ago, when the Bashir regime and the notorious Janjaweed Arab militia were accused of genocide and war crimes.

The RSF grew out of the remnants of the Janjaweed, and the U.N. has warned there is a risk of repeated genocide.

Eric Reeves, a U.S. scholar who has researched Sudan, tells NPR the African country is now on the verge of becoming a failed state.

"There's nothing like the humanitarian presence there was in the early years of the genocide," he says, and it's hard to gauge whether the situation today is worse than in 2003.

"We've in a sense lost touch with what's going on in Darfur now," he says. "There's tremendous fear, there's a lot of rape, but it would be very difficult to quantify."

This week, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke of the massive toll the conflict has taken on women and girls, with rape being used as a weapon of war.

"Girls have been kidnapped from the streets as they walked to school in Khartoum. They have been handcuffed to the back of trucks, and transported to Darfur," she said.

Washington, which is part of diplomatic efforts to end the war and has imposed sanctions against senior RSF commanders, has welcomed suggestions that renewed peace talks could be held in Saudi Arabia later this month. But expectations are muted given that previous truce negotiations in Jeddah last year failed to amount to much.

In the meantime, U.N. and nongovernmental aid agencies have warned that about 230,000 children, pregnant women and new mothers are likely to die from hunger in the coming months.

"Twenty years ago, Darfur was the world's largest hunger crisis and the world rallied to respond," World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain said last month. "But today, the people of Sudan have been forgotten."

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