I’ll always remember the way my heart dropped when the gut-wrenching news came out that fighting had broken out in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
Worry burned through my veins as my mind stirred over my family’s safety and the uncertainty of Sudan’s future. They were questions that had no real answers then. Months and battles and bodies later, I’ve still come up empty.
I’ve visited Sudan regularly since I was seven. Some of my childhood experiences there were worlds away from the mundane life I lived in the U.S. Throughout my time there, I would drift down the Nile River on boat rides. Not to brag, but that’s not something you do every day.
I still fondly treasure memories of lunch with my mom’s side of the family, when I would eat a variety of Sudanese and North African dishes, like fūl, mulukhiya and mullah. Eating them in the States will never feel like eating them in Sudan.
Right after, I would spend the night with my cousins on my dad’s side because they were closer to my age. And if I weren’t there, I would play with my cousin’s small kids, who would visit from Australia. Since then, I’ve built long-distance relationships with them over 8,000 miles away from my home in the States.
But April 15 changed these memories forever. On that day, fighting erupted in Khartoum between the Sudanese Armed Forces, the country’s military, and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces, sparking a power struggle that worsened a devastating humanitarian crisis in Sudan. The two groups are still fighting over control of the country and its resources.
Seeing Sudan in shambles has shattered my heart into a million pieces. I still wonder how long the war will drag on and when the world will stop turning a blind eye to the country I love. Sudanese people around the world are mourning the significant losses our country has sustained. But like Sudan itself, we remain standing courageously to ensure the world does not forget about our struggle.
The real war versus global perception
Sudan seemed to be headed toward a path to democracy after the fall of former President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year regime in April 2019, which was riddled with humanitarian crises — the dictator is wanted by the International Criminal Court for 10 counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Initially, the military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, temporarily ruled the country after al-Bashir was ousted.
Beginning with Sudan’s 2019 Constitutional Declaration and 2020 Juba Agreement for Peace in Sudan, the country embarked on a steady climb toward democracy. In 2019, the civilians and military formed the Transitional Sovereignty Council, a power-sharing partnership that would temporarily reign until democratic elections were slated to be held in 2022. Al-Burhan then became the council’s president.
In October 2021, however, al-Burhan led the Sudanese military in a coup to seize power from the civilian representatives in the council, interrupting the country’s charted course toward democracy. After dissolving the council, al-Burhan repeatedly said the military would return authority to elected civilians. Nearly a month after the coup, Sudan’s prime minister was reinstated in November 2021 when he signed a controversial deal to reestablish the council and once again share power with the military and al-Burhan.
As part of the deal, the prime minister’s role dramatically shrank, and he resigned less than six weeks later amid mass protests against his deal with the military. This left de facto control of Sudan to al-Burhan. Now, al-Burhan is leading the SAF in the war against his former second-in-command, who turned against him and is now leading the RSF against his forces to win control over Sudan.
Sara Elhassan, also known as @BSonblast on social media, is a Sudanese American political writer who provides daily updates on X and Instagram to “fill the gap” in international media coverage of the war. She gathers news from media outlets, grassroots resistance committees and emergency response teams in Sudan. These local organizations usually post information about fighting or program initiatives happening in their communities. On-the-ground activists in Sudan will also contact her to relay information.
Elhassan said she has had to fill the information gap herself because the world has falsely viewed Sudan and Africa as places where turmoil is unending, typical and even normalized. The sudden shock value of the war didn’t affect non-Sudanese people because they had a preconceived notion that the country’s citizens always lived in conflict even though shock was the immediate reaction for Sudanese people.
“Sudan doesn’t really have a big presence in the global consciousness because for 30 years, we were completely isolated from the world,” Elhassan said, referring to al-Bashir’s regime. “Some people didn’t know where Sudan was until Rihanna posted about it in 2019. I think it’s difficult for the world to care when they have no frame of reference for people they don’t know.”
Major American media outlets have failed to televise and distribute significant information about the conflict in Sudan, according to The Nation. The lack of global media coverage of the war may even promote the perception that the conflict is improving, according to a United Nations memo. In turn, the U.S. and the rest of the world have responded slowly to Sudan’s spiraling humanitarian crisis — even as the bodies pile up and civilians’ lives are uprooted.
“There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that make it difficult for the war not only to stop but also for people to know what is happening,” Elhassan said. “What role has the media played? Little to none.”
As of this May, about 24.7 million people, or roughly half of Sudan’s population, need humanitarian assistance, yet 70% of the country’s medical facilities are inoperational due to insufficient supplies and staff, as well as civilians’ inability to safely reach them. The SAF and RSF have destroyed hospitals, factories and infrastructure, halting work and severely limiting vital resources, including food.
The journey away from home
Since the conflict broke out, over 4 million people have been internally displaced, and that number continues to rise. As of September, over 1 million people have left Sudan as refugees and migrated to neighboring countries, like Egypt, Chad, South Sudan and Ethiopia.
April 15 began as a seemingly typical spring Saturday morning in Khartoum. Many were getting ready for work, but my cousin, Mohi Gamal was at home when he heard strange noises from far away. He didn’t know if they were bombs, construction or something else entirely. “I joked to myself, ‘It started. They’re fighting each other,’” he said.
He dismissed the unfamiliar sounds after noticing a landscaper noisily fixing the patio outside. While talking with the landscaper, however, the same sounds boomed through the air again. It was then that he realized they weren’t coming from the landscaper. The fighting really had begun.
After this seismic realization, Mohi, his sister Attiat and his mom, my Aunt Amira, received a phone call from my uncle to stay inside, downstairs and away from the windows.
It was the one day Mohi didn’t make his weekly shopping trip. As a result, their family missed the chance to stock up because they now couldn’t leave the house — and they didn’t know when the next time they’d be able to would be. Endless questions about the challenges they would now have to face popped into their minds.
“How long is it going to be?” Mohi said. “How do you move around? How do you contact people?”
On the first day, they had electricity, but by the next day, it was cut off. The noises outside were deafening. The fighting came in fits — it would begin before dawn, quiet down by 4 p.m., and then start again toward the evening. After enduring this for five days, they realized they couldn’t live in these conditions.
One of the first areas struck by fighting was Khartoum’s airport, which would have provided civilians with the best route to safety. The airport was close to Mohi’s house. I remember sleeping over when I was little and hearing airplanes zoom by the bedroom.
The airport was also a vital resource for Aunt Amira. Mohi was concerned for his mom because some of the medications she needed weren’t available in Sudan amid the fighting, so they were hoping to travel to Egypt or England to get them. But now the airport was destroyed.
Eventually, Mohi’s family moved to my uncle’s in-laws’ house in a different part of Khartoum where it was calmer. Rumors spread that if you drove in a big car, the RSF or soldiers would hijack it, so six of them packed into a small car with their bags and headed west.
Using social media, they were able to determine the best routes to take to avoid the fighting. Thankfully, they safely made it to my uncle’s laws’ house, where shops were still open and kids were playing on the streets. “This is a different world,” Mohi said.
When they first arrived, they were thankful to once again have power to charge their phones and watch the news. But bizarrely, Mohi said, the power went out that night. The first night was hot — with no fans, sleeping was difficult, and Mohi tossed and turned.
Mohi’s family stayed for four nights. By the fourth day, the fighting drew close, and a bomb razed a neighboring house to the ground — thankfully, it was empty. The in-laws were considering leaving Khartoum, so Mohi’s family decided their next safe haven would be Egypt.
After the warring factions called a ceasefire to allow citizens to evacuate, Mohi, Aunt Amira and Attiat returned home to collect important things, like their passports. When they arrived, it was the first time in over a week that they had been home. It was too quiet, and the streets were eerily empty.
Traveling to Cairo was a tough journey. First, Mohi’s family had to determine which bus stations to depart from — some of the buses could hold 50 people. They learned the bus would pick civilians up for a fee, but sometimes, bus drivers wouldn’t even show up because they found a better price. Now that the war had broken out, Mohi’s family was living in a new world ruled by uncertainty.
“It’s weird how things work when a war happens,” Mohi recalled. “It doesn’t matter how things are planned — new systems emerge.”
They were finally able to catch a bus going to Halfa, a district in Sudan near the Egyptian border. It took an hour and a half just to get out of Khartoum on the safest routes. The bus driver planned the trip poorly; the bus ran out of gas, so they had to spend the night on the bus.
“The journey with all these things was annoying,” Mohi said. “I mean, my expectations were very low. Really low. But you just keep calm and carry on.”
The trip to Halfa took two days. Once they arrived, there were no hotels or apartments to rent. Instead, travelers fleeing the fighting would sleep in mosques or even schools.
Finally, Mohi’s family was able to reach Cairo by ferry. Once they arrived, Mohi’s brother, who lived in England, booked them a luxurious hotel, which gave them a chance to go sightseeing — well deserved after a tough and perilous trip to safety.
‘The worst experience anyone could go through’
For some, it wasn’t as easy to cross the border from Sudan to Egypt. In June, after Mohi’s family had already reached Cairo, the Egyptian government required all Sudanese people to obtain visas to enter the country. This new rule expanded a prior rule that required only Sudanese males aged 16-49 to have a visa to enter Egypt. According to Human Rights Watch, this violated “international standards by creating unreasonable and life-threatening delays in processing asylum seekers.”
As a result of the rules, my cousins Osama and Hashim Shakir had to stay behind in Halfa longer than anticipated. They were stuck there for 43 days, living in a classroom and sleeping on the floor while awaiting visas to enter Egypt.
“I don’t know how to explain this,” Osama said. “It was the worst experience anyone could go through.”
Their water supply was dwindling, so they resorted to using tanks to fill up on water from the Nile, which wasn’t ideal. There was a response committee in Halfa that always managed to get Osama and his family what they needed. But there was no hospital — only a small clinic. When people were seeking medical advice and doctors, Osama was one of the few medical professionals available.
After two months of the war, Osama finally obtained the coveted visa he needed in June and embarked on the long journey to Cairo. Now, he and his family are waiting for the fighting in Sudan to die down.
But just because they’re away from it all doesn’t mean the challenges have stopped for Osama and his family. Now, they’re facing even more changes in Egypt, including finding new jobs and moving houses.
“This is not as important as the sadness of being taken out from your own home,” Osama said. “Life has difficulties. (Sudan) was the first place to call home.”
Within the diaspora
The Sudanese community abroad has reeled with shock in response to the violent events that took place on April 15, said Tarteel Alimam, executive administrator for the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights advocacy group in the country. When the fighting broke out in April, CAIR declared its support for the people of Sudan.
Unfortunately, Alimam, who is Sudanese American, did not have the luxury of sitting with her emotions, she said. Her impulses drove her to act because “Sudan needed us,” referring to Sudanese people abroad who could raise awareness about the conflict from afar.
“It’s almost too easy for the rest of the world to turn a blind eye,” Alimam said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to ensure that the world hears and understands what’s happening in Sudan.”
She processed her emotional distress by posting on social media, raising awareness and collecting information from people in Sudan about the war.
It’s common for Sudanese people within the diaspora to feel powerless as we witness our family members and friends in Sudan fight to survive such a traumatic event.
Heba Saad, a Sudanese American junior studying business entrepreneurship and finance, was also overcome by shock when news about the war broke. Her cousin sent her a video of a bomb exploding near a Sudanese hospital. For her, it felt unfathomable that this was happening in Sudan.
“Why did this happen during my lifetime?” Saad said. “During their lifetime right here, right now?”
As a Sudanese American woman, she often feels that her identity is fetishized because of terms like “Nubian queen” and “Kushite princess.” Yet some people still don’t even know where Sudan is and what is happening in the country.
“There’s not a lot of humanization around Sudanese people’s culture, history, struggles or anything,” Saad said. “It’s just, ‘Oh, more Africans or Middle Easterners killing themselves.’ It’s just disappointing.”
Ahmed Wali, a senior studying justice studies, adamantly believes Sudan does not receive enough media attention abroad.
“The eyes are not on Sudan like they should be,” he said. “We’re running away from the main problem. War is still happening. People are still dying, and the world needs to put their vision back on what’s happening in Sudan.”
Months have passed since Sudanese people woke up to the booming sounds of battle. As in many international conflicts, many still don’t know what’s to come. Now, we are living in a new world of uncertainty.
What is happening in Sudan isn’t normal. I am appalled by how the international community has treated and responded — or rather, failed to treat and respond — to it. The only reason why this story is even being written is because I am a Sudanese American journalist. Elhassan and Alimam have to use their online platforms because non- Sudanese people won’t.
I believe Cronkite News, The Arizona Republic and even The State Press had the opportunity to publish more nuanced reporting on the conflict before me. Activists like Alimam and Elhassan are based right here in Arizona.
At the same time, I cannot blame only them when it falls on the rest of the world for turning a blind eye. If we don’t speak up, who will tell our stories? Who will know what we did to fight back, and who will remember our everyday battles to survive?
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen
This story is part of The Element Issue, which was released on Nov. 1, 2023. See the entire publication here.