Sudan appeal: how you saved 1500 lives

In 2004 the EDP revealed the existence of a secret and horrific institute in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, where illegitimate babies were taken to die. Former EDP Deputy Editor James Ruddy has just returned from that teeming city with the remarkable story of how our £120,000 reader appeal has helped to end this unspeakable slaughter of the innocents for good.

In 2004 the EDP revealed the existence of a secret and horrific institute in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, where illegitimate babies were taken to die.

Former EDP Deputy Editor James Ruddy has just returned from that teeming city with the remarkable story of how our £120,000 reader appeal has helped to end this unspeakable slaughter of the innocents for good.

The unmistakable smell of death hung in the air when I first entered the forbidding blue iron gates of the Maygoma Institute almost three years ago.

At that time, more than eight out of ten babies who arrived there were dying within a month from disease, neglect and a lack of that essential requirement of the newly born - a mother's love and care.

In twos and threes, their tiny bodies were wrapped in a simple shroud, laid in the back of a pick-up truck and taken by a driver to be placed in shallow graves in a patch of unmarked ground in one of Khartoum's main cemeteries.

Just a few weeks old, without names, without friends or relatives to grieve over them, their presence in this world passed by before it had hardly begun.

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Their only 'crime' had been to have been born outside of wedlock - an apparently essential requirement in an African state which has lived by the code of Islamic fundamentalism for almost a quarter of a century.

Their mother's 'crime' was to have had sex outside of wedlock - punishable by 80 heavy lashes from a specialist police officer and lifetime exile from their shamed family.

As a result, those terrified young women often concealed their pregnancies under their voluminous clothes, giving birth in secret and immediately dumping their babies in rubbish tips, along riverbanks, even in deserted streets of the capital, before returning to the family home and hoping their secret would never be discovered.

The numbers abandoned in this way will never be known. In a city where summertime temperatures reach over 50 degrees Celsius, at least half of such babies are believed to have died quickly and undiscovered.

Others screamed out in agony and were heard by passers-by who contacted the police. Officers, sometimes grudgingly due to their attitude to illegitimacy, would eventually take the babies to Maygoma, a centre previously unknown to most of Khartoum's six million citizens.

There, they faced a battle for survival. The collection of low-rise rooms was ill-equipped and staff were ill-trained to cope with their critical medical problems of dehydration, low birth weight, septicaemia and disease.

They died like flies, sometimes crying out, often quiet and helpless, lying on dusty rugs laid across floors, watched over by staff conditioned to believe their lives were virtually worthless.

How things have changed in three short years.

I have just returned to find forbidding Maygoma's rooms virtually empty. Just 75 babies and toddlers, most with special needs, still remain there and are looked after by nannies who are both caring and skilled.

By the end of this month, they too will have gone - either to emergency foster homes or a newly equipped small centre for the dozen or so who need specially adapted living space for their wheelchairs.

And then Maygoma's gates will be closed for good, having been the entry and exit point to so many thousands of tragically short lives.

It is a remarkable achievement by our partner charity Hope and Homes for Children (HHC), which has used the EDP's donation fund to speed up its closure project.

I travelled back to Khartoum to see the results of that work with the charity's founders, Earsham-born Col Mark Cook and his wife Caroline, who have been amazed by the progress.

“When we first came here, it seemed an enormous challenge to aim to close a place that has been used as a centre for abandoned babies for almost a quarter of a century,” he said.

“We had to stop this awful tragedy - the deaths of so many children who had no stain on them other than illegitimacy, which was no fault of their own.

“We needed to convince the religious and political leaders of our genuine belief that this waste of young lives was wrong and should not be happening.

“To their enormous credit, they worked with us to find a solution and a way forward which has included setting up a major network of emergency and permanent foster families.

“We also have specialist social workers and other staff in place to ensure that foster parents are carefully assessed and that the wellbeing of the babies is monitored regularly.

“I would like to pay tribute, once again, to the generosity of EDP readers for giving us the funds to ensure that more than 1500 babies are alive today and living in their new loving homes - instead of dying miserably in the street or in the hellish surroundings of Maygoma.”

The exact number of babies saved by the project since our appeal was launched in 2004 is 1504. In that period, out of Maygoma's accumulated population of 1938 babies, HHC's local team have managed to find permanent families for 789 and emergency families for 917, as well reunifying 113 with birth mothers.

The charity's social workers have also worked with pregnant single girls and their families and prevented the abandonment of 119 babies. There have also been 434 baby deaths - a distressing figure but greatly reduced from the 83 per cent mortality level of 2003.

That death rate was slashed by the introduction of a new hygiene regime by a team from the French branch of the medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, who left at the end of last year.

The model for closure has not been without its problems, of course, in Africa's largest country which remains deeply scarred by its bitter civil wars.

At the city council level, the project has been supported enthusiastically by some political leaders, despite their overstretched resources. The closure model includes funding being granted to the setting up of reception centres at hospitals in the seven main districts where any further abandoned babies will be taken.

With social workers on hand, as well as medical support, the babies will be treated quickly for any health problems and allocated to a network of already identified emergency foster parents.

Of course, these is already huge need elsewhere in Greater Khartoum, which is peppered with sprawling refugee camps resulting from the 20-year war that ravaged its southern region, claiming 2 million lives, and now by the Darfur conflict.

There are very harsh penalties for lawbreakers, dissenters and those who break the accepted Islamic code that was introduced after the current president, Lt Gen Omar Bashir, swept to power in a military coup in 1989.

Indeed, the penalty faced by the unmarried girls at the centre of the Maygoma tragedy is 80 lashes on the back with a multi-thonged leather whip.

According to sources in Khartoum, there has been an easing of the once-severe beatings that were meted out for unmarried sex, adultery and the consumption of alcohol by Muslims.

“The lashings are done by a police officer who holds a book in his armpit and swings with no more than a bend of the elbow,” one expert told me.

“If the book falls to the ground then the beating is declared invalid and is ended. There are ways of it being avoided as well and, in fact, it has reached the stage where many judges and officers try to work out a way of putting off such a penalty.

“At present, it is left more often than not for the girl herself to be the one who requests the lashing to atone for her sin.”

More worrying for these often teenage girls, however, is the stigmatisation and family exile that results from an illegitimate pregnancy.

Many traditional Muslim fathers in Khartoun believe that such daughters should be cast out for good to avoid the abuse and condemnation of similarly minded neighbours and friends.

Even so a degree of rethinking has flowed from the Maygoma closure project, with leading clerics in Khartoum clarifying the Koranic teachings on the rights of children born outside of marriage.

Co-operating with the police, imams, judges, lawers and health professionals, the HHC team and other officials have now seen the sanctity of human life being emphasised above illegitimacy.

In fact. Sharia law on illegitimacy makes the Khartoum case unusual in Africa, where tradition generally dictates that all new babies are taken into the tribal fold and cared for communally, regardless of parentage.

During a week in Khartoum, we visited many foster homes, both emergency and permanent, and found nothing but support for the families involved, as well as the illegitimate children.

Almost always, as soon as our cars rolled up outside such a home, neighbours and friends, both Muslim and Christian, would arrive to join the celebrations and show support for the fostering family.

A major multimedia publicity campaign is planned shortly to get across the message that fostering brings major benefits - about £120 and a starter pack for emergency parents, for example, - not the least being the arrival of a wonderful new life into a home.

As we arrived at Maygoma this time, it was not to witness the deaths of a few tragic babies. No, instead we saw the mass fostering of 21 babies to emergency foster mothers all at once.

Dressed in their colourful and flowing hooded gowns, the women cuddled and caressed the tiny bundles that were handed to them by the centre's nannies.

In a special tent, a set of twins was about to leave in a minibus with their newly acquired 'mother' beaming from cheek to cheek.

Nearby another mother was chattering non-stop to the two-month-old girl in her arms. An interpreter told me: “She is telling her about the future, promising her all the things that will be done for her and all the things that she will achieve in her life.”

The young woman then bent over, kissed the girl on her forehead and issued another smiling comment.

The interpreter turned to me and he too was smiling: “She says she tastes like honey.”