Families, friends search for the missing as Sudan fighting rages

People are using social media groups to seek information about their loved ones a month after the clashes erupted.

A man walks while smoke rises above buildings after aerial bombardment, during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North
Smoke rises above buildings after an aerial bombardment, during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum, Sudan [File: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

Mohamed Jamal urged his longtime friend Musab Abbas to flee the heavy clashes near his home in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and stay with him in the south of the city, a safe distance away from the battle between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

When they spoke shortly after sundown on April 30, Abbas agreed, but insisted on first using his neighbour’s generator to charge his phone in order to stay connected with friends and family. Jamal has not seen or heard from Abbas since.

“I started to search for him,” Jamal, 27, told Al Jazeera. “I came across some groups [set up to locate missing people on social media]. At first, I thought that the groups would have a small [number of people], but I was surprised.”

One month after a violent armed struggle erupted in Sudan on April 15, the whereabouts of at least 190 people remain unaccounted for amid the indiscriminate fighting between the Sudanese army and RSF, according to the Missing Person Initiative, a local monitor.

Families and friends of the missing fear that their loved ones have been detained or even killed in the crossfire. To search for them, many have provided their contact details under photos of the missing, which they posted on Facebook groups.

So far, only a few people have been found alive.

Arbitrary arrests

Many people have fallen off the radar after being detained by the RSF, according to Sara Hamdan, the founder of the Missing Person Initiative in Sudan.

She told Al Jazeera that some families who were searching for their loved ones eventually found them after the RSF released them. Hamdan said that the detainees were either suspected of being spies for the Sudanese army or were abducted so that their belongings could be stolen.

The RSF have arrested others for no apparent reason, she added.

“They usually investigate detainees to find out if they are cooperating with the army,” said Hamdan from Cairo, Egypt, where she recently sought refuge from the violence in Khartoum. “Most were unharmed, but some were beaten if they resisted arrest.”

Army officers might have made civilians a target by claiming that people in certain neighbourhoods fed them information, but this could not be verified by Al Jazeera.

On May 12, Jamal posted his phone number with a photo of Abbas on one of the Facebook groups created to report and locate missing people. The next day, a man called Jamal and said that he was recently released by the RSF, but that the group was still holding Abbas.

“I asked [the caller] where they took him and he said he didn’t know because they blindfolded him when he was captured,” Jamal told Al Jazeera.

Jamal said that Abbas’ family had previously visited a compound in a neighbourhood near the airport in Khartoum, where the RSF is believed to be holding hundreds of civilian detainees.

The RSF denied Abbas was there.

If it is confirmed that the RSF is holding Abbas, the arrest might qualify as an enforced disappearance under international law since RSF fighters denied that he was in their custody, according to Emma DiNapoli, a legal expert researching Sudan.

But she stressed that the RSF’s apparent lack of a reliable chain of command – evident by its fighters robbing banks, raiding houses and stealing cars – makes it difficult for any authority to register who has been arrested and for what reason.

“Whatever limited protections there might have been for detainees at one point [before the war] have evaporated,” she told Al Jazeera.  “[What’s happening] is really worrying given the patterns of detentions under the RSF even prior to the conflict.”

Many people in Sudan are also increasingly worried that the army – or its supporters – will kidnap and even kill them for expressing opinions about the war.

Mohi el-Deen, a 48-year-old journalist, said that he has received a number of threats from people that he believed were supporters of the army. As a journalist, he said that his stance to remain neutral is making him a target.

“I haven’t taken a position to back the army or RSF, but the people threatening me are saying I must support the army,” el-Deen told Al Jazeera.

El-Deen sent Al Jazeera a screenshot of one of the threats that he received over WhatsApp.

“Anyone who kisses the behind of the RSF deserves to be killed,” it read.

Worst-case scenario

On one of the Facebook groups set up to find the missing, some have disclosed or discovered that their loved ones were killed in the unrest.

A post on May 12 revealed that three people were found badly wounded in a hospital and that one of them – a young girl – had succumbed to her injuries. They were hit by indiscriminate army shelling, the post said.

Another post detailed a person found in hospital after being shot by a sniper in the neck.

“We need to reach his family. He has people staying with him [in the hospital], but we need to tell his family … I pray for him to recover soon, god willing,” the post read.

Facebook groups designed to report missing people are also being used to reunite children and orphans with their relatives, if any are still alive.

On May 13, one user uploaded a photo of a child with special needs. He was found alone in Madani, a city where many people have sought refuge to escape the fighting in Khartoum.

The unaccompanied child had communicated in sign language to people nearby that his parents had been caught up in the war.

“Whoever recognises the child, please contact the following phone numbers [below],” the post read.

Source: Al Jazeera