Istanbul, Türkiye — ‘We are praying for relief and an end to the bloodshed.’
A trickle of humanitarian aid has started to arrive in Sudan after seven weeks of fighting between the country’s rival military groups. But much of the humanitarian response is still being shouldered by local volunteers and mutual aid organisations.
The New Humanitarian spoke to three volunteers in different cities over the past week to get a glimpse into how the humanitarian situation on the ground is evolving, and the challenges grassroots groups are facing trying to respond.
Two of the volunteers said they are supporting health centres despite the threat of shelling and militia fighters. A third said they are providing shelter and food to displaced people through a local structure that has received no outside support.
“There are many pregnant women going without medical assistance, and we have also received information about rape cases in the area which require urgent intervention,” said Tasneem al-Kanani, a volunteer in Khartoum, the besieged capital city.
Nearly 1.4 million people have been displaced since Sudan’s army began fighting the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group in mid-April. On Wednesday, the army said it was suspending ceasefire talks, raising fears of an even deeper crisis developing.
Aid groups have started emergency responses in some areas, including Khartoum. But relief efforts have been hindered by security issues and bureaucratic hurdles. Supplies are reportedly stranded in airports, and visas have been restricted for aid workers.
Central to the local efforts are thousands of decentralised neighbourhood groups called resistance committees. They led the pro-democracy protests that forced out former ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019, but were sidelined from the political processes that followed.
In recent weeks, the resistance committees – which also organised weekly protests in response to a 2021 military coup – have set up “emergency rooms” that carry out different tasks according to the needs and resources of their communities.
“This is the most crucial time for us to stand together despite the circumstances and the dangers,” said Samih Abdallah Ahmed, a volunteer from Omdurman, a city neighbouring Khartoum.
Some resistance committees have reopened hospitals that were damaged by airstrikes or staff fleeing. In these cases, activists have sourced supplies and appealed to medics to volunteer to help the injured and chronically ill.
Committees have also been coordinating the evacuation of civilians from frontline areas, repairing electrical systems to restore power to medical centres, and locating and reuniting missing people with their families.
These services are largely provided by communities pooling together resources, and are often carried out at great personal risk. Resistance committees have reported volunteers being subjected to arrests by both RSF fighters and the Sudanese army.
Some have also died while helping others. A student engineer named Alaa al-Deen Mohammedin suffered an electric shock while restoring power to a health centre in Darfur last month. Hospitals lacked staff and supplies to save him, said a volunteer who knew him.
As aid efforts ramp up in Sudan, there have been calls to channel donor funds through the resistance committees. Many feel they are best placed to respond given their reach and commitment, both of which are demonstrated in the testimonies that follow.
Tasneem al-Kanani, resistance committee member in Khartoum: ‘We are praying for relief and an end to the bloodshed.’
“The Janoub al-Hizam Emergency Room is a purely voluntary service based on the efforts of local resistance committees and youth volunteers. It was established on 18 April in response to the sudden unstable events occurring across the country.
Our priority was to find solutions to avoid health catastrophes and treat the injured and critically ill, as the only hospital in [our area of Khartoum] went out of service after a shell fell in its courtyard.
The initiative has succeeded in bringing in medical teams to run parts of the hospital, such as the emergency surgery department, and we have found a lot of support from qualified volunteers.
The greatest obstacle to carrying out our work is the location of our neighbourhood within the area of combat operations and the failure of the two warring parties to implement a humanitarian truce.
Power outages lasting for days also suspended our work at times, which was a real disaster because the dialysis department is currently the only one in southern Khartoum.
But we are still appealing for medical staff in the area to reach us, particularly specialists in gynaecology and obstetrics. The hospital [which is called Bashaer University Hospital] suffers from a real problem in this regard.
There are many pregnant women going without medical assistance, and we have also received information about rape cases in the area which require urgent intervention. We are praying for relief and an end to the bloodshed.”
Samih Abdallah Ahmed, volunteer activist in Omdurman: ‘I see it as my duty to help for as long as I can.’
“Before the war began, I was working to treat the injured people of the revolution in my area, in Omdurman. So it was not difficult for me to adjust to the current situation, and I started working on treating those injured in the war.
At the moment, the hospitals are not working at their full capacity, and we are supplying their basic needs, such as water, which they are in shortage of. We are also helping to supply medicines through organisations or individuals that donate them.
All of this work is done by volunteers, I don’t belong to any organisation myself. It’s true that we are people of the revolution, but we try to detach our volunteering from our political activities, because this is humanitarian work first and foremost.
There have been tragic cases of infants dying from their injuries. One of them was a girl named Fatima who suffered a gunshot wound to the head. I sought contacts and uploaded a post on Facebook to find someone who could operate to extract the bullet.
I found a brain and nerves specialist in Omdurman who performed the surgery, but unfortunately Fatima passed away a few weeks later.
The security situation in two of the hospitals in Omdurman is difficult because RSF forces are within close proximity, and the surrounding area is full of shops so there has been looting and theft by gangs.
Warplanes are circling around the hospitals and the RSF respond with anti-aircraft weaponry, but thankfully none of the medical staff or volunteers have been injured. I see it as my duty to help for as long as I can.
We are the children of one country, and this is the most crucial time for us to stand together despite the circumstances and the dangers. Even if something were to happen to me, I would not regret my actions. On the contrary, I would be proud that I was able to support and assist others during their time of need.”
Amma al-Waseela, civil servant and volunteer in the eastern city of Kassala: ‘We are providing these services through our own efforts and resources.’
“We established an emergency room in Kassala on 20 April, after holding several meetings on the ground. The emergency room consists of volunteer medics, social media activists, charity workers, and people from a variety of different professional backgrounds, including students.
We currently have 211 volunteers working to provide shelter, food supplies, and medical treatment to the displaced arriving in Kassala from Khartoum.
The group is also working to raise awareness within the community about the potential risks that the conflict could descend into civil war if Sudanese society loses its cohesion. Our [anti-war] campaigns reach people in the markets, in youth groups, and on social media.
Until now, no organisations have supported us, and we are providing these services through our own efforts and resources. If we need larger funds, we share our requests on Facebook and WhatsApp and local donors support us.
The deaths of civilians, the violations committed, the looting and mass destruction – all of these are the impacts of a war which serves the interests of the generals over the citizens. Even if it ends, the psychological aspects of it will continue to affect the people.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.
Ela Yokes, Photographer and journalist based between Istanbul and Khartoum