The news he had dreaded arrived a few minutes before midnight.
For weeks, Bahaadin Adam had heard nothing from family members stuck in the fighting that convulsed Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state and the second largest city in Sudan. Mr. Adam, who had fled weeks before to neighboring South Sudan, remained jittery, constantly checking his phone for updates.
Finally, as he was getting ready for bed, he received a message from his brother. Most of the family had managed to escape Nyala, but his two younger sisters — Meethaaq, 24, and Hana, 10 — had been killed by artillery fire.
“I was broken into pieces,” Mr. Adam said in a recent interview in Renk town in South Sudan.
Five months after a devastating war began in Sudan between rival military forces, the western region of Darfur has quickly become one of the hardest hit in the nation. People in Darfur have already suffered genocidal violence over the past two decades that has left as many as 300,000 people dead.
Now Darfur, which had been edging toward relative stability, is being torn apart by a nationwide war between the Sudanese Army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. The Rapid Support Forces and its allies, predominantly Arab militias, have assumed control of large parts of Darfur, while the regular army mostly operates from garrisons in major cities, residents and observers said.
As the two sides battle for supremacy, civilians have increasingly been caught in the crossfire, particularly in recent weeks. More than 40 people were killed late last month as they took cover under a bridge in Nyala, and at least 40 died in air raids in the city this month, activists and medical workers said. The discovery of mass graves, including more than a dozen last week by the United Nations, has raised fears of a resurgence of ethnically motivated attacks in Darfur — and pushed the International Criminal Court to begin a new investigation into accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region.
Frantic and sometimes competing diplomatic efforts to end the conflict — by the United Nations, African countries, Saudi Arabia and the United States — have gone nowhere.
Last week, the U.N. special envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, resigned months after Sudanese officials declared him unwelcome in the country. In his farewell speech to the U.N. Security Council, Mr. Perthes warned that the conflict “could be morphing into a full-scale civil war.” The head of the army, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is set to address the U.N. General Assembly this week in New York.
Amid the rain of mortar shells, displacement levels are soaring, food prices are skyrocketing and millions of people are now on the verge of famine. More than 1.5 million people have been internally displaced in Darfur since mid-April, according to the U.N. refugee agency, the highest of any region in Sudan. Hundreds of thousands more civilians from the region have streamed into transit centers and refugee camps in neighboring nations.
Eight lawyers and at least 10 human rights advocates have been killed and their offices ransacked in Darfur in recent weeks, raising fears they were being targeted for documenting human rights violations or providing legal support to victims, according to Elsadig Ali Hassan, the acting president of the board of the Darfur Bar Association.
In interviews, residents from South Darfur who made it to safety in South Sudan described a rapid increase in robberies and plunder by armed militias allied with the paramilitary forces. With supplies of food and water dwindling, many packed up their meager belongings and left, hungry and weak, for the border.
As the number of injuries escalated, medical workers, exhausted, hungry and lacking critical supplies, watched as their patients died or their wounds festered for lack of treatment. Families, afraid of incoming fire, quickly buried their loved ones in shallow or unmarked graves.
“Another generation from Darfur is learning to live with war and atrocities,” said Maha Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee from Nyala who was at the transit center in Renk. “It’s a tragedy.”
The continued hostilities in Darfur risk plunging the country into a prolonged war, observers say, with the potential for spillover into neighboring countries. In recent weeks, the head of the army, General al-Burhan, has traveled abroad and met with leaders of nations including Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and South Sudan in an effort to build his legitimacy and dismiss the Rapid Security Forces as a rebel group.
The paramilitary chief, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, has fired back, accusing General al-Burhan of trying to “impersonate the head of state” and planning to establish a “war government” in the coastal city of Port Sudan.
His comments came as the violence intensified in the locked-down Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where an airstrike last week killed at least 43 people and wounded more than 60, doctors and aid workers said.
“It is all just unbearable,” Mamadou Dian Balde, the regional director for the U.N. refugee agency, who recently traveled across parts of Sudan, said in an interview.
Some of those fleeing the conflict in the states of South and East Darfur are being relocated to several aid camps in South Sudan, a nation encumbered by its own political, economic and social challenges.
One of those camps, the Wedwil refugee settlement in Aweil town, is home to almost 9,000 Sudanese. Every evening, families there huddle in groups, share sweet tea and coffee, pray together and listen to Sudanese music. Many of them were professionals and successful traders, all now united by a grinding war that has ripped apart everything they worked so hard to build.
“The fire of war has enveloped everything in Darfur,” said Ahmed Abubakar, 35, a teacher, who fled Nyala in South Darfur.
Mr. Abubakar said members of the paramilitary forces raided his home, accused him of being an army officer and threatened to shoot him in front of his wife and three children. But he beseeched them not to, he said, telling them about his job teaching geography and history and his wife’s work as a nursery school teacher. After more than an hour, the armed men agreed to let them go, he said, but not before they took almost everything of value in the house.
The memories of that day and the family’s harrowing journey to safety continue to haunt the children, he said. His daughter Minan, 3, clings to him everywhere he goes. His 5-year-old son, Mustafa, constantly asks when he can go back to school.
“I had ambitions for myself and my children,” Mr. Abubakar said. “But I cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Mr. Adam, who lost both his sisters, shared the same feelings of loss and hopelessness.
Before the war broke out on April 15, he was looking forward to marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, celebrating his sister’s graduation from college and, days later, attending her engagement party. But his sister was gone now, and the entire family was scattered between two countries with limited communications.
“We were once a happy family,” he said on a recent afternoon. “But this war has made everything difficult and everyone sad.”