Women, children trapped at church in Sudan’s capital endure hunger, bombardment

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Trapped in a Catholic mission sheltering dozens of women and children from the war raging on the streets of Khartoum, Father Jacob Thelekkadan punched new holes in his belt as the supplies of food dwindled and he grew thinner.

Around 80 people are taking refuge inside the Dar Mariam mission, a Catholic church and school compound in Khartoum’s al-Shajara district, caught in the crossfire between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), according to accounts by the priest and seven other people at the mission.

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The roof of the main building has been damaged by shells, and parts of the nuns’ quarters have been set ablaze. Holes caused by stray bullets mark the mission’s walls.

As food has grown scarce, the nuns have boiled tree leaves for the children to eat and many of the adults have skipped meals.

A Red Cross effort to rescue them in December ended with two dead and seven others wounded, including three of charity’s staff, after gunmen opened fire on the convoy, forcing it to turn back before it could reach the mission. The warring sides traded blame for the attack.

Thelekkadan said he and the nuns had refused offers from the army to ferry them out across the river permanently, leaving the families behind.

“When the road is safe, we will be the first to leave, but with the people,” said Thelekkadan, a 69-year-old Indian national.

Many of the inhabitants of Sudan’s capital fled after the conflict erupted in April last year, enveloping Khartoum and its sister cities of Bahri and Omdurman along the Nile, and quickly spreading to other parts of the country.

At the start of the war, the RSF occupied strategic sites and residential neighborhoods in Khartoum, positioning snipers on high-rise buildings. The army, lacking effective ground forces, responded with heavy artillery and air strikes.

The Dar Mariam mission became a safe haven for those lacking the money to flee or without anywhere to go.

Photos shared with Reuters by Thelekkadan show parts of the mission’s buildings littered with debris, walls heavily damaged by bullets or shelling, and rooms and corridors blackened by smoke.

“Our food situation became very bad,” said Thelekkadan. “We’re all very weak.”

Extreme hunger has spread across Sudan in areas worst affected by the conflict, prompting famine warnings for areas including in Khartoum.

10 million displaced

Some families took shelter at the mission in June last year, hoping for protection from its concrete roof. But the area soon became cut off as the RSF pressed to capture the strategic Armored Corps camp about 2 km away, one of several military bases it was targeting, Thelekkadan said.

Al-Shajara district has come under heavy attack by the RSF. Those living nearby with the money to do so have registered with the military to be taken across the Nile; some have been waiting for months.

But a nighttime evacuation by boat across the White Nile is considered too risky for the children at the mission, Thelekkadan said.

Sudan’s war has created the world’s biggest internal displacement crisis and has driven nearly 10 million people to seek shelter inside or outside the country, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Reuters has documented how the fighting has triggered ethnically-charged killings in the western region of Darfur and led to the spread of deadly hunger.

The war has also caused unprecedented destruction in the capital, which was sheltered from modern Sudan’s previous conflicts.

Both warring factions have impeded the delivery of humanitarian relief, aid workers say, leaving civilians dependent on charity provided by groups of neighborhood volunteers, among others.

An RSF media official said the paramilitary had tried to allow for the evacuation of the families by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but the army had thwarted the effort and was using them as human shields.

An army spokesman said the families had been trapped by the war, and that troops from the Armored Corps had done their duty by protecting and helping them, in line with army practice in other conflict-hit areas.

Numbers have fluctuated, but since March about 30 women along with 50 children aged 2-15 have stayed at the mission, according to Thelekkadan. His account was confirmed by two of the nuns, an administrator and four women sheltering at the mission, two other priests who have kept in touch with Dar Mariam, and an army intelligence officer responsible for churches in Khartoum.

Those staying at the mission are mostly Christian refugees from South Sudan and Ethiopia, who set up tents made from plastic sheeting around the compound’s buildings, which include a church, a school and a residence.

When fighting starts nearby, they take cover inside the residence. Some poor Sudanese Muslim families have also sought temporary shelter at the mission.

Waiting for evacuation

The bombardments in November shredded an image of the Virgin Mary at the compound’s entrance, ripped through the second floor of the main building, and set the roof on fire. Several people were lightly injured.

RSF snipers had the entrance to Dar Mariam in their sights. A boy from the neighborhood was killed when mortar shrapnel sliced into his head after he had helped carve out an exit at the back of the compound to avoid sniper fire, Thelekkadan said.

The mission’s residents had been trying to survive “a lot of shooting and bombing,” sister Miriam, one of the nuns, told Reuters in a video call.

“We got used to it and we are not afraid. God is protecting us, but we are waiting for evacuation,” she said.

Thelekkadan and the nuns turned their most secure room into a shelter to try to protect the children from the crossfire. They attempted to distract the children from the violence raging around them, creating a space to use bicycles in the yard and encouraging them to play video games.

“We tried to not make them feel like they are in a prison,” Thelekkadan said.

In early January, the mission was caught in the crossfire again and rooms in the nuns’ residence were set ablaze.

Food has been a challenge. By September, cash was running low, and collecting supplies from local markets became nearly impossible due to clashes.

The children have often received meagre servings of porridge, lentils and beans. But stocks dwindled.

Since February, troops stationed at the Armored Corps camp have delivered some airdropped provisions to Dar Mariam, including sugar and fuel for generators used to draw water from wells, Thelekkadan said.

The army also provided a Starlink connection, allowing those at the mission to use their phones again.

They flew the priest and an administrator twice to Port Sudan, a Red Sea city to which army and government offices have relocated, to meet church officials and collect some cash and supplies.

Sister Celestine, another of the nuns, said she is still gripped by fear each time bombardments shake the area.

“I would like to be out of here,” she said. “I want to get out and write a book about everything that happened.”

The fighting has shown little sign of abating.

“These past four days have become very trying for all of us in Dar Mariam and people around as explosions, bombings, gunfire etc have become more intense and frequent!” Thelekkadan said in a message on June 19. “Please do continue to pray for us.”

Read more:

UN seeks help for tens of thousands of Sudan refugees fleeing to Libya, Uganda

Sudan’s RSF says it has taken key city

Aid groups press to stop Sudan ‘man-made’ famine as 755,000 are projected to starve

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