War has arrived

Writer and feminist activist Reem Abbas on the personal costs of the war between Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Forces.

"Dad and Anda." Courtesy Reem Abbas © 2023.

The bullet which triggered the start of the war was fired close to our home. On a morning during Ramadan, I was on holiday. In two days I would be starting a new job, and I was taking the opportunity to sleep in late that day. That morning I woke up to sounds of gunfire, or shooting, or something I couldn’t recognize. This was before we learned that weapons had names.

AK-47s were behind the exchange of gunfire. Then, the rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, was sounding like a bomb, and fighter jets of the Russian manufacturers called MiG or Sukhoi shelled different parts of the capital. I jumped out of bed and scrolled through social media. There was fighting near the Sports Complex in Khartoum which was approximately five kilometers away from my house, and it was between the paramilitary force Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and the national army.

Why should I be surprised?

After all, I did see this war coming. I saw it a few days beforehand, right after the RSF took over a military airport in Meroe in Northern Sudan. I had seen this war coming since 2019, when the revolution attempted to thwart the security committee of former president and general, Al-Bashir (Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir). However, politicians made a deal to split power and share it between the army and the RSF. I saw it coming after the 2021 military coup was launched against the flawed transitional government, and after I saw how politicians worked to empower the RSF in the aftermath of that coup d’état. They dwarfed the national army (the Sudanese Armed Forces) and furthered the concept of having two armies. I saw it coming because no country has two armies unless the two are at war with each other and they are controlling different territories.

I panicked momentarily. We don’t have enough food. I need to pay my phone bill. Do we have diesel for the generator in case the power goes out for days? I ran to the kitchen to fill up every pot and pan with water. Water could be turned off at any moment. My mind was racing; I went through a war-essentials checklist. It was never a tried and tested checklist, but I was hoping for the best. Two days later, I found myself in my sister’s home office, trying to finish an orientation for work. We had to stop it mid-way, as the fighter jets were looming too close to home. I could not focus.

My nights were sleepless, I didn’t know where to place my daughter so that she would be covered. I never realized that our beds weren’t raised high enough to fit her underneath, which, according to friends on Facebook, is the safest place to be. I felt like my room was the safest because it had one window that was blocked by another building. I forced my whole family to switch their rooms. My sister slept on a mattress on the floor, and my mother slept on a bed next to my daughter and I.

I wasn’t able to learn how to sleep at night again, because the fighter jets would come after 12 am. Their sound actually comforted me. Sound as a phenomenon is described as a wave of compressed air. The high compression of sound reduces its loud volume so if you hear the jet, it means that it is far away and not going to hit you with bombshells. There is always silence before your house is shelled. A few days into the war, my sister and I left the house to buy food. I told her, if anything happens to me, pretend you don’t know me. Walk away. One of us has to return, we can’t leave our parents alone. A small grocery shop was open. We bought basic non-perishable goods. I bought Oreos for my daughter. She likes them and I wanted to give her a sense of normality.

Another shop opened a few days later. Its metal door was still locked, but the shopkeepers would open it just a little bit, just enough to allow us to crawl inside. We used the last cash we had to buy more food. I bought fresh bread that day and felt better after binging on it. A few days into the war, my mother told us to enjoy the salad, as it was the last tomato that we had in our fridge.

The war began taking a toll on my family. We began bickering on a daily basis. My daughter’s father asked me if he could take her with him to another city. I was under pressure, I felt that choosing to resist him would undermine her safety. She began to ask me about the day this would end and said that she missed her school and her friends. She wanted to go to the restaurant we had gone to a week before the war, where she played on the trampoline while I had a latte, and where she loved eating the pizza. My father and I wanted the family to stay. We began to hear that the RSF was occupying houses. They would kick people out of their houses, loot those houses and then move in. They were not just occupying houses, they were occupying the city. As inhabitants, we were being erased from Khartoum. Our life was cheap, it was only worth as much as a phone or some cash that they could loot. The RSF would take your property, live in your house and drive your car.

Our street, which was close to a highway, became a bus station overnight. Buses that were heading out of Khartoum into other states or even into Egypt, were just a few steps away from our house. There was an exodus happening, but we felt the need to stay.“Staying in our house is in itself resistance,” wrote my father on his Facebook page. But three weeks into the war, we were packing our bags.

We felt suffocated in our own home. We were too terrified to leave the house and we also felt a bit defeated. My stomach was upset and I had my period twice in three weeks. I was completely nerve-wracked as I packed my bags. I looked at my books, collected over fifteen years. I looked at the beautiful painting by Essam AbdelHafiz that I bought to hang in my new apartment. Just a few weeks before the war, I had gone to his exhibition with my colleagues and we talked about art and resistance. I had no idea why I packed the way I did. With me came a few non-fiction books and the book by George Packer that I was reading, as well as two dresses and two pants, and some skincare to save my face which has aged non-stop since the war arrived in my city.

When we left Khartoum and drove three hours to Medani, I felt strange. I had come to Medani many times for work and to visit friends. But, I was now a stranger in my own country. I was learning how to walk on the streets again. I was learning how to sit at a cafe, and I was learning how to live without the constant sounds of gunshots and fighter jets.

The supermarket shelves were becoming emptier and emptier. Stocks were low because most factories in Khartoum were burned down or looted or both. Carnage was the new normal in Khartoum,  led by the RSF as they broke into banks, factories, companies, and houses.

We have all worked very hard to build the little infrastructure we had, and now it is gone. I was joking with a friend that there was no Coca-Cola in Medani. No Coca-Cola in the country that produces one of the most vital ingredients in this drink, gum-arabic. If the war continues, the world may actually start caring because of the Coca-Cola shortage. A war-torn country in the horn of Africa could be relevant after all, for international business.

Hemedti captured the revolution

When I joined the protests in 2019, one of the main slogans was: “The military to the barracks, the RSF to its dismantling.” This slogan continued until the sit-in that brought an end to Al-Bashir in April 2019. The RSF could read the street, they knew that Al-Bashir’s rule was coming to an end. They began marketing themselves as supporting the will of the people. Its leader Hemedti (Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo), emerged as a separate political force. Sudan emerged as a country with two armies. No entity has reaped the fruits of the revolution as has the RSF.

The transitional period (2019-2021), failed to fix the most critical problem: the problem of how to merge the two forces and reform the problematic military institution. In the period after the coup, the international community began working with political actors to reach an agreement that would once again realize a new partnership between the political forces and the military institution. Once they carried out security sector reform talks, the military dragged their feet, because it became clear that the agreement would largely disempower the military. It would take away their key economic interests and also empower the RSF by giving them space to continue growing their economic power. Not only that, it would take almost a decade to integrate RSF forces into the army. Much to the dismay of the international community who kept pushing for an agreement to be signed, the government postponed signing the agreement. For civilians, the agreement still meant that for at least a decade, the country would continue to have two armies.

The war was inevitable, but one can never prepare for a war. In Medani, I tried to withdraw money from my account. I had about two dollars in my pocket, just enough to buy coffee from the tea lady on the side of the road, as I sat on a stool awaiting my turn at the bank. I was client number 101, and the bank had set up a massive tent to shield the clients from the sun. They said the system was down and there was no hope. After three hours, I left defeated.

My whole life is (was?) in Khartoum. Our home has books and paintings and the many spices I buy when I travel. My mother is a plant mom. She always claims that her plants smile when she walks into the garden to water them and that they move when she speaks to them lovingly. When we left, we kept our refrigerator and freezer running. We were only supposed to be gone for a few days. I told my mother’s plants that we would spend two days and then return. Two days before the war, I had an appointment at the Spanish embassy. I was excited about going to France to meet my colleagues and to travel with them to Granada and Barcelona. Now my passport was stuck at the embassy and all the diplomats had been evacuated.

Khartoum is no longer ours. Our building, a building we spent 10 years building with my father’s retirement money, is now controlled by RSF. They live in the rooms and they park their car in our garage. Our house remains safe, but we are waiting for the news that we don’t want to hear. RSF is close to our house and they began looting our neighbors. The war got close to our doorsteps, but we are no longer there.

A few days after we left, I read the news online. RSF had looted the bank at Omdurman Ahlia University, and the looting of the university itself began. A research center inside the university was burned to the ground. Ten years ago, my family celebrated at this very same center. We donated thousands of books from the library of my great-grandfather, a politician, public servant, and author, to this center. It was full of books, resources, and manuscripts. It was part of our cultural infrastructure. This war was coming for us, it was coming for our history and our very existence.

I saw the news on Twitter. The Spanish embassy was broken into and everything was looted. But some young men went there and picked up some passports. After hearing this, I was now trying to trace my passport. At that point, I was ready to pay any price. I ended up retrieving my passport from one of these young men through a friend over a month later after the war broke out. By that time, I had crossed the border to Egypt using an old passport that I renewed at a border town. I  now have a valid passport, but no home to go back to.

Further Reading