A Digital Campaign to Save the People of Sudan

How diaspora communities are plugging the gaps left by international aid organizations by arranging humanitarian help for those stuck in the war

A Digital Campaign to Save the People of Sudan
People await evacuation at Port Sudan on May 3, 2023, amid ongoing deadly clashes between warring Sudanese forces. (AFP via Getty Images)

On April 15, 2023, gunfire erupted in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan. What began to materialize in the last few days of Ramadan in a country where over 15 million people were experiencing food insecurity was a massive humanitarian crisis with little or no institutional support. In response, as per tradition, a network of mutual aid emerged, led by civilians and a Sudanese diaspora fighting to keep each other alive by any means necessary.

“The situation in Sudan is dire,” Ahmed Ismat, a pharmacy student from the University of Khartoum and official spokesperson for the city’s self-styled resistance committees, told New Lines during a WhatsApp interview.

By the latest count, at least 500 people have been killed in ongoing clashes between military factions vying for control of the state. Thousands more are severely injured, which is a cause for concern, considering the country’s medical system is currently teetering on the brink of collapse.

“Two-thirds of the country’s hospitals are out of service,” says Yassir Yousif, Chair of the Sudanese American Physicians Association during a phone interview. Dead bodies are inundating morgues and decomposing in the heat. Those in need of critical aid cannot access pharmacies, which are in short supply. Diabetics lack access to insulin. Cancer patients are stranded without care.

Water is scarce, food shortages are rampant and gas prices are rising at inexplicable rates. Just in the span of the last two weeks, more than 50,000 people have fled Sudan for Chad, Egypt, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. This figure does not account for the thousands who have stayed or have left Khartoum for other parts of the country, such as Ismat, in hopes that the violence will not follow them.

At the start of fighting and out of concern for the safety of their staff, aid groups such as the World Food Program quickly halted operations. Non-governmental organizations left their posts and international embassies evacuated personnel — in some cases, without returning passports surrendered during visa applications, leaving some Sudanese nationals stranded.

Desperation is rampant. “People feel abandoned,” said the journalist Yousra Elbagir in an interview with Sky News. Reporting from Port Sudan, where thousands of refugees are seeking asylum, Elbagir asked, “When will the international community respond in any sort of way? I’m not saying adequately, I’m not saying on a mass scale. I’m saying: just respond.”

To mitigate the crisis, and with little support, local organizations had to move quickly. Resistance committees, informal neighborhood-wide networks that had organized nationwide protests during the revolution in 2019, began administering aid through the support of digital platforms.

Volunteers surveyed and recruited doctors to open makeshift clinics, explains Ismat. They began orchestrating evacuations of the sick and the elderly, women and children caught in the crossfire. They used Twitter as a way to warn residents of the presence of armed forces and began to outline safe zones and routes for those who were looking to escape but could not be reached.

“We’re seeing the fruits of the Sudanese revolution; what we’re doing now could have never been done had we not had the background of, not just the 2020 election, but the uprisings before that,” says Sara Elhassan in a phone interview with New Lines. Elhassan’s Twitter and Instagram pages (@bsonblast) provide crucial day-by-day updates. Her platform, a critical voice during the 2019 revolution, continues to wield unyielding influence in 2023. “What we’re seeing worldwide is not just people feeling the need to help but also being trained to,” Elhassan continues.

On the ground, the infrastructure for quick action is a by-product of the revolution, when volunteers organized covertly. As instrumental as they were in overthrowing the country’s longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019, members of the resistance committees and most civilian voices were sidelined by international actors who emboldened the military regime through a policy of appeasement.

“No one actually paid attention to what we were saying about the political elite, but this is exactly what we were saying about the rotten core of this country, and the contradictions are finally exploding,” says Asmat.

In graffiti on walls in Khartoum today, the people maintain their presence and proclaim, boldly and defiantly: “No.”

Referring to negotiations between pro-democracy groups and American officials tasked with moderating Sudan’s democratic transition after the revolution, Elhassan recounts frustration on the part of activists advocating for civilian rule. “The U.S. State Department told us that it’s unreasonable for us to imagine a government without the military involved,” explains Elhassan. “They said it was unrealistic. So, if somebody thinks your freedom is unrealistic, am I really waiting for them to come to save me?”

Online, thousands of Sudanese civilians, those on the ground and throughout the diaspora, are using platforms on Twitter to connect with one another, fundraise and share critical information on safe routes and passageways out the country.

“It was really the information of other people on Twitter, primarily, that allowed me to figure out where and what to even attempt to do,” says Nisrine Elamine, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, who found herself caught in the midst of violent clashes during a visit to Sudan with her 3-year-old daughter. After some hesitation, she began documenting her own journey, she tells New Lines. The airport in Khartoum, which had been invaded by a militia (the so-called Rapid Support Forces), was no longer an option, and so, with her daughter and elderly parents, both aged over 70, they made their way to Port Sudan, a 12-hour journey by public transportation from Khartoum.

“This information could help one, maybe two, maybe more people make an informed decision and figure out what the best route is for them, especially for people who have young children or an elderly father or limited funds,” says Elamine.

As it stands, evacuating the country is a physically demanding and treacherous journey. Civilians are being asked to make their way through violent inroads and checkpoints to places like Port Sudan or Argeen at the Egyptian border, where they’re being met by rampant discriminatory policies. Reports on the ground describe scenes of mass dysfunction and pandemonium. Even so, evacuation is not an accessible, or preferable, option for everyone. For one thing, the cost of bus tickets is skyrocketing.

Adhieu Majok has been coordinating efforts on behalf of the Citizens Call for Emergency Evacuations Committee, an informal group that organized at the start of the conflict to support South Sudanese refugees. The organization has aided in the evacuation of over 800 people, some of whom are two-time refugees from Syria and South Sudan. Sudan hosts one of the largest refugee populations on the continent, including those who fled violence in Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“This situation has really shown the importance of Twitter,” says Majok, whose crowdfunding campaign to fund transportation and medical supplies has reached an international audience. “I’m certain lives have been saved.”

There has been a significant uptick in crowdfunding campaigns, which are being used to engage the diaspora. The Sudanese American Physicians Association raised over $400,000 in two weeks, money that is being distributed to medical staff on the ground and is providing critical infrastructure to an already fractured system.

Mazin Bashar leads a fundraising campaign from Australia. “We’ve raised around $26,000, which we’ve distributed to 600 families in the past maybe 9 or 10 days,” he says. On Twitter, Bashar outlines in detail how the funds are being used.

“What we’re doing right now is only an extension of a culture that already existed. We kind of automated or digitalized something that already existed in a culture of mutual aid,” says Dinan Alasad to New Lines over Zoom. Alasad has been using her Twitter platform to uplift mutual aid requests. Resistance through mutual aid, by way of informal unions and resistance committees, has a long history in Sudan. Recalling a conversation she had with an elder member of the Sudanese Women’s Union, one of the oldest and largest women’s rights organizations on the continent, Alasad added, “I spoke to someone in the women’s union who [had been organizing for] 40 years. She said to me, ‘When these things happen, we don’t try to be optimistic. We don’t try to be pessimistic, we don’t try to make any types of assumptions or guesses; we just find the work that needs to be done and we do it.’”

What is happening in Sudan, amid what the scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has described as “organized abandonment” — in a country without a functioning state body and with little international support — is a counteraction, an exercise in organizing that is playing out both digitally and on the ground.

“The story is not about the heroic evacuation of nationals,” says Elamin. “There are the people who are … keeping people alive, just regular civilians who are looking out for their neighbors.”

These stories are being documented constantly online, where a digital repository now exists. Through the eyes of citizen journalists, young people, activists and families in and out of the diaspora, one sees people demonstrating a profound labor of caring for one another alongside desperate calls for help. There are children searching for their grandparents, doctors advocating on behalf of staff, phone calls being made thousands of miles away to loved ones waiting for a call, refugees outlining their wait times on the border while being denied asylum.

The importance of the digital space in real time — Twitter in a post-Elon Musk world — reminds us of digital platforms’ ability to shoulder a movement and galvanize and connect voices from around the world. Megalomaniac billionaires aside, the digital space is a lifeline for those abandoned and is assisting and saving lives in Sudan right now in real and material ways. As calls for help continue to play out, an alternative to state-funded propaganda emerges.

“I think what we’re doing in terms of communicating what’s happening on the ground is to force people to see us,” says Elhassan.

“The old way of a few people deciding for a majority dies through resistance,” concludes Ismat in Sudan, as he shelters in place.

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