‘It’s very hard to talk about’: the civilian toll of fighting in Sudan

Research by a doctors’ group and relatives’ accounts shed light on suffering over six weeks of conflict

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands injured in six weeks of fighting in Sudan between the armed forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

The Sudanese American Physicians Association (Sapa) recorded at least 828 civilian deaths and 3,688 injuries between 15 April and 23 May, though the true number of casualties is thought to be much higher, owing to the difficulties families have had in retrieving bodies.

The Sapa research demonstrates the geographical spread of the violence, and the heavy price paid by civilians for a succession of failed ceasefires.


Ceasefires have been in place on a majority of days since fighting broke out. However, they have routinely been broken by both sides. More than 330 deaths and 2,300 injuries were recorded by Sapa on days that were at least partially covered by ceasefires.


Here, relatives and friends of three of Sudan’s civilian victims recall their final hours.

Mohammed Salah

Salah, a medical student at the Sudan University of Science and Technology, died in Khartoum on 15 April, the first day of hostilities, after being hit three times by sniper fire.

The 21-year-old’s day had started with the short drive from his home to Khartoum international airport, where the mother of one of his classmate’s had become stranded. On arrival, a second person – a man whom Salah did not know – asked for a lift, so Salah picked him up too.

Mohammed Salah (left) and his brother Mustafa Salah
Mohammed Salah (left) and his brother Mustafa Salah. Photograph: Supplied

He drove his passengers, both of whom lived in neighbouring Omdurman, back to his house, where they ate the Ramadan fast-breaking iftar meal.

The woman was happy to stay at Salah’s house for the night, but the man said he wanted to go home, so Salah set out again in his car.

On every approach he made to the various bridges over the White Nile that link Khartoum to its twin city of Omdurman he encountered intense fighting between the army and the RSF.

Eventually he gave up and headed home, only to find himself caught in a battle between army soldiers on the ground and RSF snipers positioned on the top of buildings around the main campus of his university, which lies at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile.

Within the space of a few minutes Salah and both his passengers had been killed. An army soldier told Salah’s father he had been shot once in the head and twice in the chest. Raging fighting meant it took 15 hours for the family to retrieve his body.

“It’s very hard to talk about it but I will try,” his older brother Mustafa said.

“Mohamed loved doing good things,” Mustafa said, explaining why his brother had agreed to undertake the dangerous, night-time drive. “He was the most helpful and generous one among us.”

Suhair Abdallah el-Basher

Basher, a lawyer, was killed along with two of her relatives on 25 April after a shell exploded as she left her family house in Khartoum to get in a car that was due to take her to a safer neighbourhood.

The 67-year-old had been stranded in the house near the presidential palace with her two brothers-in-law and her eldest child for 10 days. They had no electricity and food and water were starting to run out.

Suhair Abdallah el-Basher
Suhair Abdallah el-Basher Photograph: Supplied

On 25 April, it appeared that one of the many ceasefires agreed by Sudan’s warring parties was finally holding. The street outside the house was calm and empty of fighters for the first time since the conflict began.

Another of Basher’s daughters arrived to pick up relatives and drive them to a safer neighbourhood.

The eldest child – Hiba el-Rayeh – made it into her sister’s car, but as the older relatives walked the couple of yards between the front door and car door a shell exploded.

Rayeh said she lost consciousness during the explosion and when she came to she saw her mother and uncles lying on the road, badly injured but still alive. “Then I started screaming, ‘We are civilians, we are civilians, please don’t hit us’,” she said.

RSF fighters put Rayeh’s mother and uncles into the back of a pick-up truck. Rayeh and her sister followed the truck for two hours as it drove around the city trying to find a hospital that was open. By the time they found one, all three had died.

Zakria Abdallah

Abdallah died last week in Geneina, a city in west Darfur, during an attack on his neighbourhood by RSF fighters.

Jalal, a friend of the 41-year-old who did not want to give his full name, said Abdallah and five other men were killed as they tried to flee from the RSF.

“My friend’s body remained under a tree in front of my house for a day and a half,” said Jalal by phone from Chad, to where he has fled. “We could not recover him because of the intense fighting on the streets, we could not bury him in a cemetery.”

The 33-year-old, who used to work with an NGO, said he witnessed appalling scenes before managing to escape across the border. “I saw the worst of the worst,” he said. “The streets were filled with bodies.”


Zeinab Mohammed Salih in Khartoum, Ashley Kirk and Paul Scruton

The GuardianTramp

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