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Reflecting on Sudan’s Civil War One Year Later

In World
April 15, 2024

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

Before the fighting truly began, there were indications in Sudan that a minor conflict was brewing, but not a full-fledged war. I still feel like it is a dream—or more-so a nightmare. I keep thinking tomorrow I’ll wake up and things will be fine. But things are not fine.

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

I was not prepared for what happened next. The sudden sounds of heavy artillery, airstrikes, and shelling were unimaginable. I had never heard sounds like this in my life.

As a Liaison Officer at UNHCR, I’m the kind of person who’s quick to react and take action. I could make only a few phone calls to relatives, friends, and colleagues before there was no connection. This was one of the big challenges at the time—not knowing what was happening to people. Equally challenging was helping colleagues find cash, fuel, and buses so they could leave Khartoum. I even remember thinking how much of a miracle it was when the UN convoy arrived at the city of Port Sudan on April 24. People were scrambling to leave any way they could.

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

I thought the fighting would last for a week or two, a month maximum, if it even dragged on in the first place. But then there was no food or water, and we were seeing more soldiers in the streets. We reached a point during the fourth week when we really had to leave—and fast.

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On the road to Madani, 85 miles southeast of Khartoum, I saw only destruction and death. I can never forget this—it’s like a horror film, but it’s one you can’t switch off. At one point, where we were held at gunpoint, saying our last prayers. But then the soldiers let us go.

On our journey, we reached the house of a family. We didn’t know them, and they didn’t know us. They insisted we stay with them—they brought us food and made the beds for us. In their house was the first time I felt at peace enough to sleep properly.

I set up the UNHCR office in Madani in early May, and then moved to Port Sudan a month later to establish [another]. Later I moved to Ethiopia to support UNHCR teams on the border with Sudan to receive arriving refugees.

The lives of Sudanese refugees in the countries they’ve fled to are very tough now. Some of us have left without documents. We are without a home, and some have been left with nothing. But as long as there are people who, despite their own worries, are willing to accept us, there is hope. I saw this generosity with the Ethiopian people – their willingness to accommodate Sudanese refugees, despite their own challenges. They opened their borders and accepted us. But it also requires the support of the whole international community and us humanitarian workers.

I feel I have aged so much this past year. This experience has changed all of us in Sudan. But I still have hope and confidence—in myself, in my family, in my team, in my work, and above all, in my country.

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

We can rise again and become 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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