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In war-torn Sudan, volunteers turn schools into hospitals

Smoke billows over buildings in southern Khartoum on May 29, 2023, amid ongoing fighting between the forces of two rival generals
— Omdurman (Sudan) (AFP)

In a Sudanese school turned makeshift hospital, a volunteer doctor hooks up a patient lying on a desk to an intravenous drip while nurses hand out medicines donated by neighbours.

As war has raged for six weeks and shuttered or destroyed many clinics, this school building in Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city across the Nile, has become an emergency healthcare centre.

A chalk message written on a blackboard outside says the volunteer-run field hospital provides free general medical care, minor operations and other services.

The volunteer medics treat children and people with diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses, which are "now 10 times deadlier than bullets," said the doctor, Mohammed al-Taher.

Young activists have taken matters into their own hands since fighting erupted on April 15 between the army led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces of his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.

Hospitals out of service in Sudan’s Khartoum

In times of relative peace, the activists, known as local "resistance committees", used to organise pro-democracy protests. Now they collect water and food and run makeshift clinics for patients with nowhere else to go.

The public health sector has long been fragile in Sudan, where 65 per cent of the population lives in poverty. Now it faces compounded challenges, with three quarters of hospitals in combat zones out of service, according to the country's doctors' union.

- 'Bring medicine' -

People at the reception desk of the Medani Heart Centre hospital in Wad Madani, the capital of the Al-Jazirah state in east-central Sudan, on May 25, 2023

The fighting has left 12,000 dialysis patients at risk of dying as hospitals have run out of medication and fuel to power generators, the union said.

Since the war erupted, at least 1,800 people have been killed. More than a million have been displaced within Sudan and nearly 350,000 have fled to other countries.

The fighting has also led many health professionals to flee and driven a "real brain drain", says the UN World Health Organization.

Remaining medical staff are now teaching volunteers to tend to the wounded.

"We train young people in first aid in case they are faced with wounded people in the midst of combat," Taher said.

A patient is transported on a gurney at the Medani Heart Centre hospital in Wad Madani, the capital of the Al-Jazirah state in east-central Sudan, on May 25, 2023

Maha Mohammed is one of many volunteers looking after fellow Sudanese citizens in need.

She runs the small field hospital's pharmacy, its shelves sparsely stocked with medicine and serum bags.

The young woman in a black abaya pleaded for "more donations" as the bulk of food and medical aid have either been looted or remain stuck at the sites of violent battles.

- 'This war will pass' -

A crowded hospital in El Fasher in Sudan's North Darfur region, seen in this April 19 photograph provided by Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

The fighting has impeded the delivery of the humanitarian aid that 25 million people -- over half the population -- now desperately need, according to the UN.

Aid workers, who count 18 deaths among their ranks, say it is difficult for aid to flow despite the multiple ceasefires that have been agreed and quickly violated.

In a "major breakthrough", the World Food Programme said Monday that it had begun reaching thousands of Khartoum's trapped residents.

Mohammed said that "we must help each other before expecting foreign help. I urge people who have medicine at home to bring it here."

At the hospital, two women stood behind a window, registering new patients lined up in the courtyard.

Shattered glass in an abandoned hospital in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, in a picture from May 1, 2023

"Our neighbourhood is under fire, many hospitals had to close," volunteer Ashraf told AFP. "So people come here to get free treatment from doctors in the neighbourhood."

There are fears that the summer rainy season will soon bring seasonal epidemics like malaria, which wreaks havoc in Sudan every year, while a shortage of drinking water could drive a cholera outbreak.

The rains will also make parts of Sudan hard to reach, according to aid agencies.

But Ashraf remained optimistic that his home country, which has been ravaged by multiple civil wars and military coups since gaining independence in 1956, will also overcome the current turmoil.

"This war will pass," he said. "We have seen many crises in Sudan, and each time we think: this will be the last. But this one will end too."

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