Sudanese seek connections through Starlink after weeks of blackouts

By Thomson Reuters Mar 13, 2024 | 10:58 AM

By El Tayeb Siddig

OMDURMAN, Sudan (Reuters) – Some Sudanese residents cut off from mobile networks for weeks due to war between rival military factions are using Starlink satellite connections to access the internet, as regular coverage started to return to other parts of the country.

The mobile blackout that began in early February has prevented people from buying essential goods including scarce supplies of food and from keeping in touch with displaced relatives, as well as hampering aid deliveries.

In the Karari district of Omdurman, where Sudan’s army has made recent advances against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and has provided some satellite access to residents, people crowded round a Starlink access point to connect on their mobile phones with relatives and loved ones.

“People need connection, they need it badly,” said Amal Abdu, a resident in the Karari district of Omdurman, part of Sudan’s wider capital.

“Every day we’re told there will be connection today or tomorrow and it doesn’t happen. People here learn about the death of their father or brother one or two weeks after they die,” she said.

Fighting has caused extensive damage to the banking system and many people have depended on the Bank of Khartoum’s Bankak mobile app to transfer money and make payments.

“People don’t have cash, there’s no cash in the country, we want to use Bankak and we can’t log in,” said Abdu.

Telecoms industry sources said previously that the RSF had shut down networks after threatening to do so unless the army restored disabled connections in the western region of Darfur.

State owned Sudani has restored coverage in parts of Sudan, but swathes of the country, including the capital and most of Darfur, remain cut off.

A second provider, Zain, was able to bring back some very limited provision last week.

People in areas with no mobile connections have increasingly tried to use Elon Musk’s Starlink, a satellite service not normally authorised in Sudan that is costly for ordinary Sudanese at about $2.5 for an hour of access.

“The latest thing we tried is Starlink but there are a lot of people and there’s a lot of pressure on it, not everyone manages to get connection,” said another Karari resident who gave his first name, Mohamed.

The war between the army and the RSF erupted in mid-April 2023 over tensions linked to a planned political transition, and has led to a major humanitarian crisis and spreading hunger.

Nearly 6.5 million people have been displaced within Sudan and more than 1.9 million have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the International Organization for Migration.

(Reporting by El Tayeb Siddig; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Ros Russell)