Solitary hospital struggles to treat Sudan’s civilian victims

The Times
Nuba Mountains, Sudan

Hawatif Dalamia is recovering from her wounds, but does not know what happened to her husband and children (Marc Hofer)
Hawatif Dalamia is recovering from her wounds, but does not know what happened to her husband and children (Marc Hofer)

A grimy plaster cast covers Taqueen’s left leg from toe to hip and a bandage is wrapped around his right ankle. The slight 16-year-old has been in the male ward of a simple hospital in Sudan’s rebel-held Nuba Mountains for the past month, another victim of an indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign by Khartoum against rebel villages.

“When I heard the Antonov engine I tried to run but the bomb dropped and the shrapnel caught me and I fell,” Taqueen said, describing an attack by a Soviet-era cargo plane converted for use as a crude bomber by the Sudanese Army.

He made it to the only hospital in this inhospitable land of rocky hills and sandy, tree-covered plains. The Catholic-run, tin-roofed hospital on a hillside deep in the Nuba Mountains was made to house 80 patients, but there are four times that number and beds line the wards and corridors and spill on to the veranda.

As South Sudan’s independence approached two years ago, war was reignited to the north of the new border. A string of failed promises and a disputed state election were the trigger, pitching the SPLA-North rebels against Khartoum. With other rebel groups, they have declared their intention to overthrow the Sudanese regime of President Bashir.

Khartoum’s response has been to unleash an aerial bombardment that human rights groups say might constitute a crime against humanity.

The hospital admissions book is evidence of the civilian cost of the conflict. Over the past two years the hospital has treated more than a thousand wounded, the youngest a nine-month-old girl, the oldest a man of 75.

Among the patients admitted earlier this month were shot civilians and wounded rebel soldiers: a 12-year-old boy left incontinent by a bullet, a teenager recovering from a chest wound, a soldier with a missing right hand and another with his fractured leg in traction.

Across the sandy courtyard, the female ward was little better. Hawatif Dalamia, 38, was peppered with shrapnel as she was caught up in a recent battle. “There was a lot of shooting then government soldiers fired a bomb into the house,” she said. “I was injured and couldn’t move. I thought death would come.”

Instead, rebel troops took Ms Dalamia to the hospital, where she is recovering. But she has no idea what became of her husband and children. “My family is scattered, I am all alone,” she said.

In the children’s ward, Osman and Absus sat together with bandaged legs and crutches. The boys, aged 9 and 11, had been shot during battles. “I don’t know why they shot us, I am just a kid,” Absus said.

The hospital is the only one in a region nearly the size of England. Until the outbreak of war, Tom Catena, 49, an American missionary and the hospital’s medical director since it opened five years ago, was used to dealing with hernias, malaria and malnutrition. “We converted into a M.A.S.H. unit overnight,” he said.

There has been scant let-up since the wounded began to arrive in June 2011. In a village in the shadow of a towering black stone massif, another victim, Bibiana, 9, slumps in a wheelchair. She is paralysed from the waist down. She too was struck by a bomb, dropped from Antonovs, whose fearful drone can be heard every day over the Nuba Mountains.