‘Khartoum was lit with savage fire’: five Sudanese writers on the country’s nightmare conflict

As lives are lost, families separated and cultural institutions destroyed, female authors, artists and activists speak of their anger, fear and grief as war rages in their homeland

Leila Aboulela: ‘By day four of the fighting, my cousin could barely speak, she was too afraid to shower’

When the fighting first started in Khartoum, I hid from the news. I did not want it to hijack my life and inflame the homesickness that crippled my early years in Scotland and nearly ruined my marriage.

In the 1980s, I had come from Sudan to Britain to study, but my parents, who could see the writing on the wall, told me not to return. I never said a proper goodbye to the city where I grew up. So, on 15 April I did not rush to the news. It was the last 10 days of Ramadan. Fasting made me slower than usual, staying up for night prayers made me light-headed. I did not want to destroy this serenity.

On the second day, I phoned my cousins. Since my dad died, they had been my connection to Khartoum. They were “me” if I had stayed, living my alternative Khartoum life, not the one I was living in Aberdeen. We spoke about cancelled exams and pilgrims stuck in Mecca. Kidney patients unable to reach dialysis sessions. Our conversations were interrupted by heavy gunfire and their rising panic.

A middle-aged woman in a headscarf
Leila Aboulela at the Edinburgh international book festival, Scotland, August 2015. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Things were worse than was being reported. By day four, my cousin could barely speak; the family were all on the ground floor, she was too afraid to shower. A paramilitary from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) wandered in asking for food – but he was restrained. His colleagues demanded mobile phones; they grabbed jewellery and cash. Next door, someone was raped.

I was continuously on the phone. They were packing up, moving to safer areas. I could not believe it. Had they not said, two days ago, that it was imperative to stay put and protect their homes. Rooms full of things: a trousseau for a bride, red slippery glittery tobes for the traditional ceremony, perfumes, silk nightdresses, dainty sandals. Kilos of pistachios, bags of sugared almonds, boxes of turkish delight – all this would be looted.

Instead of the last nights of Ramadan being kept alive with prayers, the sky over Khartoum was lit with savage fire, smoke billowing at dawn.

A strange migraine attacked my body; not just pain in the head or blurry vision, my insides were askew. At sunset, I broke my fast with a date and paracetamol. On television, my city was a war zone.

On Eid day, I dragged myself to the mosque for the prayers. I hugged other women and cried, but there were little girls in party dresses, cookies, balloons, families psyched up for a weekend of festivities. The customary greeting of eid mubarak [“blessed celebration”] felt like a heavy assertion of hope.

Every Eid, I phone my Khartoum cousins. This time, they didn’t pick up. Buying phone data was becoming difficult. The next day, the movement of my people started. One cousin got the bus to Egypt and the others followed. To those who were dragging their feet, I sent WhatsApp messages: get out, go now. I who had always needed them to live the Khartoum life I was denied, who had lived through them, I didn’t want them there any more.

Leila Aboulela is an award-winning author. Her latest novel is River Spirit (Saqi Books)


Reem Abbas: ‘I’m grieving the loss of cultural institutions – and my own library’

Ten years ago, my family donated my great-grandfather’s library to the Mohamed Omar Bashir Centre for Sudanese Studies at Omdurman Ahlia University. Al-Tijani Amer died before I was born, he was a writer, politician and civil servant, and he left us a library. My heart sank when I learned that the centre was burned to the ground. Since war erupted, government buildings, universities, houses, factories and schools have been looted and burned. The national museum was attacked and several valuable research centres are now ashes.

A young woman in glasses with a nose ring looks at the camera
Sudanese writer and researcher Reem Abbas. Photograph: Handout

I co-authored a book called (Un)Doing Resistance: Authoritarianism and Attacks on the Arts in Sudan’s 30 Years of Islamist Rule. It looks at how the previous government of Omar al-Bashir attacked arts institutions and artists and how the movement managed to slowly but steadily rebuild the cultural infrastructure.

I am grieving its loss. I am grieving for my family’s library. I am also grieving my own library. Ten days ago, we left home in a hurry after feeling unsafe in our neighbourhood. Our plan from day one was always to stay put and resist the war by trying to stay safe inside our house. Most of the time we stayed in my room, which had fewer windows. Doors were blocked with armchairs, a thing I couldn’t rationalise to my five-year-old, who kept asking why. We only left our house to buy groceries. The supermarket would not fully open its door; to enter, we had to crouch under its metal shutter.

When we decided to leave, I packed a few clothes and stood in front of my library that I had slowly acquired over a long period of time, trying to select books to take. I settled on a number of new volumes.

I’m unsure when we will return. The armed group is close to my neighbourhood and has already looted houses. I don’t think they will take my books, but what will happen to them?

Thirty-three years ago, my family went into exile. My dad was fired, blocked from working; he had to be smuggled out. He left behind his library of 1,500 books bought over a period of 20 years. He never saw his library again, it was lost like many things that were lost.

Reem Abbas is a writer and researcher. Her book (Un)Doing Resistance: Authoritarianism and Attacks on the Arts in Sudan’s 30 Years of Islamist Rule is published by Andariya


Rania Mamoun: ‘Despite living in America, I felt that if I stepped out I would be struck by a bomb’

When my friend posted on Facebook “Alhamdulillah [thank God], tonight we sleep on the bed, not under it,” I felt some relief. She had sent me a message earlier that day telling me she was stranded with her three children at a bus station in Medani, after having to leave Khartoum. They couldn’t find a way to travel to Kassala, a city in eastern Sudan, so my niece brought them to our house in Medani, 120 miles (190km) south-east of Khartoum, where my friend penned the moving post.

My brother was in Khartoum when it started, but he couldn’t travel to Medani. I would call him several times a day and leave my phone on at night. I feared losing another sibling as memories of losing my sister, who died two years ago, resurfaced.

A young African woman in glasses with big earrings looks at the camera
Rania Mamoun is hosting a refugee from Sudan at her home in Pittsburgh. Photograph: Rania Mamoun

I couldn’t leave the house during those early days. Despite living safely in America, a feeling overwhelmed me that if I stepped out, bullets would pierce my body, or I would be struck by a bomb. I can’t describe it as fear, but rather a manifestation of alignment with my friends and family in Khartoum, as if I too lived there, unbound by the expanse of thousands of miles.

When a friend from the Medani Resistance Committees, the group I co-founded years ago, sent me a message asking, “Can you host a refugee?”, I was delighted to. He was born in the US, so was among those evacuated from Sudan. He is now living in my home in Pittsburgh.

I came across a photograph of a child seeking solace while eating beneath a bed. The image remained etched in my mind, encapsulating the desperate search for safety. It also unveiled a painful truth: while hiding beneath the bed may shield people from the bullets, it remains a false sense of security when faced with relentless bombing upon homes. I was overcome with anger towards the warlords. I wept, and I wrote a poem:

Under the bed, where he does hide,
Lies a world that’s been denied
The chance to live in peace and love,
Their dreams soaring beyond the clouds above

Rania Mamoun is a writer, novelist and activist. Her collection of short stories, Thirteen Months of Sunrise, is published by Comma Press


Fatin Abbas: ‘We’re colonised, exploited and violated by our own armed forces’

I have followed events in Sudan with shock and fear for family, loved ones and civilians. It’s painful to see my 84-year-old father, who lives in Khartoum, become a refugee. He fled to Egypt along with most of my extended family when bombs and shells fell close.

It is the second time my father has had to flee: in 1989, he was imprisoned for protesting against Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship. After his release, we all went into exile. When he did go back in 2000, Bashir was still entrenched but my father was left alone. We thought exile was over. Now, at the end of his life, he is displaced again by Bashir’s heirs, Gen Abdel Fattah Burhan and Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

Beyond my fear is anger. Anger at the generals who destroy lives out of greed for power. Anger that the protesters who died in the 2019 revolution were largely sidelined in the transition period, especially when they insisted neither Burhan nor Hemedti could be trusted. Anger at the international community – from our neighbours to the US, EU and UN – that offers pleas and platitudes, but no meaningful consequences for perpetrators.

A young woman with big earrings looks sideways at the camera
Fatin Abbas, whose 84-year-old father has become a refugee for the second time.
Photograph: Marie Constantinesco

Violence on this scale is new to Khartoum, but not to Sudan. It has been ongoing for decades, unleashed during the north-south civil war, in Darfur, in the Nuba mountains. It’s why I set my civil war novel, Ghost Season, 550 miles south of Khartoum, on the border between north and South Sudan. It centres the violence at the “peripheries” of Sudan and, at the end, some of the characters find refuge in Khartoum. Alas, Khartoum – the last safe place – is now a war zone. We’re colonised, exploited and violated by our own forces – both the army and the RSF.

My main hope lies in the networks of solidarity, the neighbourhood resistance committees, the civilian movements that brought down Bashir in 2019. These are doing incredible work: stepping in where the international NGOs have vanished, where our government forces are attacking us, giving medical care, evacuating trapped civilians, looking after vulnerable people. They embody a vision of civic courage, democracy that lives on amid the wreckage.

Fatin Abbas is the author of Ghost Season: A Novel, available in the UK from Jacaranda Books and in the US from WW Norton


Suzannah Mirghani: ‘How will we recall our versions of Sudan?’

In October 2021, after one of Sudan’s regular military coups, my producers were spooked. I spent a year convincing them Sudan was safe, and that it was the only country I would shoot Cotton Queen, my first feature. When Mo Kordofani finished shooting Goodbye Julia, in December 2022 under adverse conditions, I was convinced it could be done.

A young woman with dyed hair and lots of necklaces photographed at a film festival
Suzannah Mirghani at the Tribeca festival in New York in 2021. Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Conflicts, I told my producers, did not occur in the capital. Atrocities were waged on the peripheries, where things have historically been unstable. Those troubled lands – economically and politically impoverished but ethnically and linguistically enriched – were a world away.

I was inflexible. I did not want to recreate Sudan. With few cinematic productions depicting the country and its people, I felt a duty to represent Sudan on screen. No art direction nor set design could approximate the Sudan of my childhood.

Alongside the emotional explanations, I had more practical objectives. I was keen to contribute meaningfully to the Sudanese economy, to Sudanese communities: by spending a significant amount of the film’s budget on a Sudanese cast, crew and caterers, helping to fan the flames of a small film industry.

In January 2023, I invited my German producer, Caro, and my Irish husband, Rod, to come see for themselves. We travelled around Khartoum, Omdurman and Gezira, location scouting. We promised we would be back. Despite the unpredictability of the military mindset, my producers agreed art was more important than fear. We bet on Sudan.

We lost.

Since April, the people of Sudan have lost far more to the violence unleashed. A country is under siege by its own guardians, held hostage by men in arms who don’t give a damn about life, let alone art. Making art, for whatever reason, now seems an indulgence.

With so much infrastructure obliterated, how will we recall our Sudan? Through memories? Photographs? Film? Kordofani’s Goodbye Julia, the first Sudanese film to be selected for the Cannes film festival, depicts a country falling apart, highlighting Khartoum landmarks, many of which have already been erased. The city will be remembered.

Perhaps, just perhaps, art is not an indulgence.

Suzannah Mirghani is a Sudanese-Russian film director. Her short film Al-Sit (2020) has won several awards. She is working on her first feature, Cotton Queen, a magical-realist tale set in the cotton fields of Sudan


Leila Aboulela, Reem Abbas, Rania Mamoun, Fatin Abbas and Suzannah Mirghani

The GuardianTramp

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