ASWAN, Egypt (AP) — The café outside Aswan station was full of Sudanese families, surrounded by luggage and waiting for the train to Cairo, the next leg in their arduous journey escaping violence that has torn apart their country and overturned their lives.
Aswan, the Egyptian city closest to the border with Sudan, has become a way station for tens of thousands of Sudanese fleeing fighting between Sudan’s military and rival paramilitary force. The displaced arrive exhausted after days on the chaotic roads. Now, they must figure out how to navigate a future that is suddenly uncertain, with no idea when they will be able to return home.
At Aswan’s Nasser café, a Sudanese university professor Naglaa al-Khair Ahmed was still stunned by the sudden explosion of violence on April 15, after escalating tensions between Sudan’s two top generals.
“We never imagined that verbal skirmishes would end up with war,” she said. “We didn’t expect that a decision (to go to) war was so easy to take.”
She was heading to the Egyptian capital Cairo with her elderly father and her daughter. Her husband had remained behind in their home city of Omdurman, which neighbors the capital, Khartoum.
“I was crying the whole way” out of Sudan, she said, wiping away her tears, “I kept telling myself, ‘I will return. Certainly, I will return very soon.’” She has no idea when – “one month, maximum,” she said hopefully.
More than 76,000 Sudanese and over 5,000 other nationals have crossed into Egypt since the fighting began, according to the Egyptian government. The U.N. refugee agency says it expects the number to reach 350,000. The influx has slowed in the past week, but Sudanese refugees still keep coming as fighting continues.
Sudan’s army and the rival group, known as the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, are holding negotiations in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. But those who fled don’t know when it will be safe to return, scarred after spending days trapped in their homes amid constant gunfire, explosions and the sound of warplanes.
Many of those arriving in Egypt have, at least for now, money for housing or onward travel to Europe or the Gulf states. It’s a harder struggle for thousands of poorer Sudanese coming across the border.
At the Aswan train terminal and a bus station in the nearby village of Karkar, Egyptian and Sudanese volunteers welcomed the refugees with hot meals and water.
Mohamed Yahia, a Sudanese man who has worked as a day laborer in Aswan since 2020, handed over his apartment to a distant relative and her three daughters. He moved with his wife and young son to a small house he’s renting for the time being in Karkar.
“They are poor, and her husband was not with them,” the 29-year-old said of his guests. “We all – Sudanese and Egyptians – break bread with anyone arriving here.”
Gassem Amin, a Sudanese filmmaker living in Egypt since 2016, has been in Aswan for the past three weeks helping out. He joined other volunteers who help newly arrived Sudanese arrange housing, book tickets to further destinations, or get medical care.
Amin said a “black market” has arisen, selling bus and train tickets and renting furnished rooms to Sudanese at inflated prices. His group buys hundreds of tickets from the terminal each morning and gives them to Sudanese trying to get to Cairo or Alexandria. They pass on the cost to those who can pay. The poor get the tickets for free. The group also helps the displaced find affordable rooms.
Ahmed, the university professor, said that when fighting first broke out, she thought it would be brief. Instead, it quickly engulfed Khartoum and Omdurman.
“It was massive, massive killing, massive destruction, massive looting, massive in everything,” she said. Army aircraft repeatedly bombed an RSF camp close to her home, shaking the entire area. She and her family hid for hours under their beds as battles raged outside, she added.
For two weeks, Ahmed resisted her brothers’ urging that she leave. But as people fled in thousands and neighborhoods emptied out, Ahmed decided to flee Sudan, figuring that no place was safe.
She secured bus tickets for herself, her 15-year-old daughter and her father through a neighbor who owns a travel agency.
They left early in the morning through back alleys to avoid crossfire and reached the bus station. Then came a ride of more than 15 hours to reach Aswan in a bus packed with other fleeing families.
At stops along the way, villagers offered the passengers food and water. She recalled three young men getting on their bus, distributing sandwiches, bottled water and juice, and offering to host those who can’t afford going to Egypt.
“There were lots of generous people, even though they looked poor,” she said.
At the Argeen border point, crossings were smooth, to her surprise, she said. By that time, Egypt had beefed up staff there, speeding up the long lines of buses and cars.
The other main route remains more chaotic, through the Sudanese town of Wadi Halfa, about a half hour drive from the border with Egypt. The town has been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of people fleeing, packed into the few hotels and spending nights in mosques, schools and open areas. Men wait in long lines at the Egyptian Consulate for their required visas. Sudanese women can enter Egypt without a visa, but men between 16-49 need one.
From there, they cross into Egypt, then take a ferry across Lake Nasser to the town of Abu Simbel. From there, it’s another 300-kilometer (180 mile) trip to Aswan or to Karkar.
Reem Adel, who is five months pregnant, was trapped for days at her sister-in-law’s apartment in Khartoum’s al-Safiya neighborhood, which witnessed some of the fiercest fighting. Neighbors were hit by stray bullets, and RSF soldiers occupied their street, storming and looting apartments and kicking out residents, she said. The paramilitary troops also established a checkpoint, seizing valuables from those passing through.
“We could have ended up dead inside our home like many others,” said Adel, a project manager for a non-governmental organization. She fled with her husband and her sister-in-law’s family.
It took them several days to reach Wadi Halfa, where they had to wait for visas for the men.
Then came a bumpy truck ride and a 3-kilometer (1.8 mile) walk on foot to the border terminal at Ashkit-Qustal to bypass the line of trucks waiting to go through, some for as long as a week. “It was risky for a pregnant woman, but we didn’t have any other option,” she said.
Adel and her family arrived in Cairo and rented an apartment. Their plan is to remain in Egypt, at least until she gives birth. In the meantime, she and her husband are looking for any sort of work.
“No one knows when they can return,” she said. “Even if they reach a truce in the Jeddah talks, fighting could break out anytime … they are not to be trusted.”