Sudan doctors targeted with threats and smear campaigns

Medics say they are been labelled traitors by the army and accused of treating paramilitary fighters.

A staff member works at National Public Health Laboratory in Khartoum, Sudan in this undated image posted to social media on December 31, 2020. National Public Health Laboratory - Sudan/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Health facilities have been targeted by both sides in the conflict [Reuters]

When Dr Alaaeldin Nogod returned home from his hospital shift on May 6, he thought he was safe from the shelling and gunfire that has devastated healthcare facilities in Sudan’s war-torn capital, Khartoum.

But then he checked his phone and saw a smear campaign against him. An anonymous statement had spread online accusing him of being a traitor for treating fighters from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which is at war with the Sudanese army.

Nogod told Al Jazeera that he had not treated RSF fighters, but also said that he would help them if they were wounded and arrived at his hospital.

Still, the statement claimed that he was one of three medics aiding the RSF in exchange for a hefty payment. The accusations had gone viral across Sudanese WhatsApp groups, several medics said.

“These threats are targeting doctors who have known political activities or are part of [Sudan’s] pro-democracy movement,” Dr Nogod, 44, told Al Jazeera. “My colleagues have told me not to come to work and to [hide] in a safe place.”

Since fighting erupted in Sudan on April 15, army officials and their supporters have smeared and threatened medics for maintaining a neutral stance in the war, according to doctors, rights groups and analysts.

Leading members of the Sudanese Doctor’s Union, which played a vital role in bringing down former longtime leader Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, have called on medics to treat injured fighters from the army and the RSF.

Doctors are also documenting violations – against civilians, medics and medical facilities – without naming the perpetrators. They have adopted the stance in order to not provoke the army or RSF, although both sides have been accused, and have accused each other, of attacking medical facilities and committing human rights abuses since the war began.

“The army wants us to say that the RSF attacked hospitals, but we always say that militants attacked the hospitals or that people [in military outfits] attacked hospitals,” Nogod told Al Jazeera over the phone.

Al Jazeera sent written questions to army spokesperson Nablil Abdullah. He was asked if the army considered it treason for doctors to treat RSF fighters and to remain neutral in the war, but he did not respond.

Return of the old guard?

The Sudanese Doctor’s Union blames al-Bashir-era loyalists from his National Congress Party (NCP), which is connected to Sudan’s political Islam movement that had ruled the country for 30 years, for being the primary inciters of violence against them.

“These threats, which coincide with a campaign by supporters of the defunct al-Bashir regime, clearly illustrate their desire to take revenge on doctors, who supported the glorious December [2018] Revolution,” the union said in a statement. “But we tell them that the revolution that terrified them is still going on and will continue until all its goals are achieved and the martyrs are avenged.”

One al-Bashir-era officer from the army, Tariq al-Hadi, uploaded a video on Facebook and YouTube in which he accused medics and civilian politicians of participating in “devil initiatives”.

He also called Nogod a “disbeliever”.

“During the revolution in 2018 and 2019, the doctors were the biggest professional body that resisted the regime,” Nogod told Al Jazeera over the phone. “Leaders [NCP loyalists] in the army accepted the revolution, but they were just waiting [for a chance] to come back to power.”

An October 2021 military coup, which upended Sudan’s brief democratic transition, enabled NCP loyalists to consolidate control of the country. Due to wide opposition to the coup, top army commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan desperately needed a constituency to help him run the state bureaucracy, so he restored many al-Bashir-era loyalists to their posts.

But it is the strong NCP influence in the army that poses the biggest threat to civil society, the medics said. One doctor, a former hospital director who was fired after the coup, recalled a threat from an anonymous caller on May 4th.

“The [caller] told me that you [doctors] who are against the war will be punished after the war,” the medic, whose identity is not being revealed for fear of reprisal, said, and added that he was thinking of fleeing the country with his family due to fears that he could be killed.

Dangerous Precedent

On May 7, the Facebook page of the Sudanese army said that it had arrested two members from a resistance committee – neighbourhood groups providing vital services to civilians in war – for “cooperating” with the RSF.

Activists were outraged, saying that the activists were driving an ambulance to escort wounded RSF fighters to the nearest hospital. After the public outcry, the army announced that it had released the two the next day.

Experts have warned that there could be a wider crackdown against civil society as the war drags on.

“[The army] will try to keep attacking resistance committees as well as the medical union and the journalists union – the two unions that have held elections and sidelined [NCP] Islamists,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudanese expert and the founding director of Confluence Advisory, a think tank.

“I think we could see a huge retaliation from [the Sudanese army] against [civil society] because they don’t fear any consequences at the moment,” added Mohamad Osman, the Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Osman also said that some voices within the civil space had criticised doctors and activists for their neutrality in documenting abuses.

“There is this very concerning narrative that if you are not explicitly against the RSF, then you are with them and that puts people at a lot of risk,” he told Al Jazeera.

Al-Bashir loyalists in the military are of most concern to activists, said Mohamad Yahiya, a member of a resistance committee that is helping civilians in Jazira state, north of Khartoum.

He feared that they will persecute more civilian groups that maintain an anti-war stance and do not blindly back the army.

“The [army’s] assault on resistance committees and unions is not strange to us. It’s expected,” Yahiya told Al Jazeera. “We expected [NCP officers in the army] to frame civil activists as supporters of the RSF. They claim we betrayed the country and army.”

Source: Al Jazeera