Stuck in limbo: Frustration, despair at Sudan-Egypt border

Thousands of people fleeing the war in Sudan are stranded in the town of Wadi Halfa, by the border with Egypt, facing an uncertain future.

Wadi Halfa
The border town of Wadi Halfa [Heba Fouad/Reuters]
[Heba Fouad/Reuters]

A man sits against a solitary concrete pillar at an abandoned construction site, his head hunched forward, gazing at the dusty ground in quiet desperation as he prepares to leave the small sliver of shade.

A few metres away, under the skeletal concrete frame of an unfinished building, dozens of people lie contorted around bricks and building material as they steal a little respite from the unrelenting sun overhead.

This is Wadi Halfa, a once quiet town, rich in antiquities from Nubia and a commercial thoroughfare located on Sudan's border with Egypt.

Sudan descended into chaos in mid-April after months of rising tensions exploded into an open conflict between rival generals in the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who are seeking to control the country. Thousands of Sudanese have been trapped between the violent clashes and the increasingly dire conditions at the congested border crossings.

The mood at Wadi Halfa oscillates between fervent activity as crowds of people gather, hopeful that they can successfully process their visas at the Egyptian consulate, to scenes of subdued resignation as groups cower in what little shade they can find after facing another rejection.

Egyptian visa process: Daily rejections and confusion

[Heba Fouad/Reuters]

More than 2.5 million people have been uprooted since the war began, and more than 250,000 have crossed into Egypt.

However, in recent weeks, Egypt has tightened its border policy, scrapping an earlier rule that exempted women and children and required only men aged 16-50 to have a visa.


Ali, a 44-year-old man from Khartoum, managed to get his wife and three children out of the capital after a missile hit their house.

They were able to reach the border after a stuttering, meandering journey fraught with danger. He reveals some of what they endured but admits that nothing he says can “reflect the emotional and physical stress that me and my family have been through”.

His wife and children were able to make it to the Egyptian capital Cairo under the earlier visa exemptions. But he has been stuck in Wadi Halfa for six weeks now with “no clarity” on when or if a visa will be issued to him.

Ali describes distressing conditions, with two of the three telecom operators out of service, severe heat and “no clue” how he will survive with the amount of money he has.

All that he and his friends have been told by the consulate is that they must register their name and a sequence number on a form and then try their luck each day.

Personnel are rarely present at the consulate, he says. And if they are, they rudely dismiss any questions.

A woman, who does not want to be named, sits outside the consulate. She wears a bright blue floral patterned headscarf and talks in short rapid sentences as she vents her frustration at the constant rejection her 87-year-old mother faces.

“You have to take the people into consideration,” she says, motioning to a three-month-old child next to her. “We are women; the war has not stopped; these people are very tired,” she adds, visibly exasperated.

There is a palpable sense of frustration at the humiliation she is forced to endure on a daily basis as they chase the increasingly distant hope of being issued visas.

If the war were to end tomorrow, she would return to her house immediately. “We have pride and dignity in our homes,” she says.

For Ali, the “mental stress” he feels waiting for a visa, “trying to the get the right information, trying to anticipate when I’d be able to leave, trying to cope with this new lifestyle until I can reunite with my family” is “beyond bearable”.

Ahmed Bashir, from Khartoum, who has been in Wadi Halfa since late April, says that in his third week, he was disheartened to hear that volunteers tasked with helping people process their visas were accepting bribes to fast-track the process. Payments amounted to roughly $1,000 on the black market, he claims.

Dire conditions

The Al Salam school in Wadi Halfa has become a de facto shelter for dozens of those fleeing the violence, and to the safety of the unknown.

Makeshift beds lie strewn around the courtyard, groups of people gather under the sparse vegetation, and patchwork sheets hang between patio pillars as families look to etch out small private spaces.

A mild-mannered man with an oversized T-shirt and a thick goatee, who does not wish to be named, decries the lack of water and electricity for those stuck at the school.

He describes the harrowing conditions that he was forced to escape in Khartoum North, recalling the stench of “dead bodies everywhere”.

“The situation is dire” in the town, he says. “Families sitting there in their places, stranded on the streets, in schools. I hope that God makes it easy for us, and we will see good things for all the Sudanese people.”

Tagreed Abdin, an architect from Khartoum, was able to make it to Cairo, but says she remains haunted by the fact that those fleeing the conflict were left to their own resources with no support from the international community.

“Every person travelling outside Sudan had to have valid documents, even though the international community knows fully well that there is no functioning government. There is no authority that can renew visas or extend visas, passports or issue new passports,” she explains.

“What really rankles is how we're supposed to flee with valid documents, certificates - everything we might need, as if we're tourists, while in actuality it was people fleeing, violence, gunfire shelling, and people just trying to get out,” she says.

Despite many people being killed while trying to evacuate, those who made it to the border “weren't given the same consideration that other people, displaced people fleeing violence were awarded”, she says.

“We weren't given safe evacuation routes. We weren't given safe transportation. We weren't given access to the necessary healthcare support.”

Courage and perseverance

Smoke rises over Khartoum, Sudan, June 7, 2023 [AP Photo]

Since arriving in Egypt with her husband, children and parents, Abdin says she has been on autopilot, doing what “needs to be done”.

“I do not have time to be overwhelmed. I don't have time to panic. I don't have time to grieve,” she says.

“We don't know what happened to the places we left behind. We don't know if we have a home to go back to. We don't know if we have jobs to go back to the routing of the looting, the ransacking, the destruction. So, there is so much to grieve."

"We need to grieve the lives that were lost. We need to grieve our family home, our home, our hometown, everything we did, everything we built. And in the end, the sheer loss of life, the sheer destruction, the violence, everything. It all needs to be processed. And right now, we can't do that.”

Sudan War
An apartment near where Tagreed lived in Khartoum was destroyed in the fighting and the occupant killed. They went for nine days without electricity and ran out of drinking water when they decided they had to leave [Courtesy of Tagreed Abdin]

Maad Shaykhun, an eloquent poet with short-cropped hair and large-framed glasses, sits by the scenic shores of Lake Nubia. People wade into the shallow water, and music plays around them. It’s a place where people can escape the constant frustration caused by the increasingly reticent Egyptian border policy.

He recites a poem that expresses his current feelings.

“I want this situation to end, I wish this situation to end. Salute to the ones sitting under the attacks, salute to those who fled, salute to those who are saluting, salute to those who lived and died from the bombings, and to those who are bleeding. Salute to the united Sudanese people. Salute to the soldiers in fear and those in hospitals”.

He speaks in slow, measured tones, occasionally gesticulating to emphasise a point. His poem is full of compassion and hope for his country and people despite the hardships they are enduring.

“The Sudanese people are like gold in water, the more you put, the more it shows. Wherever you walk, you find your brother,” he says.

“Your country is writing history, open the whitest of pages and write to Sudan. A nation like no other, it holds different people, it has goodness and good men, with chivalry and dignity. If you ask about their pain and healing their wounds in peace and dignity, this is the answer. It is Sudan we love and always will.”

Abdin admits that, eventually, she will allow herself to grieve, but right now, she says, “I'll just try and put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.”

Source: Al Jazeera