Sudan

Silvia chose to stay

It’s 25 February 2020. Silvia Beccacece is flying from Copenhagen to Khartoum. She is leading an emergency response team to start the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) work in Sudan. On 12 March, WHO declares a pandemic. Four days later, Khartoum airport closes and humanitarian aid workers travel home. But Silvia chooses to stay.

The day after our interview – 24 June 2020 – is a big day for Sudan and for Silvia Beccacece, 43. It’s the day that planes finally start landing again at the airport in the capital Khartoum.

Update on the situation in Sudan

This interview with Silvia Beccacece was conducted before the unrest broke out in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in early November. According to the UN, more than 46,000 people have fled Ethiopia to Sudan so far as a result of the violence. Some have been injured and others have witnessed extreme violence.

There is now an urgent need for emergency aid. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are sleeping in the open air. People lack everything: water, food, toilets, hygiene items.

NRC works in eastern Sudan, in the Um Raquba camp. We are working with the Sudanese authorities to ensure that Ethiopian refugees receive emergency assistance. We have started to distribute cash to the refugees so that they can buy what they need in the local markets and cover their basic needs.

“I’m so busy! There’s so much that needs to be ready. My colleagues need somewhere to live when they arrive, and flats must be cleaned and readied,” says Silvia, via our video conference call.

She’s in her hotel room in Khartoum, where she works from 8.00 in the morning to 11.00 at night. Sometimes she works out in the hotel gym. Sometimes she watches a film on Netflix. Khartoum has been in lockdown since 18 April, but as humanitarian worker Silvia has permission to go out to a few meetings and site visits now and then. Then, she always uses a mask and maintains social distance. This has been her life for over four months now.

Have you been lonely?

“Not really, I’m used to being alone.”

Read caption After the historic landing at Khartoum airport, a group photo had to be taken. The photo features, among others, Sudan's Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullah (second from the left), European Commissioner Janez Lenarčič (fifth from the left) and finally NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland (far right). Photo: ECHO

The plane finally arrives

The plane is one of the first major humanitarian aid shipments to arrive in Sudan since the airport closed on 16 March to prevent the spread of Covid-19. On board is the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, and NRC’s Secretary General Jan Egeland. The visit was organised by the EU in advance of the high-level Sudan Partnership Conference to be held in Berlin one day later.

After 30 years under the reign of dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan has been subject to sanctions and has long been isolated from the international community. In Germany, money is currently being raised to help the country’s population, which is suffering from severe food shortages. By directing the world’s attention to Sudan, the EU – and NRC – are also supporting the democratic transitions now taking place in the country.

Read caption Silvia and Jan Egeland take a selfie together at Khartoum airport. Photo: Silvia Beccacece

On board the plane are humanitarian aid workers from several organisations, including Silvia’s own colleagues from NRC.

“Yes, it’s a major leap from being alone in Khartoum to having my workmates back. But first they must be quarantined for 14 days. So I’ll be alone for a little while longer,” says Silvia with a small laugh.

Reach out to those in need! Together with the Norwegian Refugee Council, you can help provide children and adults with support and protection against the coronavirus. Click here to make a donation

"The Sudanese people are experiencing a historic moment"

A powerful experience

Khartoum is located in the middle of Sudan, where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile.

“The Sudanese people are experiencing a historic moment. I’ve noticed it in everyone – from the tour guide who was leading us around town on the first day who said: ‘Finally, we have freedom of expression’ – to the hotel staff and community representatives in the field. For me, it has been quite a powerful experience. In the past, the people couldn’t express their frustration at having to live under a dictatorship for so many years,” says Silvia.

In December 2018, there was a public uprising in the streets of Khartoum, in which women played a prominent role. The reason for the uprising was that a large part of the population had long lacked food, clean water and health services. Nine million people have become completely dependent on emergency aid, and of these, over two million have been forced to flee their homes.

Read caption A young woman dressed in white: Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student. This image from Khartoum became famous around the world in 2019 and Alaa became a symbol of the demonstrations that led to the army ousting President Omar Bashir. Photo: AFP/NTB Scanpix

Almost 44 million people live in Sudan. As many as 65 per cent of the population currently live below the poverty line. In addition, the country houses over a million refugees from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, Yemen and Syria.

Raging against the regime

The people raged against the country’s regime. They demanded democratic rights and economic reform. They demanded the trial of suspected war criminals and an end to the country’s intense, protracted conflicts – such as the one in Darfur. A few months later, on 11 April 2019, President Omar al-Bashir was forced to step down after 30 years in office.

But the unrest continued, with the protests shifting focus to the military junta. The opposition demanded civilian rule. Monday 3 June 2019 is a day that will not be forgotten. The military attacked the protesters. Over 100 people were killed and hundreds more were injured.

Read caption Sudanese women sing together "Freedom, peace and justice" in the streets of Khartoum. Photo AFP/NTB Scanpix

Then, images began appearing on social media around the world: scenes of jubilation from Khartoum. The Sudanese were celebrating in the streets after the country’s generals signed an agreement with the democracy movement – an agreement that paved the way for civilian government through a transitional period. The military and the opposition agreed to share power until elections could be held.

Working through crisis, war, conflict

In 2009, NRC was one of 13 humanitarian aid organisations that al-Bashir expelled from Sudan. “We had to stop our work of helping hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and we had to dismiss hundreds of humanitarian aid workers,” said Jan Egeland later.

With Silvia, NRC has finally returned.

Silvia, an architect graduated from Florence with a specialisation in urban planning for developing countries, has been on a total of nine assignments for NRC since she applied for the job of global emergency response WASH (water and sanitation) and shelter specialist in 2016. Before coming to Sudan, she was involved in NRC’s start-up in Burkina Faso and Niger. In addition, she has been to Turkey, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Afghanistan again – and now Sudan.

 “As part of the emergency response team, I often have to leave at short notice when a crisis arises. To coordinate aid work, we have discussions with various actors on the ground – such as the UN and other humanitarian aid organisations. It enables us to quickly understand the context and coordinate our emergency response,” explains Silvia.

"You get used to it. You learn to keep the fear at bay."

She has been afraid. Sometimes, it’s necessary to negotiate with armed groups in order to gain access to areas where desperate people need help.

Humanitarian aid workers are vulnerable – they have no weapons. Sometimes at night, they hear gunshots and explosions.

“You lie there and you don’t know if the fighting is coming closer. But then you are influenced by the people around you who continue with normal lives despite all that. You get used to it. You learn to keep the fear at bay. You are very careful about the people you are helping, and your own safety often takes a bit of a backseat,” says Silvia.

That was also the case in Sudan.

Unclear how many people are dying

Silvia returned from Burkina Faso in January, and in early February she learnt that Sudan would be her next assignment. She was planning to do as usual: travel around to assess the needs; then, after a few weeks, set up an office with the support of a country director and start-up staff, at the same time as setting up the humanitarian aid programme. Her team had four members. Three other managers were expected in Sudan in early April. 

But then the pandemic hit.

Read caption Silvia at work for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sudan, in May this year. Photo: NRC

The Covid-19 outbreak was first detected in Wuhan, in Hubei Province, China, in December 2019. The virus was verified by Chinese authorities on 7 January 2020. Travellers from Asia, Europe and the United States carried the infection to Africa.

On 14 February, the first known case was reported in Egypt. Later, 52 African countries were hit by the deadly virus. According to worldometers.info, Sudan had its first Covid-19 death on 30 March. On 29 May, 38 people died. By 2 July, according to the worldometers database, 9,573 people were infected and there had been 602 deaths.

“The official figures only apply to those that have been tested,” Silvia explains. “Experts say they only represent about five per cent of the estimated numbers. In rural areas, people are buried right away, without being tested. So, we don’t know how many people are dying from Covid-19.

“In an area outside Al-Fashir, the capital of the North Darfur region, many people died suddenly of respiratory problems. It’s reasonable to assume it was Covid-19. But it is as people are shrugging their shoulders in resignation and saying that we die for so many reasons in this country.”

Do you think the pandemic will grow in Sudan?

“Of course. When you see how people live, with 15 people in a small house without water or soap, infection is completely unavoidable. It would just be silly to say that this is not going to get worse. Though not confirmed, my only hope is that the warm climate will reduce the risk of infection.”

Everything closed

At first, Silvia had the freedom to move around. This was not the case for her family back home in Italy.

“My father is 73 and my mother is 69, so they are in the risk group. But they are taking every precaution and, fortunately, things have gone well. In Sudan, for a long time there were only one or two cases of Covid-19, so I thought this was going to go well. I wasn’t very worried,” Silvia says.

"There was no fighting, warfare or anything like that."

Then, the airport closed.

“I’m pretty used to working in places where the situation is a little unusual. So, the situation didn’t seem so dangerous to me. There was no fighting, warfare or anything like that. The borders were closed, and we were here to do the job as best we could. That’s how I thought.”

The closure of the airport meant that there would be no additional capacity. Then, the health authorities banned travel inside the country, thus preventing Silvia and her team from moving out of the Khartoum area to continue mapping the country’s needs.

“We were very motivated to travel to the southern part of Sudan, where there were many internally displaced people. But everything closed overnight. So we decided to focus on the settlements in Khartoum.”

Read caption A newlywed Sudanese couple in the midst of a crowd of demonstrators in Khartoum. Photo: Reuters/NTB Scanpix

A window opened

“At the same time, we were having meetings in the team, and not everyone had the same thoughts about the coronavirus situation. There were members who were not convinced that our presence here was ideal at this time. And there were others who thought that we should use our time as productively as possible. So, there were some discussions,” says Silvia.

When it became known that the airport was closing, a window opened for about 48 hours for people who wanted to leave the country. One of the team members decided to take this opportunity. Eventually, the other two left as well.

“They certainly had good reasons for leaving. Some in our team insisted that we should have left. But my feeling was that there were so many opportunities to do something good for the people here. That’s why I choose this job: I want to be a support for people in crisis. This is such an historical moment for Sudan. I would’ve felt very uncomfortable if I’d had to leave.”

A health system on the verge of collapse

Before the pandemic, the health system in Sudan was one of the worst in the world. According to authorities, it is now on the verge of collapsing because of Covid-19. There are shortages of everything and many doctors do not dare go to work. There are also a high number of doctors who have been infected due to a lack of personal protective equipment. Some of them have been attacked because of stigma, fear and misinformation.

"I remember that the doctors in Italy were called heroes, and rightly so. But at least they could expect proper intensive care treatment if they were infected. It’s not like that here."

“I remember that the doctors in Italy were called heroes, and rightly so. But at least they could expect proper intensive care treatment if they were infected. It’s not like that here,” she explains.

In the southern outskirts of Khartoum, there are three informal settlements, so-called “open areas”, that host around 15,000 refugees from South Sudan. These people lack absolutely everything. Their living conditions are desperate. These areas are surrounded by local Sudanese communities – people who are in a very difficult situation themselves.

Early on, Silvia and her team had a meeting with the country’s minister of health. She explained that NRC is not a medical humanitarian organisation, but can contribute in other ways during the pandemic – such as by setting up isolation centres that meet medical requirements or by providing shelter and WASH services.

There was a need to build an isolation centre in one of the settlements. The plan was to start by adapting a building that was not in use and could be used as a school later. It would be able to accommodate between 60 and 80 patients.

“In the beginning, the local community participated in this work and was supportive. But eventually, people became afraid of infection. There was a fear that the COVID 19 patients were carried in from outside this community bringing in the virus.”

Reach out to those in need! Together with the Norwegian Refugee Council, you can help provide children and adults with support and protection against the coronavirus. Click here to make a donation

Read caption A Sudanese protestor sits on a wall covered in graffiti symbolising the protests in the country. Photo: Ozan Kose/NTB Scanpix

Together for Sudan

It was then that the minister of health introduced Silvia to the head of the Resistance Committees, neighbourhood committees of Sudanese citizens that through civil disobedience campaigns played a key role during the Sudanese revolution in Khartoum last year.

 “At the moment, they are the ones representing the local community. They could help us move forward. The Khartoum Resistance Committee leader told me he basically lived on the streets for almost four months during the riots – he couldn’t go home because he would have been arrested. He said he was extremely proud of what the Sudanese people were doing,” she says, adding:

“We have a very good understanding. He told me: ‘NRC come here to help us, but we will help you to reach our common objectives.’”

Read caption "Of course, they are very grateful that NRC is there. But they don’t want to be passive recipients of help," says Silvia. Photo: Silvia Beccacece

That was a revelation for Silvia. It became very clear that the people themselves wanted help to make changes in Sudan. They want to be part of the process and be the decision-makers of their own future.

She thinks a bit before she continues:

“They’re young. Motivated. Of course, they are very grateful that NRC is there. But they don’t want to be passive recipients of help. We are working together to bring a change to Sudan.

“That’s why I didn’t want to leave.”

***

On June 26, the following news report came in:

“The international community has pledged to contribute USD 1.8 billion to Sudan to support the fragile interim government. Forty countries made commitments over a video conference held by Germany on Thursday.”


Sources: Analysis in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet by a senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Gunnar M. Sørbø: “Spillet om Sudan” (12/06/2019), the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia, nrk.no, Aftenposten, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, BBC.