Sunset view of Khartoum, Sudan
Sunset view of Khartoum, SudaniStock

The historic Jewish cemetery in Khartoum, Sudan has been restored thanks to Canadian Chaim Motzen, who works on renewable energy projects in Africa.

After discovering the dilapidated cemetery in the mid-2000s, Motzen was finally given the opportunity to repair and renovate it after the country’s Islamist regime was overthrown in 2019. Long hours of labouring work by Motzen and a local crew he hired with his own money have paid off. The cemetery has now been transformed from an informal garbage dump back into a monument to the deceased buried there.

Sudan once had a thriving Jewish community. In the early 20th Century, several hundred Mizrahi Jews lived in Khartoum alongside Muslims and Christians. They primarily worked as merchants, business people, doctors and lawyers.

During the 1950s, a wave of anti-Semitism forced the Jewish community to leave. The only evidence of their having lived in Sudan was the cemetery, reported the Telegraph.

With the new government relaxing previously harsh religious laws, and recently normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel, the Khartoum Jewish cemetery has likewise been transformed.

Many of the gravestones were discovered in tiny pieces. Some of the marble stones over the years were looted. And the property had been used as a dumping ground for a very long time.

Motzen was given permission from the new Minister of Religious Affairs Nasr Elder Mofarih to renew the site as a private individual in January 2020.

He and his team removed 14 truckloads of garbage before getting to work on cleaning the remaining gravestones and markers.

“There was about five metric tonnes of glass, car parts, a crazy amount of dirt, medical waste, lots of scorpions, and even beehives,” Motzen said in an interview with the Telegraph.

They eventually discovered 71 graves, many with inscriptions beyond repair. They spend long periods of time sifting through shovelfuls of dirt for tiny headstone fragments. They spent months piecing together Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions.

They then went about contacting the descendent of those buried in the cemetery to let them know they had restored graves of their loved ones.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Daisy Abboudi, the founder of the research project, Tales of Jewish Sudan. “He found fragments of my great grandmother’s gravestone, as well as other graves of family members. There is something about the physicality of graves which is so important to people.”

“When I visited in January 2020, I assumed that physical link to my history was lost to time. There was nothing people could point to and say my ancestors were here. And then suddenly there is. It's very powerful,” she told the Telegraph.