The unsung heroes keeping Khartoum residents alive
As two generals slug it out in Sudan with little thought to the devastation they are causing, there is a whole grassroots network of people tirelessly helping those caught in the crossfire.
“Anyone know a family in need of foodstuffs within the borders of Omdurman al-Thawrat?” tweets a dental student in the capital, Khartoum. The message goes on to give out a number, saying flour, rice and pasta are available.
Khartoum and its surrounds has a population of around 10 million people and for nearly a week they have had no water or electricity, most hunkering down inside – away from windows in case of incoming fire. Most of the city’s hospitals are closed and more than 300 civilians have been killed.
To get any supplies people must venture outside to find a shop that has some stock – and there are accounts of a dreadful stench now coming from the dead bodies that litter the streets.
WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter are alive with offers of help for those who find themselves without food or medication or giving information about safe routes to leave the city. Most of them – and those messages with pleas for help – are accompanied by the hashtag #NoToWar.
“Currently, we have 750 food baskets available. One basket is enough for a family of six people,” another Khartoum tweeter posts.
Others have been collating invaluable information, like a lengthy list sent out by @Jia_Elhassan about where water can currently be found in different areas of the city.
This message accompanies an address and phone number listed as one of five places in Omdurman: “Anyone who needs water, our house is open for them 24 hours.”
Someone else puts out a tweet with a photo of insulin pens available, along with his phone number.
‘Terrified orphans at risk’
Much of this altruism is led by young volunteers operating at a local neighbourhood level by what are called “resistance committees”. There are thousands of them across the country.
They have been the backbone of a pro-democracy movement that rose up following the ousting of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019, calling for a return to full civilian rule.
Their task has mainly been to organise peaceful protests against the military junta. Last Sunday, the co-ordinating body of Khartoum’s resistance committees sent out a message to “revolutionaries in the neighbourhoods” asking them to prepare to help fellow residents.
In particular they were asked to form “medical rooms to deal with possible injuries”, to monitor food supplies and “raise the slogan #NoToWar”.
“The only ones to lose from war are the people, so let us unite to overcome that,” the message said.
Small charities like Hadhreen, which translates from Arabic as “We are present and ready to help”, have also been instrumental in trying to co-ordinate help for those in need.
When Nazim Sirag, who heads Hadhreen, heard about more than 300 terrified children at an orphanage in Khartoum in need of food, water and medicine. He tweeted: “We can’t provide milk for new-born babies, everyone is afraid.”
In response to our query via WhatsApp if any help had been found through his network, he says: “We are trying to reach them. Till now we failed. Everyone in Sudan is scared to go out,” adding that the orphanage was in one of the “hot areas”.
“Tomorrow we have [to] try early in the morning. Wish us luck.”
Mr Sirag has been instrumental since the 2021 coup in liaising with Sudanese doctors unions in the diaspora as he sought to get medical help abroad for some of those injured in pro-democracy protests.
These diaspora medics have long been key to propping up Sudan’s precarious health system over years of economic decline.
Mohamed Hamadto, a trauma surgeon and president of the Sudan Doctors Union in the UK, told the BBC his group has tended to focus on training initiatives, but since the outbreak of violence last Saturday they had been raising funds to send to the main Sudanese Doctors Union in Khartoum and collecting supplies they hope to fly in when the situation allows.
So far they have received about £9,000 ($11,000) from donations – and this money will help the central doctors union buy supplies privately for clinics being repurposed on the outskirts of Khartoum as most of the city’s 59 hospitals are now closed because of the fighting.
“These hospitals on the periphery need to be ready for increasing numbers of civilian victims,” Dr Hamadto says, with some reports suggesting up to 600 people have now died.
As do small neighbourhood health centres.
“I was just speaking to one of my colleagues and she’s trying to get her resistance committee to set up a local health centre so they can provide basic first aid to people who are injured because the area she lives in is bombarded heavily,” he says.
This is in al-Siteen Street, not far from the airport and army headquarters where the battles are raging.
The Sudanese Doctors Union will then be able to provide bandages, fluids, antibiotics and other basics to her health centre for trauma injuries.
‘My cousin broke my heart’
Relatives abroad are also focusing their help on the doctors.
“Everything is closed. There’s zero point in sending money [to our family],” Ahmed Abdel-Elrazig, a third-year maths and economic undergraduate at the University of Toronto, told the BBC on Thursday.
“Right now it’s the holy month of Ramadan. I was on a call to one of my cousins and they broke my heart – they told me that even after they broke their fast they still were hungry because they were rationing food.”
He is part of the Canadian university’s Sudanese Students Union, set up last year with about 100 members. A few days ago the union put up a Sudan crisis crowdfunding page.
“We’re trying to do our best to hit our goal right now to raise $10,000… so all injured civilians do have the medical attention that they do require. We’re currently partnered with the Sudanese Doctors Union,” he says.
“This is the bare minimum that we can do – I still feel extremely helpless.”
Fellow student union member Fawzia Elhad, majoring in political science and psychology, agrees as she worries about her parents and siblings in Khartoum.
“There is a lot of uncertainty – and they don’t know now whether to leave the capital.”
Those in cities outside Khartoum are reaching out with offers of accommodation for people who do manage to leave – a journey fraught with danger.
“I am your brother from Rufa’ah and I can provide housing with 100 beds, electricity and water for people,” someone 140km (85 miles) south-east of Khartoum in El Gazira state tweets.
An organiser in that state’s capital, Wad Medani, sent out a list with the names and numbers of six people willing to provide “housing, food and everything” for those fleeing.
This warmth of spirit – such a stark contrast to the men in uniform – is best summed up by a youth group in Atbara, a city about 300km north-east of Khartoum, which posts a link to join a WhatsApp group to help receive those escaping from the capital, beginning with the words: “You are welcome.”