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‘A ticket to anywhere’: Stories of grief and relief on a bus out of Khartoum

‘We were living for five days under continuous fire.’

Residents of Khartoum gather belongings outside of a bus as they flee clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army, on 24 April 2023. El-Tayeb Siddig/Reuters
Residents of Khartoum gather belongings as they flee clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army, on 24 April 2023.

The bus driver played Quranic verses through the stereo system as we chugged through Khartoum on Saturday. We were trying to leave behind a city held hostage by the egos of Sudan’s rival military generals.


As we left the capital, passing a final checkpoint and burnt-out vehicles, the mood suddenly swung: The driver ditched the prayers for a jaunty Sudanese pop song, and an American action film began playing on a television monitor. 


Among the 50 passengers on board was a family that started handing out sweets to celebrate. Al-Humdulillah al-salameh, al-Humdulillah al-salameh, the family said – thank God for your safety.


Vast numbers of Sudanese are escaping the conflict that broke out last month between the army and the country’s main paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces. While some are heading abroad, others are moving to safer areas within the country.


Over the weekend, I left Khartoum for the eastern Red Sea city of Port Sudan, a safe haven where evacuations are currently taking place. On a 14-hour bus journey I witnessed the relief of those escaping after weeks of relentless conflict.


“Immediately after I got out of detention, I went back home, took my luggage and my father, and we came to the bus station looking for a ticket to travel anywhere.”


I also saw a glimpse into what people have been facing: people like Abdul Moniem, a civil servant who lived for five days under continuous fire; and people like Haitham Mohammed, a trader who was arrested by the RSF and saw them torturing detainees.


“Immediately after I got out [of detention], I went back home, took my luggage and my father, and we came to the bus station looking for a ticket to travel anywhere,” Mohammed told me.


Roadblocks and profiteers

Finding a seat on a bus leaving Khartoum isn’t easy right now. The price of a fare to Port Sudan is almost $200, far more than it was before the crisis. Seats to the Egyptian border have been selling for even more. 


The profiteering bus companies were the subject of discussion among those on board, even if the solidarity of the Sudanese has shone through clearly over the past three weeks.


Our route through Khartoum reflected the current balance of power on the battleground: RSF fighters were deployed everywhere, standing aggressively on four-wheel ‘technicals’.


The RSF dominates the streets in Khartoum, but they are afraid of airstrikes and cannot move freely. The army isn’t visible on the ground, but they still control military bases and government institutions.


My fellow passengers were afraid as we crossed Manshiya bridge into Khartoum’s East Nile neighbourhood. RSF soldiers were sitting under trees, hiding from army aeroplanes while keeping their eyes fixed on the sky.


The fighters stopped us to inspect the bus as we passed through one of their camps. At another checkpoint, they told male passengers to disembark so they could search through luggage, presumably for any evidence of army affiliation or weapons.


It wasn't until we reached the town of Shendi, 150 kilometres north of Khartoum, that we saw Sudanese soldiers for the first time. They also boarded the bus to check for RSF agents and weapons.


A civil servant on the run

The majority of the passengers were relieved as we left Khartoum, but they were also sad and shocked at what they had seen. They shared stories with each other about houses that had been bombed and looted, and incidents at checkpoints.


The story of Moniem, the civil servant who was travelling with his wife and four daughters, epitomised the struggle of Khartoum’s civilians. Fighting had stalked his family for days, and forced them to run from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.


The family live in a district close to the military headquarters, and which houses senior army officers and ministers. Their home is also near Khartoum international airport, which has been a flashpoint in the conflict.


The RSF controlled the neighbourhood from the first day of the fighting, said Moniem, who is 70. “We were living for five days under continuous fire, under our beds,” he told me. “The sound of the gunfire never stopped, not even for five minutes.” 


Moniem said he got out of the neighbourhood by leveraging relationships with local RSF officers who live in the same area. He said he had cultivated these ties before the war, in ordinary conversations with officers on the streets and in mosques.


On the fifth day of the conflict, an RSF vehicle took his family to the Khartoum 2 neighbourhood. But the presence of RSF fighters in that area exposed them to bombing from army warplanes.


“It wasn’t safe because there are many RSF, and the army conducted many air offensives,” Moniem said. “The electricity had [also been] cut for three days, so we decided to leave.”


The family moved next to a neighbourhood in the south of Khartoum, but their struggle continued. They finally decided to leave for Port Sudan, to stay with a relative who lives in the city.


If RSF officers helped Moniem, the other passenger I spoke to – Mohammed, the Khartoum trader – shared a very different experience as he and has his father sat anxiously on the bus.


Mohammed said he was arrested by the RSF after braving the streets to buy vegetables and bread. Fighters accused him of being an army officer and took him to a base for six hours of questioning.


Detainees were being tortured, Mohammed said: “They didn’t torture me, but I saw them torturing others. I told them that I’m not [an army officer] and after a lot of questions they released me.”


These accounts come from just two people on one bus heading to Port Sudan. They give a sense of the scale of the suffering that has befallen Khartoum and the surrounding area – home to more than seven million people.


Port Sudan: Crowded and chaotic

The suffering was also evident in Port Sudan on our arrival. The town has become a hub for evacuations, and looks set to become an operating base for the UN and aid groups.


According to locals I spoke with, the price of goods and accommodation is already shooting up as new arrivals and international organisations snap up apartments, hotels, and offices.


Port Sudan is where I am originally from, and I worry about its ability to cope. The bombs may not be falling here right now, but difficult days lie ahead – for the town and for my fellow bus passengers, whatever they do next.


Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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