“I was in Sudan when the fighting started. This is how my family and I got out”
Nisrin Elamin took her three-year-old daughter to Khartoum to celebrate Ramadan. When the conflict began, they found themselves with no food, water or power and were forced to risk a harrowing journey out of the country
Since mid-April, Sudan has been the site of a brutal power struggle between two rival factions of the country’s military, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The two groups banded together in 2019 to overthrow dictator Omar al-Bashir, promising a transition to democracy. Instead, in 2021, they staged a second coup—and quickly disagreed over how to proceed. Now, the two are at war, leaving hundreds of thousands of people scrambling to find safety. More than 400 Canadians have been evacuated with the help of the Canadian military, but many have described the effort as badly disorganized. Nisrin Elamin, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, got caught in the crossfire while visiting her family for Ramadan. Here, she tells us of her harrowing escape—and her concerns for the Sudanese people left behind.
I moved to Moss Park, in Toronto, from Philadelphia in August 2022. I’m an American citizen, and my family is from Sudan. I didn’t grow up there, but I spent time in the country doing research for my dissertation from 2013 to 2018. I still have a lot of family in the country—over 90 cousins. This year, for Eid, I wanted to introduce my three-year-old daughter, Layla, to them and to Sudanese culture. In my father’s village, children roam free and play all day. I wanted her to experience that.
We left for Khartoum on April 7, travelling with my parents, who live in the US. Each night, we went from our rental apartment to my aunt’s house for iftar, the meal that breaks the day’s Ramadan fast. Sudanese people are very community-oriented—with family, friends and guests packed in, it was a full house. I helped the women balance food on trays that would be brought to the mosque to feed those in need, while my daughter ran around us playing hide-and-seek with her cousins. When prayer was called, we drank our water, ate our dates and broke our fast together.
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On the fifth night of our visit, I woke up to gunfire, which was soon accompanied by the sound of explosions. It was surreal. My phone lit up with messages and calls from friends and family saying that war had broken out between the RSF—a paramilitary group—and the Sudanese Armed Forces. We were caught right in the middle. Our friends told us to stay away from the walls for fear of missiles. My father, who is nearly 90, looked out the window and sang an old love song to the city as it burned.
Soon, the destruction reached the electricity grid, and our power and water went out. Huddling inside, I worried about what to tell my daughter. At first, she turned it into a game, saying a big bad wolf was trying to blow the house down, which worked for a while. But it got progressively harder for her. She’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night, begging for the noise to stop. As much as I tried, I couldn’t calm her down. I’m sure she sensed my fear.
On the second day, a ceasefire was announced. When I ventured outside, every shop was out of food—and we were running very low. By the third day, we realized that sheltering in place was no longer feasible. We decided to risk the drive to the village my father’s family was in, an hour south of Khartoum. The route would take us right past RSF forces.
That evening, my uncle drove me, Layla and my parents across the city, slowly weaving through side streets we had been told were safe. Once we got to the main roads, there were RSF soldiers everywhere, on a backdrop of burned-out vehicles and bullet holes. Leaving the city, the roads were lined with people laying out mats with food for iftar, beckoning for cars to stop and break fast with them. But we were racing against daylight—the ceasefire was ending. We arrived just after dark.
At first, we thought we were safe. But, a few days later, we heard that a market across the river had been burned down and the women there had been beaten. Soon, the power and water were cut. We had lost cell reception when we left Khartoum, but the internet briefly flickered on in the middle of the night, and I learned that the US embassy was evacuating its staff. If that was happening now, I thought, things weren’t about to get better.
We decided that morning to leave the country, but we weren’t sure how to do it. Most people were taking buses to Egypt, but tickets were going for $1,000 (US) each—more than ten times their usual price. So we decided to take public transport. A cousin drove us to the edge of Khartoum, where we took transit to a bus terminal. One bus had just driven off and the other had standing room only—hardly an option for my elderly parents and a three-year-old kid. I thought we were stranded. Just then, someone came running around the corner: he was from the bus that had just left. Miraculously, a no-show meant that it had three free seats, just enough to fit us. We got on.
In the days since we’d fled, the fighting had damaged Khartoum beyond recognition. Whole markets were burned down and abandoned. Missile casings littered the streets. We were stopped twice by the RSF. The second time, they pulled all the men off the bus. I heard the soldiers speaking Dinka, a language from South Sudan. They had likely served in the brutal Sudanese civil war that ended in 2005. I realized they had blood on their hands.
As the search ended, another RSF soldier came up and said that Sudanese fighter jets were incoming. The soldiers took off, and our bus driver started speeding away from where the RSF and the jets would meet. At the same time, a convoy of 30 or so UN cars drove past, carrying embassy staff, NGO workers and foreign nationals. As it turns out, a peaceful hand-off had been negotiated to get them out—as soon as they left, the fighting resumed. We trailed the convoy for a while. “We’re safest behind these white people,” our bus driver said.
We breathed a sigh of relief as we put the fighting behind us. We spent the night in Atbara, a city about halfway between Khartoum and Port Sudan. The next morning, we managed to get on a mini bus heading to the port. It was in bad shape and no match for the road, which was filled with potholes. The windshield wipers didn’t work—when it rained, we begged the driver to stop. A trip that should have taken six hours took nine.
We got off in the outskirts of Port Sudan and made our way to the airport only to discover that there were no commercial flights, just countries evacuating their citizens. As American citizens, Layla and I might have qualified for one, but there were none leaving that day, and my parents, Sudanese citizens with green cards, would not have been able to join us. A security guard told us that the Saudis were distributing visas and evacuating people by boat, and he drove us to them. Because of our citizenship, Layla and I got ours quickly. For twelve hours, I pleaded with officials to get access for my parents.
In the end, the officials processed most of the people who asked for a visa, and around 4:30 a.m., we were bussed to a passenger ship that would bear around 1,400 of us across the Red Sea to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. On board, I ventured out on deck to show my daughter the ocean, and we watched as Muslims of different nationalities prayed together. When we arrived, the Saudis fed us and took us to the airport, where we made our way back to Toronto via Istanbul and Washington, DC.
My heart is still with my family sheltering in Khartoum. In some neighbourhoods, the power and water have been out for two weeks now. They can occasionally charge their phones via solar power or help from their neighbours, but we haven’t heard from them for a couple of days. So much of the media and international community’s focus has been on getting foreign nationals out, but the Sudanese people are still there. Other countries need to send more humanitarian aid into Sudan and pressure the generals to stop fighting. These generals can’t be allowed to lead the transition to democracy—that needs to be handled by the pro-democracy forces that have been sidelined for so long and are working every day to keep Sudanese people alive.