Sudan: Diary of a displaced humanitarian

Since 15 April 2023, everything changed for whoever lives in Sudan, including for our colleagues. Education Coordinator Rowida Tariq gives her testimony.

Day 0 – Day 9: Trapped

15 April. 3:00 pm. I woke up early. I picked up the phone randomly, and I received a text from our work WhatsApp group. “Do you guys hear gunshots?”

The chest pain is suddenly back. Gunshots! Of course, it’s another protest. But this time Baba, my father, looked very anxious. As if he felt deep in the heart that this won’t be a small protest as usual.

We switched on the news, and read the headlines: Rapid Support Forces control the airport

What is going on? Baba tried to comfort us. “This won’t go on for more than a week kids, we will hibernate and wait.”

23 April. 10:00 am. The air strikes are getting worse, and the shooting is coming closer to our house every day. I’m suffocating! Food is getting less. And so is medication! Pharmacies are out of service.

I learnt that our family friend was killed. He was hit in his bed by a rocket. I could feel the earth spinning. He was home but he was not safe. I couldn’t check on her. What am I supposed to say exactly?! “Sorry they took your life”?

10 pm: We took the decision to leave tomorrow. No one is sleeping tonight.

Day 10 - Day 36: Fleeing

25 April. 9:00 pm. This morning we left our home and moved to another neighbourhood. It’s a nightmare.

Baba woke up really early and cleaned the house. He told us stories for every inch of it. “Do you know why I picked this colour? Cause you’re all so messy and this colour wouldn’t get dirty easily! Do you know when I bought this vase? I got it 25 years ago as a gift for your mum when I was young and broke.”

Mama was a different story; she was shaking from inside out. “This is my room, my house, let’s die here, I’ll die anyway if I leave. What about the kids’ pictures? Can we take them? What about the new sofa?”

This is unreal. What should I pack? Should I just leave everything? No one deserves this!

Rowida fleeing Khartoum. Photo: Private

16 May. 8:00 pm. This morning we moved out of the city. No one was talking, not even breathing. We were looking at our beloved city, Omdurman, burned to the ground. The pain is unreal, never thought I loved those streets so much. My family wants to go to Egypt in a couple of days, but I decided not to travel with the family. How can they live if I leave Sudan and my job? They rely on me. I decided to move back to Gedaref, where my office is and where there has been no fighting. Baba would rather die than leave me here, but he knows it’s for the best.

We arrived in Atbara at 6:00 am. I took the road east to Gedaref and they went north to Halfa and the Egyptian border. I feel empty. I’m all alone now. I miss Mama’s smell already!!! No one will comfort me anymore, Baba. Of all the horrors that come with war, being separated from the ones you love most is the worst.

Day 36 – Day 100: back to humanitarian work

26 May. 9:00 pm. Complete exhaustion!

Today we visited a transit centre in Gedaref. It was set up few weeks ago for the people fleeing Khartoum. Suddenly it hit me…

It brought me back to November 2020, when the first refugees from Ethiopia arrived in Gedaref, fleeing the conflict in Tigray. I remember my first days in Um Rakuba camp: there was nothing but one big tree where 7,000 refugees gathered around for shade.

I decided that I would stay in Gedaref and work on the response.

Rowida and a teacher at a school for children who recently fled their homes. Photo: Private

Today’s centre wasn’t so different from Um Rakuba. But instead of refugees, these were Sudanese people mostly, who had fled my hometown. I recognised the same look on people’s faces: they looked confused, children were scared, mothers were all holding their children’s hands really tight, scared that something might happen to them. A 17-year-old told me about how she ran away with her three younger siblings and lost their mum right in front of their eyes!! She was asking for food and something to cover them from the cold at night.

They have nothing.

1 June: 6 pm. We started our education activities with children! It was not easy to convince the mothers to let their children out of their sights and go to class. Our trainer, Azhari, is amazing! He’s training teachers on how to provide psychosocial support to children in the classroom. The way he communicates with the kids and the teachers fascinates me.

Countless children went through traumatizing experiences these past two months. They saw terrifying violence, some lost family members, friends or neighbours. We are offering a safe space for them to play, recreate a routine and are giving them structure.

18 July. Today was a big day, Mohammed, one of the kids in the school, finally stopped drawing guns and bombs and he drew a house, hopefully a happy one. I feel proud! This activity is an exercise called Safe Place, where children develop skills to calm themselves down. With guided instructions, they have to imagine a place where they feel safe. We try to improve learning conditions for children and build self-coping skills.

We also distributed emergency cash to hundreds of people in the transit centres. The families we talked to prefer receiving cash, so they can buy whatever they need: food, clothes, medicine...

Children taking part in a Safe Place exercise. Photo: Private

15 August: All I want is to crawl back to our home. This is how these days feels like! Four months of war.

Being with my family would have helped better, but being able to make a difference for people who suffer is a different feeling! I invested so much of me in this, I hope I contributed to making some lives a bit better, put a smile on children’s faces.

In one of the schools we work in, I attended some interviews with the children. We heard from them, the pain they feel, their loss… a kid mentioned: “I always dreamed of being a police officer, now I’ve changed my mind. All I want is to become a doctor and be able to help in times like these.” He’s 10 years old.

“Now,” he said, “this school is not like mine in Khartoum, but I feel safe and happy here. We get to draw, and this is my reward.”

Being a humanitarian… It’s not really “just a job”. It’s a way of life. And it’s hard in ways you don’t really think about when you first set out. These four months of war have been so difficult. But watching children learning in a safe and protected environment is keeping me going.

Morning assembly for a school supported by NRC. Photo: Private