‘It brought back memories of Syria.’ For refugees in Sudan, war is a reminder of the terror they left behind

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Abad remembers rockets and barrel bombs tumbling over his hometown of Aleppo, a sprawling city in northwestern Syria that became the epicenter of a long-running civil war.

The retired contractor, in his early 70s, told CNN that the political violence triggered in 2011 forced his family apart, leaving them “homeless.”

“We came to Sudan, we never dreamed we’d be here. It’s the only country that took us in, in the end,” he said.

Abad is one of more than 14 million Syrians who fled their homes after a brutal crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on pro-democracy protesters led to a civil war.

The conflict set off a humanitarian crisis, with Syrian refugees seeking asylum in more than 130 countries, many of them – approximately 5.5 million – living in neighboring nations, according to the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR).

Over 93,000 Syrians settled in Sudan, the third largest group of refugees in the country after South Sudanese and Eritrean, according to the UNHCR. Syrians did not require entry permits until December 2020, when the Sudanese interior ministry imposed visa requirements on them as part of a crackdown on refugees.

After a conflict broke out between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in April, many Syrians found themselves displaced again.

CNN spoke to several who once again fear for their lives – as they struggle to escape yet another war, this time in their adopted country. CNN has changed their names for their safety.

“We were living in safety, and woke up to the sound of weapons and bombs. It brought back memories of Syria,” Abad reflected.

“Sudan will be divided in the same way that Syria is divided today. The Sudanese people will suffer in the same way that the Syrian people did.”

From grilling meat at outdoor picnics to listening to music late into the evening, Abad describes Aleppo before the war as a colorful hub rich with nightlife.

“I was a happy man living a happy life in Aleppo. What a beautiful place it was … people were full of life.”

But he says his life changed when Syrian rebels took up arms against government forces, seeking to topple the brutal Assad regime.

“It wasn’t an Arab Spring. I don’t call it an Arab Spring. I call it Arab darkness, Arab Autumn. Because it didn’t bring anything good with it. If it were a spring we would’ve seen the fruits of a revolution. This is an Arab disaster,” Abad said.

“Syria was burned down to the ground. We left after our homes were destroyed, after our relatives (were) killed, after our lives (were) completely destroyed.”

A member of the Syrian regime forces stands amidst destruction in the former rebel-held Sukkari district in Aleppo on December 23, 2016. The city was one of the hardest-hit areas of the civil war.

The UN human rights office, in a report published last year, estimated that 306,887 civilians were killed between March 2011 and March 2021 in Syria. The figure represents at least 83 civilian deaths, including nine women and 18 children, every day for 10 years. As many as 6.8 million people have been internally displaced by the war, two thirds of whom are women and children, the UNHCR said.

Abad escaped Syria in 2011 and found refuge in Sudan, where he was later joined by his eldest daughter and his second wife. The family rebuilt their life together in the bustling capital of Khartoum, where Abad said he continued to find employment as a construction worker, earning enough money to buy a house.

But he was forced to flee his second home in the spring, after clashes between the two warring factions erupted into a searing conflict. CNN has previously uncovered evidence that the RSF and its allied militias are carrying out an indiscriminate campaign of widespread killings and sexual violence, unlike anything the country has seen in decades.

“I was leading a very happy life. We Syrians bring with us our culture. And I saw that in Sudan. We brought with us our manufacturing skills, our cuisine, our heritage. I’m really proud of that,” Abad said.

“All that I worked for in the past 13 years in Sudan, though, is now gone because of what’s happening in the country. We left with only what we had in our pockets.”

Uzair said his dream of practicing medicine faded in April, when he was uprooted from his apartment in the Sudanese capital after the violence broke out.

“We were living in the middle of these clashes, so we could hear everything,” the 28-year-old, who graduated from medical school in December 2022, told CNN. “You get an adrenaline rush.”

At the end of April, Uzair says he and about 10 of his university friends left Khartoum to make the perilous 500-mile journey to Port Sudan – a coastal city where thousands of refugees coalesced in the hopes of boarding a ship to a safe neighboring country.

They gathered enough money to subsidize a steep increase in bus fares, Uzair said, adding that operators raised their fees more than tenfold, from about $20 to $250 per ticket.

During their 13-hour journey, he said he saw abandoned cars on the streets, and encountered militias interrogating Sudanese passengers, rifling through their luggage and searching their clothes.

Humanitarian groups have warned that the lack of safe evacuation corridors means civilians are likely to get caught in the crossfire of the conflict. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Sudan since April, including 28 aid workers and 435 children, according to tentative figures from the UN’s human rights agency published in August. It said the actual numbers are likely to be much higher because many of those who have died have not been collected, identified or buried.

The sights and sounds of war reminded Uzair of his final days in Syria, he said. In 2012, he, his parents and three siblings fled after they heard stories of neighbors being killed and relatives’ houses getting destroyed, amid heavy clashes in his hometown.

“People were afraid of getting killed and getting bombed,” he reflected. “Anyone could just put a bullet in your head, and it’d be done.

“We were nothing [to] them.”

At the time, he said his family took an indirect route to the capital of Damascus in an attempt to avoid the fighting and flew to the United Arab Emirates. Uzair said he was able to finish his high school education in the UAE and migrated to Sudan in 2016 to start a medical degree.

More than a decade since he left Syria as a teenager, Uzair said he is still traumatized by the sound of military airplanes and helicopters circling the skies.

“After I moved from Syria, all of these things have gotten more and more and more severe … this feeling inside my body, this adrenaline rush, just scared me,” he added.

“It was a terrible experience down there, either in Khartoum or Syria.”

Vendors wait by minibuses and tuk-tuks for customers and passengers at a bus station in Port Sudan on May 23, 2023. The coastal city has become a hub for refugees trying to flee Sudan.

Sitting on the edge of the Red Sea, Port Sudan, once a thriving commercial hub, has been transformed into a makeshift refugee camp for people desperately trying to flee.

When Uzair reached the city at the end of April, he said he was immediately plunged into the chaotic and harsh living conditions of the quayside, where his friends slept on the ground and used blankets to shade themselves from the sun.

In May, he decided to put his medical knowledge into practice and volunteer with the Sudanese Red Crescent, the International Committee of the Red Cross’ primary partner on the ground in Sudan, to help other refugees who needed treatment after escaping Khartoum.

Some patients had sustained bullet injuries, Uzair said. But the most common medical issues were infections or allergic reactions influenced by the hot and humid weather conditions, a lack of access to safe drinking water, no ventilation and confined living spaces.

He said drug shortages meant about four of his patients died, because they could not access medication to combat pre-existing health conditions that had been worsened by rashes. “It was very sad, really very sad.”

By the end of June, Uzair said he had treated up to 1,300 patients.

At least 25 million people require “life-saving” assistance in Sudan, according to the UN, as an overwhelmed healthcare system grapples with a lack of safe aid routes, power shortages, and hospitals damaged in the fighting.

Abad, the retired contractor, also fled to Port Sudan, where he said many are “living in disastrous conditions.”

“It’s really bad, I cannot stress enough how terrible it is,” he added.

“I look at all these young men around me, and I feel so sorry that they have to go through this when they’re at the beginning of their lives. It makes me so sad.”

For the Syrians who spoke to CNN, the thought of staying trapped in Sudan is as unsettling as returning to their war-torn homeland, where entire communities have been wiped out by relentless aerial bombardment led by the regime and backed by Russia.

Men aged over 18 are condemned to military conscription, while dissidents face abuse in the country’s notorious torture prisons.

Shadi, a trained carpenter from the western city of Homs, was aged 15 when the violence boiled over in Syria. He said he remained in the country “for nearly four or five years of war.”

He eventually finished his carpentry studies and was faced with mandatory military conscription, which at the time had no set service period due to the ongoing war.

“There wasn’t a single day when one could simply walk peacefully. There was always danger, always fear, explosions at any minute,” Shadi, who only shared his first name due to security concerns, told CNN.

After his father died from a heart attack, he was the only surviving relative supporting his mother and two older siblings. Military pay was low, and so he escaped in 2017 to search for work in Sudan.

He has not been back to his birth country since. After settling in Khartoum, Shadi fled to Port Sudan in April when the conflict started – almost exactly six years after he first stepped foot in Sudan in search of stability.

“If I go back to Syria, I can stay for three months. But if I stay longer, I have to go to the military, and I don’t want to do that. There is no way out of it. There’s no way around service,” he said.

There is little recourse for Syrians in Sudan, many of whom say they have been neglected by the government in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia led evacuation efforts in the early days of the war. In April, Saudi authorities flew hundreds of Syrians from Port Sudan to countries in the region including Jordan and Algeria, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

But the majority of those who have fled Sudan are left unaccounted for, instead paying smugglers thousands of dollars and risking perilous routes in the hope of reaching a safe neighboring country to avoid going back to Syria.

A spokesperson from the UN told CNN that the agency and many of its partners “have no capacity to relocate refugees away from conflict areas to safe locations.”

“We have received unconfirmed reports of many Syrian refugees from the initial days of fighting who did move to safe areas, like other residents of Khartoum. We have not received any confirmed report of casualties among Syrian refugees due to the conflict,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The agency has received reports of many Syrian refugees who self-relocated to safe areas, including over 2,000 in Port Sudan, the spokesperson added.

“The concept of home is an important one to me, but the way things have played out for me, it’s made me forget my sense of homeland,” Abad told CNN.

“Home is not the territory. Home is a sense of belonging. I no longer have a sense of belonging to Syria. I won’t go back there.”

Days after speaking to CNN, Abad said he had safely arrived in Egypt as an undocumented migrant. But those like Abad contending with financial and bureaucratic obstacles are unlikely to find stability anytime soon.

“When I am working, I am occupied. But when I sit still, I start getting thoughts about (the war) in Khartoum and Syria,” Shadi, who works as a barista in Port Sudan, said.

“I was in Syria, in a war. I left thinking I would go somewhere better. Then I came here and had more trouble. I don’t know where to go.

“Even if I had support, I don’t want to go back to Syria. Anywhere but Syria, somewhere where there is work, life, no fear and no war.”



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