A high school building housing Kenyan teachers and 15 families began to shake as air raids and artillery pounded Sudan’s capital Khartoum.
The stranded group had begun to run out of food and water as fighting between Sudan’s army and its rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) intensified, but no help could reach them – so a network of Sudanese civilians, organising mainly through Twitter, sprang into action.
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“We couldn’t reach out to them and the Red Cross couldn’t reach out to them,” Jia El Hassan, who spearheads the network and uses an alias due to safety concerns, told Al Jazeera.
Finally, the network sent a group of men to check the perimeter of the building and help the trapped people flee on foot.
“They escaped on foot because we could not send any car – any car that went into that area was bombed,” El Hassan said.
The network – a reincarnation of an earlier one – started up on the first day of the conflict, April 15, with the setting up of vital updates on Twitter Spaces, the social media platform’s feature for live, audio conversations.
Some of the people on Twitter Spaces were not new to grassroots organising, but had led activist groups during the 2019 uprising that toppled former President Omar al-Bashir.
Many activists, El Hassan said, were killed during that uprising or forced to leave. Today, there are about 120 people left on the ground in Khartoum, a fraction of the 4,000 who helped organise rescue teams in the past, she said.
Despite the many people who have left, in the last week, the network helped hundreds of people leave the capital or get vital supplies – from medicine to food, to petrol – and they’re using Twitter to seek out more people in need.
“A lot of the cases we get, it goes like this: I’m stuck in this situation. I have no food, I have no water, and my phone is about to die,” explained El Hassan.
That’s when her team combs Twitter to find someone near the trapped person who can provide information on everything from how safe the area is to whether any supermarkets are open.
If fighting is rife, or a person who needs emergency supplies is unable to leave their residence for whatever reason, the network will arrange a driver to drop off the supplies, also arranging for petrol for the driver if needed too, she said.
People have also reached out to the network through Twitter to offer extra medical or food supplies to others in need.
El Hassan, who has experience coaching companies and brands on how to use Twitter Spaces professionally, communicates with the network of civilians providing aid on the ground mainly through Telegram, the most secure channel, according to her.
Sudanese abroad helping remotely
Some of those helping out are doing so from overseas, like Mohammed Hassan, a Sudanese doctor who is currently practising at a government hospital in Saudi Arabia – and who would have begun his residency in Sudan soon were it not for the conflict.
Hassan came to learn about the network through Twitter Spaces and has been helping field medical queries from those in need as the healthcare situation in Sudan deteriorates further.
During the live Twitter Spaces conversations early during the conflict, there were lots of people asking for where to find things like medicine, food and areas with electricity, Hassan said.
“So we thought that maybe we can create a group to liaise and match the needs of people with the resources that we find online,” Hassan told Al Jazeera, adding that they’ve built up a database of resources for people by scraping posts on Twitter and Facebook.
Hassan is one of many doctors providing medical information online and at times connecting people to local physicians who can come to those in need and treat small injuries.
The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors and the Sudan Doctors Union have estimated that 70 percent, or 39 out of 59 hospitals, in Khartoum and nearby states have had to halt operations since the conflict broke out.
As fighting raged, the network first provided information about safe corridors out of the capital, relying on civilian links to provide security information.
But as the situation became more volatile and many people died, the network stopped posting escape routes.
“We would tell people this is a safe passage and literally five minutes later they’re shooting everyone down the street,” said El Hassan, adding that people were shot while using some of the passages posted to Twitter.
But people are still using the social media site to look for escape routes, said Amin Alsamani, who isn’t connected to El Hassan’s network.
“Anyone who wants to go outside Khartoum [can ask] about safe roads and travel stations that [are operating], and he can find someone on Twitter going to the same area,” Alsamani told Al Jazeera.
Alsamani, who lives in Omdurman, Khartoum’s northern twin city, set up a series of hashtags that begin with “needed” on the social networking site to find those in need and provide them with food, water and anything else necessary. The hashtags have taken off and are being used widely now.
شباب تحويل رصيد زين؟ #حوجة_الخرطوم
— Ghassan Malik (@ghassan_malik) April 23, 2023
Translation: Guys, can anyone help with transferring Zein [mobile phone] credits? #Needed_Khartoum
“A hashtag has been activated on Twitter regarding the needs of [each] region,” he said, adding that hashtags for each area are helping connect people to resources including medicine, food, water, petrol, housing, and even missing loved ones.
“If you do not die from a bullet or an explosion, you will die of hunger and thirst,” said Alsamani, on the importance of helping people out.
While these civilian networks have helped many since the conflict broke out, those involved say they will not be able to sustain themselves and need humanitarian organisations to intervene.
Power outages have been ongoing from the start of hostilities, knocking out internet connectivity, and making the network’s operations more difficult.
El Hassan added that the civilians she works with don’t have the infrastructure or supplies large humanitarian organisations do, and are risking everything to help.
“I just would like those organisations on the ground to just please start working,” she pressed. “It’s a matter of life and death.”