How One Family Escaped the War in Sudan – and What They Carried with Them

Photo for The Washington Post by Sima Diab.
Abdelrahman Satti, 9, shows the one book he was able to take with him.

ASWAN, Egypt – The family of four packed their bags quickly. There was only room for essentials.

The mother, Sheraz Himad, a dentist, hid her gold jewelry in a package of menstrual pads and handed their house key to a neighbor – not knowing if, or when, they might be back.

It was early on the morning of April 23 in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. After a week of heavy fighting between rival military forces, foreign nations were rushing to evacuate their citizens and diplomats. Sudanese were left to fend for themselves.

As Sheraz, 40, and her husband Yasir Satti, 50, a university professor, rushed to the bus station with their two young sons, fighter jets pounded the city.

Behind them was the only home their children had ever known. Ahead was a 15-hour journey to the Egyptian border.

Thousands of Sudanese civilians have taken the same treacherous route over the last month – coordinating their escapes from the war-ravaged capital on Facebook and WhatsApp groups and spending hundreds of dollars on bus seats to flee north. Tickets are now so expensive that most of those crossing into Egypt are upper class Sudanese, traveling with only what they can carry.

At least 700,000 people have been displaced and at least 500 civilians have been killed since the violence began on April 15 – when a rivalry between Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the military chief and de facto head of state, and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who heads the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary, exploded into open conflict.

Some young men have reached the border with Egypt only to realize they do not have the visas required for entry. Others, like Sheraz and her family, have waited for days on both sides, sleeping on the street as their passports were processed.

Many of Sudan’s poorest are still trapped in the capital, often with no water or electricity, under constant bombardment.

Days after Sheraz and Yasir fled with their sons, their neighbor called. A rocket had just hit her house.

“‘I have nothing,'” Sheraz recalled her saying over the phone. “‘Your keys, my keys, everything was there.'”

– – –

‘Why are they fighting’?

No one expected a war.

It was early on a Saturday morning when Sheraz first heard gunfire. A part-time science teacher, she was grading papers in her office, just three blocks from an RSF camp, when she saw smoke billowing and people running for cover. Just a block away, Yasir and their two sons, Ammar, 12 and Abdulrahman, 9 were asleep at home.

It was only a small scuffle, she figured, and went back to grading. But after three hours of gunfights and shelling, she raced home. Later that day, the power went out in their house. It never came back.

Desperate to maintain contact with the outside world, they passed their phones over garden walls to a neighbor down the street who had a generator and could charge them. The family slept in one room and started rationing water, fearing their tank with reserves would soon run out. It was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and even as they gathered at sundown to pray and break their fast, the shelling continued.

Sheraz tried to reassure her kids, telling them the army was “just fighting those bad people.”

Inside, she was reeling – and angry at both sides.

“Me and my husband, we tried to settle down in our own country,” she said. Life was not always easy – there were protests, power cuts and plenty of uncertainty. “We had all of the bad things,” she said. “Except for war.”

Now there was that too.

12-year-old Ammar, voted most respectful of his classmates, was too scared to sleep at night, shutting his eyes only when the others woke up in the morning. 9-year-old Abdulrahman, named the best reader at school, begged for anything to keep him cool at night. Sheraz fanned him until he fell asleep. “‘Why are they fighting?” she recalled the younger one asking. “When will they stop this?'”

On the fifth day, a rocket hit a house across the square – killing three of their neighbors. On the sixth day, on a neighborhood WhatsApp chat, residents arranged for an engineer to repair the damaged power lines. The RSF refused to let him work.

Sheraz and Yasir knew they had to leave.

– – –

‘Where are you going?’

In another part of Khartoum, their relative, Sara Ali, 26, a jewelry designer, was planning her own escape. Through a friend whose father owns a bus company, she organized a bus that could transport more than 50 people to Egypt. It would cost $12,000, around $250 each – five times the normal price.

It didn’t take long to fill the seats with acquaintances and relatives, including Sheraz and Yasir.

They would each take one bag, they decided, and the boys would split another. They collected all their documents first, including ones that prove they own their home.

Then they packed a few changes of comfortable clothes – leaving everything fancy behind. Sheraz also packed her gold, expecting she would need to sell it to survive without work in Egypt. Abdulrahman packed a book and the school prize he won for reading 51 stories in a single year. Ammar tried to squeeze in a soccer ball; Sheraz added a few family photos to her bag.

Yasir took out the photos – they had digital copies – and the ball, knowing he could replace it in Egypt. The lighter they traveled, he thought, the easier the journey would be.

As explosions rang out around them, the family waited with extended relatives and other desperate passengers for the bus to arrive. The group included six university students and two teenage boys they found on the street.

“I’m only 26 and I was responsible for 53 people, including men,” Sara said.

Sara, her mom, two brothers and various relatives were also on board, including Zuhal Mohammed Elamin, a prominent law professor who helped write Sudan’s draft constitution and had met with the warring parties just a day before the fighting began. She made the wrenching decision to flee without her husband, who is paralyzed and who would stay behind with their sons. She was the last one to get on the bus.

At the first checkpoint, controlled by Sudan’s army, soldiers warned them to hide their jewelry before the next stop, which would be manned by RSF. Sheraz hid her wedding ring under her shirt and pulled her headscarf tight to conceal her earrings.

At the RSF checkpoint, troops boarded the bus and searched the men. Sheraz sat shaking – fearing they would find Yasir’s cash.

“Where are you going?” she recalled the RSF troops asking. “Aren’t you ashamed? Sudan is your country . . . why are you leaving your country behind?”

“You feel like they are saying that in mocking way,” Yasir said.

They passed through some 20 checkpoints, along roads scarred by burning army equipment and destroyed homes. After 15 hours, at 11 p.m., they made it to the border.

For two nights, they slept on the street or on bus seats. Abdulrahman found his best friend from school also waiting in line. They hugged and made plans to see each other in Cairo. Some of the passengers, including Sara’s brothers, were denied entry due to the visa restrictions.

“It was very messy,” Yasir said. When the crowd got angry, he feared he would lose his passport in the chaos.

After three days, they were stamped into Egypt. They were exhausted – but they were safe.

More than a dozen members of the extended family made their way to a hotel on the Nile in Aswan. Outside, tourists rode camels and browsed in shops selling flowering pants and colorful bags. Inside their rooms, the family slept and checked the news from Khartoum.

Soon, they would all leave for Cairo and start looking for places to stay. How long would they be there? The uncertainty haunted them – it felt like a bad dream.

Zuhal, the lawyer, who is related to Sheraz, wept as she recalled the week of bombing she had just endured. She spent the only cash she had on medicine. The gold she had hoped to pass down to her children would be used to pay for food and housing.

She has two PhDs and had spent her life working for a better Sudan, she said – hoping to resolve the very differences that were now tearing her country apart.

“I’m indifferent . . . I can’t enjoy this view,” she said, gesturing to sailboats drifting by on the Nile. “I eat and drink to survive.”

The rest of the extended family went through their belongings and realized just how little they had packed. One cousin, Wafaa, regretted not bringing her visa card or diplomas. Ammar realized the soccer ball was gone. He wished he, too, had packed a book.

Had they at least taken something special with them?, a reporter asked.

“Something special?” Yasir repeated. Then, with the clarity of someone who has left everything else behind, he replied: “My family.”