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A Sudanese-American journalist recounts his experience fleeing Khartoum

The building in old Khartoum where KushKush stayed for eight days.
Isma'il KushKush
The building in old Khartoum where KushKush stayed for eight days.

Updated May 3, 2023 at 2:24 PM ET

More than 100,000 people have fled Sudan since the conflict between the Sudanese army and a paramilitary group known as Rapid Support Forces erupted.

Sudanese-American journalist Isma'il Kushkush was in Sudan working on a reporting project and taking care of some family matters when full-on war broke out in Khartoum, the country's capital. For eight days, he found himself trapped in a building. When food and other supplies began to run out, KushKush and 32 people other people he was trapped with — including children and the elderly — knew they had to leave.

Getting out of the building was just the beginning of a terrifying ten-day journey to get out of Sudan, and across the border into Egypt. Eventually he arrived to safety, and reflected on the experience in an interview with NPR's Leila Fadel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some of the excerpts did not air in the broadcast version.


Interview excerpts

On getting out of the building

Isma'il KushKush, Sudanese-American journalist
/ Fahmo Mohammed
/
Fahmo Mohammed
Isma'il KushKush, Sudanese-American journalist

There was a debate about whether or not to leave the building. We did not think we would get a direct hit because the trajectory of the gunfire was parallel to the building. We could have been hit by stray bullets, but we were fearful that our soldiers might storm the building to take over the building or possibly be hit by a misguided missile strike. We were a few blocks away from the Republican Palace. We would hear the sounds of fire from jet fighters. So that was our major concern.

We thought the building was the safest option. Water was low, food was low, and we were trying to coordinate with some groups to leave the building in contact with the Rapid Support Forces. But it was always too dangerous to leave ... After three attempts failed, there were negotiations with some soldiers outside to allow the people in the building, including six children, and some elderly people, to walk down the street. The soldiers agreed and said our passage would be safe to a certain point, but they couldn't guarantee after that.

On walking out of Khartoum

We were divided into two groups. One continued westward to cross the great bridge into Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city across the White Nile. A group decided to go southward in Khartoum to west Khartoum, where we had arrangements to stay in an apartment. Perhaps for an hour, we walked and looked at how the city had been destroyed, many shops looted. We saw a city bus, and an older woman ran to it asking if it was leaving the city. The bus was on its way to Egypt. We said we'd like to go to Egypt on this bus if space allowed. Even if we just sat on the floor of the bus. At this point, five of us were able to continue the journey, paying for our seats to stay on this bus, to head northward to Egypt.

On reaching the border between Sudan and Egypt

It took us one day just to get to the actual gate. Food was scarce, water scarce, access to restrooms. Some slept on the bus, some on the sidewalk. The next day, the bus was able to move into the space between the Sudan and Egypt gate. We spent another day there trying to get our exit visas from Sudan and then our entry visas to Egypt. All of that took almost three days.

The cost of traveling and trying to get out increased by the hour. We paid $330 for the seat, which cost $200 the day before. I hear it's up to $700, $800 now. Most Sudanese people who left in the first days were the Sudanese middle class. Those who could afford to leave, those who left Khartoum, were the lucky ones.

On his desire to document what he has witnessed

I had been wanting to write an essay about the city of Khartoum, and walking through the streets and seeing the destruction of old buildings. Places you have memories of. To see how in one week the destruction came upon those places, and not to know where some friends and relatives are.

On Sudan's future

With the [Sudanese] revolution in 2019, there was great hope that that would be the final episode of instability and that there would be a genuine transition into democracy. I think these events of the last few weeks put a further dent into that dream.

Simone Popperl contributed editing. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mansee Khurana