Stay or flee: Residents in Sudan face a difficult decision
Harrowing conditions have triggered a mass exodus and transformed the capital Khartoum into what feels like a ghost town.
Days after armed fighting erupted in Sudan, Dalia Mohamed and her mother were faced with an impossible choice: flee the capital of Khartoum or stay.
With their house located in the heart of a civil war, the constant sounds of bullets, rockets and shelling soon became too much to bear.
On Thursday, they packed a few basic items and fled after their home was damaged during a rocket attack.
“I was trying to delay the idea of leaving Khartoum,” Mohamed, 37, told Al Jazeera. “You always hear these stories about people needing to leave their homes, but it doesn’t hit you until you have to do it yourself.”
Khartoum has historically been a haven for people escaping civil wars in the far peripheries of Sudan, such as Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and South Sudan, before the latter became a country of its own in 2011.
For decades, civilian and army elites militarised and extracted resources from the margins such as oil and then gold in order to enrich themselves, while providing just enough to placate residents in Khartoum.
But now, the capital is the epicentre of armed conflict between the army and a violent paramilitary force known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Both have set up checkpoints and clashed indiscriminately, resulting in a mounting death toll and acute shortages of food, electricity and water.
The harrowing conditions have triggered a mass exodus and transformed Khartoum – a bustling city of five million residents that now feels like a ghost town.
“It was the hardest decision that I think I ever had to make,” said Mohamed. “Even now, if someone told me my area was safe and we could go back … we would go back in a second. But we can’t.”
Those fleeing Khartoum are heading east to Port Sudan, a region relatively safe and with sea routes connecting to Djibouti and Egypt.
Others are driving north to Egypt, although only children, the elderly and women are able to enter the country without visas. Young Sudanese men from the ages of 16 to 49 must apply for visas one day in advance at the Egyptian consulate in Wadi Halfa, a city near the border with Egypt.
It’s a requirement that risks momentarily separating families, with many preparing to say goodbye to their sons, brothers and fathers in hopes that they will reunite with them soon.
Roads to Egypt also are not entirely safe following reports that RSF fighters are robbing and looting cars at gunpoint, several people making the journey told Al Jazeera.
The ambivalent security situation has made coordinating an escape a nightmare.
Shaima Ahmed is in London and trying to convince her parents and siblings to leave Khartoum. The 27-year-old said it is difficult to advise her family from abroad.
“Not being able to give [my family] credible information is stressful. I’m pushing them to go [to Egypt] but I don’t want to push them too much. But if something happens to them, then it will be my fault,” said Ahmed.
Raga Makawi, a Sudanese-British citizen who was visiting her family in Khartoum when the war broke out, added that the logistics are not easy.
With bus stations down, and small vehicles ill-equipped for the journey, she said that families need to try to find buses on their own, as well as drivers that know how to avoid RSF checkpoints.
“As of an hour ago, the cost of a large bus from Khartoum to Cairo is $10,000,” Makawi told Al Jazeera, the night before she left for Egypt.“ [A bus] was just $4,000 a few days ago. But anyone can charge whatever they want and people will pay to … save their lives.”
The war in Khartoum is also separating families, as some elect to stay behind while their loved ones leave.
Dania Atabani, 23, said that her parents, aunt and cousins all left the city, yet she has decided to stay and take care of her grandparents and help out where she can.
She said that now she can barely recognise her city, which was once the source of so many memories and the pulse of a nationwide pro-democracy movement.
“Khartoum changed from a city where we would clean [people’s] wounds from tear gas canisters, to now giving [people] CPR and trying to stop them from bleeding [to death],” Atabani said.
“I miss being a normal 23-year-old with dreams and not running [away] from tanks, while in a constant need to save people’s lives,” she added.
Other young people such as 26-year-old Sammer Hamza are still undecided about whether to leave or stay. Clashes continue to escalate in her area, making it perilous to go outside.
But even if it does become safe to escape, she said that leaving her home – and city – will be the most difficult choice she’s ever had to make.
“I don’t want to leave my house, really,” she told Al Jazeera, as she held back tears over the phone. “I hoped that a [war] would never happen in Sudan. I hoped that a [war] would never happen in Khartoum.”