DIARY: Waiting to leave Sudan, a hotel became a sanctuary

May 3, 2023, 11:13 PM

FILE - Smoke rises in Khartoum, Sudan, on April 22, 2023. In the country's capital, Sudan's army an...

FILE - Smoke rises in Khartoum, Sudan, on April 22, 2023. In the country's capital, Sudan's army and the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces have battled in the streets with automatic rifles, artillery and airstrikes. An AP journalist, waiting for a chance to leave the country, sheltered with a diverse group of more than a dozen people who hunkered down in a small hotel in central Khartoum. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali, File)

(AP Photo/Marwan Ali, File)

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — We were a diverse group of more than a dozen people, hunkered down in a small hotel in central Khartoum — a Sudanese family and the Sudanese hotel staff, a few British and French citizens, a Syrian family and a Lebanese man.

In better times, the Lisamin Safari Hotel catered to small tour groups that came to see Sudan’s little-known attractions — the ancient pyramids of Merowe and the coral reefs of the Red Sea.

Now, it was simply a five-story place of refuge.

Fighting between Sudan’s two most powerful generals had reduced the capital to an urban battlefield. The city had never seen anything like it, as the army and the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces blasted each other in the streets with automatic rifles, artillery and airstrikes.

Each day, millions of Sudanese caught between them faced terrifying choices of how to survive: Stay hiding at home, where a bullet or a missile could blast through a wall, or make a run for it, risking the mayhem outside.

After days trapped in their homes, many chose to flee to the Liasamin Hotel — most of them on foot from the nearby neighborhood known as Khartoum 2, when the destruction became too great. I got to the hotel on the seventh day of the fighting. In this place of temporary safety, we all began to search for a way to escape the city.

We spent long hours together in the hotel lobby, the sound of gunfire almost constant in the mornings. Whenever the explosions got closer, some guests — myself included — moved to the stairwells for safety.

The guests exchanged stories of what they’d endured, seeing death outside their doors, armed men robbing people, looting shops and commandeering buildings. Early on in the fighting, Sudanese military planes flattened several RSF bases in the capital of Khartoum, driving paramilitary fighters into the streets.

“They used our roof to shoot from,” said a British woman. She and her group had left for fear the building would be targeted; the structure next door had been hit and caught fire.

The Sudanese family had fled their home with almost nothing. The father was an anthropology researcher at Khartoum University. Their children, a daughter of around 15 and her younger brother, were stoic, rarely complaining. They worried about the books, clothes and electronics they’d left behind and asked their mother if they could return to the house to retrieve them.

“I don’t think the RSF are going to steal your books,” she told them with a laugh.

We all waited for the hour or so each day when the generator was turned on — if there was fuel to run it — to charge our phones.

Like much of south Khartoum, the hotel fell under the control of the RSF, a force with a ruthless reputation. Its fighters strolled the area in their desert camouflage uniforms. We suspected others, in civilian clothes, were also RSF, from their buzz cuts and thick boots. Some could not have been older than 18.

I had landed in Khartoum from Cairo exactly a month before the fighting broke out, to report on the first phase of Sudan’s democratic transition, agreed upon by a handful of Sudanese political parties, the military and the RSF last December.

On paper, the new era promised closure to a 2021 coup in which Sudan’s two top generals, Abdel Fattah Burhan, and RSF commander Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, joined forces to overthrow a Western-backed, power-sharing government.

But on the ground, unease was rife. At night, the streets, which normally would have been bustling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, were still. The start of the transition was delayed repeatedly. The army and the RSF were at loggerheads over merging the paramilitary force into the army, a key clause of the deal. Long-smoldering resentments between the two forces heated up.

Then, convoys of RSF fighters and army troops moved into downtown Khartoum. While Sudanese citizens warned of potential clashes, analysts, journalists and diplomats alike leaned to the logic that each side had too much to lose from open conflict. There was no sign of foreign embassies or aid agencies packing up.

We were wrong. After fighting erupted on April 15, I was trapped in an apartment where I’d been staying in Amarat, a neighborhood just south of Khartoum 2. With no water and food supplies dwindling, remaining there grew more perilous.

Finally, after several missiles struck the road outside, I decided to walk further south to the Lisamin.

Among the guests, fear had different triggers. For me, it was the hum of drones circling above the rooftops. It could drag on ominously for 15 minutes, until there came the sharp whine of a bomb being dropped.

During the lulls in fighting that usually came in the afternoon, our terror morphed into a duller angst. We talked about broader plans for the future. Hanging over us was an unspoken rule: Don’t talk about worst-case scenarios.

The owner, Mr. Salah, was generous. A single room cost $60 a night, a discount given the hardship of the times, and those without money were not charged. At night, the skilled cooks among us become the hotel caterers, using whatever dried and tinned food was left. Everyone knew the supplies would not last more than a few days.

All paths beyond the hotel were risky.

The Sudanese guests and staff planned their escape to the countryside and other cities where fighting was less fierce, or, they hoped, to neighboring Egypt. The nearby city of Wadi Medeni was one option, but without a vehicle, fuel or a willing driver, it too was out of reach.

Those of us with European passports pinned our hopes on an eventual evacuation. But with no functioning airport and street fighting still ongoing, this seemed difficult.

By April 23, as foreign governments hinted at potential evacuation operations, it was clear we had to make a move. The Sudanese family found transport to Port Sudan, where the mother had family. Three French women in the hotel were told to make for the embassy by whatever means possible.

Two British nationals, a surgeon and a widow from Glasgow, decided to stay behind. The Syrian family and Lebanese man had few options; they didn’t know a government that would help them leave.

In the hotel lobby that morning, we all said our goodbyes and wished each other well.

I was promised a spot on a Turkish-organized land evacuation to neighboring Ethiopia. My colleagues helped find a car to the assembly point, another hotel further south. At checkpoints along the way, my driver charmed his way past RSF soldiers, some of whom stood nervously at attention while others lounged in the shade making sandwiches.

Halfway there, we received a message from my manager that the plan had changed: I was to turn around and head for the French Embassy. Thanks to my colleagues in Paris, I had been added to the French evacuation list. I was lucky, grateful, but most of all, deeply privileged.

While I made it safely into the fortified embassy building, others were not so lucky. A French soldier lay in an embassy hall, a tin foil blanket covering his wounds. A British woman struggled to walk after her foot was struck by a stray bullet.

Our convoy of at least four buses and 25 armored cars set off from the embassy at around 6 p.m., crossing through RSF-held streets into army-held territory, before arriving at the Wadi Seidna airbase just northwest of Khartoum.

To my great surprise, I spotted the hotel owner, Mr. Salah, at the airport hangar. We embraced, and I thanked him for the past three days.

After women, children and the elderly left on flights, other young men and I were bundled onto the final flight of that round of evacuations in the early hours of April 25, heading for Djibouti.

It was not meant to turn out like this. Not for Sudan, not for my colleagues, friends and millions of Sudanese.

Tracking down everyone from the hotel since the evacuation has proved difficult. Some of the staff say they are safe, for now, in other parts of the country. The hotel owner is in Copenhagen with family. The three French women also made it safely to France.

I have had no word from those who stayed behind. The mobile phone network in Khartoum is all but dead.


FILE - A person, reflected in glass, walks near the Tropicana Las Vegas on May 16, 2023, in Las Veg...

Associated Press

Las Vegas ballpark pitch revives debate over public funding for sports stadiums

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Gov. Joe Lombardo wants to help build Major League Baseball’s smallest ballpark, arguing that the worst team in baseball can boost Las Vegas, a city striving to call itself a sports mecca. Debate about public funding for private sports clubs has been revived with the Oakland Athletics ballpark proposal. The […]

1 day ago

FILE - Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., speaks at an ...

Associated Press

Carter and the Kings: A friendship and alliance — but after MLK’s assassination

ATLANTA (AP) — The voice of Martin Luther King Sr., a melodic tenor like his slain son, carried across Madison Square Garden, calming the raucous Democrats who had nominated his friend and fellow Georgian for the presidency. “Surely, the Lord sent Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back where she belongs,” the […]

1 day ago

FILE - Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions con...

Associated Press

Wisconsin Republicans look for rebound, Democrats stay on offensive as 2024 fights loom

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin once again be a battleground. Democrats, recognizing that four of the past six presidential elections in the state have been decided by less than a percentage point, are trying not to become overconfident in the face of recent gains. They are gathering for their annual state convention starting June 10 […]

1 day ago

Associated Press

Michigan wildfire prompts evacuations, threatens multiple buildings

GRAYLING TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — A wildfire in Michigan burned more than 1,000 acres (1.5 square miles) and prompted emergency evacuations and road closures Saturday, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The wildfire located within Grayling Township, about 4 miles (6.4 km) southeast of Grayling, is moving west and southwest and threatens multiple […]

1 day ago

Associated Press

What led Capitol Police to stop a youth performance of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’

Video of a children’s choir singing the national anthem in the U.S. Capitol, only to be unceremoniously cut off by police, spread across social media on Friday. Capitol Police say singers from Rushingbrook Children’s Choir from Greenville, South Carolina, were stopped May 26 because of a miscommunication. Musical performances in the hallowed seat of Congress […]

1 day ago

Associated Press

Texas bans gender-affirming care for minors after governor signs bill

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas has become the most populous state to ban gender-affirming care for minors after Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation on Friday. Texas joined at least 18 other states that have enacted similar bans. Every major medical organization, including the American Medical Association, has opposed the bans and supported the medical care […]

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Men's Health Month...

Men’s Health Month: Why It’s Important to Speak About Your Health

June is Men’s Health Month, with the goal to raise awareness about men’s health and to encourage men to speak about their health.

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

DIARY: Waiting to leave Sudan, a hotel became a sanctuary