Sudan: The day everything changed

Published on Wednesday 10 April 2024

Maintaining humanitarian aid at all costs

Sudan has been in conflict for decades, culminating in a coup d’état in 2021 led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan DogoloHemedti“. The two generals soon clashed in a merciless conflict that brought disaster to the country. On 15 April 2023, the violence escalated to such an extent that even humanitarian aid came to a standstill. A day-by-day account of the turmoil in which the SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL teams found themselves.   

APRIL 15, THe detonation 

On Saturday April 15, 2023, Khartoum, one of Africa’s most stable capitals, wakes up to a beautiful Ramadan day. Soon, the first shots were fired. Word gets around: “Something’s going on in Khartoum “. Charline, field coordinator in Geneina, western Sudan, finishes her coffee with her colleagues. In France, Justine, Regional Director for SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, decides to go on vacation with her children, as planned. But at 10 am, fighters burst into Khartoum airport and the first bombardments began. The first videos arrived on the Internet: fighter planes flying over Khartoum, people lying down trying to protect themselves from gunfire and bombardment. The evidence becomes clear. Both sides have entered a violent war, and the situation is extremely dangerous.  

Soon, the violence spread from town to town like wildfire. Around 11 am, the first shots were heard in El-Fasher, then in Port Soudan. In Geneina, the first rocket arrived in the evening.

  • 43 million inhabitants
  • 172nd out of 191 countries on the Human Development Index
  • 21.000 people helped

SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL teams confined. “The news from Khartoum was dramatic. We were told that there was no consideration for the fact that there were civilians, and no problem with killing humanitarians. We got the impression that it didn’t matter to them. The whole town was set on fire. The looters arrived quickly,” says Charline. With security not guaranteed, the decision was taken to protect the national teams and evacuate the expatriates, starting with those in Khartoum. But for Justine, the worry had only just begun: “Our colleague Jo’s family was in Khartoum under the bombardments, with three children aged 10, 8 and 5. We had to find a solution to get them out of there.

Meanwhile, in Geneina, Charline and the local teams are waiting on tenterhooks. ” We feel overwhelmed because we don’t understand what’s going on. It’s so violent, on an unimaginable scale. We’re receiving 50,000 news reports a second. Our host country is sinking and so are our colleagues. They know that tragic events are about to take place. 

The evacuation, suspended violence 

On Thursday April 20, from the tree of the office straw hut, Charline and her colleagues heard gunfire in a previously silent area. That’s it, it’s time! An attack has just taken place in the middle of the market, and there’s panic. Everyone goes home to take cover and stock up on food. Geneina will be evacuated at the end of the week.  

From France, Justine and her team are organizing the evacuation: “We waited for Jo’s family to get into the car with white flags made of tea towels to go to the French evacuation rally point. From then on, France was in charge. 

Around 2pm on Saturday April 22, Charline learns that over 500 vehicles from armed groups are waiting to enter the town of Geneina.  

Sunday April 23, at 5am, Jo’s husband calls to say that the convoy is leaving for an airport north of Khartoum to be evacuated by the French army. By 2pm, the family is on the plane to Djibouti.

As for Charline, she is preparing for her evacuation. I had an enormous sense of guilt about being lucky enough to be able to leave. A feeling of total injustice for those who remained. There was an agreement to let the expatriate convoys leave between 7am and 9am. The night before, we called our colleagues one by one to warn them, telling them we’d be back as soon as we could, and that they had to put their safety first.   

Around Geneina, militias cut off the evacuation. The men are threatening, pointing their rifles at people. The situation degenerates. Some shoot in the air to celebrate the departure of the United Nations and NGOs. Barely 30 minutes after the expatriatesdeparture, the fighting resumes and suddenly intensifies. 

Paris, Time to breathe 

In Paris, Justine and her team welcome Charline and her colleague Nicolas’ plane. Jo’s family, on another plane, arrive at the same time. Many journalists are also present. “I see a journalist and find myself at the microphone of France Info. In the end, we got everyone back, and it was extremely moving.” For Charline too, the arrival was intense: When we arrived at the airport, we learnt that the evacuation plane from Khartoum was landing at the same time. We understood that all our friends from Khartoum were arriving. But this joy is mixed with a lot of sadness, because the news sent by our Sudanese colleagues is terrible.”

The following weeks are devoted to taking care of the returning teams. Everyone continues to follow what is happening in the field, with the determination to do everything possible to return as soon as possible.

For a month and a half, our Sudanese security contact is the only point of contact with the outside world. At first, I didn’t hear from him for four days,” recalls Charline, then one day, he called me at 1am. From then, we kept up the rhythm of one call in the morning and one in the evening for a month and a half. SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL takes the lead on the humanitarian response for Darfur because we’re the only ones with information.”

For six weeks, we have been giving news to our other humanitarian colleagues, good ones but also dramatic news, with deaths among the teams. In Sudan, violence and atrocities are multiplying dramatically. The situation is catastrophic. 

Help on both sides of the border 

All efforts are focused on the possibility of returning to Sudan. Charline and Justine arrived in Paris at the beginning of May hoping to receive a visa, but the consulate was unable to issue one. So, they decided to travel via Chad with a logistics team. SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL chartered two planes from the emergency stock, one landing in Chad and the other in Port Sudan. We were able to pick up our plane in Ndjamena. It was late in the evening when we went to see our equipment off the plane. There was a lot of emotion, it was becoming concrete!  

The work is organized in small steps. In Chad, the team has the support of colleagues and partners who are doing their maximum to ensure that the expedition reaches a successful conclusion, an inter-agency solidarity rarely achieved before. In the Chadian border town of Adré, the team managed to set up tents and open an office. On the Sudanese side, the team got back to work as soon as possible and managed to keep a few water trucks running. They are the only people in the city to have managed this feat.

At 5pm on June 16, heavy fighting broke out in the first Sudanese village over the border. Everything stopped and time stood still. Then, in a deadly silence, the refugees appear. 80,000 people arrive, one after the other, with war wounds and without having been able to take anything with them. It’s a sight that Justine never forgets: “We had no words at the time. We say nothing. I asked our colleague to take us to the hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders. And there, around the hospital: people as far as the eye can see. To help, we take charge of the hospital’s water supply. We collect all the water jerrycans we can find and run until 4am to distribute water. Members of our team who had fled Geneina arrived, and our help was organized. We finally set up in the hospital compound to distribute hygiene kits (soap, mosquito nets, covers and ropes).   

For Charline too, the scene is shocking: It’s just hell on earth. I have images of wounded women, raped women, with babies, very few men. No words. After two or three days, the situation calms down a little and we start talking to people who tell us their stories. They tell us that the men were killed, and the women raped. Stories of terrible violence.   

SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL team is still looking for ways to help the population inside Sudan, but the border is closed on the way out of Chad. But Justine had a rare opportunity: the Chadian president paid a visit to the hospital in Adré following the arrival of the 80,000 refugees. After numerous discussions with the presidential spokesman, the governor, etc., it was agreed that I would meet the president a few minutes later. My aim is to get the border reopened and go to Sudan. He asks me how we intend to act in this war-torn country. I explain to him who SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL is, what we do and, above all, what our strategy is. We’ve decided to go village by village, distributing aid and talking to all the stakeholders, all the way to Geneina.” Justine insists that all NGOs must be allowed in. “There are over 450,000 people in need in this state of Darfur. SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL can’t do much on its own! Victory…the President grants NGOs the right to return to Sudan, then resumes his tour of the hospital.

Eventually, on June 19, Justine and Charline crossed the border to join their Sudanese colleagues. Meetings are immediately organized with local authorities, village chiefs and all parties involved in the conflict to negotiate the possibility of distributing humanitarian aid to the population. We remind them of our principles and needs. We explain what we want to do, where we want to go,” recalls Charline. After the negotiations, they guaranteed us free access to the people, so the very next day we started distributing hygiene kits.

Geneina, Back to the a desolate town 

Village by village, the team makes slow progress towards Geneina. Arrival in the town is scheduled for Thursday June 29.  

« Justine gets up at 3am’”, recalls Charline. That wakes me up and I start crying. At 4:30am, I came out of my room to find Justine crying over her coffee. At that point, everything breaks down. We laugh, we cry.” Justine has the same recollection: “I think we needed that decompression before going back to Geneina. We knew the situation there was appalling, but we were ready!» 

At the appointed time, the team takes the car for Geneina. At a checkpoint, some twenty armed men cut them off before finally changing their minds. When the team finally reaches Geneina, everything is deserted. On the main road, everything is burnt. The silence is deafening, even the muezzin in the mosques has fallen silent. No one in the streets, buildings destroyed, a deathly silence. Justine remembers arriving at the SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL offices: As we walk down our street, we see our neighbors who have come out to welcome us. Further on, our trucks, which have been supplying the town with water since the beginning of the conflict, are parked. And at last we see our teams. What a thrill! In the evening, we head back to Adré, promising to come back the next day.

From then on, the team gradually resumed its work. Epidemics are looming, the town has no water, no market, nothing. Water, food and hygiene products had to be distributed

Nevertheless, in 2024, it is still impossible to reach whole sections of the Sudanese population in desperate need of help. The city of Khartoum, caught up in the war, is virtually inaccessible. The humanitarian situation in El-Fasher is catastrophic, with no access to supplies. The east of the country, around the town of Gedaref, is considered a relatively calm zone. Many families who fled Khartoum have taken refuge there. On the spot, our colleagues have managed to bring a little help to these people. Famine is on the way, particularly in the west, in Darfur. A huge part of the country has no access to anything, and yet there remain many obstacles to the deployment of humanitarian aid.

SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL teams are fighting every day to stay in the country and distribute aid, but the borders must open, visas must be granted and barriers must come down to allow access to the population.   

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