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The conflict in Sudan leaves hundreds dead, including babies at an orphanage

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hundreds of people have been killed and millions more displaced in the nearly seven weeks since two rival generals began fighting for power in Sudan. And the invisible victims of this war are Sudan's orphans. At least 50 children, half of them infants, have died at the Mayqoma Orphanage in central Khartoum, an area of some of the most intense fighting. I spoke with Reuters investigative journalist Maggie Michael, who documented what's happening to Sudan's most vulnerable.

What is killing these kids at the orphanage?

MAGGIE MICHAEL: No. 1, lack of carers. So they don't have anyone to feed them. They needed to have a bottle of milk every three hours. They're just babies. The milk could be there, but no one to actually carry them and feed them. The No. 2 is heat. The last wave was really, really hard. We have 13 in one day, 10 in a second day, 14 in another day. And it's because of heat.

FADEL: Who died?

MICHAEL: The babies. These waves are, like, the latest ones. And the most recent ones are because there is no power for the air conditioners and the fans. And they're staying in rooms that are extremely hot.

FADEL: Now, how many caretakers typically are at this orphanage outside of conflict zone time and how many kids?

MICHAEL: Before war, they used to have around 80 mothers - they call them mothers or sometimes nannies - 80 of them for around 400. So this number dropped to two or three in the first weeks of the fighting. And then because of the appeals online, they managed to bring in volunteers. And the number reached around 40. And then it keeps going up and down. And this is very, very problematic. It's not stable situation.

FADEL: So there are moments where two or three people are caring for 400 children, including babies.

MICHAEL: Yes, exactly.

FADEL: So there's a lack of caretakers. But also, many of Sudan's hospitals are in these conflict areas unable to function because of staff shortages, looting, lack of supplies. How is the orphanage getting medical help for these kids?

MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly. This is the problem, also - that large number and the strong majority of hospitals in Khartoum are out of service. And even the babies of Mayqoma who are being treated in the hospitals will send back to Mayqoma without being treated. And many of them died. Some were in incubators. And Mayqoma doesn't really have enough for them. So medical supplies are also problematic but not a challenge as getting the people to Mayqoma and securing the steady power supply because this is extremely important.

FADEL: Now, you spoke to the general manager at Sudan's largest maternity hospital, as well, who described having to leave babies behind. Can you tell me about that?

MICHAEL: This is Dr. Ahmed (ph). He runs the largest Dayat Hospital, and he told me the militiamen occupied the building. Also, power supplies were cut. They had to leave and evacuate. And because they don't have ambulances that are really equipped, they had to leave patients behind, including nine babies in incubators, and patients in ICU. So this is really a terrible situation in Khartoum.

FADEL: I'm thinking of the symbolism here. Like, what is more vulnerable than an orphaned baby who's on a ventilator, who's in an incubator, who can't get out of a conflict zone? When you were interviewing these caretakers, doctors, what are they asking for in this moment? What do they need in this moment so that they can get the most vulnerable parts of the country to safety?

MICHAEL: They need international humanitarian organizations to support, fund and negotiate passage, find alternative outside of this war zone. This is their top demand and have been trying. But it seems it's very, very hard to negotiate even between the fighters and the two factions fighting in Khartoum. So this is their biggest demand - is to just get out of here.

FADEL: That was Reuters investigative journalist Maggie Michael, who's documented what is happening to Sudan's orphaned babies in the capital. Thank you so much for your time.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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