'I'll be back soon': One woman's determination to return to Sudan

'I want to come back to my house,' says Dallia Abdelmoniem, whose family all had to flee Khartoum.

mud huts in the dusk with hills behind
The simple homes along the road to Gadarif [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]
The simple homes along the road to Gadarif [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]

On the morning of April 15, Dallia Abdelmoniem and her family realised their lives in Khartoum would never be the same again, after fighting began between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). One week, two displacements and many many stressful hours later, they arrived in Port Sudan. From there, everyone will scatter to find safety wherever they can. Here is her story, in her own words.

I’m in Port Sudan now, safe and quiet in my sister Mai’s house after nine days of unbelievable stress in Khartoum, 800km (500 miles) to the southwest. Here, on the Red Sea, there’s electricity, there’s running water, and there are no sounds of gunfire or jets flying over our heads or bombs going off. We were able to sleep a bit last night. The kids have calmed down, their resilience is amazing; they’ve managed to find space to function and are even playing right now.

I have no family left in Khartoum, they’ve all scattered to whatever safe destination they can get to. Everyone used to escape to Khartoum. Now, everyone is escaping from Khartoum.

What they're doing, these generals, it's not right - neither is the fact that we've been left to deal with them and we didn’t create them. We’re a punching bag, we’ve been the punching bag for so long. How long and how much more can we take?

Madness

Dallia leaving Sudan narrative
The few pieces of luggage the extended family was able to leave with [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]
The few pieces of luggage the extended family was able to leave with [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]

I left with my mother, Mai and her two kids, my brother Haythem and his wife Razaz and their two-year-old daughter Nadine. There were also aunts and cousins with us, there were 29 of us on the road northeast.

We’re all having to decide where we can go. Mai was planning to go to the United Arab Emirates at first because her eldest daughter Thuraya is there and she has residency, but then the Egyptian government organised an evacuation flight on Wednesday and because Mai and her younger kids Kenza and Mustafa are Egyptian nationals, they left on it.

Razaz and Nadine will likely go to Egypt, because Razaz’s famiy is going there. My mother and I are going to try to get on the boat to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and from there fly to the United Kingdom with my cousins and aunts because we all have visas and we can just go and be calm for a while and figure out our head from our feet, as we say. My mother is shaken, she just said, “Where you go, I go with you.” So she's made it very easy for me.

I can't face the hassle of the Egyptian crossing right now, and by all accounts from everyone who’s crossed, it's beyond a nightmare. Ultimately, it will be Egypt for me but at this moment in time, I just need a break

And my mom will need a checkup ... it's crazy what she and my aunts went through on the trip to Port Sudan, which ended up taking 26 hours instead of the eight or nine it would normally take. We told them: “Don't drink because there's no bathroom ... We can't stop.” The women stayed dehydrated so they wouldn't have to go to the toilet.

A painting on a table by a stack of books
The art that was hanging in Dallia's home - an ode to the vibrancy and warmth of Sudan - was packed away, she hopes it will all still be there when she gets back [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]

There's a part of me that can’t believe I'm leaving my country and moving with only a small hold-all with a few things that I managed to grab: my documents, my phone charger and three items of clothing, which I keep wearing. I wear them to sleep and when I'm awake, and that’s how we’re surviving.

Haytham will stay for another week to will finish some work because he, like a lot of business owners, hasn’t been able to pay salaries to his employees. So they want to pay two or three months advance salaries because that's the only way people are going to survive. I have no idea how he will pay, the banks in Port Sudan should start to open but Khartoum is a no-go. It's literally only Khartoum that shut down, the rest of the country is working.

He’s stressed, the first night he couldn’t sleep even though he was tired so he went to meet with other business owners who had come to Port Sudan so they could all just think together about what to do. Everyone is being hit, and their employees - they don’t know who’s going to take care of them.

Dallia leaving Sudan narrative
[Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]

On the road to Port Sudan, someone messaged me and told me to stop and buy flour and sugar and essentials because there's going to be a shortage everywhere. The factories have been hit and people have cleaned out the food warehouses. Pasta, flour, sugar ... cleaned out. Pretty soon, people will be attacking each other just for a gramme of sugar or flour.

The bakeries are gone. One big one got hit, the rest have no power. Until today, the Amarat district in Khartoum still has no power. Nearly two weeks. It’s madness, madness.

The kids were scared, we all were

Smoke is seen rise from buildings during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan
Smoke rises during clashes between the RSF and the army, April 22, 2023 [Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]
Smoke rises during clashes between the RSF and the army, April 22, 2023 [Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

We live in Amarat in Khartoum, very close to the airport and in the heart of the violence when it broke out. The first time we heard a blast, we were just wondering what was happening.

Then the messages started: attacks, clashes, gunfire. We were paralysed, standing there looking at each other. And the kids, they were so scared, I was scared, we were all scared. Every time a bomb or shell went off, we would jump. All of us: Kenza, Nadine, even Thawra, my cat - she would hide under the bed and not come out. Nadine would fling herself at whoever was near her and just cling to them. She's two years old, but she knew this was not normal. And Mai wasn't with us, that was even worse for Kenza and Mustafa, who are 11 and 15.

Mai had gone out to run an errand on that Saturday, April 15. She got caught in the middle of a crossfire and had to run into a hotel to hide. When things calmed down, she was able to drive to my cousin, who lives down the road from where she was in Riad, but the roads weren’t safe enough for her to come back to Amarat. Then, she had to move to another area, Soba, because our cousin’s house soon had bullets flying into the front yard.

Kenza ... poor Kenza. The six days we were in the Amarat house without her mother, I think she survived on four or five spoonfuls of rice, and water. She kept throwing up the whole time, saying, “I just want to leave. Just get me out. I don't want to hear the sounds any more.”

Ya Allah [Oh God], those fighter jets when they take off. Our houses, they're not flimsy, these are solid structures, we don't have collapsing buildings in Sudan. But these houses were shaking like paper. Even an earthquake wouldn’t be as bad as those fighter jets, it was just horrible.

On the fifth day of the fighting, Wednesday, April 19, our house got hit. A missile tore into the upstairs, right into Haytham and Razaz’s bedroom. Usually, they’re upstairs but that day we were all downstairs because we were trying to conserve our solar battery use, so we all sat in one room so we wouldn't have to use many fans or lights.

Haythem was adamant then that we had to try to leave and catch up with Mai in Soba. Until then, we were being told by friends and family to stay put, that that was safest, but once the sanctity of your house is breached, there's no way you can stay.

Also, the RSF was on our block. They took over the house beside us and the house behind us. We could see them from upstairs when we peeked out of the windows, just strolling in front of our house. One of the houses they took was the Indian embassy, they kicked out the security guards and then set up base there. We share a fence with the Indian embassy house, and the security guards escaped from the roof into our house.

They jumped into our garden and then walked out through the garage. We actually thought they were RSF because they were dressed in plainclothes. We were petrified thinking the RSF were in our house, but they were just these two security guards escaping.

So we wanted to leave but found that we couldn't, the cars were unusable because they (RSF) damaged them. Then Razaz’s two brothers-in-law called and said they would come get us the next morning.

I don't know how they were able to get in because it was easier to get out of Amarat at the time than for anyone to come in. But they came, in a big minivan and they had two guys from the resistance committees with them who could sweet talk the RSF if they met any, slip them a few dollars. This was the only way.

A kitten sleeping in someone's hands
Thawra when Dallia first found her as a tiny kitten in the garden [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]

It was like being taken into witness protection, run, run, run ... two people would run to get into the car, then two more people run to get in the car. Throw the bags in.

It hit me the most when I had to leave Thawra, I was in pieces. Everyone else started crying, too. The idea of leaving Thawra behind was horrible. I dream of her, but I had no choice. It was either I stayed with the cat and my mother stays with me, or I saved my mother. And I had to save my mother. But I couldn't take Thawra, and I don't want to pretend to be OK.

So we drove away, really slow. We took every single side road, every single alleyway; we completely ignored the main road until we got out of Amarat, and that’s when we were able to get to the first safe house because the car we were in ran out of diesel. There's no fuel in Khartoum, so we had to wait.

photocollage of a boy's face with a Sudanese flag
In 2019, Dallia participated in the protests against strongman President Omar al-Bashir that eventually led to his removal. This is a photo mosaic at one of the sit-ins in May 2019 [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]

After about an hour, Mai and my cousin's husband came in her car and picked us up and we drove to my cousin in Soba. It was quiet there, but Nadine for two days was having a meltdown. She'd wake up and just scream and scream and scream and no one knew why.

We were safe in Soba, until they decided to evacuate the Americans who lived across the road from my cousin. Then “they” (both sides probably) realised, “Oh, this is a new part of Khartoum that we haven't breached.” The minute the Americans left, we started hearing the bullets and rockets. And that’s when we decided to use the “ceasefire” to get out of Khartoum to Port Sudan.

Who goes first?

People getting onto trucks to try and leave northern Khartoum.
People trying to get on trucks to flee clashes between the RSF and the army, April 26, 2023 [Stringer/Reuters]
People trying to get on trucks to flee clashes between the RSF and the army, April 26, 2023 [Stringer/Reuters]

So, on Sunday, we found ourselves having to decide who was priority one, who’s priority two, who’s priority three. Number one was the elderly and the ones with the youngest kids. Two were the families with older kids. Priority three was “the light ones”, ie me and Haytham and one other cousin because we are quick and can move easily. Somehow, by pure luck, it turned out that all the available seats were on the same bus, so despite already having said goodbye to my mother, I was able to travel with her.

People disembark off a passenger bus at the Multaga rest-stop near Ganetti in Sudan's Northern State
The bus rides were long and arduous in most cases, for those lucky enough to get a seat, April 25, 2023 [AFP]

Our driver, Mohanad, knew the road well - every bump, every pothole. So he gave us as smooth a ride as possible.

He was sweet, he kept playing all the Fast and Furious movies for us, thinking that was going to make us feel better. My mom kept saying that we were already stressed, but I told her to leave it. And he would blast his music really loud. The guy barely sleeps, he’s basically driving back and forth, Khartoum to Port Sudan, every day, and he's surviving on maybe five hours of sleep. Mohanad is this big, burly, Sudanese guy wearing this crisp white galabiyya (a loose-fitting robe), with sunglasses on and blasting his music and watching his movies. He was a character.

We got stopped by the army and he said, “Guys, these people are Sudanese like me and you.”

They weren’t so sure, “Are you Sudanese?” We said we were.

“You sure?”

Then my cousin said, “Do you want me to make you kissra [fermented sorghum bread]? I'll make you kissra.”

That worked, they said, “No, no, no, we believe you, we believe you!” So it was a moment of comedy, despite the horror of our situation.

People with big coolers of karkade and water run alongside the buses
Lovely people came running to offer refreshments to the 'Khartoum travellers' and refused any money for their hospitality - a moment that Dallia says encapsulates everything about Sudan [Courtesy: Dallia Abdelmoniem]

I think one memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life was on the road to Madani, we were driving and all of a sudden the traffic stopped and we wondered what the hold-up was. Mohanad said calmly, “Oh, they're handing out cold karkade [hibiscus juice] and water.”

“They” were these people who lived there. Now, their homes weren’t right next to the highway, they were a ways back, but these amazing people would come running from their simple huts, I doubt they had electricity or running water, but they came to the road with these huge coolers full of karkade and water, lots of them.

At one point there were between 10 and 15 buses and a couple of trucks full of people. And these lovely people came running to offer refreshments to the “Khartoum travellers” and refused any money for their hospitality. It was a moment that encapsulates everything about Sudan.

People are evacuated due to clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese army
People are evacuated due to clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese army, in Port Sudan [Ibrahim Ishaaq/Reuters]

Once we got to Port Sudan, Nadine calmed down, I think when she saw more familiar faces like her aunts from her mother’s side and other kids, it was better. It’s quiet here, there are no explosions. She's laughing. She's eating. She wasn't eating. The girl was not eating. And she's two years old.

The kids are playing, it's good that they're occupied because it gives us a chance to plan. I'm hoping because they're young, they might get over it soon, but it's going to take a long time for them - for everyone - to fully recover.

The irony of it all

A woman is helped to drink water as she flees clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum, Sudan.
A woman fleeing the clashes in Khartoum is given a drink of water, April 25, 2023 [El-Tayeb Siddig/Reuters]
A woman fleeing the clashes in Khartoum is given a drink of water, April 25, 2023 [El-Tayeb Siddig/Reuters]

"They" really screwed us over. The mediators, the negotiators, the Western powers. "They" know nothing, "they" refused to listen to us. Believe it or not, some of the people who are evacuating the foreign nationals trapped in Khartoum are the resistance committees - the very same people who were denied a seat at the table because they were told they were too idealistic and their demands were not realistic when they said, “You cannot talk with these two men, you cannot legitimise them, especially Hemedti.”

They were brushed aside and told you’re kids, now these same so-called "kids" are the ones who went in and took out the trapped foreign nationals. They organised through social media hashtags, went around finding medication for people who needed insulin, for example. So many diabetic people don't have enough insulin, and the resistance committees make sure they get it. They make sure people survive.

People fleeing fighting across Sudan
People fleeing fighting across Sudan gather on April 26, 2023 in Port Sudan [AFP]

I knew the situation was going to get worse but I didn’t predict the fighting. I did an interview with a news outlet a few days before, and the presenter was talking about how high food prices were. I said that I was still expecting it to get much worse. He didn’t believe me, but I knew we hadn’t hit the low point yet. Three days later we did. And so there's only one way now, and that’s to go up. And that's what I'm hoping for.

Before this, those who had the means tried to cover the gaps for the others. But right now, it doesn’t matter if you have a million or if you have a pound. It's a level playing field. It's a fight of just saving your skin and making it out alive. No one has cash, no one has access to their accounts.

I'll be back soon. I want to come back to my house. We’ll either be jumping for joy or standing there wondering what the heck are we going to do now? I guess we’ll have to clean it up and keep going.

People are evacuated due to clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese army, in Port Sudan
People trying to leave Sudan, in Port Sudan, April 25, 2023 [Ibrahim Ishaaq /Reuters]
People trying to leave Sudan, in Port Sudan, April 25, 2023 [Ibrahim Ishaaq /Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera