The horrors of the Khartoum war and its repercussions on the lives of refugees from South Sudan

May 17th, 2023 - written by: Tahani Ajak

Tahani is a resident of a refugee camp for South Sudanese in White Nile State in Sudan. She writes about the lives and struggles of refugees to bring visibility to them and their right to life.

They love life and cling to the little that keeps them alive, if even on its edge. They stubbornly survived with their children during the outbreak of war in 2013 between President Salva Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar. They crossed the borders of countries, establishing a new life, inspired by the memories of the rich lives that they led in their villages, inspired by the rhythm of drums, the sounds of their songs, the clamour of their feet on the ground as they performed their collective dances, and the blessing of their gods, Ngundeng and Nyikang.

More than 500,000 people from the Shilluk and Nuer tribes live in refugee camps in White Nile State, Sudan, distributed between eleven camps that lean on the eastern and western banks of the Nile. They depend on a few food rations distributed to them by the functioning humanitarian organizations. However, given their extended stay, the deterioration of services and the lack of job opportunities, many families are forced to leave the refugee camps to the large cities and their outskirts, in search for work and opportunities to improve their lives.

The city of Khartoum was one of the destinations that many of these families headed to; it is estimated that 80% of the refugees live on subsistence on its outskirts— a miserable life in houses that almost burn them with the raging heat of the sun and the stings of the winter cold. They depend on day to day domestic and construction work, for which the whole family leaves early each day to earn a livelihood, and from which they return in the evening, carrying the day’s pay and a bag of bread and vegetables.

The morning of April 15, which saw an outbreak of armed clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, was a sad and bloody morning in the city. The soldiers were deployed in all of Khartoum’s streets and alleys, exchanging dense and heavy fire. Aircraft hovered above chasing the hostile forces and hurling lava over people’s heads, penetrating their fragile houses to leave the dead scattered everywhere, human body parts, and severely injured people as well as panic. The situation was certain death, as no houses could withstand the showers of bullets and the bombardment of planes, with no nearby route to escape.

The two generals [Hemedti and Burhan] may have erred aiming at their military targets, but on that day they did not err when a mortar shell fell on the house in which Marsa and her aunt worked and lived, in the outskirts of Omdurman. The bomb took the life of Marsa’s aunt, Bronica, and the mistress of the house, while the shrapnel pierced Marsa’s youthful body. But the country was in a state of emergency: no sound was louder than the sound of bullets, the footsteps made by the soldier’s shoes and the euphoric cheers of their victory.

There was no response, no intervention, and nothing could be done to save Marsa. She clung to life for days, and her smile, which did not falter, gave those around her hope that she would survive and overcome all that pain. But she couldn’t withstand it, departing and leaving behind her heartbreak and a river of tears of her parents who followed her case.

The clashes extended from the centre of Khartoum— the area of the military general command, the airport and the nearby neighbourhoods— to include all the cities of the capital, reaching its forgotten outskirts. The humanitarian conditions of the residents worsened, and chaos prevailed: decomposing corpses lying in the streets being eaten by dogs and severely injured people in whose face roads were blocked, leaving them unable to reach hospitals to receive treatment.

Airplanes are still flying in the sky of Khartoum, bombing civilians. Exits have been blocked in front of those who want to escape. Bullets claim the souls of those who take the risk of leaving, but the call of life is stronger than death. Many of those trapped left amidst danger, with death staring from every corner.

War always produces a painful reality, from siege by death to siege due to the absence of health and other services, and the insane rise in prices. The value of food has doubled, and supplies are on their way to vanishing either because of the closure of many shops or the looting of their goods by outlaws. Also, the value of travel tickets has increased exponentially. Checkpoints on the roads pose a threat to lives.

The suffering of many refugee families living in Khartoum has worsened, because they mainly depend on day-to-day work as a source of income. They were unable to pay the cost of a bus ticket; as such, they chose to walk, taking along with them their children, the elderly and the disabled, carrying what proved light to cover their essential needs on the road towards the refugee camps in the White Nile state, or towards the borders, in a reverse migration towards southern Sudan. Others crowded at the stations, hoping to reach a haven outside the hell of Khartoum.