Khartoum massacre a year on: ‘If I told them I was a doctor I wouldn’t be talking now’

Irish-based doctor recalls the day Sudanese military opened fire on demonstrators

As a doctor moments after a massacre in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, Rania Ahmed was in both the right and wrong place.

“I would be in trouble [if I was caught]. I was planning to say anything other than I am a doctor,” she says a year after the events of June 3rd, 2019 when the Sudanese military opened fire on demonstrators attempting to usher in democracy after years of dictatorship.

“We know that they didn’t want people to be helped. I know if I told them I was a doctor I wouldn’t be talking now.”

Rania Ahmed's normal life is as a Dublin-based anaesthesiologist where she lives with her partner and 13-year-old son. She is one of a number of Sudanese medics working in Ireland whose actions on the day of the slaughter in their home country are the focus of a short film The Martyrs of Khartoum being launched on its anniversary this week.

Demonstrations against the rule of former dictator Omar al-Bashir had begun in December 2018 but the sit-in outside the military’s headquarters continued even after his arrest and deposition in April. They wanted a civilian led government and an end to violent militias. For some time the authorities seemed to tolerate them and then everything changed with a bloody strike of the armed forces that left at least 128 people dead.

A day beforehand, Dr Ahmed had returned home to visit her family for the Muslim festival of Eid. She had been involved in some awareness-raising activity in Dublin during the protest movement but when she arrived home, she says, she got a sense of a changed culture even at the airport.

“There was no freedom at all. You couldn’t even express your thoughts or your ideas about the government,” she says of her childhood home.

Call for doctors

In the early hours of the morning on June 3rd 2019, she remembers her two brothers waking her up to tell her about the unfolding events at the site of the protest. There was a call out for doctors and she knew she had to get to the Royal Care Hospital in the city to help the wounded.

“It wasn’t safe. It was crazy to go anywhere actually out of your house,” she remembers of their journey. At one point on their way through streets filled with fire barricades they came to a bridge where they saw a truck full of militiamen. They were not stopped.

“It was frightening. We were sure that they were going to stop us or kill us at some point. I thought, we aren’t going to make it to the hospital,” she says.

“All I can remember is that you could hear the gunshots behind you. People were running in all different directions.”

She still recalls one young man sitting down imploring people to stay and face the soldiers. “That was obviously not realistic. I am sure he is most likely dead now.”

Dr Ahmed eventually made it the final two kilometres on foot. Inside the hospital she saw numerous victims of the violence, almost exclusively people aged in their twenties. She was assigned to theatre and set about a day of non-stop surgeries, treating at that stage only the most serious cases.

Eventually it was time to go home and that brought its own challenges. “It was as scary as coming [in], or more actually,” she says. “Because we knew at that time when I was in theatre there were rumours...they were saying that they had closed all the roads, you couldn’t get out of here, you couldn’t cross the bridge.

“I thought I would never be able to go home. But actually the area around the hospital had settled a bit for some reason.” Her two brothers collected her and after a cautious, slow journey through various side roads and around roadblocks, they got home without encountering trouble.

Irish hospitals

Ireland has long had ties with the Sudanese medical community. According to David Weakliam, Global Health Programme Director at the HSE, many come to Ireland to do post graduate training and remain on in Irish hospitals. Between 2000 and 2015, he says, the number grew from 64 to 679. Today, many are on the Covid front line.

Documentary producer Simon Murtagh had been working in the area of human rights policy in the Oireachtas. As part of that work he came into contact with members of the Sudanese community trying to raise awareness for the demonstrations at home.

“I knew that these Sudanese doctors living in Ireland had extraordinary stories to tell, extraordinary testimonies,” he says.

“I wanted to record these testimonies as human rights statements of great value. But then I thought, rather than just write these testimonies down, I should film them and give them the dignity - and the production value - that they deserve.”

A preview screening of the short film, directed by Mark Murphy, was hosted online by the Irish Global Health Network on Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of the massacre.

Many of the Sudanese community in Ireland, including Dr Ahmed, find it difficult to look back. Today, she says, there is less optimism about the country’s future despite ongoing efforts.

"I feel that people did well getting rid of that dictatorship and al-Bashir," she says. "And they were full of optimism about a new Sudan. We were so proud...but the 3rd of June ruined everything. You can't look at the revolution without seeing that day.

“The sit-in area was the new Sudan that we dreamt of.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times