Now I feel ready to share my story widely. As an archaeologist researching Sudanese history, traveling to Sudan for fieldwork is the most anticipated period of the year. Although this time my experience in the country was very different. I spent 11 days in the middle of the war zone in central Khartoum with almost no food or water. The RSF took over my hotel and pushed my group into the streets amid corpses, gunfire, and airstrikes. Waiting to die, we walked through the streets of a ruined ghost town with nowhere to go, until a random man gave us shelter, water, food and planned to escape by tuk-tuk from the middle of the war zone to a safe place. From where I can be evacuated.
There’s a time in the year that makes every archaeologist enthusiastic: fieldwork season. In my case, Sudan has been a regular source of excitement and joy since 2018. At least once a year – and sometimes more – I travel to the country for research and excavation. I’ve met the coolest people there, and some of them have become good friends. In Sudan, I learned a lot about what it means to be a good human being. No matter how much one has, the hospitality, kindness and desire for Sudanese participation have always struck me as unique. Now I can say that I am alive only because of the good heart of the Sudanese people.
This time I did not travel to the north of the country to excavate archaeological sites. I stayed in Khartoum to start a new research project and collaborate with the Sudan National Museum, to take a look at one of the stunning Egyptian monuments reconstructed in the museum yard. It was supposed to be a short trip to start the project and gather some preliminary information to prepare for a larger stay later in the year. After an amazing week in Khartoum, all the excitement ended and I saw myself living in hell.
On Friday, April 14, our day off, we began to hear rumours of deployments in Khartoum and elsewhere. Sudan was having a hard time fighting for democracy, so the troop movement did not raise any red flags. But things changed dramatically between Friday and Saturday, when I woke up to the sounds of gunshots and explosions; our building was shaking. That morning we didn’t know exactly what was happening, but it was the beginning of our detention in what later became the headquarters of the rebel militias in the presidential palace area.
I spent ten days in the middle of the war zone. We still don’t know exactly what was happening in the first two days. We were sure that our hotel was one of the safest places in Khartoum. But people’s mood began to deteriorate first when the electricity went out, then the running water, then the empty power banks, which meant the internet connection was cut off. The hotel owners never dared to turn on the generator because we could hear the sound of soldiers outside. At this point, we did not know if these were army soldiers or rebel militias, although we would receive confirmation on the third day of detention.
On the third day of confinement and not knowing what was happening outside, rebel militia fighters carrying heavy weapons stormed the hotel for the first time. It was evening, so it was completely dark, except for three small small candles that lit up the entire lobby of the hotel where most people were gathered. Five or six RSF fighters stormed the hotel and pointed their weapons at us while shouting. They were initially looking for weapons. One of the rebels leading the group went behind the front desk searching, and I remember him vividly brandishing his machine gun angrily. The youngest in the group – I’m sure he wasn’t older than 15 years old – didn’t hesitate to continue driving. Fortunately, they realized we didn’t have weapons, and then moved to the safe where all the hotel money was kept – including all mine. They emptied the safe, stole people’s belongings, including my mobile phone, and took cigarettes. When the group leader, who is the most aggressive, learned that I was from Brazil, he came to shake my hand and show me pictures of old Brazilian footballers. As someone who proved the Brazilian stereotype wrong, I forgot the name of the footballer on his mobile phone screen and immediately thought: “I may die now.” Fortunately, the name Roberto Carlos came to mind at the right time. The rebel laughed and hit me with his fist, while at the same time unsafely holding his machine gun in his left hand. Another man, also heavily armed, came and threw three packs of cigarettes at me as a gift for being Brazilian. These were the first of many with militiamen. I was completely terrified but somehow, I managed not to show the maximum fear spread all over my body.
The next morning the same armed group appeared again – they said they wanted water – but they certainly just wanted to see, in broad daylight, what we looked like. They were less aggressive but still terrifying. Since they broke into the hotel the night before, the hotel’s doors were only blocked with a bench. The sound of the seat moving became a warning sound whenever they decided to enter. We lived in absolute horror because we knew they were all out and had the freedom to pass inside the hotel. I still don’t know if we are officially hostages or prisoners, but we undoubtedly could not leave our place and the RSF rebels dictated our actions – the notorious Janjaweed militia responsible for crimes against humanity and the Khartoum massacre. In 2019, when hundreds were killed, many were raped, families were intimidated. One night, the hotel staff lit one of those emergency lights and immediately fired high outside as a warning for us to turn it off. They did not allow us to use the hotel generator because of the noise and interest it might attract to the area. We could hear them outside all the time – praying, cooking, laughing, shooting – and the fear of being used as human shields was growing by the hour.
The third time the militia rebels came was unusual – a group of men brought us looted biscuits and a soldier brought a child of about 12 years old tea to the hotel manager. At this point, I stopped counting the number of times they broke in either to terrorize us and rob us or to offer some kind of kindness – the kind of kindness that killers seem to have, and that awakens in you no strong sense of empathy, but dread. The next time I remember them coming was the most terrible occasion. A very aggressive man – I think he was taking drugs – came with an AK-47 rifle and shouted and pointed his weapon at us. He began to divide us into groups without a clear logic behind his choices, and at the same time shouted: “Dahab! Gorosh!” (Gold! money!). He didn’t seem to understand that we had nothing left; his fellow fighters had already taken everything from us. For this man, it was normal for him to be killed (and then, after I got out of Sudan, I learned that these Janjaweed men are usually high in “ice”). He was certainly ready to shoot until another man entered the hallway and asked him and his colleagues to leave. He was older, probably in his forties, while the former was in his thirties (I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re all much younger). He was taller and wore a turban with a face covering around his neck. Two cross-linked ammo belts on his chest, and the biggest machine gun I’ve ever seen made him the scariest man on earth, yet he probably saved our lives that night.
At some point, I began to be able to distinguish between different types of weapons by their sounds. Thunderous explosions became so common that I managed to fall asleep while the fighting was fierce outside. However, the most horrible and terrifying part of this whole experience was army planes launching airstrikes against militia gatherings – and we were literally in the middle of one of their largest headquarters in the vicinity of the presidential palace! How can we be sure that we don’t get bombed from the sky?
After we rescued a local militia commander who looked like Rambo, after the turban, he came back shortly after to tell us that we needed to leave the hotel immediately because they were about to bomb it. That was terrifying. Although minutes later the young people who stole our things came back to tell us that we had to leave in the morning instead. This was the eighth day without electricity, water, or contact with the outside world. It’s funny to think about it because now I realize that we somehow had some kind of Stockholm syndrome at the time. When they came back to tell us we had to leave in the morning, we felt they were saving us from a rocket falling on our heads and that they would lead us to safety.
Morning came, and we were forced to leave our belongings behind, and we were ready to take us to a safe place. Incredibly naïve of us. The turban man was outside, and was noticed by child soldiers carrying rifles heavier than their bodies. This was the first time we saw the outside world since the beginning of the war. Everything was destroyed and there was no car that provided us with safe passage. They took over our hotel, kicked us out, and made us walk towards death. They released us in the middle of the deadliest battlefield in central Khartoum. We were desperate and had nowhere to go. The turban man told us to go to the Grand Mosque – the famous Grand Mosque in central Khartoum.
Completely confused, we moved to the mosque. The entire hotel building became a chain of militia barracks, probably headquartered in the area – the quality of which was certainly greatly improved by the availability of an empty hotel to use (or most likely looted because these men seemed to have nothing). a sense of conservation). We had to cross militia barracks that were blocked with metal roof panels that acted as roadblocks. Things were usually quiet early in the morning and we figured out why. As we crossed the camps, we saw all these men sitting on large, dark blankets, surrounded by guns, rockets and armored vehicles, having tea. They were all staring at us, but we didn’t dare to stare at us. No one bothered us because their local commander, the turban man, let us leave. At this point, I realized that I had seen ethnographic a kind of chain of command of militia units scattered throughout Khartoum, ranging from child soldiers serving tea with weapons larger than their bodies, to a mass of aggressive (high-status) assassins/thieves/looters, but it could bring you biscuits nonetheless! For local leaders who seem to be more informed and less volatile. The truth is that despite the chain of command, these men are actually undisciplined and not educated at all. They act as they see fit—always violently and destructively—until someone higher than them tells them not to do so.
We walked to the mosque. As soon as we left the militia perimeter defined by the metal roof sheets, a pickup truck full of armed soldiers stopped us in the back. The old man who was wearing glasses and driving the pickup truck was wearing a dark green uniform similar to a military uniform. Are these men from the army? I had no idea, probably not because we were so close to the militia base. Stop us. We told them we had been kicked out of the hotel and headed to the mosque. The old man, who may have controlled the amorphous mass of soldiers in the back of the truck, let us walk while the soldiers watched. The hotel was fairly close to the mosque. The streets around the Oasis mall were empty and there was smoke rising from the shopping centre. Signs of destruction were everywhere: cars, buildings, everything. The streets will soon be filled with trucks of small militias and fighters firing bazooka once you finish having tea.
Once we arrived at the mosque, we realized that we would not be able to enter the historic building. Only the outside of the mosque was open, inhabited by the homeless and sick and bodies scattered around it. Blood stains were everywhere, and the heavy marks of destruction were heartbreaking. At that point, our only hope was the security factor associated with securing my group who had been trying to reach me at the hotel for some time. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t reach me until I saw the roadblocks. I panicked when the man told me that he would not be able to come to the mosque and that we were alone. We all thought we were going to die, and we certainly would have died if we hadn’t bumped into some angels living in hell.
We went down to hell very quickly. Accompanied by the rebels, as soon as we went downstairs and crossed the gate, we saw the complete destruction. I don’t believe in hell in particular, but if it does, I’m sure at this point I have a good understanding of it. As expected in hell, I would see the devil every time I stared into the eyes of the RSF men. Although hell had its surprises: there I also met the angels. I met angels and they do not fly and do not live in an inaccessible sky. They live in hell and are ready to help those in need.
Staying in the vicinity of the mosque, in the middle of the battlefield, was a big risk. The bodies of the displaced were witnessed, who had no choice but to stay and be hit by a stray bullet. Only men and children appeared in the mosque area, but I think there were also women inside shelters. I will never forget an old man who was there. He couldn’t walk and needed help. When he saw us, he immediately came to ask if there was a doctor in the group. I told him no and we tried to have a conversation, but we didn’t succeed because of my very bad Arabic focused on archaeology until another old man arrived and translated. Amid sheer horror, we were able to smile and hug each other.
Disoriented and completely desperate, we decided to leave that place and try to find a hotel – further proof of our outstanding naivety. There were nine people from the hotel, guests and workers, young and old, some of them carrying luggage. I had to leave all my equipment, belongings, and search samples behind, except for the backpack, which I later realized was completely empty. Although there were no belongings myself, I was carrying the belongings of the elderly. Some people in the group had very large and heavy bags. Some people, including me, were making judgments and immediately suggested that they should have given up their property if they wanted to survive. Later, I learned that those bags were not only full of personal belongings, but also of basic items and food, which were absolutely essential for people’s survival in the context of shortages of everything. Although I initially ruled, before I was evacuated, I was fed by food that was transported around the war zone in those heavy bags. Never judge people, especially workers, in difficult situations. If they leave their bags, there will be no food to bear afterwards.
An old man drove us from the mosque through the streets of central Khartoum. He was the first king I met in the fire and was among the homeless and sick outside the Grand Mosque. We walked down the heavily destroyed streets around the Arab market area for about an hour. We were a very slow group and our best chance was to stay together at all times. Some surrounding buildings were hit by airstrikes, and rubble and rubbish were everywhere. Central Khartoum has become a ghost town as the Janjaweed promised years ago. We met soldiers searching the closed shops in the market – most likely looting them. One of them thought one of the Sudanese men with us was a soldier and almost killed him after forcing him to do strange dance-like movements. We stopped at different hotels. All of them were abandoned. In one place, a young man appeared carrying a cup of tea to refuse to provide us with shelter. I don’t judge him, there was no food or water anywhere.
The old man from the mosque and a Sudanese friend in our group decided to go exploring while we stayed behind. It was very hot. At this point, we no longer have any water. They came back after 20 minutes or so and asked us to follow them. We walked and found our savior. Anwar, a retired man whose daughters became doctors, owned a modest hostel in the market area, and we were immediately welcomed. He was sitting on a plastic chair in front of the door of his half-closed shelter. Living in hell, Anwar was a source of strength and peace for me. Amid the gunfire and violent explosions, he constantly told me: “Mafi’s problem, everything is perfect!” (“No problem, everything is fine!”). One morning, he invited me to sit with him on the sidewalk, as retirees usually do on the outskirts of my city to stay informed about what’s going on in the neighborhood. I couldn’t sit down, but I stood next to him, ready to run if necessary (although I probably never left him; he had a knee injury and all I could do for him was give him an antidote). An inflammatory cream I use to treat tendonitis, which miraculously was inside my bag.) Outside, he showed me the enormous blood stains in front of his house and quietly told me that the militia had killed a young man there the night before. The night before, another young man had been shot on the other side of the street, where there was a building that had lost a large part of its upper part as a result of an airstrike.
There was a group of simple men living/sheltering at Anwar’s inn. They had no family. Food was scarce and water was difficult to reach. However, these people shared with us all the food they had, and they would go out to fetch water for us every morning. As a foreigner, I have never drank unfiltered or unbottled water in Sudan, but that cloudy, green water kept me alive. We found Raslan late in the morning of the ninth day stuck in the middle of the war zone. That evening, they prepared additional food: tuna porridge, tomato sauce, beans and chicken. This was not their normal meal, as I learned the next day when we ate only a very small portion of beans and bread. It was a welcome banquet, we took it with our hands on a mat on the floor, and we shouldn’t mistake it for a luxury – it would be another distinctive misconception – it was instead the Sudanese hospitality, care and kindness, things that kept me alive and safe. That evening I stopped being a vegetarian after 10 years.
The hostel was simple and we slept outside under the beautiful Ramadan sky. Anwar gave us beds in an open area upstairs where they slept in the hot season. Sleeping outside is much fresher than sleeping inside. However, it was very dangerous. We could hear bullets flying near our heads. The first morning I woke up there, I was sitting on the bed in the outside area and a very large bullet fell from the sky next to me. It could have hit me, but I think if I hadn’t died during one of my many direct interactions with the Janjaweed or while wandering outside in the middle of a conflict zone, I wouldn’t really have died from a stray bullet. (I think I was absorbing some of Anwar’s optimism: Mafi’s problem!)
The next day my group was evacuated. The original plan was to gather at the Italian headquarters to evacuate them all. However, this was not possible at all, as the headquarters were located in Khartoum 2, a high-risk area controlled by the RSF. We also learned later that the Italians would not be able to take us all – we were Greeks, Germans, Ugandans, Filipinos, Brazilians. Most of the group left in a truck amid gunfire on our street. A lot of money has been paid for this lift, one of the many tragedies of the war. The departing party wanted to pay Anwar to host us (if the militia rebels stole all my money, others took over their hideout), but refused to take any money. Another misconception is the belief that money can compensate for kindness. When Raslan learned that the Janjaweed had stolen my belongings, including my mobile phone, he immediately took his mobile phone out of his pocket, took out one of the SIM cards inside it and gave it to me. I thanked him and promised him that when the war was over, I would return to Khartoum and come visit him. He was happy to accept that as a “push.”
When the whole group left, I stayed with two Filipino friends who worked at the hotel. I have been surprisingly strong and calm during the many interactions with the Janjaweed and when we were pushed into the streets amid the conflict. But once I left the group, it collapsed. I thought I would never leave Khartoum. The people I was with left me and the security personnel he sent to secure my group to save me could not reach me.
The day I stayed while my friends went to evacuate them, a special security team tried to reach Anwar Hostel. They didn’t work. No one will be able to enter the middle of the war zone in central Khartoum. I later learned that they had been shot on their way to me and that there was an injury. I’m not sure what that means, but I still grasp the fact that people are putting themselves at great risk to save me. Meanwhile, Raslan told us we had to leave because things would get very bad the next day. He heard rumors of heavy fighting that was going to happen exactly where we were. They were all leaving this site very soon. My Filipino friends lived in a Protestant church far from the war zone, but they were caught up in the conflict without being able to return home. They desperately wanted to leave but were also struggling to find transportation. No one wanted to risk going to our location in the Arab market. In the end, their strategy and mine rescue strategy failed, and we spent another night at Anwar’s house. I panicked just because I thought they would lag behind me too. Without them, I would have no one to turn to in Khartoum.
Since our eviction strategies failed repeatedly, we left Raslan’s house very early in the morning of the eleventh day. Anwar decided to solve it once and for all in his own way because we couldn’t really stay there longer. We were taken to the Jackson bus stop with the men staying at his hostel. There were rumours that there would be a transfer from there to outside the conflict zone. We walked with the Sudanese men. We carried all the belongings of my Filipino friends. It was difficult to find myself again completely vulnerable while walking through the war zone. Before we reached the Jackson bus station, we were stopped by a group of undercover militiamen. At first, I didn’t realize these were Janjaweed, so I greeted them and stopped right next to them – another display of the characteristic naivety of someone who had never had to escape hell before. They got angry and told us to keep moving while all the Sudanese men were forced to stay behind. We stopped at Jackson Bus Station praying for the safety of our friends. We were very relieved to see them approaching us. The road to Jackson’s bus station was covered with so large bullets that I couldn’t walk without kicking them. At that moment, I was strangely taken back to the archaeological site in northern Sudan where, in some areas, it is impossible to walk without kicking ancient pottery pieces due to the abundance of these pieces on the surface.
Once we arrived at Jackson Bus Station, we realized the rumors weren’t true. False news and rumors are another war tragedy and can be deadly. The bus station was completely empty. After walking around for a while, we found other people trying to leave the area. A tuk-tuk appeared to drop people off in Jackson, and Raslan immediately went to negotiate with the driver on the price. He paid the driver, put the three of us and all the Filipinos’ luggage in the tuk-tuk and quickly got us out of there.
Our destination was in Taif, a safer area across from Khartoum. “Safer” here doesn’t really mean safety – the area is at the southern end of the airport, which the rebels captured on the first day of the war – and to get to that we had to cross the most dangerous part of Khartoum controlled by militias. The tuk-tuks that originally took us from al-Arabi were unable to deliver us to Taif due to lack of fuel. However, it brought us to a square that I have not yet been able to locate on the map. There, people drank tea and sold vegetables and fruits. It was nice to experience a little normal life, even though we could hear explosions and planes from a distance. The tuk-tuk driver was never able to find an alternative means of transportation for us to Taif, but I wasn’t afraid. I felt like I had returned to normal Khartoum for a while, and we had a pleasant surprise: Anwar and the others managed to get where we were and started providing alternative transportation for us. In the meantime, he made us sit at the tea stall, where we also ate watermelon. We spent there an hour or so until we found another tuk-tuk to take us to Taif. We said goodbye and left hoping to meet again one day.
It took an hour or so by tuk-tuk to reach the Protestant church in Taif. The journey was tense, and we had to take small alleys to avoid the main streets dotted with RSF checkpoints. On one occasion, we almost reached a checkpoint and saw the rebels turn right onto a small, unpaved road as soon as we realized we would be in danger, but luckily, they didn’t follow us. After that, the rest of the journey was smooth and we were able to reach the safe place. Raslan gave us money to pay for the trip, but when we finally arrived, the driver told us that the amount was not enough to cover the fuel costs, especially since he had to take different alternative routes to avoid the rebels. My Filipino friends tried to negotiate with him, but he only agreed when I told him that the militia had taken everything from us and we had almost nothing left. He sympathized with us and wished us well before he left us.
3) Safety and evacuation:
Without my Filipino friends, Anwar would not have sent me anywhere before he closed and evacuated his hostel after rumors that the area had been bombed. Without them, I don’t know what would have happened to me. In the church where my Filipino friends live, we felt some sense of security for the first time in 10 days. There was silence, and no gunshots or explosions were heard. There was water and electricity, and I bathed for the first time since the beginning of the war. They shared some food with me from inside the large bags they carried with them across the war zone. At the church, we met an Eritrean family – a mother and four daughters – who were very kind and welcoming. They allowed me to use their mobile phone to call my family outside Sudan, who were only able to arrange for my successful eviction. I thought I would need to spend a few days at church, but shortly after washing and eating, I got a call to be ready as university insurance men were arriving within 10 minutes to bring me to Wadi Sedna Air Base in Omdurman. . It was comforting, but my heart was broken because it meant I would leave behind the angels who helped me throughout this war.
Local insurance staff have never been able to find my exact location. I had to walk to find them at a meeting point on the main road. My two Filipino friends took me to the meeting point and we said goodbye (they are now safely back in the Philippines). Inside the truck, two other foreigners were being evacuated. My first interaction with them was to ask if the man was Egyptian – for some reason I thought he was Egyptian – and he panicked when he was pulled out of the car moments earlier by the RSF, who threatened his life because they thought he was Egyptian. I had no idea it was happening, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked this question.
It was a long journey from Taif to Wadi Sedna Air Base. There were heavy signs of destruction on the road to Omdurman: destroyed buildings, exploding cars, bodies inside some cars, etc. There were several checkpoints along the way, belonging to the army and militia. Army checkpoints were always fine, but militia checkpoints were always tense. We dropped off many armed men from the Sudanese army on our way to Wadi Sidna, but I am no longer afraid to approach the armed men. The general feeling was that the Sudanese army was the good guys and the militiamen the bad guys. From my personal point of view, this was true, but I have never forgotten that the army and militia together were responsible for the deaths of a huge number of young Sudanese fighting for democracy. I have also witnessed demonstrations against military rule in Khartoum firsthand in the previous years I have been working there. Once, I was walking out of the Sudan National Museum and met a crowd of people holding banners and chanting on the way to the presidential palace. Then from the hotel – the same hotel that the militia has seized and now looted – I could hear stun grenades and gunshots being used by the army and militia against unarmed civilians peacefully demanding a democratic government. As an archaeologist, I am accustomed to studying the long-term processes that lead to structural change on a small scale only over thousands of years in different societies. This time, I got first-hand experience of how everything can change from day to day: bad guys turn into good guys in a war that seems to have started suddenly – at least from people’s point of view.
Once I arrived in the Sidna Valley, I ended up among the Swedes, who quickly assured me that they would get me out of there regardless of my nationality. At this point, I was unaware of the high-level diplomatic negotiations between my home country – Brazil – and the country where I work – the United Kingdom – and several EU countries and the University of Cambridge to ensure my evacuation. I am extremely grateful to everyone involved in this behind-the-scenes work, the dimensions of which most people cannot even begin to understand. I departed Sudan on a Swedish
Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules cargo plane.
At that moment, I felt kind of exciting because I could fly in one of those planes that we only see in movies. I arrived in Djibouti, where I met two wonderful people from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who took care of me at the request of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It’s good to have friends, right?” – they told me when I arrived – that it’s good to have friends already.
4) Where do the angels live?
Angels live in hell. And no one will ever be able to convince me of the opposite. I was very lucky to have left Sudan alive. This was only possible because, in every moment of need, I met someone who would help me, from the first moment the militia rebels pushed me into the streets, until the moment I was evacuated. Without them, I would not have had access to water or food, and I would have been left outside to die in the middle of the conflict zone. Without them, I would not have been able to speak with my department’s safety officer in the UK, the person who was responsible for keeping me sane and who never left me alone, despite the distance, until I was able to organize my evacuation. This was only possible because the people of Khartoum did not leave me to die. This is a testament to the kindness and generosity of the people of Khartoum and Sudan in general. Since I first visited Sudan, I have consistently been a supporter of the Sudanese people abroad, but now especially, I will always raise my voice, wherever I am, to let people know that Sudan is far from this. Only war-torn country. It is a place determined by its people, and they do not deserve that their lives be destroyed by a senseless war. Nor do they deserve to be dictated by foreign powers for their lives, which do not care much about the Sudanese people. hopefully, peace and prosperity will prevail in Sudan. I hope that as soon as possible I can return to help, in my very limited way, in improving the lives of people in Sudan. Archaeology, education and heritage can be powerful tools towards social reconstruction, development and emancipation. But these things, which we scientists tirelessly discuss in theory, can only be achieved when people stop fighting every day for survival.