Kamal Ali Osman sent a text message to his family saying he was being stopped by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the militia group whose checkpoints now throttle the roads of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Minutes later, the text was deleted from his phone. He has not been heard from since.
Osman, 60, had been returning home after delivering some medication to his father in another part of Khartoum. It was only through contact with an RSF source that his family were able to confirm find out that their father was being interrogated. Two weeks on, they have heard nothing more.
“We were shocked and scared. Why did he delete the message? We think he was forced to delete it,” said Osman’s daughter, Israa Ali Osman, 22, who was away in Egypt with other family when the fighting erupted in Sudan on 15 April between the RSF and the national army.
The family are among many who have been posting pictures and contact information on social media over the past month, desperately searching for loved ones who have gone missing in the weeks since the conflict began. Many people disappeared after venturing out of their homes for food or medication.
Osman’s daughter said there was no reason for him to be held – her father has no military involvement.
A relative who went to search for Osman found his car parked in an area where the RSF keep their vehicles. His daughter says he recently had a heart operation and needs daily medicines.
“We are constantly worried about him and his health,” she said. “My younger brothers always ask about him and my mother is worried as she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. We haven’t eaten or slept well for two weeks.”
At least 190 people have gone missing since 15 April, according to the Missing Initiative, a volunteer organisation founded after the RSF attacked a peaceful sit-in demanding civilian rule in 2019, killing at least 120 people, with more going missing. Its work has never stopped, as people have continued to disappear, particularly after a military coup in 2021.
“It has never stopped because violence has never stopped. The city was never safe and the country as a whole was surrounded by forces everywhere, whether RSF or army. On every corner, every day, there is someone to disappear after each and every protest,” said Fadia Khalaf, co-founder of the initiative.
Some are detained or disappeared, and others reportedly killed with their families unable to recover their bodies.
The process starts with a report from families, then the group’s members use their contacts to investigate. It is a long process that can weigh heavily on those involved.
“It’s very draining on everyone – the team, families, relatives. It does make you depressed and eventually you just burn out and feel like you can’t do anything any more. It becomes very heavy – on your heart, on your brain,” Khalaf said.
“It feels heavier than before because it wasn’t on the same scale. This is a war. There is no country, there’s no government, there’s no police. They’re bombing everywhere – hospitals, factories, houses, mosques. You feel lost. I’m not talking only about the missing, the whole situation is really overwhelming.”
Despite the daunting task, the team has continued to work around the clock and are having success – managing to return 25 people to their families so far. “It feels amazing and we’re actually finding people every day as well. It feels really good in the middle of this chaos,” Khalaf said.
Like Osman, Siddig Ismail Mohamed Tahir went missing after being arrested by the RSF in late April. He had left the family home and was answering calls before his phone was turned off.
“My dad would never do that, and that’s when we knew,” said his daughter Sarah Siddig, who lives in Manchester with her sister. “It was the most horrible feeling. I could never explain the confusion, pain and fear we felt. There were a thousand things going through our heads because we knew anything could have happened.”
After five hours of trying to get through on the phone to Khartoum, she posted on social media calling for help. Eventually, information came through about where he was being held. As British citizens, the family contacted the UK Foreign Office.
“I honestly feel like they didn’t understand the urgency of the situation,” she said. But after they contacted the British ambassador to Sudan, Giles Lever, their father was released.
“I met my father in Birmingham airport, that’s where the evacuation plane arrived. We were all standing around the airport waiting for him. Once we saw him, we hugged him so tight while crying our eyes out. My dad was just laughing and telling us that he’s OK – he always does this because he never wants us to be worried about him.
“He had a scar on his leg after being grazed by a bullet during his detention. I remember crying so hard thinking that the bullet could have hit anywhere, but overall I’ve never felt so much relief.”
Since then, Siddig has been trying to help others find missing people, offering support and advice. “The Sudanese community is unmatched. The amount of help we got was overwhelming. People we don’t even know were risking their lives for my dad,” she said.
“It’s the hardest thing anyone can ever go through. I hope I can help as many people as I can. It’s a scary experience and I was lucky enough to have my sister’s help, many people are going through this alone.”