Sudanese Mainers fear for loved ones as fighting rages between rival military leaders
The fighting in Sudan erupted in mid-April between two military leaders who had been sharing power in the country of nearly 50 million people, leaving hundreds of people dead and forcing thousands of others to flee their homes.
International outlets are reporting that attempts at temporary ceasefires have so far failed to stem the violence.
The fighting has centered on the capital, Khartoum, where many of Maine’s more than 2,000 Sudanese community members have family and loved ones.
Among them is Mutasim Eltahir, a community leader who lives in Westbrook, who has sisters and brothers in Khartoum. He said the situation there is dire.
"It’s like, no power, not enough food, bombing everywhere," he said. "So everybody over there is like feeling fear."
Eltahir said he was recently FaceTiming with his family in Khartoum, when a bullet flew through a kitchen window and hit their refrigerator.
But Eltahir said trying to leave the city is also risky.
"They have no choice, you know?" he said. "If you want to leave, the road is not safe. Or if you want to stay - they want to stay over there - also they are feeling you know, very dangerous."
Despite the danger, thousands of people have chosen to flee. As of April 25th, the United Nations reports that at least 20,000 Sudanese had crossed the border into the neighboring country of Chad, and that number is expected to grow substantially.
Countless others have sought refuge inside the country. One of Omar Bob’s sisters attempted the 300-mile journey from Khartoum to the northern city of Dongola by bus.
Bob, who lives in Gorham and serves on the leadership committee for the Sudanese community, said he tried to stay in touch with her through the whole trip.
"It was a very, very long night yesterday for me because I was following up with her," he said.
Bob said at one point he lost contact with his sister as the bus she was on passed through a remote region without cell service. So he started calling ahead to his family in Dongola, desperate for any update.
"What is the situation? Do you guys have any news? And I'm calling like, every, every half an hour," he said.
His sister did arrive safely. But Bob said that hasn’t quelled the overwhelming anxiety caused by watching this conflict unfold from so far away.
"I mean, this is affecting us more than you realize," he said. "I wake up six o'clock in the morning, the first thing I do is open the TV. Okay. Look at my phone. Trying to find any news about what's going on."
And some in the community have experienced this feeling of fear and stress before, as conflicts have rocked Sudan over the last several decades.
"I can't believe we're going through this again. So the feeling of fear, worried, and sleepless nights," said Ekhlas Ahmed, an activist who lives in Windham, whose work focuses on helping immigrants in Maine and supporting education in Sudan by creating libraries, developing curricula, and repairing school buildings.
Ekhlas said this conflict is undercutting the hope that she and others had for a transition to democracy in Sudan, after a mass protest movement toppled the country’s longtime ruler in 2019.
"It's really sad," she said. "And it's hard to be optimistic, or to see the light at the end of this very dark tunnel for my people in Sudan."
Ahmed said she’s discouraged that the United Nations, the U.S. and other international actors are not stepping in more forcefully to get humanitarian aid to the Sudanese people caught in the conflict.
Mona Elhag, who lives in Westbrook and serves on the Sudanese community’s leadership committee, said she just wants the violence to end.
"But we need that war to stop," she said. "I want the family to be safe. We want the country to be safe and we want our home."
Elhag's mother, siblings, and other relatives are still in Sudan. She said the stress of watching the violence unfold from afar, unable to help them, is unbearable.
All we can do, she said, is pray and hope.