(Reuters) – In early May, a loud explosion rocked Shambat, a neighborhood north of the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Locals rushed to douse the flames that destroyed a makeshift dwelling said to have gone up in flames in an airstrike.
You were late. Among the smoldering rubble were the charred bodies of a pregnant woman, a man and five children, according to five witnesses. After the May 7 attack, the woman and children were buried on the spot and the man buried in a nearby cemetery, two witnesses said.
The seven victims of the Shambat attack have something in common with many deaths in the war that has ravaged Sudan since mid-April: they are not included in the official death toll in Khartoum state, where most of the fighting between the two Sudanese army took place and the country’s main paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). As the conflict has devastated local health and government services, the facilities that would normally record deaths are largely out of action.
A Reuters tally of death tolls recorded by local activists and volunteer groups suggests the civilian death toll in the capital could be more than double the official figure, reflecting the devastating effects of the more than 100-day war on the city Sudanese people underlines.
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A Health Ministry report distributed to aid agencies and seen by Reuters put the death toll in Khartoum state as of July 5 at 234 people. The report states that the data is only collected from civilian hospitals.
But across the state of Khartoum, which includes the capital and its twin cities of Omdurman and Bahri, activist and volunteer groups have recorded at least 580 civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery and gunfire as of July 26.
The disparity in the figures for Khartoum state suggests that the official nationwide death toll, which the Health Ministry put at 1,136 people as of July 5, may also be underestimated.
An official at Sudan’s health ministry told Reuters the official figure was “the tip of the iceberg.” That’s because many civilians died in their neighborhoods or at home — not in hospitals — so their deaths would not have been recorded, he said.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm the deaths recorded by the groups or the seven deaths described by eyewitnesses on May 7.
Army and RSF officials did not respond to requests for comment, including on the civilian death toll and the May 7 attack.
The RSF accuses the army of harming civilians by using fighter jets and heavy artillery to bombard the state of Khartoum. The military accused the RSF of killing civilians by firing rockets at residential areas, and then blamed the army for the attacks and killings while looting homes and businesses.
The army and RSF shared power for four years after toppling former longtime autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The two sides fell out over a plan to integrate their armed forces during a transition to democracy, prompting the current hostilities that began on April 15.
The war has also injured more than 12,000 people and displaced more than 3.5 million people, according to the United Nations, which has described it as one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises.
Pro-democracy activists, typically organized into so-called neighborhood “resistance committees,” and volunteer emergency groups have recorded incidents of civilian casualties in Khartoum state, based on information from hospitals, makeshift clinics and eyewitnesses. Reuters verified figures shared on social media or directly with the news agency by dozens of such groups from the three sister cities that make up Greater Khartoum.
Even the unofficial Reuters tally is likely underwhelming, as some local groups are better organized and better at recording incidents than others, said Salah Albashir, a member of an emergency response volunteer group in the city of Bahri, where the Shambat neighborhood is located. The seven dead in the Shabbat attack is an example of undercounting. The May 7 incident has not yet been reported. The deaths are not included in the government’s tally, nor are they included in figures published by local volunteer groups.
The heaviest fighting between the Sudanese army and the RSF has been concentrated in the densely populated state of Khartoum, which has become a war zone. The RSF has spread into residential areas with vehicle-mounted guns and artillery, and its soldiers have hidden in buildings including homes and schools, locals say. The army – which controls the skies and has heavier artillery – has been attacking targets in Khartoum state from afar.
In the May 7 incident in Bahri’s Shambat district, six witnesses said the attack was an airstrike because they heard or saw warplanes known only to be owned by the army. Two of the witnesses shared video footage showing smoke rising in a field, which they say captured the immediate aftermath of the attack. Reuters confirmed the location of the two videos but could not independently confirm when they were filmed.
The six witnesses said local residents rushed to the scene and tried to put out the fire caused by the blast using water from a nearby irrigation ditch. They found the burned bodies at the crime scene.
“You put it down and you think it’s wood, and it turns out to be a person. You can tell their skin is falling off,” said one of the people at the scene, an engineer in his 30s who, like the other witnesses, remained anonymous for fear of reprisals from the warring factions.
Deadly attacks in residential areas are commonplace after fighting erupted, local activist committees and emergency relief groups report.
According to social media statements by the Southern Emergency Room, a volunteer group, more than 50 people died in just three attacks in late May and June in densely populated southern Khartoum. In the town of Omdurman, across the Nile from the capital, at least four civilians were killed and four others injured in an RSF drone strike earlier this month, the national health ministry said on July 15. This attack was aimed at a military-led attack on the hospital, according to the ministry. Nine days later, an artillery attack in Omdurman killed 15 people and wounded dozens more, according to the city’s Ombada District Emergency Response Group. Reuters could not independently confirm the details of the attacks or who was responsible.
Neither the Army nor the RSF responded to a request for comment on these incidents. The RSF has publicly blamed the army for two of the attacks in southern Khartoum – on May 31 and June 17. The army said the RSF was responsible for the third attack in Khartoum on June 11 and the drone strike in Omdurman on July 15. Neither side publicly responded to the allegations, and neither party made any public statements about the later attack in July.
Civilians are also dying as an indirect result of the conflict, which has taken its toll on the country’s already stretched health care system and other infrastructure. As Reuters reported in May, dozens of babies and young children died at an orphanage as fighting kept staff at bay and caused power outages.
According to the activist and volunteer groups, civilians are dying almost daily across the capital as a direct result of the conflict as airstrikes and artillery shelling are relentless. Life has become hell for those who stayed in areas like Shambat, dozens of residents told Reuters.
RSF soldiers line the main streets of Shambat, which is near a key RSF base called al-Mazalat and has long been a hotbed of protests against the army and the RSF.
Residents in Shambat and elsewhere in the capital say RSF troops routinely stop young men they suspect of working for the army. This emerges from statements by resistance committees and at least three residents. Two of the witnesses to the May 7 incident – the engineer in his 30s and another local who is an airport employee – said that days after the incident, RSF soldiers stopped them in the street after one of the two men used the term “Janjawid.” “ had used. The term is often used as a pejorative allusion to the RSF’s origins in the Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, which along with the army were accused of genocide in the Darfur region in the 2000s. Both the RSF and the army have denied allegations of genocide.
The two men said RSF soldiers took them to the Mazalat base and beat them with sticks and rifle butts. The airport official said that during the ordeal, an RSF fighter ordered another fighter to kill him.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm the accounts of the two men, who said they were released after a few hours. The news agency called one of the men in Sudan and the second in Egypt after he fled after he was said to have been beaten by the RSF.
RSF did not respond to requests for comment on the two men’s accounts. In response to allegations by Sudanese human rights groups about the RSF’s detentions and inhumane treatment of civilians and combatants, the paramilitary group told Reuters that the reports were false and that all prisoners of war were being treated well. The RSF has also previously said it will prosecute any of its soldiers found to have committed violations against civilians.
Local residents say the constant airstrikes and shelling have traumatized their children and damaged their homes. They see no end to the fighting anytime soon and say the battle between the army and the RSF appears to be at a stalemate. Attempts at mediation by regional and international powers have failed to find a way out of the increasingly intractable conflict.
“You can’t win a battle like this unless you want to destroy the whole area,” said a 40-year-old father of two from Shambat.
(Reported by Nafisa Eltahir in Cairo. Additional reporting by Adam Makary and Marwan Abdel-Razek in Cairo and Eleanor Whalley in London. Edited by Cassell Bryan-Low)
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