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A War for Sudan’s Identity: The Loss and Destruction of Culture and Heritage

Millions of people fled their homes in Sudan, leaving with very little. They left behind personal belongings, memories, photo albums, documents, certificates, and even documents proving land and property ownership.

A year into the war, so much has been destroyed in Sudan, making it impossible to quantify the personal and collective loss of what makes the country what it is: the institutions, the documents, the books, and artifacts. The Continent magazine described the war as “destroying not just the country’s future, but also the country’s past,” and this rings true now more than ever. 

Chronic conflict has defined much of Sudan’s modern history, and the current war is the latest manifestation of the conflict over the country’s identity. Soldiers of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the militia led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, that is fighting against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), were seen pillaging historical sites. The group’s official discourse emphasizes the need to re-write Sudan’s history, explaining it did not represent them, seeking to establish their roots in the Mahdist rule (1885-1898) instead. 

From its onset, the war has targeted civilian property, state institutions, and cultural infrastructure, beginning in the capital before spreading to other states. Some of the destruction was collateral damage, though much of the looting and damage to cultural and state institutions—all of which was more targeted—was carried out by the RSF. There were also reports of SAF soldiers taking part in looting in September 2023 and then again in Omdurman in March 2024.

In the war’s first few weeks, the RSF began occupying civilian homes and using them to launch attacks in Khartoum. People fled, leaving their homes with very little. They left behind personal belongings, memories, photo albums, documents, certificates, and even documents proving land and property ownership. Now only 20 to 30 percent of Khartoum’s 11 million original residents remain in the city, according to Doctors Without Borders.

The war became personal

The house where I grew up in the old part of the city of Omdurman in Khartoum state was destroyed in the first weeks of the war, as the neighborhood fell under the RSF’s control. This home had my late grandfather’s entire library, with many photo albums and irreplaceable books. It also had household items that belonged to my late grandmother, some of which are over 60 years old. For months, we had no news about the house until November of last year when an acquaintance told us that the yellow two-story building was sprayed with bullet holes; the gate, the front door, and several windows were gone. When we received a video of the house in March, filmed by a SAF soldier, there stood my childhood home, with a ransacked façade, open for anyone to further steal more of our family heritage and memories. 

[RSF soldiers] broke into our home twice more—the intact and locked door must have been interpreted as a home that had yet to be looted. But there was nothing left to loot

The house in Khartoum where we lived for the last two and a half years was broken into in June, on my birthday, and was looted twice after that. The first incursion by RSF soldiers was brief: they took my car, opened our safe, and took some valuable items such as our televisions and expensive camera equipment. We did not leave any gold or money in the house, but our books, artwork, and documents are more valuable to us. Our relative managed to re-lock our doors to try to protect what was left of the house, but it was as if RSF soldiers were offended to find a closed door and continued to break in. They broke into our home twice more—the intact and locked door must have been interpreted as a home that had yet to be looted. But there was nothing left to loot.

We were not the only ones to have lost everything. Everyone in my extended family has had their homes looted at least once if not several times. Some were able to receive pictures showing their now-empty homes, once brimming with life. This happened in Khartoum, but the same extends to other places such as Al-Jazeera state which saw mass looting of civilian homes, state institutions, and equipment from Al-Jazeera Agricultural Scheme. Areas in Darfur and the Kordofan region also saw the RSF leading a mass looting and destruction campaign. 

State institutions: The collective memory of a people

Sudan’s warring parties have also heavily targeted state institutions. The National Museum, which displays some of the world’s oldest mummies, was broken into in June 2023, just two days after our home was looted. Videos circulating online showed RSF fighters inside the Bolheim Bioarchaeology laboratory which is part of the museum grounds as they tampered with mummies dating back to several millennia. 

The museum is located in Al-Muqran, named after the confluence of the White and Blue Niles in Khartoum; near it, there are dozens of key museums and heritage and cultural centers, such as the Ethnographic Museum and the National History Museum. This area saw some of the fiercest fighting between the army and the RSF, and the destructive violence caused further damages to the museums and irreparable destruction to rare animal species kept there. 

The Ministry of Higher Education noted that 104 governmental and private higher education and research centers were impacted by the war and were either totally or partially damaged or looted

The Sudan Heritage Protection Initiative (SHPI) has been tracking the destruction to heritage sites and universities which house research and cultural centers with age-old manuscripts and books. To this day, we still have very scarce information about the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums which has rare documentation about Sudan’s history, since it became hard to reach when the war started. Cultural centers in different parts of Khartoum were looted and damaged, including the Abdul Karim Merghani Center in Omdurman which awards a prestigious annual literature award; a warehouse that stores award winning was also set on fire.

Education establishments have also been targeted. According to the latest report by the SHPI, the Ministry of Higher Education noted that 104 governmental and private higher education and research centers were impacted by the war and were either totally or partially damaged or looted. Most universities were not caught in the crossfire, but were targeted on purpose and were looted and damaged. In Khartoum alone, over 30 universities were attacked, and the same happened in Al-Jazeera and in South and Central Darfur. 

Losses that hurt

All the losses hurt, but amidst all this destruction, two incidents continue to weigh heavily on my heart. The first is the destruction of the House of Heritage, a cultural center in Khartoum that was founded by Ismail El-Fihail, a well-known folklore activist and scholar. El-Fihail spent most of his retirement money on the project to support Sudan’s cultural movement. I spent numerous days at the center, witnessing how it slowly became a platform where art was performed and our cultural heritage appreciated, especially by the youth. The center was heavily shelled a few months ago, and the images I managed to find online showed that we have completely lost it, and with it the priceless folklore collections it housed. 

The Mohamed Omer Bashir Center for Sudanese Studies at Omdurman Ahlia University was a library used by students and academics, and was also a cultural center where events were often held. The university was supported by the local community which ensured its academic freedom even during the country’s darkest days between 1990 and 2005. The university held a special place for my family and we donated my great grandfather’s entire library so that different generations could benefit from this invaluable resource. My great grandfather was a civil servant, a writer, and a politician from Omdurman, and this was the best way we could honor his memory. The library was burned down and is now gone.

Sudan’s troubled history comes to the forefront

Sudan has many contradictions when it comes to its identity, which had been ignored and hidden for long. The ugliness of the war, however, brought it to the surface. Each region had had its own historical trajectory, and during colonial times and after the independence, various ordinances as well as active conflict crippled the country’s ability to build a collective identity. The country also failed to build a national narrative that could have brought people together. 

In early January 2024, a video circulated showing RSF soldiers deployed near the Nagaa and El Musawwarat, a UNESCO World Heritage site in River Nile state in Northern Sudan that is home to artifacts and monuments dating back to the Merowe Christian Kingdom which ruled parts of North and Central Sudan between 300 BC to about 350 AD. Although the video was under three minutes and did not show a large force there, it worried many because of the destruction that these forces have caused in other heritage sites. The SAF bombed the RSF forces near the historical site a few days later.

Those priceless artifacts, if not destroyed, are at risk of being looted and sold for profit

It seems that there is a discourse within the ranks of the RSF sanctioning the destruction of cultural and historical sites with the purpose of sewing a new identity for the country. In addition to this, those priceless artifacts, if not destroyed, are at risk of being looted and sold for profit. It would then be very hard and resource-intensive to recover them. Despite the outcry, there has been no official response to this as authorities insist on directing all the already dwindling public resources toward the war effort.

If RSF were to attack Nagaa and El Musawwarat, it would be a catastrophic loss for all of Sudan. The videos that circulated from the area are reminiscent of what happened in 2012 when Ansar Eddine, a movement affiliated with Al-Qaeda, attacked historic sites in Timbuktu in Mali in what is considered a war crime. After that attack, Ahmad Al-Mahdi, one of the group’s leading figures, was arrested, imprisoned, and found guilty by the International Criminal Court for taking part in those attacks. This case could be used as a precedent that could be replicated in Sudan.

The RSF’s attacks on sites in Sudan is not just a war on the country’s civilians. It is a campaign that facilitates and encourages cultural destruction, with the aim of forcing demographic change. We cannot let this happen. As I reflect on the destruction campaign that unfolded over the last year, I am filled with sorrow, yet I realize the urgent necessity to document and to think forward. Other than taking legal actions, it is very important for us to ensure that preservation and digitization of our heritage is at the heart of any post-conflict reconstruction efforts. This requires investment of resources to track and reclaim what was stolen or sold, and to have members of our community who have remnants of our history in the form of personal collections to make them available to the public so we can try to piece back the pieces of our history. 

Reem Abbas is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on land, conflict, and resources in Sudan. She is also the institute’s first Mohamed Aboelgheit Fellow.


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