Arduous journeys of Sudanese evacuees

Haitham Nouri , Friday 5 May 2023

Sudanese refugees in Egypt tell how they escaped from the violence in Sudan

Arduous journeys of Sudanese evacuees
A ferry transports some 1,900 evacuees across the Red Sea from Port Sudan to the Saudi King Faisal navy base in Jeddah (photo: AP)

 

Sudanese people have been fleeing the capital Khartoum, the main battlefield of the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), since it broke out on 15 April.

The last thing Khartoum residents, estimated at 10 million, needed was war. They had already been suffering from severe shortages of fuel, medicine, and food, and their economic conditions had already deteriorated a long time ago.

As the SAF seems to be gaining ground on the battlefield, the RSF has been invading homes, engaging in street fights with the SAF, or looting food and money. The drums of war have not grown softer despite the five ceasefire agreements to which the two parties did not commit except for a short time.

As a result, thousands of Sudanese and their families have fled Khartoum in all directions in search of a safe haven. Agricultural regions and villages are generally much calmer than the capital.

 

REFUGE IN THE COUNTRY: Ali Babakr, a retired engineering professor at Khartoum University for Science and Technology, said that “I took my family out of our house in Omdurman to Al-Hasaheisa south of the capital. It is safe here, and the police and army are in full control.”

“Due to the high demand, the prices of bus tickets have soared from 9,000 Sudanese pounds ($15) to 90,000 Sudanese pounds ($150). However, they are still cheaper than the tickets to the north and to Egypt,” he added.

“Most of my relatives have returned to villages in the Gezira State or cities such as Al-Kamlin. The upside is that our villages are in close proximity to Khartoum, so the tickets are relatively cheap. We also get to remain in Sudan in a safe place without clashes.”

 

FROM SUDAN TO EGYPT: Residents of northern Sudan have nowhere to go except to Egypt. “But this is normal. Egypt has always been a favoured destination for the Sudanese when it comes to studying, shopping, receiving medical treatment, and vacationing,” said Abdallah Al-Sheikh, a professor of mediaeval history at Omdurman Ahlia University.

“Egypt is a travel destination that many middle-class Sudanese can afford. This is visible in [the Cairo districts of] Ataba, Abdine, Dokki, and Ain Shams. Now, there are also Sudanese groups in new cities such as 6 October, Obour, and Badr,” he added.

“Many years ago, Sudan’s middle classes began to buy property in Egypt because they often come to the country.”

According to the UN International Organisation for Migration, there are four million Sudanese residing in Egypt, of whom 111,000 are refugees. A few of these depend on aid, but most of them work.

Fifty-six per cent of Sudanese residing in Egypt live in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Daqahliya, and Damietta, with an average age of 35. They are 50 per cent male.

 

UNAFFORDABLE TICKETS: “We live in Al-Kalakla south of Khartoum and far from the centre of the capital and vital facilities such as the airport, the General Command of the Army, the State Radio, and camps,” said Roaa Al-Nour, a Sudanese physiotherapist.

“We started hearing the intermittent sound of gunfire. I could not sleep, neither could my [two] children or my mother who lives with us. My husband said the gunfire would not last long, and it did go quiet for two days. But then when I returned from my clinic, a neighbour in a house nearby told me that the RSF had stormed a house and expelled its residents to use it as a base.”

Al-Nour and her husband Abdel-Rahman Negmeddin, an engineer with the Sudanese Electricity Authority, contacted their neighbours and his Nubian family in northern Sudan near the border with Egypt.

“My relative Seif Abdel-Dayem, a graduate of the Al-Qasr Al-Aini Medical School in Cairo and a consultant in internal medicine, told me he was considering leaving Khartoum. By the end of the day, I had eight families who wanted to leave the capital for their villages in northern Sudan,” Negmeddin said.

Together with Maamoun, the owner of a grocery store, Negmeddin began to search for a minibus. It was not an easy task, but with some effort they found Hashem, a bus driver, who was ready to make the trip.

The family was shocked to find that the bus to Wadi Halfa on the border with Egypt would cost $30,000, or 19 million Sudanese pounds, Al-Nour said. Before the war broke out, a ticket cost $33, or 20,000 Sudanese pounds, in a bus of 30 seats in a country suffering from fuel shortages and price surges.

Negmeddin said this “is a golden opportunity for drivers. Fuel prices have also increased eight- or 10-fold, and the bus will make its way back with empty seats.”

The prices were unaffordable, but the family “left Khartoum on the first day of the Eid Al-Fitr,” Al-Nour said as Negmeddin cracked a soothing smile.

 

LITTLE MONEY: “I could not leave Khartoum because the banks are closed and the teller machines have been looted or have stopped working because the Internet has been cut off,” said Mohamed Hatem Tag Al-Sir, a well-to-do trader, over the telephone from Khartoum.

“My large family, my children, my mother, my father, my mother-in-law, and my sister were spending the Eid with me,” added Tag Al-Sir, the heir to his family’s business. His father and grandfather were grain merchants.

Tag Al-Sir’s money is locked in the bank, and he is unable to access it. “I need a bus to take my family to the Egyptian border. I was offered one for $35,000. But this is an amount I cannot currently afford.”

He added that he had found solace in the news that a relative of his “had travelled with his grandmother, who had remained immobile for many years.”

 

GRANDMA’S HEALTH: On the last day of Ramadan, the Mekki family – three brothers with their wives, parents, and grandmother – got on a bus from Khartoum heading to Aswan. The trip was arduous, said Mohamed Mekki. “My niece had a fever, and her mother was anxious because we didn’t have any medicine.”

The villages in the north of Sudan suffer from extreme poverty. Despite a breath of fresh air provided by the Merowe Dam to generate electricity, the economic and social conditions in this region remain poor.

In addition, Sudan has suffered greatly from a lack of medicine, fuel, and wheat following the secession of oil-rich South Sudan.

“After standing in long customs queues in Wadi Halfa and Aswan, we began another journey to find a plane to take us to Cairo. We could not even find a seat for my sick grandmother. We resorted to booking sleeper train tickets,” Mekki added.

“Arriving in Cairo, my grandmother’s condition was getting worse. We should not have moved her, but there was no one to take care of her in Khartoum. It was a very difficult choice to make.”

“She is now being hospitalised. We are praying for her health.”

 

ON THE BORDER: Along the border between Egypt and Sudan, hundreds of families stand with their children in the scorching sun in long customs queues. Without a chair or a shady area to rest in, many Sudanese stand for hours to cross to the other side.

“But the people on both sides of the border in Wadi Halfa and Aswan are very generous, distributing water and snacks to the people waiting to cross,” said Al-Nour. “A pharmacist who gave me medicine for my son Salah refused to take any money,” she added gratefully.

“The people in Wadi Halfa received us in their homes. I entered one such home, the women’s quarters, bathed, ate, and slept for two hours,” she continued. “A relative of mine who made it to Aswan recounted a similar story,” Al-Nour told the present writer in her apartment in Cairo’s Faisal district.

 

OBSCURE FUTURE: “I have no money left. I spent all the cash I had getting here. All the banks were closed,” said Abdallah Al-Khatem, who arrived in Cairo on the third day of the Eid Al-Fitr.

Maha Youssef, his wife and a professor of translation at the Islamic University in Omdurman, said that “I brought my gold jewelry and some clothes for the children with me.”

“If calm is restored in Sudan, I will travel back immediately. My whole life is in Sudan, but more importantly can we find safety there,” she asked, looking away as if wanting to end the conversation.

 

RENTING IN CAIRO: In Cairo’s Nasr City, many Sudanese can be spotted looking for apartments to rent.

“I lived in this building two years ago when I brought my father to Cairo for medical treatment. At that time, I paid LE1,000 for rent, but today the landlord is asking for LE3,000,” Modather Abdel-Rehim, a mathematics teacher at the Al-Sahafa District High School in Khartoum, said.

“I studied at the Zagazig University’s Faculty of Education in 1987. Later on, I spent my honeymoon here. I have been visiting Egypt frequently since. I am thinking about buying an apartment here,” he added.

“But my life is in Khartoum. I have a good career there, and my students are waiting for me. If it were not for my fear for my wife and children, I would not have left Khartoum.”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Abdel-Rehim said, walking away to continue his negotiations with the landlord.

 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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