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One Author and Activist’s Heart-Wrenching Experience of Being Trapped in Conflict-Ridden Sudan—And Risking It All To Survive

When an author and activist became trapped in Sudan amid the recent deadly conflict, she was forced to risk all to save her life

A look by Sudanese designer Abdel El Tayeb. Photo: Pierre Debusschere 

I tried to think of a pleasant way to begin this story. There isn’t one. I also tried to think of a word, an emotion, a label of sorts, for watching the roots of your existence burn to the ground. There isn’t one. After three weeks of horrific violence, I managed to escape the dreadful war currently ongoing in Sudan.

On April 11, 2023, I traveled to the capital city of Khartoum for my cousin’s funeral. He passed away suddenly at the age of 42, from a heart attack none of us expected considering his good health. It was Ramadan, and despite the sadness of his passing, my extended family and I made every effort to come together, prioritize collective joy, and break our fasts in honor of our loved one. We gathered on an almost daily basis, and as Sudanese do, relied on each other to keep our spirits positive, uplifted, and focused on a better way of being – as one.

There’s a reason why Sudan’s population carries a global reputation that boils down to two words: Ahsan Nas, meaning ‘the best people’ in the Arabic language. The Sudanese are generally and notoriously kind, hospitable, and dignified. They’re also historical warriors with a rich pharaonic history that essentially started civilization. Sudan’s land mass is filled with a grand variety of nature’s wealth, such as gold, uranium, oil, water, and more. It encompasses a soil so fertile that if given the agricultural chance, it is capable of feeding both the Middle East and the remaining African continent. The late, great Dr John Garang, Sudan’s former vice president, famously referred to his homeland as ‘the breadbasket of the Global South.’ Africa’s longest river, the Nile, represents a source of spirit and living that every neighboring nation depends on. It should then come as no surprise that, since the dawn of time, the whole world has always wanted a slice of Sudan, carelessly leaving its inhabitants to bear the brunt of venomous greed.

A portrait by Mous Lamrabat

On April 15, one day before I was due to fly on to Dubai, I woke up to the sounds of menacing explosions and panicking neighbors. ‘War! We are at war!’ they screamed. ‘Lock your doors, grab your phone, and get under your bed!’ I and other resident communities across the country were instantly petrified. After gathering information from various news sources, we understood that two of Sudan’s rogue military factions were right next to us, on our neighboring streets, in a violent battle. All our hopes, pioneering activism, and revolutionary dreams of a free, prosperous nation were immediately shattered.

For the next 12 days, I was forced to hide in a basement with no running water or electricity. Both were cut off due to attacks on supply centers. On top of the risk of stray bullets, fighter jets, missiles, robbery, and murder, there was also the looming reality of food supplies running out. Telecoms were disrupted. Internet lost. Airports ambushed and destroyed. Criminality at large. Banks and businesses, looted and gutted. Livelihoods ruined (many don’t even have access to their own funds). Factories under siege. Institutions ransacked. Families separated, missing, or killed. Hospitals unable to treat patients due to constant attack. Homes raided, occupied by soldiers, burned or bombed. Including that of my family, some of whom are still in Sudan.

The Lion Temple, Meroë. Photo: Salah Tahir

We, the innocent civilians, viciously used as human shields, while one general battles the other in a complex web of global gains and domestic destruction, had no choice but to run. Mobilizing and organizing what was certainly the scariest journey of my life: driving through a harrowing war zone and escaping to the border of Aswan, the Nubian/Sudanese territory that connects Egypt with Sudan. Imagine having to leave your home with next to nothing, not knowing when you’ll come back? Imagine having no choice but to walk into war? Every check-point was a meeting with doom. Every turn left us wondering if it was our last. What if they kill us? What if we’re robbed? What if we’re kidnapped? What if we’re hit by a random grenade? What if we don’t make it? Fear had reached such a new peak that all I had left was a remarkable sense of peace.

As we drove through Khartoum, a once captivating city turned tragic hell, we saw it all… every strand of agonizing pain you could possibly imagine, we saw. For a moment, I saw God, too. Crossing the border was another war unto itself. On arrival, I expected to find humanitarian agencies everywhere, attending to thousands of fleeing, frightened humans. Instead, I saw children in tears, unable to cope with the unbearable Saharan heat, no water, no food, no shaded areas, and no sanitation. The elderly struggling to walk or even breathe properly, dying after days of waiting to cross the border. No explanations, no medical care, no provisions of any kind. Not a single aiding organization in sight. Why? Sudan and its borders are on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Surely there must be adequate response, providing urgent care, support, and safe passage.

Women wear the traditional toub in Khartoum. Photo: Hussam Al Galad

Unlike many still trapped in Sudan, I am now safe, with eternal gratitude to the Sudanese people and the UAE government for saving my life. This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m okay. To lose so much and still be alive is the strangest dichotomy. Generations of hard work, history, and heritage are falling apart. Gunfire stays blazing (loudly) in the pits of my brain. Diaspora trauma has engulfed my whole soul. Survivor’s guilt continues to rage. A never-ending worry over remaining friends and family overwhelms. Sending essentials to the border as quickly and as regularly as we can, while managing the devastating repercussions of a broken nation, is exhausting. How do we rebuild? How do we manage the heartbreak? How do we handle the loss? It is all so deeply daunting. But it can never be defeating. For in the midst of humanity’s most ugly, the love of humanity at its most beautiful was seen, and felt, too. I will not stop, I cannot stop, until this conflict stops.”

The Sudanese signature men’s shoe, Markoob, at Bahri street market. Photo: Hussam Al Galad

Originally published in the June 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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