Children displaced by violence in Khartoum long to return home
SOS Mother Yousra and the five children in her care.
Six months after families were forced out of SOS Children’s Villages in Khartoum by the brutal conflict, all children and caregivers have found solace and comfort in safer states in Sudan.
15 families fled SOS Children’s Villages when fighting began in mid-April. Eventually, they all left the capital and arrived safely in new locations after long journeys made difficult by checkpoints and the fear of getting caught in the fighting.
The children and young people now live with their caregiver’s extended families until it is safe to return to Khartoum.
A caregiver at SOS Children’s Villages for seven years, Yousra, 36, and the five children in her care – Jamal*, 16, Amina*, 15, Safana*, 12, Faiz*, 6, and Omar*, 3 – left Khartoum to live with her mother, father, and brother.
“I was so happy and grateful that we made it out alive. What we went through was truly terrifying, and I could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. It made me appreciate life even more and cherish every moment that followed,” says Yousra.
According to the United Nations, 5.7 million of Sudan’s 49 million people have been uprooted from their homes by the fighting between two rival factions. The fighting began in Khartoum and has since spread to other regions, such as Darfur.
Over one million of the displaced have crossed into neighbouring countries, while over 4 million have remained in Sudan, including 2.5 million children.
Humanitarian agencies say the conflict is destroying lives and creating the world’s fastest-growing displacement crisis.
Yousra was preparing breakfast in the kitchen when the violence broke out. “When I first heard the loud sound of gunshots, I thought it was fireworks or just normal military protocol,” says Yousra.
“Then I heard the news, and I knew this was not a normal day. I started feeling scared and frantically looked for a safe place for the children and me to hide. We stayed under the beds the entire time we were at the village [SOS Children’s Villages] and crawled on the floor when necessary.”
What followed was a tense evacuation from SOS Children’s Villages amid shelling and gunfire. Yousra and the other caregivers packed only a handful of belongings and hurriedly left to take refuge in another part of the city considered a safe zone.
“The situation was intense, and I wondered whether we would make it to the safe area unharmed. I could also not help worrying about what would happen if any one of us got hurt.,” she says.
They made it to the safe area, the families moved into rented apartments, and Yousra developed routines to keep the children safe.
“We were afraid to be seen or heard,” she says. “Every so often, we would hear explosions or gunshots somewhere nearby. Even when it was silent, there was this lurking sense of danger.
“I told the children what was happening and that everything would be okay, which helped keep them calm,” adds Yousra. “Deep down, however, they knew the streets were filled with chaos.”
In the weeks that followed, the children grew accustomed to the sounds of occasional shelling and gunfire. But as sporadic clashes turned to a steady onslaught, things became worse. Electricity went out, and then water and food became scarce.
The families needed to leave the city while that was still an option. The staff of SOS Children’s Villages Sudan organized safe passage with help from partner organizations until all the families were evacuated from the city.
Yousra watched the children look out the window quietly as the bus left the city, leaving behind the home they had known all their lives.
In the first few days after settling in, Yousra noticed that two of her youngest children had trouble sleeping at night. They had bad dreams and were sensitive to loud noises.
The warm family environment and encouragement to talk about what happened helped them process their distress and overcome disturbing thoughts.
Yousra’s family house is spacious and has given the children ample room to be by themselves. No one needs to share a bed.
They like the freedom away and the opportunity to explore their new surroundings. Some of the children have met their school friends from Khartoum who also fled the conflict.
But even as the children adjust to their new reality, they are far away from the people they love and the places they know, and home is still where their heart is.
They often ask Yousra questions. When is this going to end? Are we ever going back to the village? Are all our friends safe? When will we be able to go back to school?
“Their most significant possession is the SOS Village itself, as it holds a special place in their hearts,” says Yousra. “It is where they grew up and formed deep connections with their friends. It is not just the physical aspects of the village that they miss, but also the sense of community and familiarity that come with it.”
With no diplomatic solution to the conflict in sight and with the violence escalating, Yousra says she cannot help but wonder if there will be a home to go back to at all.
“We were one big happy family at SOS Village, and I miss that. We shared not only our work responsibilities but also our personal joys and sorrows. It was a supportive and tight-knit community where everyone genuinely cared for each other.”
Amina, Yousra’s eldest daughter, loves to sing and dance. She was gifted a musical keyboard for her 14th birthday, “but I had no time to pack it. I was devastated when I realized that I had left all the gifts I received from my friends. The keyboard was my favourite. I planned to compose beautiful music with it,” she says.
Two things constantly occupy Yousra’s mind: when will the schools reopen and how to manage with food prices constantly rising.
Before the conflict, Faiz graduated from kindergarten and was to start grade one, Safana grade five, Amina grade six, and Jamal grade ten.
Due to the conflict, the government of Sudan suspended all schooling across the country. According to UNICEF,19 million children cannot go to school and no child in the country will go to school in the coming months if the conflict continues.
There are reports that armed groups are recruiting an alarming number of boys and girls.
Yousra has enrolled her children in a camp to keep them from idling around. They do activities such as taekwondo, sketching, and language improvement in Arabic and English.
Amina says the educational program at the camp is fun and keeps them busy throughout the day. Even if she feels the uncertainty the conflict has created, she is holding on to her dreams.
“I want to be a lawyer when I grow up because I admire how they defend and stand so confidently in court,” she says. “I would love to one day be there defending the rights of those in need. What really concerns me is - what happens if the fighting does not stop, and we cannot return to our old life that I have known my entire life?”
*Names changed to protect privacy.