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Residents of Sudan capital seek perilous escape as war shatters holiday

April 22, 2023 at 12:12 pm

People flee the southern part of Khartoum as street battles between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals continue on April 21, 2023 [AFP via Getty Images]

The Eid Al-Fitr holiday is usually a time for many residents of Sudan’s capital to visit relatives outside the city, which falls quiet. This year, those who can are making a frantic escape from Khartoum, driven out by war, Reuters reports.

As the three-day Muslim holiday started on Friday, the capital still echoed with gunfire and heavy artillery, despite international appeals for a ceasefire to allow for desperately needed humanitarian relief and safe passage for stranded civilians.

Both sides in the conflict agreed to a ceasefire, but it was not immediately clear when it would begin. Heavy firing continued in Khartoum.

Over the past week, increasing numbers have sought to move to safer areas of the capital – though the military has closed bridges across the River Nile between Khartoum and its sister cities of Omdurman and Bahri.

Or they have charted a route out, most often to Gezira State to the south or River Nile State to the north, wheeling suitcases along the streets or balancing bags on their heads, as they start their journeys.

Ahmed Mubarak, 27, said he felt “extreme anxiety” after the violence erupted on 15 April, and before he decided to leave Khartoum on Thursday, taking with him only the clothes he was wearing.

“There were no buses, people were walking on foot, with their bags and moving. There were cars passing, but they were all private cars and all of them were full.”

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Eventually, he hitched a lift on a bus whose owner was volunteering to transport people out of the city, and made it all the way to Atbara, about 280 km (175 miles) north-east of Khartoum, where he knocked on the door of his family home.

“They could not believe it. It was a very beautiful moment,” he said.

The power struggle between Sudan’s Army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has, for the first time, brought to Khartoum the kind of large-scale warfare and displacement that the capital’s residents had watched play out in other parts of the country in recent decades.

The clashes, which broke out in the final days of the holy month of Ramadan which Muslims fast from dawn till dusk, have cut water and power supplies for long periods, turned the Airport into a battleground and shut down most hospitals.

In many neighbourhoods of greater Khartoum, which has a population of more than 10 million, residents have been trapped in their homes, venturing out only to seek provisions at shops which have been hit by looting, and where supplies have been dwindling.

Fraught with risk 

Fuel has also become harder to find. As with other goods, prices have jumped since the start of the fighting.

“Khartoum has become dangerous, and we fear the war will get worse,” said 55-year-old Mahasin Ahmed, as she left the neighbourhood of Jabra in southern Khartoum with two relatives, hoping to find a bus to Madani, 165 km (100 miles) to the south-east.

Many who flee get their first proper view of the destruction wrought by the fighting, with buildings punctured by rockets, power lines ripped down, walls peppered with bullet holes and the smouldering remains of charred military vehicles abandoned in the streets.

As violence has erupted in other parts of Sudan, some have sought to leave the country altogether, with up to 20,000 crossing the border to Chad and others heading north towards Egypt.

The journeys are fraught with risk. Those fleeing often have to cross RSF checkpoints, where they are typically waved through but where some civilians have reportedly been shot.

Makram Waleed, a 25-year-old doctor, was hoping to leave Khartoum with his family but was worried about the dangers to his three younger sisters.

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“The risk of leaving our house, leaving our belongings, is just way too hard to process,” he said.

In Khartoum, where the RSF have embedded themselves in several neighbourhoods, some fear that if they leave their homes, paramilitary fighters will move in.

Alia Mutawkel, a 26-year-old architect and interior designer living in Khartoum, was trying to find a safe route out of the city with two siblings, her uncle and his children, and her 8-month-old nephew, after their plans to celebrate Eid visiting family and friends within the city were ruined.

“Will we be able to leave the house or not? If we leave the house, will we be safe? And if we leave, will we be able to go back to our house and our lives in Khartoum? All of these questions in my head and I have no answer for them.”

Sudan: Fighting erupts in Khartoum between the army and paramilitary force - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Sudan: Fighting erupts in Khartoum between the army and paramilitary force – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]