Smoky specters climb over the Khartoum skyline. A pop sounds in the distance and there is a slow rumble of thunder before another pillar rises upwards.
Hundreds of thousands fled from Sudan capital to rural areas, other states and other countries, but millions of people remain trapped in an urban prison of war.
This is the view from the top of Mount Serkab in Karari. All around the base are the northern districts of Omdurman, the mother city.
A vantage point made of jagged reddish rocks watches over Khartoum as it erupts.
On the side of the mountain is an austere message written with a carefully placed white stone – “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful – Rapid Support Forces, Mount Serkab, Karari.”
The base would be the largest belonging to the Rapid Support Forces and the most symbolic.
Karari is where the Battle of Omdurman took place in 1898 between the Sudanese Resistance Army of the Mahdist Islamic State and the British colonial forces of Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener – seeking revenge for the death of General Gordon by the Mahdist army 13 years earlier.
Today, the base is littered with abandoned equipment – tanks, technical equipment and even signal disruptors that soldiers here tell us are Russian and Emirati-made. He now has full control of the Sudanese armed forces.
At the top of the mountain, the area commander, Colonel Adam, waves his truncheon as he answers my questions.
Could this nocturnal war have been avoided?
“In truth, the Sudanese people and the Sudanese military forces – despite their concern, conscience and vigilance – did not expect the betrayal of the Rapid Support Forces to be on this level,” Col. Adam said, zone commander of Karari, the first time that he uses their official name and not “rebel forces”.
The military and the Rapid Support Forces were allies and political partners – why are they now calling them rebel forces?
“The Rapid Support Forces have long stood alongside the army and have been empowered by the Sudanese army to stand on the same front line to defend the country,” Colonel Karari said.
“But quickly the agenda changed and was influenced by other political ideologies and personal interests – and now he sees himself as a replacement for the armed forces.”
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At the end of a long road, patrolled day and night by an armed military convoy, is a market. Two young men approach to sit with the resident tea lady and have their caffeine. They were part of voluntary neighborhood patrols to assess the threat of looting from the Rapid Support Forces, before the army secured the area.
One of them, Izzeldeen Adil, looks back on his protest songs during the 2019 revolution against this new reality of military dependency.
“The placards we raised during the December Revolution are that no militia will rule the country,” Izzeldeen said, looking at the soldiers crowding around but expressing gratitude.
“We prefer the military not to be in power or governing. In each country, the role of the army is clear: to protect civilians.