CAIRO – About 300 infants, toddlers and older children have been rescued from an orphanage in Sudan’s capital after being trapped there while fighting raged outside, aid officials said Thursday. The evacuation came after 71 children died from hunger and illness in the facility since mid-April.
The tragedy at the Al-Mayqoma orphanage made headlines late last month as fighting raged outside between Sudan’s military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
The deaths have highlighted the heavy toll inflicted on civilians since mid-April when the clashes erupted between forces loyal to Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan and RSF forces led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo.
About 300 children at the Al-Mayqoma orphanage in Khartoum were transferred to a “safer location” elsewhere in the northeastern African nation, said Ricardo Pires, a spokesman for the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.
Sudan’s ministries of social development and health have taken charge of the children, while UNICEF has provided humanitarian support including medical care, food, educational activities and play, Pires said in an email to The Associated Press.
He said the children had received medical checks following their long journey to their new location, adding that “any child requiring hospitalization will have access to healthcare.”
The International Committee of The Red Cross, which helped with the evacuation, said the children, aged between 1 month to 15 years, were relocated after securing a safe corridor to Madani, the capital of Jazira province, about 135 kilometers (85 miles) southeast of Khartoum. Seventy caretakers have been transferred with the children, the ICRC said.
“They (the children) spent incredibly difficult moments in an area where the conflict has been raging for the past 6 weeks without access to proper healthcare, an especially hard situation for children with special needs,” said Jean-Christophe Sandoz, the head of the ICRC delegation in Sudan.
Nazim Sirag, an activist who heads the local charity Hadhreen, said in a phone interview that the children were ferried late Tuesday to a newly established facility in Madani.
Sirag, whose charity led humanitarian efforts to help the orphanage and other nursing homes in Khartoum, said at least 71 children died at the Al-Mayqoma since the war in Sudan began on April 15.
Among the dead were babies as young as three months, according to death certificates obtained by the AP. The certificates listed circulatory collapse as a cause of death, but also mentioned other contributing factors such as fever, dehydration, malnutrition, and failure to thrive.
Their relocation followed an online campaign led by local activists and international charities, which intensified after the death of 26 children in two days at the orphanage in late May. The children had been trapped in the fighting for over seven weeks as food and other supplies dwindled. The facility was inaccessible because of the war had turned the capital and other urban areas into battlefields.
“The safe movement of these incredibly vulnerable children to a place of safety offers a ray of light in the midst of the ongoing conflict in Sudan,” Mandeep O’Brien, UNICEF Representative in Sudan, said in a statement. “Many millions of children remain at risk across Sudan."
Local volunteers, meanwhile, evacuated 77 other children earlier this week from separate foster homes in the coastal, Sirag of Hadhreen said. The children have temporarily sheltered along with 11 adults in a school in the town of Hasahisa, also in Jazira province, he said.
The fighting has inflicted a heavy toll on civilians, particularly children. More than 860 civilians, including at least 190 children, were killed and thousands of others were wounded since April 15, according to Sudan’s Doctors’ Syndicate which tracks civilian casualties. The tally is likely to be much higher.
The conflict has forced more than 1.9 million people to flee their homes, including around 477,000 who crossed into neighboring countries, according to the U.N.'s migration agency. Others remain trapped inside their homes, unable to escape as food and water supplies dwindle. The clashes have also disrupted the work of humanitarian groups.
There have been reports of widespread looting and sexual violence, including the rape of women and girls in Khartoum and the western Darfur region, which have seen some of the worst fighting in the conflict. Almost all reported cases of sexual attacks were blamed on the RSF, which didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.