Families, friends search for missing people as fighting rages in Sudan

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By Webdesk

Mohamed Jamal urged his old friend Musab Abbas to flee the fierce fighting near his home in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and to stay with him in the south of the city, away from the fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. (RSF).

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

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

A month after violent armed fighting erupted in Sudan on April 15, the whereabouts of at least 190 people remain unknown amid indiscriminate fighting between the Sudanese military and RSF, according to the Missing Person Initiative, a local observer.

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

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

Arbitrary arrests

According to Sara Hamdan, the founder of the Missing Person Initiative in Sudan, many people have disappeared from the radar after being detained by the RSF.

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

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

“Usually they examine detainees to find out if they are cooperating with the military,” says Hamdan of Cairo, Egypt, where she recently took refuge from the violence in Khartoum. “Most were unharmed, but some were beaten when they resisted arrest.”

Army officers may have targeted civilians by claiming that people in certain neighborhoods gave 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 set up to report and locate missing persons. The next day, a man called Jamal and said that he had recently been released by the RSF, but the group was still holding Abbas.

“I have 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 Abbas’s family had previously visited a camp in a neighborhood near the airport in Khartoum, where the RSF is believed to be holding hundreds of civilian detainees.

The RSF denied that Abbas was there.

If the RSF is confirmed to be detaining Abbas, the arrest could qualify as an enforced disappearance under international law, as RSF fighters denied he was in their custody, said Emma DiNapoli, a legal expert investigating Sudan.

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

“Whatever limited protection there was for detainees at one point [before the war] have evaporated,” she told Al Jazeera. “[What’s happening] is truly concerning given the patterns of detentions among the RSF, even prior to the conflict.

Many people in Sudan are also increasingly concerned that the military – or its supporters – will kidnap and even kill them for expressing their views on the war.

Mohi el-Deen, a 48-year-old journalist, said he has received a number of threats from people he believed to be supporters of the military. As a journalist, he said his stance of remaining neutral makes him a target.

“I have not taken a position to support the army or the RSF, but the people who threaten me say that I should support the army,” el-Deen told Al Jazeera.

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

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

In the worst case

On one of the Facebook groups set up to track down the missing, some revealed or discovered that their loved ones were killed in the unrest.

A May 12 report revealed that three people had been found seriously injured in a hospital and one of them – a young girl – had succumbed to her injuries. They were hit by indiscriminate military fire, the post said.

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

“We have to reach his family. He has people staying with him [in the hospital]but we have to tell his family… I pray for him to recover quickly, God willing,” the message read.

Facebook groups set up to report missing persons are also used to reunite children and orphans with their relatives, if they are still alive.

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

The unaccompanied child had communicated in sign language to people in the neighborhood that his parents were involved in the war.

“Whoever recognizes the child, please contact the following telephone numbers [below]”, the message read.

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