I feel rather embarrassed to discuss my home town when so many other cities and countries globally are facing political turmoil, war and natural disaster. I wish I could say that i knew exactly what war was, and what it did to a people, before it came to my home town. I wish I could say that i felt it as deeply when homes in Gaza were being bombed, when Russia invaded Ukraine or when the Rohingya people were displaced. I wish I could claim that witnessing Syrian refugees on the streets of Istanbul shook me as powerfully or that the floods and earthquakes i observed on TV kept me awake with panic attacks and nightmares. I wish I spoke more, acted more and cared more when people had to leave their homes with only a backpack during the Kwa Zulu Natal floods. I am embarrassed that it took a war in my home town and the displacement of my immediate friends and family for me to understand the plight of my Palestinian friends and what being alienated from one’s homeland does to ones worldview and psyche.
I am sadly not as compassionate nor evolved as i hoped I was, or aspire to be. It took the break out of war in Khartoum for me to reflect on so many other world stories and the survivors of so many tragedies. I am mostly embarrassed to speak of my home town, located in the centre of the country at the junction of the Blue and the While Niles, when Sudan has seen so many wars in its peripheries throughout my lifetime: the civil war with South Sudan and the Darfur genocide specifically. I am also embarrassed to speak about a part of Khartoum that is – was – wealthier and better resourced than many peripheral parts of the city. Like many other cities in Africa, Khartoum is – was – a divided city with pockets of wealth and poverty.
But please indulge me, let me tell you about the Khartoum that I know.
Khartoum is a city that does not know war or fighting. A few years ago, family members would ask me to explain what a hijacking was or what exactly did i mean when i recount my experience of an armed robbery in a wealthy suburb of Pretoria. My Sudanese friends simply hadn’t seen weapons nor had a gun pointed at them. Now they live in the middle of a battle ground.
Khartoum is home, and as always, one takes things close to home for granted; we loved to complain about it. In January 2023, i travelled to Khartoum for a wedding; despite concerns of increased crime, i still felt safe enough to travel around the city, using “tirhal”, the Sudanese version of “uber” – alone, at night. Trips to Khartoum meant family visits – but it also meant a cultural and gastronomical treat. Khartoum is – was – a city that buzzed with activity despite the daily struggles and political upheavals. Exploring the pockets of innovation in the city was an absolute delight, made even more special by the fact that it was also a safe city.
This city is now a ghost town of abandoned homes, snipers and dead bodies on the streets.
Our house is in a narrow part of the city between the Blue and White Niles. These neighbourhoods were some of the first to be hit by the militia and the first that had to be evacuated. Neighbours tell stories of the terror they lived through – and some unable to leave their homes still experience it daily. Our house has now been broken into and is occupied by the militia. As many homes and businesses are being plundered, I cannot help but think of the family photographs and the books – until I remember the destruction of lives and a country at large which helps put our loss in perspective. I have seen images of dead bodies strewn on the street in front of one of my favourite supermarkets. The destruction is at a scale hard to comprehend. The elderly, young and sick – no one is immune – thousands of people have had to leave, leaving everything behind, suddenly and without warning.
Like many Africans in the diaspora, we never lost contact with the home country. We built lives for ourselves elsewhere, yet we almost always had properties at “home”. Many of the properties were well equipped and furnished with all the amenities that ensured the comfort of our families left behind. Sudanese abroad poured their life savings and invested heavily on their homes. For those that had businesses and money in the banks, this all became useless the day that the war broke out. People cannot access their money and have been rendered poor overnight.
As the city continues to be destroyed, as lives are lost and families separated, one cannot but also wonder about the loss of everything that people have acquired over their lifetimes and what the consequences of this will be. Sudanese from all over Sudan, but mostly from Khartoum, have made their way by land to border towns to go to South Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia as well as Chad in the west. Many have made their way to secondary towns and villages where they are waiting to see what transpires. The longer this war is prolonged, the worse the humanitarian crisis.
For us Sudanese in the diaspora, please forgive us if we appear distracted and confused, sad and grieving. Khartoum is a city close to our hearts; it is city we love. You will find that in our poetry and songs. Many of us originate from other areas in Sudan, yet Khartoum was home and a symbol of our collective national identity. Its unique geographical location, its heritage and culture are precious to us. We are worried about family members and their safety – but we are also mourning the loss of a city we hold dear. This experience has most certainly made me better understand the struggles of others across the globe; if nothing else, I hope the experience helps makes me a better person.
(Being consumed with Sudan these days, I have written a few other contributions on this matter which maybe found here: sharing my personal (https://amiraosman.co.za/2023/05/26/a-love-story-let-me-tell-you-about-khartoum/; https://ilmanifesto.it/khartoum-nel-cuore) and professional (https://theconversation.com/khartoum-the-creation-and-the-destruction-of-a-modern-african-city-205705; https://theconversation.com/khartoum-creation-et-destruction-dune-ville-africaine-moderne-206534) thoughts on the matter.)