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Bodies pile up without burials in Sudan's capital

Bodies pile up without burials in Sudan's capital, marooned by a relentless conflict
5 min read
11 August, 2023
There is limited data on the casualties in Sudan. The country's health minister, Haitham Mohammed Ibrahim, said in June that the conflict killed over 3,000 people, but there has been no update.
Smoke billows in the distance north of the Khartoum Bahri district on 17 July 2023, as fighting continues in war-torn Sudan. [Getty]

It was a funeral no one had envisaged: Sadig Abbas' lifeless body was lowered hastily into a shallow unmarked grave in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, not long after dawn.

Even the few family members and neighbours who could attend were distracted, scouring the cemetery's surroundings for warnings of incoming fire, recounted Awad el-Zubeer, a neighbour of the deceased.

Thankfully, none came.

Nearly four months of violent street battles between the Sudanese Army and the paramilitary known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have made funerals a near impossibility in Khartoum. Amid the chaos, residents and local medical groups say corpses lie rotting in the capital's streets, marooned by a conflict that shows few signs of easing.

"Given these circumstances, if you asked me exactly where his body was buried, I couldn't tell you," said el-Zubeer.

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There is limited data on the casualties in Sudan. The country's health minister, Haitham Mohammed Ibrahim, said in June that the conflict killed over 3,000 people, but there has been no update. The accurate tally is likely far higher, say local doctors and activists.

Likewise, no medical group has provided a toll on unburied corpses, with mass graves and widespread ethnic killings uncovered in the country's southern Darfur region.

Most civilians from the capital have been killed in crossfire, as the once sleepy city turned into an urban battlefield, the country's doctors union says. Others died because they could not access essential medicine, while some reportedly starved to death, imprisoned by the gun battles that raged outside.

In times of peace, their funerals would have been significant, lasting days. In Sudan, it is common for thousands to pay respects to the deceased. In accordance with Sudanese Islamic tradition, corpses are usually washed and blessed before being buried in cemetery graves dug by family members.

Seven former and current residents from the capital area told The Associated Press that the conflict between the country's two top generals, army head Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan and RSF commander Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, has shattered this tradition. Three of those who spoke did so on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

Several said reaching any of the capital's roughly two dozen cemeteries has proved impossible when they were trying to bury family members, friends, or those with whom they were trapped.

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Over 100 university students were caught in Khartoum University when the conflict broke out on April 15. Khaled, a student, was shot in the chest by a stray bullet, dying shortly after being hit, a fellow student said.

"We dragged his dead body to the lower levels (of a building) to stop it rotting," he said, speaking anonymously for fear of being targeted.

He and others then wrapped Khaled's remains in a makeshift Islamic burial cloth and buried him in the university grounds beneath a tree after gaining approval from his family.

Gasin Amin Oshi, a resident from the Beit al-Mal area in Omdurman, located just across the Nile river from Khartoum, said a neighbouring family was prevented from burying a loved one in a nearby graveyard by RSF troops. Instead, they buried the woman, who died of natural causes, on the grounds of a school.

Most residents said RSF troops, who control vast swaths of the city, often cause the disruption. In the first days of the conflict, the army bombed RSF camps in the capital, prompting homeless RSF fighters to commandeer civilian homes and turn them into bases. The military, in turn, struck residential areas from the air and with artillery. According to UN data, over 2.15 million people have since fled Khartoum state.

El-Zubeer said Abbas, his neighbour, was shot and killed after RSF fighters raided his home and discovered that one of his brothers was an army officer and the other an intelligence officer. After Abbas' body was transferred to a hospital, he said the RSF initially prevented the burial without giving any reason but eventually conceded to the family's pleading.

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But most people were either too afraid to attend the June 30 funeral or were unaware of it, el-Zubeer said. Power outages and internet blackouts have beset the country since the conflict erupted.

"Mobile phones are as useful in connecting as a pack of cigarettes," el-Zubeer said.

The RSF's chief spokesperson, Youssef Izzat, told AP that the leadership had not given orders to prevent civilian burials. He said if any were stopped, it was only because there was heavy fighting nearby.

By contrast, residents described the paramilitary as largely lawless, often motivated by boredom and amusement. But at times, there were acts of kindness, they said.

One resident of south Khartoum said that despite robbing people in an uncle's neighbourhood, a band of RSF fighters suddenly offered to transport and bury the uncle after he died of natural causes in July.

Since June, Sudan's Red Crescent has been collecting and burying corpses across the capital. Taking advantage of brief lulls in the fighting, the organization said it has recovered and buried at least 102 bodies, mostly unidentified combatants from both sides. A Red Crescent worker said the collected corpses were photographed and issued an identity number.

But with many battle-stricken districts inaccessible, potentially thousands remain unburied in the capital, said the international aid group Save the Children. Last month, a community group from the capital's northern district of Bahri called on medical groups to collect the corpses of about 500 RSF fighters decomposing on the roads. In south Khartoum, an AP journalist recently counted at least 26 bodies, mostly civilians and RSF fighters, lying on the streets.

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And near el-Zubeer's apartment, in Khartoum's al-Sahafa neighbourhood, one body had decomposed in the open air so long that the bones were visible, he said.

Usually, unidentified bodies would be taken to morgues. But at least four facilities in the capital area have been abandoned due to fighting while only five of the city's some two dozen hospitals are still operating, said Dr Atia Abdalla Atia, head of the Sudan Doctors Union.

With Sudan's rainy season underway, international organizations and rights groups are fearful there could be more deaths and damage to infrastructure. Last year floods killed scores of people.

Rotting corpses can contribute to the contamination of water sources.

Out of desperation, many "people now drink from wells or the River Nile," said el-Sadig el-Nour, head of the Islamic Relief Worldwide for Sudan.