An Exodus by Bus From Sudan: Sniper Fire, Desert Journeys and Fear

ASWAN, Egypt — It was the middle of the night, but the first thing Mawahib Mohammed did was make a beeline for the shower, the first she had taken in a week. As one of the thousands of Sudanese who had crossed the border to Egypt in recent weeks, she had barely slept in six days and used a bathroom only once, she said. There were no remotely decent toilets along the way.

When she got out of the shower, she still felt filthy, she said. She immediately showered four more times. (“Praise God,” she said, describing her relief.)

When Ms. Mohammed, 47, returned to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, from Dubai four years ago, she had imagined something different: Helping to build a modern, democratic society after a revolution brought down Sudan’s longtime dictator.

Instead, over the last week, she and her family found themselves running pell-mell from Khartoum as it veered toward civil war.

“I had hope for Sudan,” she said on Wednesday. “I never thought I’d leave again.”

Egyptian officials say that more than 52,500 Sudanese and nearly 4,000 foreigners have crossed the border into Egypt since the outbreak of the fighting, heading for a country that sharesa common language and deep historical and cultural ties with Sudan. They are people of means, by and large, who spent the last of their cash on the journey north.

And they are the vanguard of what Egyptian and U.N. officials fear will be a growing rush of Sudanese refugees into their northern neighbor, as one cease-fire after another in Sudan is violated by the warring factions and fighting continues to rage.

A bus that arrived in Karkar bus station in Aswan on Wednesday.Credit…Heba Khamis for The New York Times

The Egyptian government has relaxed border controls for Sudanese arrivals, allowing women, children and older people to enter visa-free, and has sent extra trains and buses to Aswan, the closest major city to the border, to help the refugees move further into Egypt. People there have been welcoming the refugees, finding them apartments and bringing them food.

But officials worry about what comes next, expecting busloads of poorer refugees to follow. Even these first, relatively affluent arrivals have little ideawhat they will do next.

“There are people who made the decision just to go to Egypt and they’ll figure it out,” said Mahmoud Abdelrahman, 35, a Sudanese-Canadian volunteer who interrupted his vacation in Cairo to help in Aswan. His own parents were stranded in Cairo, unable to go home to Khartoum. “Everyone’s trying to figure out what Plan B is.”

Ms. Mohammed, her husband, Mohammed Hashim, 48, and their three boys — Firas, 14, Hashim, 11, and Abdallah, 6 — staggered off the bus in Aswan around 1 a.m. on Wednesday.

For them and other refugees, it had been a difficult journey north, disorderly and exploitatively priced. Bus tickets on the Sudanese side cost more than five times the prewar norm, workers and drivers at the Aswan bus stop said.

Raised in the United Arab Emirates, Ms. Mohammed returned to Khartoum for college, where she studied medicine and met her husband. She worked for the United Nations on a campaign against hepatitis in Sudan, but they moved back to the Emirates before Hashim and Abdallah were born.

It was safer there, easier. Sudan was struggling under sanctions, dictatorship and conservative restrictions on dress and behavior.

After the 2019 revolution, however, she returned with the boys while Mr. Hashim stayed in Dubai for his job with the Sudanese agent for Renault. They wanted their children to learn about their roots and hitch their future to Sudan’s, now that it was going somewhere.

Vans driving Sudanese people from the Karkar bus station to Aswan downtown.Credit…Heba Khamis for The New York Times

Then a pair of military commanders hijacked the democratic transition, a coup that descended into war last month when the two men turned on each other.

Mr. Hashim was home for the holy month of Ramadan. As the Eid holiday approached, snipers took over their neighborhood; a bullet fell at their feet when the family ventured out to see what was going on.

They hunkered down, pooling what food they had with their neighbors. With the power cut, a generator pumped running water to the building for only an hour a day. Gunfire and explosions became so constant that, a week after leaving, Ms. Mohammed still could not hear properly.

Not wanting to leave her partially paralyzed, 80-year-old father behind, the family stayed. Mr. Hashim, too, had older parents and a disabled brother to think about. But when the Rapid Support Forces, one of the war’s two main combatants, looted a bank close to their building, they decided it was time to go.

Gas stations and bus operators were price-gouging, and credit cards were useless. They borrowed cash from friends to buy just enough gas to drive to the station, then for bus tickets to Egypt. From Khartoum to a border town, Wadi Halfa, they rode about 18 hours, through six checkpoints guarded by armed men. The boys toted their PlayStation the whole way.

But in overcrowded, chaotic Halfa, where they got emergency passport papers and waited five days for a bus to Aswan, money barely helped. Mr. Hashim and the boys slept in the street with their bags for two days, while Ms. Mohammed slept on the bus. Eventually they found a hotel room to share with nearly 30 others. The next night, Ms. Mohammed pleaded with the manager to let her sons sleep in the office.

A family just landed in Karkar bus station in Aswan on Thursday.Credit…Heba Khamis for The New York Times

Six days after leaving Khartoum, they crossed the shadeless border, then took a ferry across the flat blue of Lake Nasser. Aswan lay a few hours’ bus ride beyond that.

An unknown number of Sudanese refugees are still waiting on buses at the two crossings into Egypt, though the traffic has slowed as Khartoum empties of people who can afford to flee. Some of those who cannot leave the country, whether for Egypt, Ethiopia, Chad or across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, appear to be heading elsewhere in Sudan.

The Egyptian Red Crescent is providing humanitarian aid and medical care on the Egyptian side of the border. But on the other side, where food, water and working toilets are scarce and temperatures routinely top 100 degrees, several people have died while waiting in the desert, according to a Sudanese doctor and a bus driver who has made the trip to Aswan three times.

Armed gangs have also preyed on those waiting to cross, said the driver, Nader Abdallah Hussein, 51.

As bad as it may seem, the situation at the border is an improvement over the early days of the exodus, when some refugees waited in the desert for days at a time.

Among them were Allia Amin, 32, her half-sister, Hanaa Abdelwahed, 24, and their aunt Sara Saleh, 39. They said they had spent nearly a week stuck at the border, sleeping in the middle of nowhere, eating dried dates brought by local villagers and drinking water straight from the Nile as the sun scorched them.

They had not intended to run for Egypt. In the chaos, they said, they had just followed all the other people piling into buses. Caught at work when the fighting began, they had brought nothing but the dresses on their backs and little money.

Their children — Ms. Amin’s two sons and Ms. Abdelwahed’s daughter — were somewhere back in Sudan, they said. They had lost contact soon after gunshots began ringing out.

Allia Amin and Hanaa Abdelwahed in the apartment that was provided for them in Aswan.Credit…Heba Khamis for The New York Times

Their husbands were missing, too. “But the priority is to hear about the kids. The husbands come second,” Ms. Amin said.

Some refugees, like these women, planned to stay in Aswan and look for jobs. The more affluent, like Ms. Mohammed, Mr. Hashim and their sons, were moving on.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Hashim family was waiting again, this time in the Palestine Cafe near Aswan’s train station, where they would catch a train. for the 13-hour trip to Cairo. On the other end: an apartment the family had managed to find through friends, and a new life, whether in Cairo, Dubai or elsewhere.

Just before they boarded the train, Ms. Mohammed got a call. Fighters from the R.S.F. had looted the family’s apartment in Khartoum, relatives told her. They had left behind important documents, she said, and her jewelry, electronics — her eyes moved back and forth, and she breathed short, sharp breaths through her nostrils.

“Praise God,” she said, finally, simply, and hoisted Abdallah’s Minions backpack onto the train.

The Hashim family after boarding the train to go from Aswan to Cairo.Credit…Heba Khamis for The New York Times

Hossam Abdellatif and Hagar Hakeem contributed reporting.

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