"Too afraid to stand up"

One UNDP Sudan staff member's terrifying journey out of a war zone

June 1, 2023

Sudanese families wait at the Argeen border crossing to be allowed into Egypt.

Photo: UNDP Sudan/Lameese Badr

Lameese Badr is UNDP Sudan’s Head of Communications, she is also a poet and author whose writing focuses on the intersectionality of the public with selfhood, home, and belonging. She has lived half of her life in Sudan and, like many others who have fled the war, is now forcibly displaced.

The night before, we gathered at my grandfather's home in Khartoum for Sahur, the pre-dawn meal during Ramadan. For the first time in a long time, most of my extended family from abroad was gathered under one roof. This Ramadan was special for us. We were 22 people in all. 

The next morning we woke up to distant sounds of fighting, but they didn’t stay that way for long.

Gunshots, followed by explosions that grew louder and nearer. Then the entire house started shaking, and we realized that jet planes were flying above us. 

We had no idea what it meant. Would they drop bombs on us? Was it a full-blown war? Then the electricity went out, followed by the water supply. 

A phone call came through. It brought the devastating news of a relative who had been killed by a stray bullet. In that moment, it dawned on us how serious the situation was. I hurried upstairs, woke my sister, and helped her carry my 2-year-old nephew downstairs. We gathered all the mattresses in the house and created a safe spot in the living room, the only space with minimal windows that was large enough for all of us. 

That square of mattresses became our home for the next few days, accommodating all 22 of us. With no windows or electricity, we stayed low throughout the day. Thanks to Ramadan, we had enough food in the house, but we had to crawl to the kitchen. For six days, we remained on edge as we heard gunshots and artillery fired inside our neighbourhood, too afraid to even stand up. 

Once bullets began piercing through the walls upstairs, we knew it was time to leave. But there was a shortage of fuel and no cars available for all of us.

Eventually, we made the decision to leave. With only three small cars being available, space was limited and each of us packed a small backpack and we moved to a slightly safer part of the city, where a cousin lived. 

Locking up the house and bidding farewell was the hardest thing we had to do. Constructed by my architect grandfather, it has stood for over 60 years, witnessing countless family milestones. It had never been devoid of life. That moment forced us to come to terms with a reality none of us wanted to face, that not only do we not know when we will return, but we don’t know if there will be anything to return to. 

“Our homes are designed to be multigenerational. When they strike down a home, they’re striking down a museum of a family’s legacy. They’re striking down a place where someone’s grandparents made room for them before they were even born.” – Dinan Alasad, Sudanese writer

The family packs for their dangerous journey into Egypt.

Photo: UNDP Sudan/Lameese Badr

At first glance, our new place seemed like a haven. We were taken aback by the sight of local shops open and fruit stands–this was a version of normalcy we hadn’t seen in a long time. 

Our relief didn’t last for long as the fighting began inching closer. It became clear that we would have to leave again.

The challenge lay in the logistics. Finding a few seats was difficult, let alone an entire bus. It took several days to find a bus that could take us to Cairo and a single ticket would set us back almost seven hundred dollars. Our group consisted of sick elders and young children. 

We would make calls to companies, and they would assure us of their arrival, but they never showed up. Some even took down payments and vanished. Family members abroad utilized their networks and connections, everyone was trying, but success remained elusive. I felt utterly defeated. Everything seemed to fall apart. Sometimes we found a bus, but there was no fuel available. Other times we found fuel but couldn't secure a bus. 

The situation became even more precarious when a slow telecom blackout began. Communication became nearly impossible. 

Once I lost internet connectivity, I lost all hope. Social media had been the only way to access drivers and bus companies. I gave in and allowed myself to sleep for the first time in days.

With no internet, I scanned an unrefreshed Twitter feed and stumbled on a telephone number. I dialed the number and explained our urgent need for a vehicle to the bus station. 

“I don’t have a car that can get you to the bus station, but I have an empty bus that can drive you to the Egyptian borders if you can get ready in 30 minutes,” he told me.

After all the broken promises, it seemed too good to be true.

Yet we quickly woke up the family and an hour later, we were on a bus to Cairo.

The border crossing between Egypt and Sudan.

Photo: UNDP Sudan/Lameese Badr

As the driver ventured out of our familiar neighbourhood, the harsh reality hit us. Everything we had witnessed in videos on social media was real. There were bodies on the streets, army vehicles overturned and charred.

Along the way we were shot at. It was a terrifying ordeal, especially with toddlers aboard. 

After days of grueling travel, we arrived at the Egyptian border to be met by a 32-hour wait for our papers to be processed. In the queues people were fainting, desperation hung heavy in the air and border officials showed no empathy or understanding. Elderly people and young children who had experienced the horrors of war were pushed to their limits. There was no consideration for their well-being, no provisions for water or food. Mothers cried as they held their children, forced to stand in suffocating heat.

It was a dehumanizing experience, a stark reminder of the callousness that can exist in times of crisis.

As I reflect on those days, I realize that I have become part of the story, a firsthand witness to the struggles and resilience of those affected by conflict. It is a surreal experience, transitioning from being the one writing and sharing stories to being the story itself. It changes your perspective, deepens your empathy, and reminds you of the fragility of life.

Khartoum is now in ruins, and it’s only getting worse. There are no safe passages for medical or humanitarian aid, my neighbours are being buried in their own backyards. What will become of the 600+ thousand who are now displaced? And what about the millions who are still there? 

These are all thoughts and questions to grapple with. Crossing to the other side brings with it a range of emotions – gratitude for being alive and safe, guilt for leaving behind loved ones and a homeland in turmoil, and the unbearable task of rebuilding our lives from scratch.

What does it mean to rebuild a life built by a lineage of ancestry and where does one start?