My colleagues Munzoul Assal and Lovise Aalen at one of our workshops in Omdurman. (Photo: Åse Johanne Roti Dahl)
19 May 2023

A love letter to Sudan

I have known Munzoul Assal for more than ten years. He is one of our Sudanese partners who have become a close friend. For as long as I have known him, he has been a beacon of positivity and optimism. Not anymore. When I talked to him from his temporary refuge in Port Sudan, he had no hope left. He says the international community has to put pressure on the warring Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. He asks the international community to step up and not let Sudan end up like Yemen, where the war is now verging on a decade. When I ask him if he thinks the international community can assert any pressure, he replies with a clear yes. 'Yes, they can if they want to'. When I ask him if he thinks they want to, he goes quiet before quietly replying 'No'. 

Munzoul Assal is a professor at the University of Khartoum. During the period leading from the uprising that toppled former president Omar al-Bashir in December 2019, through coups and transitional governments, he has been a regular on Sudanese tv shows debating politics and the country’s future. So far I have never known him to be wrong. He stresses that his pessimism is based on experience. ‘Never since Sudan’s independence in 1956, has the Sudanese army crushed a single mutiny. And never has a mutiny defeated the army.’

His analysis of Sudan’s history of turmoil is as painstakingly correct as it is depressing. It promises no good for the Sudanese people. The two generals who are now at war will never cave in, he says. ‘There can be no winner in this war. This is a war about egos. If one of the parties agree to a ceasefire, it’s like admitting defeat. But the day will come when they have to sit down at the table. Maybe in ten weeks, or ten months. Maybe ten years.’  

To listen to him, to his lack of optimism, is utterly heartbreaking. And it is even more heartbreaking because every single word coming out of his mouth rings true. Is he right in his pessimism? Is he right in doubting that the international community will do something differently this time around?

Several of my colleagues here at CMI have been in frequent contact with colleagues and friends in Sudan over the past weeks. When the first explosions were heard in Khartoum on April 15, all hell broke loose. When someone says that 'all hell broke loose' it is something you usually don't take too seriously. But for the inhabitants of Khartoum, who are now experiencing war in their city for the first time, it is an actual and factual thing. Incessant shelling and bombardment effectively trapped the people of Khartoum in their houses. Soon they were running out of water, food, medicines, of all basic commodities.

Incessant shelling and bombardment effectively trapped the people of Khartoum in their houses.

The people who could, scrambled to flee and risked their lives in the effort. They left the city in cars, on packed buses, in crowded taxis. The people who could not leave were left to fend for themselves. Some people could not leave because they did not want to leave their elderly mothers or fathers behind. Our colleagues and friends in Sudan know too many who tried to flee, bringing elderly parents or aunts and uncles in ill-health. They did not survive. These heart-breaking stories from people they know, have forced some to stay, to let their elderly die in dignity. Others did not have access to private transportation, or not enough money to pay for public transport. Ticket prices soared in the days after the war broke out. Tamer Abdelkareem, who coordinates the SNAC project where we cooperate closely with the University of Bergen, the University of Khartoum and several regional universities in Sudan, was on one the crowded buses himself. People were desperate and stories were circulating that some even tried to pay for their tickets with what little they had of jewelry.

But that was after giving us a fright. A proper fright of the kind that actually does send chills through your bones and leaves you feeling nauseous and deeply shaken. A few days after the fighting started, my colleague Liv Tønnessen, who has worked on and in Sudan for many years, had tried to call Tamer and couldn't get through. That is, someone picked up the phone. And this someone did not sound like Tamer. There was indistinct but loud yelling in Arabic, and noises. All sorts of noises. Could he have been taken by the RSF? Had they seized his phone? Many trying to flee from Khartoum were stopped by the paramilitary group. We knew that in the first few hours after the fighting broke out, Munzoul Assal, trying to get home to his family from a meeting at the Norwegian Embassy (discussing how to implement our SNAC project) was stopped by fighters from the RSF. I choose to call them fighters simply for the lack of a better word. What do you call young men who have been recruited to a paramilitary group, many of them because they don’t have a job? Many of them not feeling any allegiance to the people who are now trapped in their crossfire? Soldiers? Men? They tick all the boxes, yet they are not soldiers fighting a war to protect their people. And neither are the SAF.

Both the RSF and the SAF have a long history of grave human rights violations against the Sudanese people. In fact, Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the International criminal Court (ICC) for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the actions committed by both the SAF and the Janjaweed (RSF) in Darfur during their 2003 counter insurgency operations. They all have blood on their hands. So how can you trust them? How can being stopped by any of them in your attempt to get home to your family, or in your attempt to flee from the actions of war not cause insecurity and fear? When Munzoul was stopped, the RSF fighters who stopped him had loud discussions about what to do with him. ‘They were arguing about whether to take my wallet, to take my car keys, whether to let me go or detain me.’

Both the RSF and the SAF have a long history of grave human rights violations against the Sudanese people.

Knowing this, we were extremely worried about Tamer whose phone was now being answered by someone so clearly not him.

Fortunately, the next day, he got back to Liv. He had left Khartoum. The bus had been so full that he and many others had to ride on the roof of the bus. He had tried to reply to her phone call, but things were too chaotic.

When Munzoul Assal and his family decided their home was no longer safe, they also left in a hurry. He and his wife and children brought nothing but the clothes they were wearing at the time. At first they sought shelter in a safer part of Khartoum, further away from the most intense fighting, at the Lisamin hotel where we usually stay whenever we go to Khartoum to have workshops and meetings with our colleagues in Sudan.

For those first few days after the war broke out, the Lisamin where we usually go to sit in the shade in the hotel backyard, enjoying the most delicious lemon mint juice you can get anywhere in the world, became a refuge for a mixed crowd of people. Munzoul and his wife and two children were among them, a journalist from AP who has since written about the experience another. Forced to stay inside because it was too dangerous to go out, they shared what little they had of water and food.       

Munzoul Assal and his family are now in Port Sudan after a long and hard journey. A trip that normally takes 12 hours took them three days. Now they are staying with his wife’s family. Safe for now, but traumatized and without knowing where life takes them next and fearing that the war will also spread from the current hotspots Khartoum and Darfur to Eastern Sudan. Tamer Abdelkareem has not seen his family for weeks but is now on the border to Egypt waiting to be reunited with his wife and children.

It makes you think. How do you protect your children in a situation like this? How do you manage to not show fear when you rightly fear for your life? Sudan has a long history of war and violence, but the majority of inhabitants in Khartoum had not been face to face with war until April 15 2023. Why would fearing for your life feel any different for children in Khartoum than for children in London or Paris? Or in Bergen, the sheltered, peaceful spot from which we try to keep in touch with our Sudanese colleagues and friends via any messaging system that they have access to at the moment?

 How do you protect your children in a situation like this?

Our colleagues and friends’ experiences on the way out of Khartoum, and the uncertainty they meet the future with, is telling for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who are now on the run.

According to estimates from the UNHCR, more than a 100 000 people have already fled to neighbouring countries, like Chad and the Central African Republic. Munzoul tells me that more than 20 000 Sudanese have left for Egypt. ‘A new report from the UN states that 800 000 more people are expected to flee if the war continues’. That is a high number, especially for a country that already houses 3.7 million internally displaced people.

Among the refugees, you also find people who are now forced to flee from war for the second time. When the civil war broke out in Syria, Sudan did not require a visa for Syrian refugees, something that made Sudan a welcome haven for many. Not a safe haven anymore, also Syrian refugees are running for their lives. One of them is Salam Kanhoush who has been involved in one of our research projects for several years. Now stuck on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, he is in a state of limbo waiting for a new passport that may take weeks or months or even longer to get issued. While waiting, he, like so many others stuck at the borders, have to put their life on halt.

Among the refugees, you also find people who are now forced to flee from war for the second time. 

The stream of refugees onset by the war clearly illustrates the grim reality of war and of the experiences of people running for their lives. And it is painful to watch. As much as we would like to think that we treat people equally, the difference with which we treat people according to race and ethnicity is glaring. Port Sudan quickly became the corridor for evacuating foreigners like diplomats out of the country. And as soon as the diplomats and foreigners were out, the news coverage of the events in Sudan were back to normal. That is, virtually nothing. But no news from Sudan does not mean that there is still not a war going on. It does not mean that the people who were trapped in their houses in Khartoum are now free to leave. It does not mean that the people of Darfur, who have already suffered decades of violence, are now safe.

Our colleagues and friends are still in limbo. We do not know when we will get to meet them again, and to continue the work and projects we have in common – research that aims to bring the voices of Sudanese researchers to the fore of debates both in Sudan and on the global scene.

And so I wanted – no, needed - to write this, as a love letter to a country and to people who have come to mean so much to us. As colleagues, as friends, as someone who constantly opens our eyes to the fact that there is a different world, and that this world is, in its very own and unique way of being, wonderful. Summing up, Munzoul said that the Sudanese people are saying that this is not their war. I can only agree. This is not the people’s war. This is not our war. 



Text written by Åse Johanne Roti Dahl, communication adviser at CMI