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Sudanese doctors appeal for support as hospitals and staff are attacked

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l209 (Published 14 January 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l209
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. London, UK

Sudanese doctors have appealed for international support as security forces in the country target hospitals and detain staff in a bid to end a month long series of demonstrations against the regime of president Omar al-Bashir.

Doctors are among professional groups to have played a major part in the insurgency, triggered initially by riots on 19 December in the town of Atareb over the price of fuel and bread. Since then, the protests have spread across the country and broadened into a campaign to oust Bashir, who came to power in a coup 29 years ago.

Security forces have used tear gas and live rounds of ammunition against the demonstrators, pursuing them into hospitals where they had sought protection and treatment. The Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate reports that Omdurman Hospital was attacked on 9 January and Bahri General Teaching Hospital on 13 January, using tear gas and live ammunition.

The general manager of Tuga private hospital in Omdurman, Elfatih Omer Elsid, was arrested on 11 January after declaring that his hospital would treat all injured protesters free of charge. A prominent member of the doctors’ syndicate, he is being held in an unknown location and denied access to the drugs he needs to continue his recovery from cancer.

He joined a long list of doctors detained since protests escalated on 25 December, including the head of the syndicate, Ahmed Elsheikh, and his deputy, Nageeb Nagmeldin. Doctors who were among those injured when forces fired on demonstrators on 25 December include surgical registrar Sabir Mohamed Ahmed (shot through the thigh) and Hassan Omer, a medical student who was left quadriplegic after being shot through the neck.

“It is a real revolution, not just a small number of people going on to the streets over bread and fuel,” a Sudanese doctor working in Britain told the BBC World Service.

Sara Abdelgalil, a paediatric consultant at Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, speaking on behalf of Sudan Doctors Union UK, said that in one incident security forces had tried to force their way into an operating theatre where a protester was being treated.

“The regime cannot deliver the basic services to the people of Sudan,” she said. “They are using force to protect themselves.”

The Bashir regime has been the target of protests before but has always been able to remain in power. The secession in 2011 of oil rich South Sudan intensified economic pressures and drove inflation to levels exceeded currently only by Venezuela.

Bashir has characterised the protesters as “traitors, sell-outs, agents, and saboteurs,” and blamed rebels from Darfur, in league with Israel, for attempting to destabilise the country. But the tactic has backfired, with marchers from Khartoum, normally a pro-Bashir city, chanting, “We are all Darfuri.”

The targeting of doctors, lawyers, and other professional groups is a recognition by the regime that the protests have strong backing from the middle class, grouped under the banner of the Sudanese Professionals Association. In 1964 and 1985, movements with similar professional leadership were successful, but they had the support of the army which this time has remained loyal to the regime in power.

Some officers fear that if the revolution succeeds they may face prosecution for their role in the genocide in Darfur in western Sudan, in which as many as 300 000 people are reported to have been killed.

The doctors’ syndicate says that it was obliged to join the protests because inflation had made it impossible to import drugs and they could no longer provide adequate care.

“The current situation makes it impossible for Sudanese doctors to conduct their professional and ethical duties,” the syndicate said in a statement published on 12 January. “Sudanese doctors demand nothing but to be able to conduct these duties and work in an environment that delivers up-to-standard healthcare.” The syndicate called for media and professional support to back their cause.

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