Residents in Khartoum live in fear and desperation as fighting rages on
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A mother shot in the street while crouching to protect her child. A toddler trapped in a building that's been shelled, separated from her mother. A whole family hiding under a bed, with children crying from the sound of constant gunfire and shelling.
These are just some of the stories civilians living under siege the past five days in Sudan's capital Khartoum have told NPR, when reached by phone.
They describe a dire situation in the city, with no electricity, water or medicine, as they cower amid the brutal urban warfare going on in their residential neighborhoods.
The violence broke out on Saturday between the Sudanese armed forces and a paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces. The two are vying for power, despite promises that a civilian government would be installed after an October 2021 coup d'etat by the Sudanese military.
"On Saturday morning, April 15, we woke up to the sounds of gunfire, from that morning on we live in fear," says Hipa Salih, a Sudanese journalist. "I think we can die at any time. Nobody can feel safe in Khartoum now."
Her voice raw from breathing in smoke from gunfire and bombings, she says: "The children are crying because they're very, very scared and the house is shaking... all our family stay under the bed, the war planes over us."
Civilians have been shot in the streets
It's impossible for civilians to reach family members from whom they are separated, Salih says, so people are effectively prisoners in their own homes. One woman she knew had tried to move from one location to a safer place with her children — and was shot dead by the RSF.
"They killed her in the middle of the road — she was trying to cover her children and then they shoot her," she says.
Kholood Khair, a researcher and academic who's also hunkered down in Khartoum, says the extreme violence has shocked residents.
"On Saturday morning, everyone was kind of caught unawares," Khair says. "It's the kind of warfare one might expect in a battlefield, but instead it's taking place right in the heart of town. And the problem is for a lot of people that no one is really sure how long this is going to take — and that uncertainty is driving people's anxieties and fears."
Families are separated with no certainty of reuniting with their loved ones, she says. "A friend of mine was separated from her three-year-old daughter on Saturday and hasn't been able to get to her since. And because the streets are unsafe, she's not sure whether she's able to get to her. In addition, she found out just today that their apartment block, where her daughter is, has been hit. So these are the kinds of desperate stories, multiplied by tens of thousands, that exist all over Khartoum."
Duaa Tariq, an art curator, tells NPR she is trapped inside a house with her sister, who is five months pregnant, and two-year-old nephew. They are beginning to run out of food.
"Right now the fight has come to my neighborhood," she says. "Three people were killed two minutes away from my house from anti-aircraft, and yeah, we're very frightened and scared and we're also in a very bad situation in terms of supplies."
Democratic dreams have been repeatedly hijacked by the military
Tariq, 30, is a member of one of Sudan's grassroots pro-democracy resistance committees. She was involved in a peaceful people power revolution in 2019 that brought down President Omar al-Bashir, the North African country's longtime dictator and an indicted war criminal. Since then she's continued her activism, hoping to see a democratic Sudan.
But that dream has been repeatedly hijacked by military forces. First there was the 2021 coup, and now there's the fighting between the Sudanese army and the RSF. The two are erstwhile allies — the RSF is a Bashir-created group that grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militia responsible for abuses in Darfur.
Asked if she feels hopeless that democracy will ever come to Sudan now, Tariq is defiant.
"Our neighborhood committees, last night we went out and we did graffiti in the street, just to remind people that our voices are here. We're trying to be heard, because you know the bullets are always louder than people's voices, but we're trying to make it through."
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