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How volunteers in Sudan are burying unknown victims of the conflict

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A month after clashes began between the Sudanese army and paramilitary forces, air strikes continue to pummel Sudan’s major cities while on the ground street battles rage. Bodies of both soldiers and civilians are piling up in the streets of the capital Khartoum, many of them remaining unclaimed due to the unstable security situation. Sudanese volunteers have launched an initiative to bury civilian victims of the civil war and locate the missing, dead or alive. 

People living in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, are finding themselves with no access to basic goods or medical care as street battles between the army and paramilitary groups continue to rage. Across the country, only 28 percent of hospitals are in operation. In the capital, the number drops to just 16 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

In mid-April, when clashes began between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group, our team received a number of images showing the bodies of both civilians and soldiers piling up in the streets of the capital. In many cases, the ongoing air raids and gunfire have meant that family, friends and medical teams have been unable to gather and bury the bodies of the dead. 

>> Read more on The Observers: In Khartoum, corpses litter the streets: ‘The fighting keeps residents from burying them’

Since the second week of fighting, a group of volunteers working under the supervision of the Sudanese Red Cross and Red Crescent have been out in the streets of Khartoum, gathering the dead and burying them. 

These volunteers have posted contact numbers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so that people living in Khartoum – as well as the adjoining cities of Omdurman and Bahri, which, together, make up “greater Khartoum” – can call the team if they see a body. 

Volunteers have shared this post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that reads, in Arabic, “If you see a body in any area [in Khartoum], call us. This is a purely volunteer service, with no remuneration.”

I’ve had to collect heads that had been separated from their bodies, it’s horrific’

Mohammad Moussa is a volunteer, based in Khartoum. 

There aren’t a lot of us volunteers and we only have two cars – we use one to transport the volunteers and the other we are now using as a mortuary vehicle. It is not enough to cover the entire range of greater Khartoum, so we do one area at a time. 

The Red Crescent supports our initiative, without being able to participate because when there are humanitarian teams on the ground, they also have to assure their safety [Editor’s note: which is complicated by the many infractions of the ceasefire by the two parties in the conflict].They do provide us with protective clothing and equipment so that we can pick up and conserve the bodies safely. 

In this video, published by our team on April 19, you can see bodies in the streets of the Sudanese capital.

It’s really hard because some bodies have already been outside for days – we are sometimes picking up bodies that are already in an advanced state of decomposition. Some have even been eaten by animals. I’ve had to collect heads that have been separated from their bodies, it’s horrific.

Right off the bat, we faced administrative challenges, because none of the representatives of the local administration were in Khartoum in order to give us the necessary authorization to bury so many bodies. 

The morgues of the few hospitals still in operation in Khartoum are overflowing’

We therefore had to go get an authorisation in Jabel Aulia [39 km away] south of the city. The procedures also took a lot of time, due to the fragile security situation.

As soon as we identify a body, either with personal documents or by fitting a description given by their family, the next step is to bury it. For others that we can’t identify, in theory, we are supposed to store them in a morgue. But the morgues of the few hospitals still in operation in Khartoum are overflowing. Once, we had to leave a body in a vehicle all night until the graves were dug, since there was no space in the morgue at Jebel Aulia.

This social media user is seeking information about a young man who disappeared on May 14 after being arrested at a checkpoint by the Rapid Security Forces.

To a lesser degree, we are also trying to help to identify and find missing people. We find out about these people because their friends and family have posted about them online, seeking any information about their whereabouts. 

If we find a body that fits a description or has an identifying feature, then the teams will reach out to the family in question. We really work through word of mouth because some areas are completely cut off from internet and phone lines.

Sometimes a missing person is, in reality, just holed up somewhere without access to a telephone and stuck because of the fighting. If that is the case, we’ll pass the information from city to city through our network of volunteers so that someone can give the family the news that their missing relative is still alive.

>> Read more on The Observers: Sudan: In absence of humanitarian aid, citizen initiatives attempt to help victims of violence

Tragically, this isn’t the first time that the streets of Khartoum have been covered with unknown victims of fighting. In 2022, several thousand victims of police brutality during pro-democracy protests were discovered in an advanced state of decomposition in the morgues of Khartoum and Omdurman, which were both overflowing with unidentified bodies. 

Haitham Ibrahim is the press officer at the Sudanese Red Crescent. 

We have currently deployed two teams of volunteers: one in central Khartoum, the other in Bahri [Editor’s note: Often known as “Khartoum Bahri”, this town is located to the east of the town centre]. After the Jebel Aoulia operation, we were able to bury seven bodies there. Then, we were able to bury 11 more people in Afraa, north of Khartoum. Eventually, we were able to find space for more victims in Ash Shuqaylah. We are trying to communicate and coordinate with the two sides of the conflict in order to protect our volunteers.

Here, volunteers bury someone in a private garden because of the insecurity in the streets.

We haven’t been able to advance more than that in Bahri and in the centre of Khartoum, because the fighting has intensified. 

But as soon as a ceasefire is put in place and respected, as soon as we get the greenlight to move around safely in the areas most affected, we’ll start working across a larger zone.

Since the start of the fighting in Sudan, at least 600 people, including civilians, have been killed and more than 5,100 have been seriously injured, the World Health Organization reported on May 16.

This story originally appeared on France24

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