Even before the coup against Sudan’s civilian government in October 2021, led by the army’s commander in chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, and the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, tensions between the two sides were apparent. Things came to a head when the RSF deployed troops near an army base in Merowe in northern Sudan, resulting in regional and neighboring powers intervening to calm matters, but to no avail. The Sudanese woke up on Saturday, April 15, 2023, to reports of clashes between the two rival forces in the center of the capital, Khartoum. Any hopes of defusing tensions were dashed when a full-blown war erupted throughout a number of cities. The battle for control of Khartoum continues to rage some three weeks later, with hundreds of thousands being forced to seek shelter or leave the country.
Saturday, April 15: The day everything changed
9 a.m.: My friend Dahlia messages me and my sister Mai to inform us of reported gun clashes between the RSF and the army at El Souq El Markazi (the central market), but we brush it off — it will die down soon, we said. Twenty minutes later, our neighborhood turns into a scene out of a war movie with blast after blast — it was a cacophony of sound, and it paralyzed us. We had no clue what was happening. We had no idea what to do.
In those 20 minutes, my sister had driven off to run some errands — it was the last days of Ramadan and, with the Eid holiday coming up, everyone was out trying to do some last-minute shopping and other errands before the country shut down for the break. We called her to find out where she was. Thankfully, she’d managed to duck into a hotel and was waiting for calm, but she’d literally been caught in the middle of the crossfire. Her children were with us and they just froze; they’d lost their dad a few years ago, and now their mum was caught up in a war between two power-hungry generals.
The phones started ringing. Everyone in the various neighborhoods and areas of Khartoum was asking what the hell was going on — because no one knew anything. I turned to Twitter and that’s when the sheer scale of what was unfolding on the streets of Khartoum became clear: A war was erupting and we were caught in the middle.
2 p.m.: Our power goes out. We’re fortunate we have a solar battery that kicked in, and we had diesel for the generator for nighttime. So we drew up a schedule: generator on for the night so we could switch on the air conditioning and at least try and get some sleep as the temperature had reached 40 degrees Celsius [104 degrees Fahrenheit], use the battery from 1 p.m. until iftar time, and the mornings we stay without power. Going out to switch on the generator was a hazard because the fighting was happening on our block. Two people would go out, with one being on the lookout for possible snipers or soldiers on rooftops, while the other would run to switch it on.
We found bullet cases in our front yard. The smoke from the artillery strikes was everywhere, and my nephew is asthmatic and his inhaler was close to empty. All this and it was still Ramadan. We’d break our fast standing up — no one wanted to sit down for a meal. We moved the dining table against the windows so it could be a barrier and moved the couches and chairs to the middle room as it was the safest. The blasts and artillery strikes did not let up until it was iftar time, and then they’d resume again: “Boom! Boom! Boom! Rat-a-tat-tat.”
Every time there was a blast, my 2-year-old niece would jump on whoever was next to her and cling to them. My 11-year-old niece stopped eating. My 14-year-old nephew wouldn’t stop pacing. The rest of us just tried to stay calm, but we really weren’t, we just pretended to be.
Sunday, April 16-Tuesday, April 18: Biding our time
From Saturday until Tuesday, we just followed orders, stayed indoors, kept away from windows and glass and waited. Waited for what we didn’t know, but at the same time, even if we wanted to leave, we couldn’t.
I kept reading all these statements about ceasefires and cessations of attacks. Laughable. Let’s get one thing straight: There was no ceasefire. No one was adhering to any ceasefire. Who were these diplomats fooling themselves into thinking either Hemedti or Burhan were going to lay down their weapons and allow peace to prevail? They would take the calls asking for calm, hang up, and another round of continuous artillery bombardment and I don’t know what would start. Incessantly.
I was getting media requests, so I was checking my inbox and Twitter feed and found an email promo for spring breaks in Zanzibar. The universe has a funny sense of humor at times. But then a huge blast shook the house and I was reminded of the fact our capital city’s airport was out of service, Khartoum and its inhabitants were under siege, and we still had no electricity since it went out on Saturday.
I’d try to get some sleep. We all would. But every 20 minutes or so, we’d get woken up by the noise and the windows rattling like they were about to fall off.
One so-called ceasefire lasted exactly three minutes after 6 p.m. (iftar time) and the blasts went off. Hello ceasefire, indeed.
By April 18, the army started using fighter jets to target the RSF, but the latter were embedded in residential neighborhoods. Our area, Amarat, is very close to the airport and the military’s General Command. It’s residential, but it’s also one of the neighborhoods with a large number of embassies, international NGOs and expats. So it’s a prime location for the RSF to take over. The RSF were holed up in a house behind ours, one we shared the same boundary wall with. So the blasts became louder and closer. It felt like they were fighting right over our heads.
Wednesday, April 19: We’re not safe in our own homes
When that missile hit our house on Wednesday and I could hear the rubble crumbling from the walls in the room above mine that was hit, I knew we had to leave. The missile didn’t explode, making it, literally, a ticking bomb.
My father left Sudan soon after Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989. The rest of us followed in 1991. I didn’t want to do that again. But what choice did we have? Did anyone? Those who could were being forced to evacuate. Diplomacy was failing. Ceasefires were failing. We were all lame ducks at the mercy of these two generals who are hell-bent on emerging the victor, whatever the cost.
Thinking of ways of leaving brought home the fact that those in Darfur, South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains faced this bombardment for decades, not just days. We allowed this to happen to us. We kept quiet for over 30 years, and our silence has come back to haunt us.
There were three huge blasts one after the other in quick succession. The whole house heaved and shook. The kids were beginning to lose it. My niece was begging me to please get us out.
We waited for a lull in the fighting to try and get to a cousin’s house on the outskirts of Khartoum. We got outside and found the cars had been vandalized, the petrol siphoned off, rendering the cars nothing more than metal. They didn’t steal the tires, which was nice of them. Another blast; the missile missed our house by a whisker and hit the hospital behind us. We went back into our house.
Thursday, April 20: Getting out
We’d been taking “sleep shifts” so that there was always someone awake when the clashes started again at night, to wake up the others and move them into the “safe area.” Someone would sleep on an armchair, another on a sofa, another on the floor. Every single night, my sister-in-law made a mattress using sofa cushions, leaned against a wall and slept upright with her daughter in her arms.
We were meant to travel today. All of us. But, instead, we’re trying to find a way to leave our house and seek safe passage, to escape the army and paramilitary force who are firing weapons indiscriminately with no thought to our well-being.
I had packed my emergency bag — the first time I had ever done something like this. What does anyone pack? Everything becomes essential. It seems trivial but I cried while “packing.” Just the day before this nightmare started, we were discussing our upcoming holiday and what we wanted to do and see. Yet here I was, packing to leave my home, not knowing when I’ll next return to it. Passports, cell phone chargers, valuables, cash, meds all went in along with a few clothes. I tried to joke with my friends on WhatsApp. When strangers whom you gave 10 minutes of your time to answer their questions keep checking in with you and even offer you a place to stay if you manage to evacuate, you know the shit has hit the fan.
I forced my mother to break her fast because the missile hit knocked her out, figuratively speaking. The kids were in a state of their own: acting out, refusing to eat, jumping at every little sound and just begging us please let’s just go.
Leaving my house, my home, the place my siblings and I grew up in is killing me. This is the house my father returned to after 20 years in exile and died in; the same house where he married off my siblings; where we hosted iftars, lunches and dinners for so many friends, family and loved ones.
Before, the location of our house was lauded for being close to the airport, so if anything happened the getaway would be quick. But now the house was at the heart of the clashes.
People were leaving Amarat and no one was coming back in. But sometimes miracles do happen. Two family members called my brother: “We’re coming to get you guys out tomorrow morning. Be ready,” they said. “No argument, no discussion.”
To say this was a huge personal risk is an understatement. They enlisted the help of two neighborhood resistance group members who could “talk” to soldiers if necessary. It took them an hour to get to us, when usually it’s no more than a 20-minute ride.
Until we got the call that the minivan was outside, I honestly thought that we wouldn’t make it. The fighting had gotten more intense, the shooting was directly on our block. I had to leave my cat, Thawra, behind. I couldn’t take her with me. I wasn’t allowed to take her with me. I bawled my eyes out. I betrayed her. I deserted her. I hope God forgives me for what I did because I can’t. I still haven’t forgiven myself for doing that. But I had no choice. I was in pieces then, and I’m still in pieces now when I look at pictures of her or remember her, which is every 10 minutes.
I have no recollection of the ride to the safe house. All I know is that they took every single back road and side street to get out of Amarat. Khartoum was a ghost town. That’s the only image I remember of the ride. Earlier my friend Tobias, who’d managed to leave the area, called me and told me to cover the kids’ eyes when we got moving. “Dallia, the streets are full of dead bodies, don’t let the kids see that,” he said. He himself ran into an RSF checkpoint and had a knife pulled on him. The two relatives who saved us then told us there were bodies on our street. On another side street there were also bodies. The bodies were piled up. People kept mentioning the stench of decomposing bodies.
Six hours later, we reached our cousin’s house on the outskirts of Khartoum. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t cry.
Our city Khartoum wasn’t without fault. But it had its charms, its people, its vibe. It’s now become a frightening place with everyone huddled in their houses, not knowing what’s going to happen next.
Friday, April 21: No rest
I’m hoping I’ll be able to sleep tonight because, for the past six days, that luxury disappeared. But I’m too wired up, I keep checking my Twitter feed and Facebook to see what’s happening, and there’s been no let up. Eid or no Eid.
It’s not safe to leave and it’s not safe to stay.
Those who are able to leave run the risk of meeting RSF convoys, checkpoints.
Those who can’t leave run the risk of being hit by stray bullets, their homes in the crossfire.
Saturday, April 22: Some are lucky, many aren’t
To leave or to stay.
There is no right or wrong decision when it comes to choosing whether to leave your home.
Families have been separated, and everyone wants — and is trying to do — what is best for them.
The sheer number of people who are in desperate need of help and assistance is bigger than anyone can comprehend, but no one knows how to get to them. There are those who earn a daily income which has now dried up. There are those who haven’t gotten their salaries and can’t access their bank accounts or even the ATMs. People need food. Water and electricity have been out throughout the city for several days. There are many who need lifesaving meds and urgent surgery. The humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding and no help is coming in.
Everyone is working on getting their nationals out, but we’re being left behind to find our own way out or stay put and be at the mercy of these two men.
To the negotiators and mediators: You put us in this mess and now you’re swooping in to take your kinsfolk (the ones that matter) and leaving us behind to these two brutes.
I decided to log off and spend time with my family because I didn’t know when we’d next all be together again.
Sunday, April 23: When you have no option but to leave
Mobile connectivity and the internet are patchy at best or completely out. The two buses that were supposed to come evacuate us to Port Sudan never showed up. Back to the drawing board of trying to call everyone and anyone who can help to get us out of Khartoum to Port Sudan. By now, we were 29 family members, so we went by priority: elderly, mothers and young kids on the first available bus; families with slightly older children next; and the more mobile, with less responsibility for other people would go last. I was in the third group, along with my brother and cousin, whose house we were staying at.
By some miracle, which I still don’t quite know how it happened, all 29 of us ended up on the same bus to Port Sudan. I had said goodbye to my mother, sister and sister-in-law, telling them I’d see them in Port Sudan, to not worry and that we’d be fine, all of us would be fine. The reason for our panic? The ceasefire was being observed while the evacuation of foreign nationals was happening, so we knew this was the best chance for all of us to get out. Neither the RSF nor the army would risk upsetting the likes of the U.S. or Saudi Arabia.
We spent 26 hours on the road to get to Port Sudan. We traveled through Madani, El Fao, Gadarif, Kassala and finally reached the capital of the eastern region. The roads were not lit, I wouldn’t even call them highways, just something paved that allowed for a somewhat safe journey. Our driver Mohanned was a godsend. Dressed in his white jalabiya, sunglasses and his music blasting, he regaled the young ones with information about every place we passed through. He knew the roads like the back of his hand. He did say he had a penchant for the “Fast and the Furious” films, which in hindsight wasn’t the best choice, but no one was going to disrupt his vibe and mood.
When we hit the outskirts of Port Sudan, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. We were safe. And that’s a feeling none of us will ever take for granted again. We were safe, but so many others still weren’t. Throughout the journey, we kept getting updates on other family, friends and acquaintances who’d opted for other routes, those making their way to the Egyptian border, to other Sudanese towns and cities, those evacuated by their governments (if they were lucky) and even one who left via the Chadian border.
Port Sudan was home for the time being. It’s my mother’s hometown, so at least we still have familial ties.
I miss my house. I miss the welcoming space it provided and we had provided. My friend Asmaa Shalabi reminded me to take down all the art I’d bought over the years, wrap it and store it away. I did. Art by Sudanese who told stories with their paint brushes — these pieces, their vibrancy, the colors, the people, are an ode to our culture and our country. I hope I can return home and find them all intact. Emergency packing doesn’t allow for art. It goes against the nature of fleeing for your life.
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