A Foreign Journalist Escapes the War in Sudan

The abrupt escalation of conflict in Khartoum forced hundreds of thousands of Sudanese, as well as this reporter, to seek safety through dangerous but necessary journeys out

A Foreign Journalist Escapes the War in Sudan
Smoke billows behind buildings in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 4, 2023, amid fighting between warring generals. (AFP via Getty Images)

[Editor’s note: In the interest of the safety and security of the writer and his sources, all identifying details in the below have been changed. The writer, who is using a pseudonym, is an Arab journalist whose work has been published in English and Arabic over the past two decades.]

The plan, like all plans, erred on the side of optimism. I would arrive in Sudan, do work in Khartoum, see a friend in the country’s west and then return to the capital where I would fly out of the country. The whole trip would take 10 days, I calculated. Yes, the country had been writhing with instability for years, decades even, most recently thanks to the removal of its longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 after months of mass protests and then the military coup against the interim civilian government in October 2021. Throughout, however, hostilities were circumscribed or took place far away from the capital. Often, there was no risk for foreigners. Even the latest convulsion of violence — the “army headquarters massacre” in June 2019, which left dozens of protesters dead — hardly disrupted life in Khartoum or the rest of Sudan, save for a temporary blackout on internet and phone calls. Whenever hesitancy crept into my plans for the Sudan trip, my mind drifted to a convenient response, a rhetorical question half-remembered from the Pixar movie “The Incredibles”: “What is the worst that could happen?”

On April 15, 2023, nine days after I arrived in Sudan, the country plunged into its worst political crisis since independence. Intense and widespread fighting abruptly broke out between two organs of Sudan’s military, each under an ambitious and paranoid man with a history of indifference to bloodletting, each with regional backers equally nonchalant about the lives of civilians.

On the morning of that Saturday in mid-April, I was on the bus from the town of al-Fashir, in the country’s west, heading back to Khartoum. Accompanying me was Jamal, my Sudanese friend and host. Initial reports of hostilities in the capital between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, a rehabilitated militia group, were not wholly surprising. Minor skirmishes between the two parties over the previous days and publicly broadcast discord between their leaders had made conflict seem possible. Still, the ferocity and scale of the fighting, which involved air strikes and shelling within the first hour of the clashes, sent me and fellow passengers on a scramble to find precedents for the level of violence, especially in Khartoum. When in fear, we search for parallels to make that which is frightening more familiar and thus less overwhelming. It is as if finding an imprint of an analogous, previous terror reassures us that the new terror too shall pass, that we will survive it. When our search for parallels ends in vain, though, the fear is compounded.

This is what we felt — the other passengers and I — as the bus made a U-turn, returning to its point of departure because of “security concerns” in Khartoum.

Like millions of Sudanese, I was suddenly trapped. The sense of entrapment, as well as fear for life, were worst in Khartoum, but neither was limited to the city. Days before I traveled to see my friend Jamal in the country’s west I had handed my passport in for renewal at my embassy in Khartoum. The embassy had to shut down operations once the fighting started. Being without my passport added a layer of risk to my movement inside Sudan, as the fighting raged between the two factions of the country’s military.

Only hazardous options were on offer. I could stay put and wait out the fighting in Khartoum but would face risk to my life if the security forces decided to use the chaos to retaliate against Jamal, who was a local leader during Sudan’s revolution in 2018 and 2019. Or I could try to exit the country through one of the safer border crossings. But that was dangerous as well, for it entailed a perilous journey of over 600 miles across Sudan, with multiple stops, all during a bout of conflict with no precedent in the country’s troubled recent history. Further complicating things, having no passport meant I would be at the mercy of suspicious or trigger-happy soldiers at the many checkpoints I was to cross.

Like hundreds of thousands of Sudanese, I decided to take the perilous journey.

Prior to my Sudan trip, I thought of danger as binary. Either it accompanied a plan, which I then ought to abandon, or it was apparently absent from a plan, rendering that a viable option. Sudan introduced me to a new conception of danger, one that untold numbers of humans alive and dead alike understand and understood all too well. It is the danger that you acknowledge and appreciate but do not allow to overwhelm your reasoning or deter you from embarking on necessary journeys.

I arrived in Sudan on April 6. The day carries historical significance in the country, for it marks the anniversary of the ousting of one military dictator and the beginning of the end for another: Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985 and Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Because of the date’s storied history, April 6 this year was designated for the announcement of Phase 2 of the “framework agreement” that would ostensibly see the military hand over power to a civilian government, putting Sudan’s democratic transition back on track, after the chief of the army removed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in October 2021.

The sticking point in negotiations over the framework agreement concerned the terms of the integration of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the army.

When she learned of my travel plans, Nadia, a friend and Khartoum-based researcher, cautioned that there might be protests. Only if the army granted concessions to the RSF could the agreement happen, and such concessions would surely anger the pro-revolution public, she said. I shared Nadia’s concerns with another friend, Hanna, a Cairo-based newswire reporter who had worked in Sudan. Hanna thought that, given the mixed signals coming from the army chief and the RSF chief, the odds were that the agreement would not go through on April 6 and would again be postponed. So I went ahead with the travel plan and coordinated with Adham, a Tunisian-American friend and Ethiopia researcher who is based in Amman, agreeing that we would meet in Khartoum toward the end of my stay there.

As soon as the fighting started in Khartoum on April 15, the capital became instantly off limits. Less than a week later, most countries were evacuating their nationals from the country. The pace and toll of the fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF startled nearly everyone. Even in Sudan, a country that endured decades of civil war, no previous confrontation stunned and shuttered Khartoum so quickly and completely.

On the bus back to al-Fashir, Jamal told me that governments in Khartoum, often under military leaders and occasionally under civilian ones, recklessly created monsters to crush insurrections on the country’s periphery. Life in Khartoum could go on virtually uninterrupted while elsewhere in the country it could be hell, he said. That tidy arrangement exploded on April 15.

Nearly all countries started evacuating their nationals in earnest around April 21. They used sea and air exit points in the east — in Port Sudan. It seemed riskier to journey across the country’s east-west expanse than to simply shelter in place and wait out the crisis. Hanna, my friend in Cairo, concurred.

Jamal was increasingly nervous about my safety. The country’s west was the RSF’s traditional stronghold as well as its birthplace. Around April 22, we heard reports that the RSF was searching buses at Khartoum checkpoints for passengers from my country, apparently because my government appeared more sympathetic to the SAF. That meant I could not head to the nearest border, with Chad, about 260 miles away, where I expected a heavier RSF presence.

My host worried that, after the evacuations of foreign nationals, law and order might break down in unforeseeable ways. He fretted over what might happen to me if the security services targeted him for revenge for his role in organizing protests during the revolution.

My friend Adham, who witnessed firsthand the outbreak of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray province in November 2020, was pressing me to exit the country immediately, arguing that the risks of staying far outweighed those of traveling to the borders of a neighboring country. Implementing Adham’s admonition entailed daunting logistical questions: What was the safest way to cross from the country’s west to one of Sudan’s borders with a neighboring country? How safe, or prudent, was it to travel those hundreds of miles with only a passport photocopy? And would I even be able to cross into a neighboring country at all without a passport?

Mohammed al-Dawu is one of Jamal’s closest friends. They first met in the early 2000s, as idealistic communist undergraduates at the University of Khartoum. Jamal studied economics and business administration. Al-Dawu (as everyone calls him), who descends from a family of merchants originally from Wadi Halfa by the Egyptian border, studied engineering. But instead of becoming an engineer, he opted for a career in business, opening a shop in the country’s west for imported electronics. His wife and three boys live in Khartoum, where the schools are better. He lives in a rented apartment when he is not staying at Jamal’s house. Most evenings, al-Dawu took the third bed in the guest room (Jamal and I took the other two). He is a devoted soccer fan with an easy smile and a mostly gray beard that makes him look older than he actually is: 44, one year older than me. Prior to April 15, we spent many evenings chatting, bemusedly, about our parallel life trajectories.

When the fighting in Khartoum started, al-Dawu believed that the safest option for his family was to shelter in place. They lived at a relatively safe distance from the explosive hotspots near the army headquarters and the presidential palace. He sent them money via Bankak, a payments app available on phones. They used it to buy the supplies they needed but only when a long-enough calm fell on their neighborhood.

About 10 days into the crisis, al-Dawu was talking less and looking constantly weary and preoccupied. One evening, he came to the guest room and delivered a two-word greeting before going straight to bed. I caught him in the morning before he headed to the shop and asked if he was ill. No, he said. Later on, Jamal told me that he was worried sick about his family in Khartoum. The fighting had arrived in their neighborhood. Big explosions and strikes from aircraft shook their apartment walls.

Reports of looting shut shops down for good. Then, reports of RSF soldiers breaking into houses in upscale neighborhoods caused further terror among the residents of Khartoum and their families. Bankak was no longer reliable, disrupted by damage to its servers, spotty internet, overwhelmed servers or all of these combined. Al-Dawu’s fears were made graver by speculation that, once evacuations of foreign nationals were complete, the rivals would wage an all-out war with even less concern for the lives of civilians. Long and frequent internet and mobile network outages served as an ominous harbinger of that scenario, especially since they recalled similar problems during the “massacre” of June 2019.

As intense fighting reached his family’s neighborhood and the specter of a communications blackout loomed, al-Dawu was now racing against time to get his wife and boys out of Khartoum. Having already been a war zone for over a week, the Sudanese capital was, improbably, becoming even more dangerous by April 23. Fares for rides out of the capital spiked. Al-Dawu told me that a ride from Khartoum to Halfa al-Jadeedah in the country’s southeast (a distance of about 235 miles) cost 400,000 Sudanese pounds (about $665). But the availability of funds was not the problem; the problem was how to transfer them to his family, given Bankak’s troubles.

I too felt that exit routes were closing down fast. I had forgone the embassy-arranged evacuations, judging that traveling across the country to evacuation spots in the east was riskier than staying put. By April 23, even evacuations were no longer guaranteed. That, along with internet and cellular outages, shifted my and Jamal’s thinking. Like al-Dawu, I feared that both sides were gearing up for a dramatic escalation.

Hanna was also having second thoughts about the safety of sheltering in place. She had heard the reports of RSF troops asking about nationals from my country at Khartoum checkpoints they controlled, and mistreating or detaining the hapless passengers. On April 23, Adham, who had been in favor of exiting the country quickly from the start, called Hanna to discuss the evolving situation. Hanna then called me to say it was now her and Adham’s joint view that I needed to get moving as soon as I could.

Jamal, too, was concerned but not about the RSF searching houses for my compatriots. Two other scenarios caused him more distress. One was the possibility of unpredictable and prolonged breakdowns in law and order should an all-out war between the SAF and the RSF engulf the country. Sixty-five years of nearly unbroken military rule had created, and suppressed, complex grievances — ethnic, geographical, political. Any of these could reemerge and touch off violence in unforeseeable ways, hampering my ability to get out of the country.

The other troubling scenario concerned Jamal’s participation in the revolution. He believed that anyone who had assumed a visible role during the revolution was safe only when a politically engaged public could deter excesses by the security forces. The SAF-RSF fighting, which left most Sudanese housebound and demoralized, could tempt police officers to settle scores with individuals who had previously humbled them.

Jamal had reason to believe he would be among the targets. In April 2019, he was arrested and detained at the local state security headquarters. In Sudan, as elsewhere in the Arab world, “state security” is a euphemism for regime security. Following rumors (later confirmed) that al-Bashir was overthrown, hundreds or more marched to the state security building, surrounded it, and forced Jamal’s release. The building’s chief officer initially asked Jamal to step outside to talk to the angry crowd and dissuade them from violence. The minute Jamal emerged at the door, the crowd snatched him to safety, even before the formal procedure for his release was completed.

All of this weighed on Jamal’s mind and added to the urgency of my getting on the move.

To translate the decision into a plan, two logistical conundrums needed solving. One was my passport, or lack thereof. The other was deciding which neighboring country I could cross into.

A couple of days before my country’s embassy was to stage its evacuations, a staffer called me about my passport. Given the extraordinary circumstances and the fact I was hundreds of miles from Khartoum, the embassy could hand the passport to a person I designated. Otherwise, for security reasons, they would shred it. They would shred all the passports they held for renewal unless the owners reclaimed them. I learned that Nadia, a friend based in Khartoum, was going to be on one of the embassy’s evacuation trips to Djibouti. I asked the embassy staffer to hand her my passport when he met her in Port Sudan.

The passport was valid until mid-May. But there was no conceivable way to bring it into Sudan. The only direction of traffic was out of the country.

In lengthy WhatsApp voice messages, Adham, Hanna, Jamal and I debated the merits of me taking my chances at one of Sudan’s borders with just photocopies of my passport. It could work, considering the extraordinary situation in the country, but nothing was guaranteed, Adham said. At the same time, neighboring countries might get overwhelmed by the influx of Sudanese and foreign nationals. Hanna said they wouldn’t be unreasonable to require proper travel documents before letting people cross into their territories. Without a passport, I risked, at the least, being stranded at the border for days.

Adham proposed an imaginative plan. It centered on the fact that he had a valid residence in Ethiopia and could speak Amharic and other Ethiopian languages. He would fly from Amman to Djibouti to pick up the passport from Nadia. From there, he would travel to Addis Ababa, take another flight to Gonder (about 400 miles to the north), then a bus ride west to the Ethiopian-Sudanese border in Metema (120 miles away). We would coordinate so that I would arrive at the Sudanese side of the border at the same time. Using his command of Amharic and citing the volatile situation in Sudan, Adham would try to persuade the border guards to allow him to hand me the passport on the other side. If that failed, he might try other modes of persuasion. Once I had the passport again, I would proceed to get the exit stamp from Sudan and apply for an Ethiopian visa at the border.

The plan sounded promising but daunting. It required onerous travel on Adham’s part. In addition, the road between Gonder and Metema was not entirely safe, thanks to episodic clashes between Ethiopian government forces and militant nationalists of the Amhara Region. And then there was the risk that Adham’s plan did not address: that entailed by my crossing the country from the far west to the southeast, during a time of internal conflict, with only a photocopy of a passport.

Since it was Adham who proposed the plan, I accepted that he was clear-eyed about the arduous journey he was to take. As for the risk of journeying across Sudan, there was no way to avoid it, I thought.

This notion — making peace with unavoidable danger — proved consolatory.

There were two ways I could make sense of my situation. Perhaps arriving in Sudan when I did was an instance of spectacularly bad luck. But taking that attitude would have provided no useful information. It would only have increased my anxiety, clouding my judgment.

Alternatively, I could think of the millions of Sudanese who were likewise blindsided by events, of the many who had to go on perilous journeys to protect their families and themselves. I thought of al-Dawu’s wife and three boys (the eldest of whom is 9 years old), who would soon set off on a journey riskier than mine, from the heart of Khartoum to Halfa al-Jadeedah. I did not deserve better (or worse) treatment from the universe because of the random fact that I was not born in Sudan.

When in danger — to their lives, the lives and well-being of loved ones, to their liberty — people get moving. This is what humans have always done; it is what they will always do. They do not take the presence of risk as a reason to shelve necessary journeys. We understand danger in shades, not as a binary category. We gauge danger, make our best bets and start moving, even if those bets appear like running in the direction of a threat.

I believe I understood all of this intellectually. But understanding is only one layer of cognizance. Interactions with Adham over the course of many, many conversations preceding my Sudan trip, and then the whole Sudan journey, helped the affective counterpoint to that understanding to take shape, to resonate. You do what you have to do, and you don’t allow the presence of danger to scare you off nor to stunt your thinking. This I saw in my encounters in Sudan, and learned from Adham’s stories.

I asked Adham how soon he could travel to Djibouti. I then set a date for the start of my journey: April 25.

To be as remote from Khartoum as possible throughout the journey, Jamal and I plotted an itinerary that would try the joints of middle-aged men.

On April 24, the day before the journey would start, cellular networks did not work. Neither calls nor access to the internet were possible. I tried to bring to the fore of my mind, anew, my reflections on the nature of danger and necessary journeys. But I was anxious. Late in the evening, as I was preparing my backpack, around 11 p.m., I heard the WhatsApp chime. No phone notification was ever sweeter, for it meant that the internet was back. An internet blackout was not in effect, at least not yet. A huge sigh of relief!

As Jamal and I were getting ready to head out to the bus a few hours later, I could hear that the TV was on in the main living room: updates about the Sudan crisis on the Al Jazeera channel. “Someone is up early,” I said to Jamal. “It is my mother and nephew; they barely slept,” he said. Minutes later, both came to say goodbye. “God willing, your journey will be safe and you will reunite soon with your daughter,” Jamal’s mother told me as we shook hands.

The journey unfolded largely as planned. Adjustments included Jamal and me taking the aisle floor when no seats were available on buses. My wish to read from a Kindle during the long journey was, of course, fanciful. To my surprise, a mere passport photocopy seemed to suffice at checkpoints. Not once was I asked to show the original.

We arrived in Gallabat, at the border with Ethiopia, on April 27. Jamal’s brother, Mohammed, had kindly offered to join us on the last leg of the trip. As Mohammed and I were dusting off our clothes, Jamal bought three bottles of water so we could wash our faces. The road from al-Qadarif to Gallabat was merciless — bumpy, patchy and twisty — and made more so by the driver’s unwavering commitment to speed. We walked to a juice place that Mohammed had stopped at in the past and tried to contact Adham. Several attempts went in vain, so we decided to enjoy the fresh mango juice and be patient.

We learned other stories as we waited at the juice stall. One was that of Ameen, a Syrian man in his early 30s with an easy air to him who had fled civil war at home and sought refuge in Sudan. He commented on the ferociously quick escalation that had occurred in Khartoum, saying it outpaced what had happened even in Syria. What had taken place in mere days in Sudan — a closed airspace, evacuations of foreign nationals and paralysis in the capital — had taken a year in Syria. Ameen’s route to the border sounded all too familiar to me. He had lived and studied in Kassala for years. He had handed in his passport at the Syrian Embassy in Khartoum to be renewed shortly before the chaos started. The embassy staffers then evacuated and now all he had was a photocopy.

“So what is the plan?” I asked him. He was trying — with no success up to that point — to get a temporary passport issued by the Syrian Embassy in Addis Ababa. But even if that worked, the Ethiopian authorities required a visa to another country on his passport before they would grant him an Ethiopian one. His wife, a national of Argentina working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, was trying to get him a visa to Argentina.

Regional politics also complicated matters. Ameen told us he met an Egyptian heading back into Sudan after being denied an Ethiopian visa, apparently because of the tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. “We don’t give visas to Egyptians,” the immigration officers told him, according to Ameen. There were also reports that at least some Ethiopians were denied visas at the Sudanese-Egyptian border. (Later, on the way out of Metema, I met an Egyptian who did get a visa into Ethiopia, but only after the immigration officers ascertained that he had been persecuted by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government for years.)

Hanna finally texted me to say Adham had been trying to reach me, adding, “He is waiting for you by the IOM office on the other side of the bridge.”

The Gallabat-Metema border between Sudan and Ethiopia is a bridge about 50 meters long over a grassy rivulet. I expected long lines and testy officers at the immigration office on the Sudanese side, but there was none of that. Officers were relaxed and glad to answer questions, and there was no one in line. Getting Sudan’s exit stamp took minutes.

Mohammed and I shook hands and hugged goodbye. Jamal said he wanted to greet Adham. He and I walked along the bridge to where Adham was standing, tall and thin, in front of the International Organization for Immigration, as Hanna told me. I had first been introduced to Jamal through a friend of Adham’s, a reporter who wrote about Sudan. Jamal and Adham had been in conversation for three weeks, by phone and through me, but this was the first time they had met. “You lost weight,” Adham told me. “You too,” I replied.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” I asked Jamal half-jokingly.

“I will see you again once all of this is over,” he said, blinking back tears.

“Where?” I asked, also teary-eyed.

“Let’s meet in Cairo. I always wanted to visit Cairo.”

I nodded in agreement. Cairo: What was the worst that could happen there?

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