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Life in Sudan has long been tortuous. Dr Habib, an orthopaedist, fled the east African nation for Britain in 1991 after receiving multiple early insights into how brutal corruption would manifest under Omar al-Bashir, a general who swept to power in a military coup two years earlier.
First, Dr Habib found himself treating the victims of police violence in his place of work, the Khartoum Teaching Hospital. Incidents spiked after the extreme impostion of Sharia Law following al-Bashir’s ascent to power.
Subsequently, the doctor received visits from the secret police, the National Intelligence and Security Service, instructing him to sign papers denying injuries had been incurred by victims of the abuse. Dr Habib refused. But he received further visits, and the requests grew graver still, soliciting support to perform amputations on others found guilty of breaching Sharia Law.
When Dr Habib again refused to acquiesce with the state, he was summoned to court. “How dare you refuse?” came the cry before he was struck by a prosecutor. 33 years on, Dr Habib remains incredulous that he was slapped in open court, and so traumatised as to be unable to talk about what else he experienced while detained ahead of the hearing.
Dr Habib was able to escape, granted asylum by the UK Government along with other Christian refugees who he says queued with him overnight to join rescue flights out of the former colony. However, with his medical qualifications not recognised outside of Sudan, his musculoskeletal skills have gone unused in England. It was too expensive and time consuming to retrain in the UK, with a young family to support.
Sudan would benefit from an additional doctor right now, with the country nine months into a catastrophic civil war only eclipsed by the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine. The Khartoum Teaching Hospital in which Dr Habib used to be proud to work was destroyed in the first throws of battle last spring.
It was the largest hospital in the country, with its initial units built under former British rule. It will take seven years to rebuild, the government’s health department has said. Even if the war ended tomorrow, patients will struggle to find specialist support for all manner of injuries or illnesses for the foreseeable future.
Patients are suffering from violent corruption in Sudan now, just as they were back in 1991. What has changed is that the suffering is now more heavily militarised, with bombs being dropped on the heads and hospitals of civilians by forces that should be in place to protect not pulverise.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Millions of Sudanese rose up in peaceful protests in 2018-19, successfully ousting al-Bashir – later jailed for corruption – and mobilising for the dissolution of his National Congress Party. The future looked brighter.
However, fighting involving the Sudanese Armed Forces and their shadow army, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), erupted after negotiations on the timeline for integrating the RSF broke down. At least seventeen hospitals have been bombed to date, according to reports shared by the United Nations.
More than two thirds of the hospitals in the nation’s conflict hotspots are now out of service, with a dozen being used as barracks. The scale of the carnage reveals how readily the UN’s arms embargo, imposed on Sudan back in 2004, has been evaded over the past two decades.
Through steady exploitation of the country’s gold, both military factions have grown rich and resourced in weapons frequently used against their own people, even before this latest war which has cost more than 12,000 lives.
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The Government turned a blind eye when Darfur’s ‘gold mountain’ was seized by force by the Janjaweed militia – which later evolved into the RSF – in 2012. The Government again looked the other way when the RSF breached the country’s constitution to cash in on the precious metal. It suited al-Bashir, an unelected dictator, to have not one but two powerful armies to reinforce his grip.
The UAE has long traded with the RSF, who have lent the Gulf nation fighters in the past. Most recently gold has been traded for Wagner missiles on the Libyan border, satellite imagery suggests. British firms also have blood on their hands after selling vehicles and ammunition into the country in recent years.
Sudan is sometimes dismissed as a lost cause, a case study in corruption-related conflict. But its capacity to stockpile arms in contravention of a long-standing embargo implicates exporters and international regulators as much as it does the two armies engaged in what has become an intractable bloodbath.
Corruption is unhealthy. Dr Habib can testify to that. So can all those who remain suffering in Sudan, along with a large domestic and international cast of enablers.