By Zeinab Mohammed Salih
With a dramatic escalation in the war in Sudan between the army and paramilitaries, my family buried my 84-year-old grandmother while bullets were flying over their heads at a graveyard in Omdurman – just across the River Nile from Khartoum.
My grandmother was diabetic and her blood pressure fell, but we were unable to take her for treatment as Omdurman – where millions of people still live, despite a massive exodus out of the city – has only one functioning hospital, with the rest ransacked or hijacked by fighters.
It only admits patients wounded in the war, and there are many of them – bullets, bombs and shells rain down every day in residential neighbourhoods. As a result, sick people are no longer receiving hospital treatment in Omdurman.
Without treatment my grandmother declined swiftly.
We wanted to bury her next to my grandfather – her husband – who died in 2005, but that cemetery is near the Central Reserve Police unit. So the area sees constant battles, with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) trying to take control of the police base.
We took her body to another cemetery in a more peaceful area, but on that day heavy battles were raging on opposite sides of the graveyard.
The few relatives who went to bury her had to lie on the ground to duck the bullets, and used a quiet moment to lower my grandmother into her grave. It took them about six hours to leave the cemetery, as the gun-battles were ferocious, subsiding only around sunset.
Most of my grandmother’s relatives remained behind at her home – and they too had to huddle together in rooms when heavy shooting erupted in the neighbourhood, lasting several hours.
But we were lucky to bury her at a cemetery, other people have laid to rest their loved ones at their homes.
The violinist Khalid Sanhouri was buried by his brother and neighbour in front of his house in al-Molazmeen, a neighbourhood in the old part of Omdurman.
In his 40s, he was diabetic and, according to his family, died after not eating for days, as there was no food in the house and it was too dangerous to go out because of heavy fighting.
Most people had fled the neighbourhood, and shops were shut. He was among the few who stayed behind.
Old Omdurman – where Sanhouri lived – is very badly affected by the conflict, as the army and RSF constantly fight for control of the bridges that lead to Khartoum and Bahri city.
There are frequent air strikes and heavy shelling in the area. Dozens of residents have been killed, and many homes and businesses have been reduced to rubble.
My grandmother lived in a part of Omdurman that was, until a few weeks ago, less affected by the war. She had strong connections with the residents of her neighbourhood.
Until her health started failing about 10 years ago, hundreds of little girls and boys used to crowd her house every Friday, when she used to give them gifts.
Those children – now grown up with families of their own – came to the mosque opposite her home to pay their last respects, before she was taken to the cemetery.
But in the three weeks since her burial, many of them have fled because the neighbourhood has come under intense shelling from the army as it attempts to beat back RSF fighters, who control much of greater Khartoum.
My mother also had a close shave with death. As she was walking to the market to buy some vegetables, there was a drone strike not far from her, causing a huge explosion. She stopped in her tracks, and immediately lay flat on the ground.
The tea lady next to her was so shaken that her tray fell out of her hands. She too then lay on the ground.
It is increasingly clear that 24 August – the day my grandmother was buried – was a turning point in the war. This was the day when the RSF’s siege of the army chief, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, ended.
He managed to leave the military headquarters in Khartoum after being trapped in it since the start of the war on 15 April.
He said an operation by his forces had ended the siege, though some Sudanese suspect that foreign mediators had brokered an under-the-table agreement that saw the RSF allow him to leave.
Since then, Gen Burhan has based himself in the city of Port Sudan, and has travelled extensively abroad to drum up support for the war against the RSF.
Talks between the warring sides are continuing in Saudi Arabia, but Gen Burhan has not yet gone there.
His rhetoric – like that of RSF commander Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti – suggest that they see each other as traitors, and they intend to fight to the finish rather than negotiate a peace deal.
Gen Dagalo’s whereabouts are unclear, but he is thought to still be in Khartoum.
The two staged a coup together in October 2021, but then got involved in a power struggle that has led to their men taking up arms against each other.
There is little doubt that the army has intensified its operations against the RSF since Gen Burhan’s siege ended, and this has led to an increase in civilian casualties.
“You open the gate of your home and you only see people carrying bodies on their shoulders. It’s very scary,” one woman said, before she fled Omdurman in the last few days.
On the night of 29 August, 10 men who were watching football on a big screen at an entertainment centre in Omdurman were killed after it was shelled by government forces.
They seemed to have missed their target – a restaurant next-door where RSF fighters sometimes go for dinner, normally fava beans, Sudan’s staple food. But that evening none of them were in the restaurant.
A few days later, the military shelled a poor area in Omdurman known as Ombada 21. Again, the target appeared to be RSF fighters stationed there, but they had left by the time the shells fell, causing the death of about 25 civilians.
And in what is thought to be the highest number of civilian deaths in an air strike so far, more than 50 died when a market was hit in Mayo, a poor neighbourhood south of Khartoum, on 10 September.
These are just some of the civilian casualties of the war. With many of Khartoum’s middle-class residents having fled early in the conflict, most of the victims are poor black people, who feel they have been largely forgotten by a world pre-occupied by the war in Ukraine, natural disasters in North Africa and the coups in other parts of the continent.
Yet, those coups have been bloodless, while thousands of people are dying in greater Khartoum, and elsewhere in Sudan.