During early May, an intense explosion shook Shambat, a neighborhood situated to the north of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. In response to the incident, local residents hurried to extinguish the flames that were engulfing a makeshift dwelling, claiming that it was a result of an air strike.
They were too late. Amid the smoldering debris, according to five witnesses, were the charred bodies of a pregnant woman, a man and five children. Following the May 7 attack, the woman and children were buried at the site and the man at a nearby cemetery, two of the witnesses said.
The seven victims of the Shambat strike share something in common with many of the fatalities in the war that has ravaged Sudan since mid-April: They are not included in the official death count in Khartoum State, which has seen most of the fighting between the Sudanese army and the country’s main paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
With the conflict having shattered local health and government services, the entities that would usually register fatalities are largely disabled.
A Reuters tally of death figures recorded by local activists and volunteer groups indicates that the civilian death toll for the wider capital may be more than double the official count, underscoring the devastating impact of the more than 100-day long war on the Sudanese people.
A health ministry report circulated to aid agencies and seen by Reuters put the death toll in Khartoum State at 234 people as of July 5. The report specifies that the data is collected only from civilian hospitals. But across Khartoum State, which includes the capital and its sister cities Omdurman and Bahri, activist and volunteer groups have recorded at least 580 civilian deaths through July 26 as a result of air strikes, artillery and gunfire.
The disparity in the figures for Khartoum State suggests that the official nationwide death toll, which the health ministry puts at 1,136 people as of July 5, may also be an undercount.
An official in Sudan’s health ministry told Reuters the official figure was “the tip of the iceberg.” That’s because many civilians have died in their neighborhoods or at home – not in hospital – so their deaths wouldn’t have been recorded, he said.
Reuters wasn’t able to independently confirm the fatalities recorded by the groups, or the seven deaths on May 7 the eyewitnesses described.
Representatives for the army and RSF did not respond to requests for comment, including on the civilian death toll and the May 7 attack.
The RSF has accused the army of harming civilians through its use of warplanes and heavy artillery to bomb Khartoum State. The military has accused the RSF of killing civilians by firing missiles into residential areas, and then blaming the army for the attacks, and killing people as they loot homes and businesses. The army and RSF shared power for four years after toppling former long-time autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The two sides fell out over a plan to integrate their forces during a transition to democracy, sparking 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, according to the United Nations, which has called it one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.
Pro-democracy activists, typically organized in what are known as neighborhood “resistance committees,” and emergency response volunteer groups have been recording incidents in Khartoum State involving civilian casualties, based on information from hospitals as well as makeshift clinics and eyewitnesses. Reuters reviewed figures shared on social media or directly with the news agency by dozens of such groups from the three sister cities that make up the greater Khartoum area.
Even the unofficial Reuters tally is likely an undercount, because some local groups are more organized and better able to record incidents than others, said Salah Albashir, a member of an emergency response volunteer group in the city of Bahri, in which the Shambat neigborhood sits. The seven deaths in the Shambat attack are an example of the undercounting. The May 7 incident hasn’t been previously reported. The deaths aren’t part of the government’s tally, and aren’t recorded in the figures made public by local volunteer groups, either.
The heaviest fighting between the Sudanese army and the RSF has been concentrated in the densely-populated Khartoum State, which has become a war zone. The RSF has fanned out in residential areas armed with rifles and artillery mounted on vehicles, with its soldiers embedding themselves in buildings, including homes and schools, locals say. The army – which controls the skies and possesses heavier artillery – has struck targets in Khartoum State from afar.
In the May 7 incident in Bahri’s Shambat neighborhood, six witnesses said the attack was an air strike because they had heard or seen warplanes, which only the army is known to possess. Two of the witnesses shared video footage showing billowing smoke in a field that they said captured the immediate aftermath of the strike. Reuters confirmed the location of the two videos but couldn’t independently verify when they were filmed.
The six witnesses said residents rushed to the scene of the attack and tried to extinguish the fire caused by the explosion with water from a nearby irrigation ditch. They found the burnt bodies at the scene.
“You put it out thinking it’s wood and it turns out to be a person. You realize their skin is falling off,” said one of the people at the scene, an engineer in his thirties who, like the other witnesses, spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals from the warring parties.
In the crossfire
Fatal attacks in residential areas have become commonplace since the fighting erupted, according to local activist committees and emergency response volunteer groups. More than 50 people died in just three attacks in densely populated southern Khartoum in late May and June, according to social media statements by the Southern Emergency Room, a volunteer group.
In the city of Omdurman, across the Nile from the capital, at least four civilians were killed and four others injured in a drone attack earlier this month by the RSF, the national health ministry said on July 15. That assault targeted a military-run hospital, according to the ministry. An artillery strike in Omdurman nine days later killed 15 people and injured dozens of others, according to the emergency response group for the city’s Ombada district. Reuters wasn’t able to 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 accused the army of two of the attacks in southern Khartoum – on May 31 and June 17. The army said the RSF was responsible for the third Khartoum attack, on June 11, and the July 15 drone attack in Omdurman.
Neither side publicly responded to the accusations and neither have made public statements on the later July attack. Civilians are also dying as an indirect result of the conflict, which has hammered the country’s already stretched healthcare system and other infrastructure. Dozens of babies and young children died at an orphanage as the fighting kept staff away and caused power outages, Reuters reported in May.
With air strikes and artillery shelling unrelenting, civilians are dying almost daily across the wider capital as a direct result of the conflict, according to the activist and volunteer groups. For those who have remained in areas like Shambat, life has become hellish, dozens of residents have told Reuters.
RSF soldiers dot the main roads of Shambat, which sits close to a key RSF base called al-Mazalat and has long been a hotbed of protest against both the army and the RSF. Residents in Shambat and elsewhere across the wider capital say RSF forces regularly stop young men they suspect of working for the army, according to statements by resistance committees and at least three residents.
Two of the witnesses to the May 7 incident – the engineer in his thirties and another local man who is an airport employee – said that days after that incident RSF soldiers stopped them in the street after one of the two men used the term “Janjaweed.” The term is often used as a pejorative reference to the RSF’s origins in the Arab militias known as Janjaweed that, along with the army, were accused of genocide in the Darfur region in the 2000s. Both the RSF and army have denied accusations of genocide.
The two men said RSF soldiers took them to the Mazalat base and beat them with sticks and rifle butts. The airport employee said that during the ordeal an RSF fighter ordered another fighter to kill him.
Reuters wasn’t able to independently corroborate the accounts of the two men, who said they were released after a period of hours. The news agency spoke to one of the men by phone in Sudan and the second in Egypt after he fled following the beating he said he received at the hands of the RSF.
The RSF did not respond to requests for comment on the two men’s account. In response to allegations earlier this month by Sudanese rights groups of detentions and inhumane treatment by the RSF of civilians and combatants, the paramilitary group told Reuters the reports were incorrect and all prisoners of war were well-treated. The RSF has also previously said it would prosecute any of its soldiers found to have committed violations against civilians. Residents say the constant airstrikes and shelling have traumatized their children and damaged their homes.
They don’t see the fighting ending anytime soon, saying the battle between the army and the RSF appears to be in a stalemate. Mediation attempts by regional and international powers have failed to find a path out of an 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.