Escaping the chaos: Women's stories of survival in Sudan's conflict

Women share horror of fleeing violence in Sudan as displacement looms
7 min read
04 July, 2023

They woke up on the morning of April 15 2023 to the sound of gunfire, followed by airstrikes. The skies over Khartoum filled with black smoke.

Sarah and her husband were living in a building about six kilometres away from the headquarters of the General Command and Khartoum International Airport where the clashes began.

Sarah, familiar with past disturbances, believed the situation would soon calm down. But, contrary to her expectations, she and other foreign and Sudanese women were forced to flee Khartoum.

The New Arab interviewed several women who have since left either Khartoum or Sudan entirely. 

"The sounds of bullets and bombs still haunt us and we left our beloved ones behind"

Sarah, an Egyptian woman in her thirties living in Sudan with her husband, recounted the moment everything changed: "A shell hit our neighbour's house below us. They took shelter behind the apartment door, moving furniture to secure the windows. They quickly gathered food from the kitchen and sought safety with their three children."

Sarah's six-year-old son was in his bedroom when a gunshot pierced through the window, narrowly missing his head and shattering a cement pillar.

Fearing for their safety, they left their tenth-floor apartment and sought refuge in a friend's apartment on the first floor. Unfortunately, even there, a bullet from a "Dana" weapon penetrated the window.

They decided to live in their garage before making the decision to leave Khartoum during the ceasefire. Sarah argued with her husband as he didn't have a valid passport. It would eventually lead to the family splitting up. 

"Tickets that used to cost 25,000 Sudanese pounds ($42) reached 250,000 Sudanese pounds ($420)," Sarah told The New Arab.

Zahraa, a Palestinian who has lived in Sudan since she was nine, shared a similar experience before she decided to travel after a month of clashes.

Zahraa shared her concern, saying, "When the RSF broke down our neighbours' door using a pickup truck, with weapons pointed at the heads of family members, I feared for the safety of my children. We made the decision to leave."

"I consider Sudan my second home, maybe even first. Despite being Palestinian, I have lived only in Sudan." She left behind all her possessions, taking only essential clothes and food as she bid farewell to her home.

Many Palestinians who live in Sudan have had to escape [Getty Images]
Palestinians living in Sudan have had to leave their belongings and escape violence yet again [Getty Images]

Um Faraha, an Egyptian woman who was nine months pregnant, did the same. She brought only her childbirth bag and left behind everything else, even her gold, fearing it would be stolen. "When a shell hit our house while we were sleeping, that's when we decided to leave." 

Um Faraha and her daughter, Faraha, journeyed on Eid al-Fitr night to Wad Madani, a five-hour drive away in her husband's car. Then they travelled for another six hours to Kosti, where they knew someone. Kosti has remained largely untouched by the intense conflict in the capital.

"[In Kosti] I fainted so I had to go to the hospital. I found patients lying on the floor. I thought I was dying but the nurse said it was fatigue and the fact I was pregnant. But I suffered for hours and I trembled in fear. I later discovered these trembles were from malaria." 

Their journey continued by bus as they made their way to Kassala. "The roads were broken, the weather was hot, and the buses were poorly equipped for a seven-hour ride. I feared I would lose my baby or have a premature delivery on the roadside, Um Faraha added. 

Having reached Kassala, the two then embarked on the most difficult part of their trip: the 10-hour journey to Port Sudan.

Live Story

The military plane that transported them only had rope seats. The plane was overcrowded and accommodated three times its capacity. Despite the discomfort, Um Faraha found solace in the fact that she was returning to her homeland. The flight lasted 3.5 hours, and upon arrival at Almaza military airport, they had to undergo a seven-hour wait for passport security checks. 

After enduring six days of shelling and approximately 5 intermittent trips, Um Faraha finally reached Egypt, where she gave birth to her second daughter.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

But the journey to Egypt was different for the Palestinian Zahraa. She went on a regular trip, not an evacuation. "It was exhausting in every sense of the word. We passed through 10 RSF checkpoints during the trip, and each time someone would come on board and search some of the bus passengers with a threatening weapon. The tenth and final checkpoint by the army was before we got off in Dongola," Zahraa told The New Arab.

Zahraa mentioned that they spent the night in Dongola, sleeping on the street in darkness while waiting for the driver to rest before continuing their journey. "We didn't sleep, we just waited for daybreak. The children slept from exhaustion," she explained. Zahraa had two children, and her brother's wife had two more. 

The family rationed the limited snacks they had brought, distributing them sparingly among them. They also had to conserve the scarce water despite its heat. "I witnessed my children's hunger before my eyes but I couldn't do anything to help," Zahraa shared. Then they continued the road to Wadi Halfa near the Egyptian border.

Zahraa expressed her frustration with the bus owners they encountered at the border. "We paid 160,000 pounds (260 dollars) for each ticket, and the Sudanese bus driver had agreed with another driver to continue the journey with us and share the cost. However, upon arrival, the other bus driver attempted to change the price after seeing the large number of people who might be willing to pay more for the crossing."

Zahraa's family spent 3 days in Wadi Halfa, waiting for a bus and her husband's visa to be issued. While Zahraa, her brother's wife, her mother and the children could enter Egypt without a visa, her husband couldn't, despite his mother being Egyptian. They rented a basic house without even water and slept in the courtyard. They went to the border every morning, hoping to cross, but it wasn't until the third day that they were able to cross without Zahraa's husband.

"We slept in the neutral zone, waiting for the morning shift," Zahraa said. With passengers from 30 other buses, they suffered from a lack of amenities like toilets and food. Flies swarmed around them from all directions. Zahraa was grateful none of them suffered the tragic fate she witnessed that night, as a man and a woman passed away and were repatriated to Sudan. 

Environment and Climate
Live Story

They crossed the neutral zone at noon the following day but had to endure another night at the Egyptian border before their passports were checked.

Zahra told us that her husband is still in Halfa and has been for a month now, with her male siblings later joining him. Along with about two thousand other people who sleep near the consulate, they were trying to obtain visas while their hope dwindled along with their money.

Some individuals sought refuge from the conflict in the Sudanese capital but remained within the country. Among them was Elaf Faisal's family, a Sudanese journalist. Fearing the risk of rape and sexual violence, Elaf's mother made the decision to relocate her daughters to a distant city far from Khartoum.

Meanwhile, Elaf's father and brother stayed behind, concerned about the potential theft of their home and unable to afford the expensive transportation tickets for all eight family members. As a result, Elaf's mother and her four daughters embarked on a challenging 18-hour journey to Port Sudan.

"We still don't feel completely safe even though we've escaped. The sounds of bullets and bombs still haunt us and we left our beloved ones behind," she expressed. They have decided to stay in the coastal city until their father and brother can join us or until they can return home if the war stops.

Shaimaa Elhadidy is an Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights defender based in Istanbul.

Follow her on Twitter: @salhadidy