HomeTop StoriesReflecting on the civil war in Sudan, a year later

Reflecting on the civil war in Sudan, a year later

Amel Marhoum works for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Before the war turned Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, into a battlefield, she lived there with her family. Beginning on April 15, 2023, during the last days of Ramadan, heavy gunfire and shelling trapped countless families, including hers, in their homes with dwindling food and water supplies. A year later, every segment of Sudan’s population has been affected, from rural pastoralists to the country’s once prosperous urban middle class. This is Amel’s reflection on how the war changed her, her country and her work.

Before the fighting really started, there were indications in Sudan that a small conflict was brewing, but not a full-fledged war. I still feel like it’s a dream, or more like a nightmare. I keep thinking that I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be fine. But things aren’t going well.

April 14, 2023 felt like a normal Ramadan night. We had ours suhoor (early morning meal before sunrise) and hours later war broke out. That Saturday morning, April 15, I was sleeping, which shows how peaceful and calm the day started.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. The sudden sounds of heavy artillery, air strikes and shelling were unimaginable. I had never heard such sounds in my life.

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As a Liaison Officer at UNHCR, I am the kind of person who responds quickly and takes action. I was only able to make a few phone calls to family members, friends, and coworkers before the call went dead. This was one of the big challenges at the time: not knowing what was happening to people. An equally big challenge was helping colleagues find cash, fuel and buses so they could leave Khartoum. I even remember thinking how big a miracle it was when the UN convoy arrived in the city of Port Sudan on April 24. People tried to leave in any way they could.

A week later, I was put in charge of the UNHCR office in Sudan as the most senior national staff member. The phone didn’t stop ringing. We were a team of six and our role was to help our staff and refugees move from the hotspots to safer zones – a difficult task as the shelling in our area was very heavy. My colleagues were terrified. Some needed money to get their children to safety, and some were stuck in areas where we couldn’t reach them. Every day we woke up to find our neighbors’ houses gone and people dead.

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I thought the fighting would last a week or two, a month tops, if it continued at all. But then there was no food or water, and we saw more and more soldiers on the streets. In the fourth week we reached a point where we really had to leave – and quickly.

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On the way to Madani, 135 kilometers southeast of Khartoum, all I saw was destruction and death. I can never forget this: it’s like a horror movie, but you can’t turn it off. At one point we were held at gunpoint as we said our last prayers. But then the soldiers let us go.

During our journey we reached a family’s house. We didn’t know them, and they didn’t know us. They insisted that we stay with them; they brought us food and made the beds for us. In their home, for the first time, I felt peaceful enough to sleep well.

In early May, I set up the UNHCR office in Madani, and a month later I moved to Port Sudan to settle there [another]. I later moved to Ethiopia to support UNHCR teams at the border with Sudan in receiving arriving refugees.

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The lives of Sudanese refugees in the countries they have fled to are now very difficult. Some of us left without documents. We have no home, and some have nothing left. But as long as there are people who, despite their own concerns, are willing to accept us, there is hope. I saw this generosity among the Ethiopian people – their willingness to host Sudanese refugees, despite their own challenges. They opened their borders and accepted us. But it also requires the support of the entire international community and of us as humanitarian workers.

I feel like I’ve gotten so much older in the past year. This experience changed all of us in Sudan. But I still have hope and faith – in myself, in my family, in my team, in my work and especially in my country.

Sudan is a country with enormous resources. I believe that with the right support, this generation and future generations can perform miracles.

We can get back up and be better than when we started. This is what keeps me going. —As told to Sara Bedri

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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