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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WA’s Sudanese community suffering amid war that’s displaced millions

Nimat Hassan Busati describes her escape from Sudan and her journey to her son’s home in Bellevue in an interview on Dec. 21.  (Kevin Clark/Seattle Times)
By Daniel Beekman Seattle Times

BELLEVUE – You don’t interrupt your quiet life in a Seattle suburb and book a plane ticket to war-torn Sudan unless you have a really good reason.

Not right now, in the middle of a brutal conflict between rival forces that’s killed more than 12,000 people and displaced 7 million. Not right now, in the middle of a humanitarian nightmare that’s struggled to attract as much international attention and assistance as some other calamities, despite a prominent Washington congresswoman speaking up about the situation.

Not right now, unless you’re a 57-year-old software consultant named Mubarak Elamin, and you have a really good reason risking a trip to the northeast African country where you grew up, and the reason is that you have to rescue your mom. That’s what Elamin did a few weeks ago.

“The average person in Sudan, they’re not part of this war,” Elamin said last month, sitting with his mom in the living room of his Bellevue home as she told her story and wiped away tears. “They’re caught in the crossfire.”

More than 1,800 people with Sudanese roots live in Washington, according to the 2020 census. Working in aerospace, tech and transportation, among other sectors, they’ve settled since the 1990s across the Seattle area.

All of them have been affected by the war, Elamin said, because all of them had loved ones in Sudan in April, when a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces began clashing with Sudanese military (the Sudanese Armed Forces) and plunged the country of 46 million people into chaos.

The fighting started in Khartoum, Sudan’s sprawling Nile River capital, as neighborhoods like the one where Elamin’s parents lived were captured by RSF soldiers, hit by SAF airstrikes and subjected to shelling, looting and rape.

“We were just preparing ourselves to die,” said Elamin’s mom, Nimat Hassan Busati, describing how she hid under her bed for days as bullets whizzed past, escaped Khartoum with only the things she could carry and glimpsed street dogs tugging on corpses as her car sped away from the pulverized city.

The war quickly spread to other regions, like Darfur in the west, where Nasreldin Abdelrahman was born and raised. The 55-year-old Renton resident has lost dozens of family members since April and has been unable to make contact with his mom and eight siblings for months, he said.

“I don’t know where they are and have no way to connect with them,” said the dad of three, who’s suffered from “panicking, stress, lack of sleep.”

Busati, 73, had to leave almost everything behind. She worried what would happen to her cats. Homes were bombarded, some people couldn’t be given proper burials because they were pinned under rubble and Khartoum, which had a prewar population of 6 million, is now a ghost town, she said.

“What she had to see was terrible,” Elamin said while translating Busati’s Sudanese Arabic into English. “When she talks about it, she always cries.”

Two “bad guys”

Four years ago, many Washington residents with roots in Sudan were bursting with pride as they watched young people, women and unions use nonviolent protests to oust a military leader who had ruled since 1989, Omar al-Bashir. People like Ali Elsafi, who organized a Seattle rally for the revolution, thought Sudan might at last become a civilian-led democracy.

“That was the hope,” recalled Elsafi, 54, a medical-transportation business owner raising his three kids in Kirkland. “But it didn’t work out that way.”

Instead, SAF and RSF leaders seized power from a transitional government in a coup in 2021 and then went to war against each other last year.

The SAF was the military during the al-Bashir regime and has support from Egypt, while the RSF has ties to the United Arab Emirates, said Christopher Tounsel, a University of Washington associate professor and a historian of modern Sudan. The Wagner Group, a Russian military company active in the Russia-Ukraine war, has also been linked to the Sudan conflict, Tounsel said.

The RSF grew from the Janjaweed militias from Darfur that killed huge numbers of non-Arab people in the region 20 years ago, carrying out what the U.S. and others called a genocide as al-Bashir used them to crush an uprising.

“Now you have a conflict between two military men” – the SAF’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF’s Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – obstructing democracy, Tounsel said. “In some ways, they’re both bad guys.”

It’s a war that most people in the U.S. don’t understand, because most people in the U.S. know very little about Sudan – a country once colonized by Britain and Egypt that stretches from Chad to the Red Sea and that includes diverse and mixed Arab and African ethnic groups.

“They don’t know the location, they don’t know the makeup of the country,” said Mukilteo engineering consultant Marwan Salih, 55, mentioning that some people he meets in the U.S. think Sudan lies in Central America. “There’s a lot to try to explain to someone in a 10- or 15-minute conversation.”

Horrendous situation

How dire is the situation in Sudan at the moment? Tounsel doesn’t hesitate.

“Very, very, very, very, very bad,” the UW professor said.

Many people with money and connections fled immediately when the war started, leaving Khartoum or exiting the country altogether, Bellevue’s Elamin said. His parents bunkered in their hometown, Al Hilaliya, 75 miles south of the capital, while his wife’s parents trekked to Egypt, which had an open border at the time. They remain stranded there today, but they’re lucky because they’re safe, said Elamin’s wife, Samah Beshir. Soon after they crossed the border, Egypt added visa restrictions to reduce access.

Back in Sudan, the combatants have destroyed roads and businesses. Most schools and hospitals have closed. The only airport still operating is in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast. People driven out of Khartoum have overwhelmed other cities, taking shelter in crowded homes and government buildings while groceries, water and other supplies run desperately low.

More than 3 million children have been displaced and nearly 18 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity, according to the United Nations, which is warning about an impending “hunger catastrophe.” Many have died because they’ve been unable to get medications, including Elsafi’s brother-in-law, who was too sick to escape Khartoum with his family.

“His kids will have to live without their father now,” said Elsafi, the Kirkland dad, and such deaths are missing from counts of combat killings.

“The number (of deaths caused directly or indirectly by the war) is probably double or triple, at least,” said Salih, the engineer from Mukilteo.

Sudanese immigrants in places like the Seattle area are sending money home and taking second jobs to support their relatives, Salih said.

“They’re depending on us, the people living outside,” said Elsafi, whose siblings lost everything when they fled to Port Sudan from Khartoum.

Things are particularly horrendous in Darfur, because the sort of violence that stunned the world in the early 2000s has resumed, leading human rights advocates to warn about another potential genocide. Both sides have committed war crimes and RSF members have engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” according to the U.S., which has contributed $840 million to relief efforts.

“We need a solution” to the ongoing strife that al-Bashir’s regime incited decades ago, said Adam Baker, 56, a dad in Kent from a non-Arab group in Darfur. “We need equality and justice for every Sudanese.”

“The civilians are the losers,” added Abdelrahman, from Nyala in Darfur.

What people are experiencing near Khartoum is “nothing” compared with Darfur, but Elamin’s dad and sisters are in trouble, nonetheless, he said. The RSF occupied Al Hilaliya a few days after he extracted his diabetic mom.

Dangerous getaway

Elamin spent months trying to move his parents to the U.S. (his mom, Busati, has a green card and his dad is a U.S. citizen), but getting them out of Sudan was dangerous and complicated. Logistics aside, his parents didn’t want to abandon their country and his sisters (who lack U.S. documents).

As the RSF moved closer and Busati’s supply of insulin dwindled, Elamin played his trump card. He told Busati he was personally coming to Sudan to get her, even though that meant he might get trapped in the war.

“I concentrated on my mom because I knew she needed medication,” he said, eventually persuading Busati to meet him in Port Sudan on Dec. 10

Elamin traveled by plane from Saudi Arabia, while Busati traveled by road for 16 hours, leaving Al Hilaliya in a pickup at 2 a.m. to catch a long-distance bus. They spent one nervous night together in a Port Sudan hotel where soldiers with guns prowled the hallways, then rushed to the airport.

Busati was relieved to arrive in the U.S. with her son on Dec. 15, but her dominant thoughts now are concern for her grandkids in Sudan (including a baby born this summer) and shame over the collapse of her country.

“The humiliation is unbearable,” Elamin said, translating for his mom.

International attention

Sudanese people in Washington have come together since April to raise money for humanitarian assistance, said Elsafi, a leader in the Everett-based Sudanese American Unity Association. Yet varied political views and allegiances related to the war have at times stoked tensions, Salih said.

“Things got to the point where we collectively and quietly decided to just not talk about it anymore,” he said, shaking his head sadly.

Most community members have come to agree that the violence must end, said Elamin, who wants to see democracy prevail. But getting enough attention from the rest of the world has been challenging, he said.

A group of Sudanese American doctors is tending to the country’s medical needs in the absence of adequate international aid, Elamin said. While the U.S. has extended immigration protections for Sudanese people here, backed peace negotiations, and sanctioned some Sudanese leaders, “on the ground, nothing is happening” to stop the carnage, Salih added.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who worked with Elamin on immigrant rights before becoming a politician, and who visited Sudan with a congressional delegation in 2020, said the U.S. should have better supported the country’s civilian leaders then and should be doing more to halt the war now. The U.S. waited too long to release Sudan from terrorism-related sanctions after the 2019 revolution and has waited too long to appoint a special envoy in response to the current conflict, Jayapal said, arguing for the U.S. to bring more pressure to bear on players like the United Arab Emirates.

“We cannot turn a blind eye,” the Seattle Democrat said.

Elamin doesn’t want to argue against international outrage over killings in other violent spasms, like the Russia-Ukraine war, Israel-Hamas war and recent Tigray war in Ethiopia that affected many Seattle-area residents.

“We don’t want to compete,” he said, describing those conflicts as terrible.

Still, Elamin wishes the world would pay more consideration to Sudan, which flies “under the radar,” he said, calling for the U.S. to accept more refugees.

Sudan’s location in Africa “is a big part of why it doesn’t make the news” as much as other places, and that’s not how things should be, Jayapal added.

“It’s devastating and it feels like it’s happening in silence,” she said. “This is a place where war crimes are happening as we speak.”