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Escaping the conflict in Khartoum, Sudan

    Our sisters came in two groups, and each had different experiences on the way. While the first from Khartoum led by the Provincial superior came without assistance and traveled for three days, the second group from Omdurman took six days but were well supported by The Vulnerable People Project (VPP) team and taken care of until they were officially handed to the community of St. Joseph in Juba, South Sudan. However, both groups were brave and resilient, constantly trusting in God’s protection and providence. This has been the life of our Institute right from its inception in 1954. We were hardly ten years in existence when the first civil war in Sudan started in 1960s. Over the six decades nothing seems to have changed except the location of the wars.

    I would like to thank our Sister in Nairobi for her open and generous heart for introducing her Institute to her personal friend and colleagues in the USA at such a time of great need. And on behalf of my General Council, and on my own behalf, I want to thank Sister’s generous friend CM and her team within and abroad for their genuine concern and generosity through VPP in rescuing our sisters out of Sudan. As expressed already, this event was never planned and our seven sisters who line in Sudan are here in Juba in dire need of even basic items such as food, clothing, shelter, medicine and personal effects, and the survival of the four from the accident, has given us courage to trust in God more. We would be most grateful if there are still well-wishers to stand by us in supporting these sisters. Our prayers remain with the five sisters still in Sudan; Two in El-Obeid and three in Kosti who have remained to give service among the South Sudanese refugees in Sudan.”  Rev. Mother Alice Drajea, Superior General, Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

    On the wake of 15th April 2023, members of Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus living in Sudan found themselves in the heat of conflict when skirmishes broke out in Khartoum, the capital city of, Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This violence rapidly escalated to Omdurman and Bahri and other parts of the country, including Darfur. In the weeks leading up to the fighting, tensions had escalated between the warring factions. However, it was not precedented that it would lead to a full-blown civil war that would spread rapidly across the country. Civilians were not spared. Witnesses reported air raids targeting civilian neighborhoods, medical facilities, and schools. For instance, on 2 May, SAF air raids targeted the Sharg An Neel hospital area in Al Jarif East, Khartoum, reportedly killing several civilians (ACLED, 2023). Our communities in Ushra (the provincial house), Arkawit (novitiate) in Khartoum and Umbedda (community) in Omdurman were not spared as these communities are in two of the towns affected by the conflict. For days, the sisters were confined to their residence for safety. However, food and water would soon run in short supply. This would be followed by a power cutoff. An emergency evacuation was necessary to ensure the safety of our sisters. The sisters were relocated in two groups. The first sisters arrived in Juba on Wednesday 26th April 2023, while the second group arrived in May 2023.

    We share with you firsthand stories from some of our sisters who were fortunate enough to escape with barely more than their lives.

    My maiden trip to Sudan.

    The newly elected Provincial Superior for South Sudan/Sudan left Juba, South Sudan in early April 2023 to go to Khartoum to prepare for an administrative handover. Here is her account of events.

    “The whole thing started when I was on duty at my place of work at Cobar (across and at the bank of Blue Nile on the North adjacent to Khartoum Airport) near the Archbishop’s residence. It was something which I thought could take some minutes or hours so that I could return to my community. However, I could not leave Cobar for seven days as the shooting and bombing went on, non-stop. One day a group of the RSF soilders came to the compound where I work.  I went to them without fear. They asked whose house it was. I told them it is a church house. “Are there no soldiers?”, they asked. “No, it is a Church, we do not host soldiers,” I told them. Then they asked for water, clothes, and food. They looked dirty, tired and apprehensive. As I went in to bring water, I got a call from the Archbishop who was blocked in Port Sudan. I told him what was unfolding in the compound, and he responded spontaneously, “Go to the laundry and get any clothes of mine or other men’s clothes; and give them so that they may leave.”  I was gathering the clothes when a different group of fighters started shooting in our direction. On seeing this, the men grabbed what they could and dispersed, some climbed the wall and disappeared. During the seven days in hiding, I was terribly worried about the sisters I had left in our Ushra House (Khartoum City) because they were elderly and had health complications; one suffers from cancer, another has knee problems and the third had a constant cough. However, my worry on the spot was also for our Cardinal who was with me. “If I leave, who will help him?”, I thought to myself. At times we had completely nothing to cook, yet the Cardinal is diabetic. One day I boiled dry pieces of okra with salt and water and mingled some flour to eat. Something happened, Nuncio asked the Cardinal to go to his house which is nearby. Shortly after, Rome requested the Nuncio to leave Sudan with all the people in his house including the Cardinal. Thanks be to God. The Cardinal was out of the way in safety. My next focus was now the members of my community on the South side of the Nile. I prayed to God, Jesus to accompany me. On 21st April 2023, though afraid, I entered the car driving slowly through the many soldiers all around. There had been several roadblocks along the road. As I approached the first roadblock I slowed down in fear. The soldiers (to my surprise) beaconed me to drive on towards them, still I did not trust them thinking that they were luring me into danger. The urge to reach my sisters was too strong to make me stop, so I approached the group of government soldiers. They said, “Fadal (welcome), drive, go safely”. Encouraged by the sound of their tone, I drove on slowly through and eventually reached the convent.

    When I reached my community, the sisters saw me, and we all burst into tears while embracing each other. They told me they were worried about me, and I told them the same. There was not much time to tell stories. Without wasting time, I instructed the sisters to only pack essential items to carry, and to arrange the rest of the belongings properly and cover. One sister didn’t want to hear about leaving because she said she could not walk or manage an unplanned journey. None of us wanted to leave, however this was an emergency. As we were gathering our things, fighting intensified and a bomb fell on our neighbor’s house. It caught fire and killed a woman inside. This incident helped to emphasize my instruction to the sisters to pack for departure. Everybody around us seemed to be running so I told the sisters that we must also leave. On Saturday 22nd April 2023, we spent the day packing and cleaning. Sunday 23rd April 2023, the Cardinal called to inform me that they arrived in Djibouti safely. “Now is our turn to quit,” I thought. However, at the back of my mind, my aim was to bring the sick sisters to Juba and then return to Khartoum to rescue the sisters in Omdurman.

    Leaving Sudan.

    We covered everything in the house and left early in the morning on Monday 24th April 2023 by bus from Khartoum to Rabak. We each paid 30,000 pounds (an equivalent of about 40 dollars) and from Rabak, we boarded another bus to Jodah, which is towards the border with South Sudan. For this trip we each paid 25,000 pounds ($35). Jodah was the hardest part of our journey. There were no vehicles. We only had two options; to walk or board donkeys to the border. With the state of my sisters, sick and weak, we opted for hiring donkeys. We did not know how to mount on the donkeys, so the men had to assist us. I was carried by four men- oh my God! If the pictures were taken it would win an award! One donkey had a cart where our small pieces of luggage were packed. With the donkeys we were able to cross into South Sudan to a place called Jodah-Junubia. From there, we had to look for a vehicle to take us to Renk. We then embarked on the journey and upon reaching Renk directed the car to take us to any Church. At Renk, we were happy to meet the Comboni Missionary Sisters. We were well received and felt at home. We arrived on Tuesday 25th April 2023 and rested. For the first time in many days, we did not hear gunshots and bombs. At least we experienced peace in Renk, South Sudan. We left Renk as early as 4:00 a.m. for Poluc using the priest’s Land Cruiser.  Among us were children and a mother with her baby. We had all fled the conflict in Sudan. We sat side-by-side, 13 people altogether, on the Land-Cruiser.

    By 7:00 a.m. we were approaching Poluc, the road was very bad, and the driver was at good speed. Alas! the hind tyre burst, and the car cascaded with us down the road, thereafter, overturning four times and then coming to a stop. On realizing that we were in danger, I could only hold my head with both hands, and I kept saying “It is finished, Jesus take control.” The car came to a stop on its side, all of us not knowing which way to exit. In truth, it was not our day to die. Passing cars came onto the scene and took us back to Renk to receive medical treatment.  Our bodies were covered with blood, dust, and pain. God is great! There were no fatalities. However, one sister had a cut on the head and complained of great pain in her chest while another complained of shoulder ache. Medical evaluations carried out later in Juba would reveal that the first sister had sustained fractures on four ribs while the other had a broken collarbone. Another of the sisters was thrashed under the driver’s seat during the accident. When she was pulled out from underneath the seat, she saw a veil soaked in blood. Her heart sank because she concluded that one of her sisters had died in the accident. Fortunately, this was the veil that had come off the head of the sister who had sustained head injuries. The injured were attended to at Renk Hospital and discharged. Meanwhile the parish priest organized for alternative transport to take us to Poluc. He managed to get an ambulance to carry those who were badly off and another car for the others. The sister who had broken ribs during the accident also suffers from cancer and so we had to place a mattress for her to lay on. We had to bear the pain of our injuries as we travelled along the bad road toward Poluc a second time. The hope is that every inch of the distance covered was getting us closer to better attendance, probably in Juba.

    Poluc, I should call this town, ‘a town of Good Hope’. When we reached Poluc on Wednesday 26th April 2023, the Aeroplane was already on the ground. The three injured sisters were carried on mattresses onto the cargo plane. The plane was again packed, no space with so many people eagerly hoping to reach Juba. We left Poluc with nearly nothing in our hands as our little bags burst open when we had the accident, and some items were lost. The few things we managed to salvage from the accident were left in Reng with a catechist as the focus was to get us to proper medical assistance. Also the rescue plane could only prioritize passengers.

    Arriving in Juba, South Sudan

    We arrived in Juba on Wednesday 26th April 2023 with only the clothes on our bodies. Our greatest consolation was to see our sisters in Juba all eagerly waiting for us. They received us with great emotion, having been notified before about our accident on our way to Poluc and the trip thereafter. Our sisters received us with joy, and they took us straight away to the hospital for preliminary medical examinations, that was when the four fractured ribs and the fractured collar bone were established through X-ray.

    Looking back my greatest regret and concern is that I left the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle. As we were leaving, I said, “Jesus, I leave you in charge.” Also, our house is the tallest in the area, it can be an easy target. Currently, many establishments of the Catholic Church such as schools the convent of the Egyptian Sacred Heart Sisters, and the Cathedral are occupied by soldiers. If Rome could call the Nuncio out of Sudan, and all the embassies were evacuating their nationals out of Sudan, who were we to remain? This war will not end

    Journey of the first group

    When asked how the experience was for her, the Provincial Superior noted the following:

    “The most scaring thing about this experience was the bombardment by aeroplanes. It was the worst experience because you don’t know where the bombs would land. I believe God was in lead. I was trapped in with the Cardinal who is diabetic and there was no food, let alone the required food for diabetics. I was of great help to him and the others; I cooked and did the chores: not much choice. We ate dry okra, addes (dry crashed peas), and rice yet Cardinal is diabetic.”

    Escaping through the Sudan desert

    On Monday 15th May 2023, the second group of sisters begun their escape from Sudan. These are sisters who live in a convent located in Omdurman which is one of the major towns that was affected when the conflict begun. Omdurman is about 23km Northwest of the capital Khartoum and lies on the west bank of the River Nile. Omdurman is quite populous and although Khartoum is the capital of Sudan, part of the country’s legislature meets in Omdurman. On a good day, it would be a 30-minute drive between the two cities. When the war broke out everyone was confined to where the war found them. This meant that the community in Omburdman could not travel to join the community in Khartoum. A second plan had to be put in place to ensure the safe relocation of the sisters who live in Omburdman. This is their story.

     “The sisters in Umbedda convent, at first, felt they could stay with the hope that the conflict will subside. [Remember, the sisters have lived through many wars from the first time they were exiled along with other Christian missionaries from Sudan (shortly after the institution was founded) to the civil conflict of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda (where they sought refuge) and later the 2013-2018 civil war in the newest nation, South Sudan]. However, as time went on, the violence escalated. The sound of gunfire and bombing by aeroplanes became unbearable. The apostolate came to a standstill as nobody could cross the streets at ease. They could not give help to the many poor and vulnerable people that they serve daily. Within days there was neither cooking gas nor charcoal to prepare food, but at least they had electricity and water. Worst of all money was running out, but even if they had money, where would they buy supplies? It is then that real struck. “What shall we do?” “How can we get out of here?” What means shall we use given that one of us is sick with swollen legs and back problem? The streets were dangerous to cross to reach the bus station while the airport was the first area hit and there were no flights.

    In the middle of our confusion and anxiety, one of our sisters residing in Nairobi contacted us urging us to evacuate our community to Juba, South Sudan. We were hesitant to leave because we had not received any information from our superiors. Little did we know that our Superior General was with the sister in Nairobi planning our relocation. They collaborated with a trusted organization, The Vulnerable People Project (VPP), to reach us. It was too good to believe, especially when one Emmanuel from VPP was sent to bring us some money for feeding. 

    Escape from Omburdman

    Before we left, l went to the Parish Priest to hand him the key to the car given to us by the Archdiocese for pastoral activities. He refused to take the key because he was not happy that we were leaving, especially on account of one of the sister’s health condition. All the same, knowing that the Archbishop was caught in Port Sudan and the Nuncio was requested by Vatican to leave Sudan, we had no choice but also to leave. We were fully aware that the Christians are strong when we are with them. We prepared and covered everything in the house. Finally, we left on Monday 15th May 2023 against the will of the Parish Priest, who was concerned about the safety of the road and health of one of the sisters. Nevertheless, on Tuesday 16th May 2023, we left without letting our parishioners know because they would feel shaken. With the help of VPP we were able to reach the Nissan bus coaches that cross the desert. We set off in a
    convoy of about seven buses. These buses were full to the brim with people escaping the conflict. Our first stop was at a place called Al-Rahad, off El-Obeid town. We wondered if our sisters in El-Obeid had left. However, it was very risky to leave the convoy and travel to El-Obeid to find out. The road through the dessert was bad and worse of all, there was the threat of the desert robbers and bandits who take advantage of the bad roads and recent war to loot or kill. Because of this, we had armed police to escort us from Al-Rahad up to Dalany.

    At Dalany, we experience a bit of peace. We felt a little safe as we could hear the armed groups greeting each other “Comrades, Comrades.” We had no food, but we could not feel hungry because of fear. The effects of not eating had started setting in. One of the sisters who suffers from diabetes collapsed in the toilet at Hiban in the Nuba Mountains. Thank God there were medics, and her condition was stabilized for the journey ahead. This made our journey even more stressful. We were more worried than before especially when we recalled the parish priest’s concern about the sister who had fainted. We were also fearful for the VPP team who sacrificed their safety to travel with us. “What is something happened to any of them?” 

    We thanked God for the team of VPP. They took good care of us with great dignity and respect. They were so kind as to book two seats for another sick sister whose legs had swollen. 

    SHS Sisters resting among refugees who they fled with from the fighting in Sudan. Photo credit: The Evangelisches Jugendwerk in Württemberg, May 2023

    The convoy set off from Hiban to Kaudor where a car was waiting to transfer is to Idah where we could catch an evacuation plane to Juba, South Sudan. VPP staff were with us all through this journey which took six days. On reaching Juba, the VPP team in Juba picked us up and accommodated us for four days in a hotel in Juba. The VPP
    team offered us the best accommodation in Juba and took it upon themselves to take us all to the hospital for a checkup. They continued to follow-up with the two sisters who needed additional medical attention. 

    Our reflection on what took place.

    Our coming away from Omburdman, we believe, is not forever. We hope to return as soon as it is safe. The Franciscan Missionaries were also concerned about us. One of the Fathers who resides near Suk Libya remarked, “Khartoum has never experienced war like this. We are grateful to our superiors for connecting us to the rescue team.” To the rescue team, we cannot thank them enough. May God bless them. We continue to pray for the war in Sudan to stop. Our hearts are with the people left behind irrespective of Creed. 

    Copyright 2023.