LONDON — Mahmoud almost never leaves his small apartment in east Khartoum. Electricity has been out for most of the past month, so he swelters in the summer heat. When he does venture out to find food, he leaves his mobile phone behind because of looters in the street. Otherwise, he hunkers down in fear, worried that an artillery shell could burst into his home.
Exhausted, confused and unable to escape the conflict-ravaged Sudanese capital, the young research technician tries blocking out the reality of his surroundings.
“I am reading my book collection for a second time,” he said. One work helping him get by: “Models of the Mind,” a 2021 neuroscience book about how mathematics help explain the workings of the brain.
Since the conflict broke out last month, more than 1.3 million people have fled their homes to escape Sudan’s fighting, going elsewhere in the country or across the borders. But Mahmoud and millions of others remain trapped in Khartoum and its sister cities of Bahri and Omdurman, unable to leave the central battleground between Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary.
For them, every day is a struggle to find food, get water and charge their phones when electricity is cut off. All the while, they must avoid the fighters and criminals in the streets who rob and brutalize pedestrians, loot shops and storm into homes to steal whatever of value they can find.
Dollars have become hard to find and dangerous to hold, a target for looters. Amazingly, Bankak, the banking app of the Bank of Khartoum, continues to function most of the time. It has become a lifeline for many, allowing users to transfer money and make payments electronically.
Mahmoud uses the app to pay the one shop owner he visits to stock up on canned goods. During weeks when electricity was out, the shop owner still gave him what he needed and let him pay later. A technology company that Mahmoud worked for before the fighting puts 30,000 Sudanese pounds — around $50 — on his app account every few weeks.
That transfer allows him to keep eating. “If I have money in my bank account and Bankak is operating, everything will be good,” he said. Like others who spoke to The Associated Press, Mahmoud asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals.
Since April 15, the Sudanese army, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the RSF, commanded by Gen. Mohamed Hamden Dagalo, have been locked in a violent power struggle that has turned the once sleepy Khartoum into an urban battlefield. More than 800 civilians have been killed, according to the Sudan Doctor’s Union.
On Monday a week-long cease-fire began, the conflict’s seventh, with fighting easing across parts of the city. But gunbattles and bombardments still continue despite the pledge made by both forces in Saudi Arabia. Residential areas and hospitals have been pounded by army airstrikes, while RSF troops have commandeered homes and turned them into bases.
The more immediate danger is often the armed men and looters in the streets. Waleed, another resident of east Khartoum, said he has had several terrifying encounters. In one case, he saw around 30 RSF fighters, some who looked no older than 15, tormenting a passerby, waving their weapons at him and demanding he lie on the ground, then shouting at him to stand up.
“They were playing with him like a puppet,” Waleed said.
Many can’t afford to leave. Mahmoud wants to get to Ethiopia, then to Portugal where he been offered a position as a research technician. But he doesn’t have the $2,500 he estimates the trip will cost him. Waleed said he can’t leave for medical reasons.
Others say they have no choice but to stay and work. One of the many women who sell tea in the streets of Khartoum, Tana Tusafi, a single mother from Ethiopia, says her four children depend on her. “I have no one to provide for me, so I have to work,” she said.
The dangers are unpredictable. Mahmoud said that last week RSF fighters in a neighboring building started shooting at his apartment block, believing an army sniper could be there after seeing lights inside. Mahmoud said he had to confront the troops and convince them his block was only filled with civilians.
Another resident, Fatima, said her brother disappeared after having coffee with friends on May 13. That first evening when he didn’t come home, “I thought he might have stayed over at his friend’s house,” Fatima said.
On Monday, Khalid finally returned. For eight days, he had been detained and interrogated by the RSF, Fatima said.
The Missing Person Initiative, an online tracker where people can report missing loved ones, said it has reports of at least 200 people unaccounted for in the capital region. It said it has received multiple reports of individuals being detained by the paramilitary.
Darker still is the growing number of rape and sexual assault allegations. According to Hadhreen, a community-led health and crisis group, there have been at least 10 confirmed rape cases in the capital area. Seven were committed by RSF soldiers, it said, while the three others were by unknown attackers within RSF-held areas.
The reports of sexual violence harken back to the Darfur conflict of the early 2000s, during which the Janjaweed militia was accused of widespread rapes and other atrocities. Many of its fighters were later folded into the RSF. They were again accused of raping dozens of women when they broke up a pro-democracy protest camp in Khartoum in 2019.
In this landscape of fear, those who remain in the city find ways to get by. Some store owners operate out of their homes, hoping to hide from the looters.
Waleed said only one remaining bakery serves his neighborhood and two others. Each customer registers their name beforehand
“If you were lucky and registered your name at 7 o’clock in the morning you might get your bread at 12 noon,” Waleed said. He too survives because of Bankak, on money that his family in Saudi Arabia puts into his account.
During the first weeks of May, there was no electricity in his neighborhood, so Waleed relied on a nearby mosque with a generator to charge his phone. But no electricity meant no running water.
“We roamed around with buckets to trying to find people who have electric generators who can activate their water pumps,” he said. Last week, the electric company restored power in his area.
Most of the city’s hospitals have also shut down, many of them damaged in bombardments or ground fighting. Since May 11 alone, there have been 11 attacks on humanitarian facilities in the capital, the World Health Organization reported. Community action groups, led in part by a grassroots pro-democracy network known as the Resistance Committees, have banded together to help treat Khartoum’s sick and deliver medicines.
Hadeel Abdelsayed, a trainee doctor at one community clinic, said patients have died because they did not have enough oxygen. The clinic was eventually evacuated due to intense shelling.
Mahmoud, the researcher, said that if he can somehow secure the funding, he will try to make his escape to Ethiopia. But time is against him.
“My passport will expire in 10 weeks, so I will have to leave before then.”