The Washington Post
SHAPED BY CATASTROPHE
Unstable states like Sudan crumble first in their hinterlands, and in those moments of crisis, cities are beacons of safety, places for people to regroup, build new identities and forge political movements — even revolutions — that aim to bring peace back to places they had to abandon.
From the surrounding desert, the sandcolored city of Khartoum rises like a mirage.
A caravan heading inward from its edge will pass scenes that repeat mile after mile like a plaintive folk song: square mud-brick compounds stretching to the horizon, the expanse broken every so often by slightly taller, mostly unfinished skeletons of iron and concrete, halfway between rubble and a dream fulfilled.
For half a century now, displacement by catastrophe has been the main driver of growth in Khartoum. This is the biggest of a downtrodden club of African cities where people have brought their lives on donkey carts or in rickety trucks, far from hometowns abandoned because of conflict or climate change — or both.
These cities — such as Goma, in war-torn eastern Congo, or Bangui, the capital of the deeply impoverished Central African Republic — tend to be as big as their countries’ problems are deep.
Growth spikes as crises flare; some cities, including Mogadishu, Somalia, are seeing the latest of successive waves of arrivals, while others, such as Pemba in northern Mozambique, where the government recently lost control to an insurgency, are suddenly adapting to the addition of hundreds of thousands of the displaced, seeking safety in numbers on the cities’ peripheries.
Safety: Without it, there is no healing in countries that are broken by disasters both natural and man-made. The city, by providing a refuge, is a site of healing. Greater Khartoum’s population has octupled while a succession of wars, famines, droughts and floods have ravaged Sudan’s countryside.
“Tell me: What does a person want?” said Aziza Idris Ahmed, one of Khartoum’s millions of newcomers in recent decades, as she sat with her family in their dusty compound.
“Peace and safety. The rest comes after.”
A failing effort to count the displaced
Estimating the proportion of a city’s population that ended up there because of internal displacement is difficult for a number of reasons; one study that tried a decade ago in Khartoum called it “an impossible task.”
“Displaced” is a term with a loose definition: If someone chooses to leave their home, are they displaced? And once that person is settled in a new city, at what point do they stop being considered displaced?
There is also nearly no registration or tracking of the world’s displaced in cities. The job, broadly left to the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. body, is mostly carried out at displacement camps, which are usually in or near conflict zones, and only occasionally found in major cities.
“All the energy in the humanitarian world gets channeled toward emergencies, and so we don’t end up talking about what happens as a result — the big current underneath our work, which is massive urban influx,” said Bernard Lami, the IOM’S deputy head in Sudan.
Broadly, the United Nations estimates that a quarter of Khartoum’s population is or was displaced by conflict alone — around 1.5 million people — but researchers say that number excludes a huge group that never passed through displacement camps and was never classified as displaced. The real proportion, they say, is well above half of the city’s population of 6 million.
Those figures are a testament to just how unstable Sudan has been for decades.
Like many African countries, Sudan was awkwardly drawn onto the world map by European colonialists, its borders clumping rival groups together while splitting other well-established societies in half. A new elite, trained in suppression and exploitation, was left in charge. It was a historical how-to in creating conflict-prone states.
Around 40 percent of the world’s internally displaced people are in Africa, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center’s most recent report, and that number is growing. In 2020, nearly 9 million people became newly displaced on the continent. As with the population estimates, these figures are thought to be a significant undercount.
Sudan’s post-independence cycle of wars, coups and calamities has only heightened the importance of Khartoum, its sole major city.
“There’s really not a lot of forward development happening around the country — it’s all concentrated in Khartoum,” said Mai Abusalih, an architect and urban planner. “And then that reinforces itself, especially if this city remains the only place to get safety and jobs in the country.”
“That’s why when you look at maps of Khartoum over time, it’s like there’s this explosion,” she said. “And you’re looking at it now and it’s like, where do we go from here?”
From Darfur to a ‘squatters camp’
In the valley of the Wadi Azum, a seasonal river in western Darfur near the modern-day border with Chad, generations of Aziza Idris Ahmed’s family tended cows, goats and sheep.
Her village was destroyed in early 2003, as Darfur descended into an ugly war characterized by the burning of homes, ethnic cleansing and mass displacement.
Under the command of dictator Omar Hassan al-bashir, Sudanese forces and aligned militias torched and bombed village after village, a conflict that led to an estimated 300,000 or more deaths,
“Tell me: What does a person want? peace and safety. The rest comes after.” Aziza Idris Ahmed, one of Khartoum’s millions of newcomers in recent decades
according to the United Nations. Three million survivors fled.
Her uncle and his five sons were killed; she and her mother made it to a camp.
“My mother was ill and there was no way to treat her there,” Aziza said. “That’s why we came to Khartoum. We came in the back of a small truck, and it took many days. She died anyway, and I’ve been in Soba more or less since then.”
Soba, named after an ancient city situated, like Khartoum, at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers, became what the government calls a “squatters camp,” mostly for Darfuris. Others like it ring the city in what is sometimes pejoratively called the “Black Belt,” because its inhabitants hail from conflict zones in Darfur, Kordofan and what is now South Sudan, where people’s skin tends to be darker.
Some camps were named in ways that nodded to displacement (the Arabic equivalents of “We were forced” or “They threw us,” for instance), while others were named for their most visible characteristics (“Rubbish” or “Shanty”).
As the hodgepodge of camps developed their own miniature economies, they solidified into neighborhoods. Unsurprisingly, their residents bristled with anger and opposition toward Bashir’s regime, which had driven them from their homes. Soba was razed three times under Bashir, in what residents refer to as wars in their own right. It was never connected to water or power lines.
“There are millions of us living in these places that politicians never set foot in except to tear them down so they can make an industrial zone or new, big houses,” said Zulekha Mohamed Abubakr, 26, a teacher at a free, private night school that teaches English to around 400 children.
“Everything is in shortage — water, fuel, food, but especially money,” said her colleague Ahmed Isa Yusuf, also 26.
It is a precarious existence, but it beats spending every day worrying for your life in Darfur, where conflict is still simmering.
“Even when the floods come and destroy Soba, we rebuild it,” said Aziza, who brews tea on a small charcoal stove for a living, selling to customers who sit on plastic stools on the roadside.
“People with my same story are spread out all across the city. Many of them are also tea ladies. Some sell vegetables. The men move things around: cement, bricks, sand, pipes,” she said. “Business is awful. But if your daughter sells vegetables, and business is bad, well, at least you get to eat the vegetables.”
A revolt to ensure their newfound safety
Some say Bashir planted the seeds of his own downfall in driving displacement to Khartoum, concentrating rising discontent over his misrule in camps that flanked the city on all sides.
In camps-turned-neighborhoods like Haj Yousif, long-oppressed groups from Sudan’s hinterlands discovered common histories and common cause. The city, after providing safety, became an organizing ground for groups that wanted to ensure that the safety was lasting. In Sudan, that meant first getting rid of Bashir.
With the spark of rising bread prices in late 2018, Khartoum ignited in street protests. Week after week, thousands marched through places such as Soba and Haj Yousif, and even downtown, braving violent security forces.
By April 2019, a sit-in that drew over a million people daily had coalesced outside the military’s headquarters. In self-preservation mode, the military deposed Bashir, and the long, fraught process of untangling the military’s hold over the economy and government haltingly began.
“The revolution made Sudanese people realize something: We are all in this together,” said Taha Abdalla, 30, an economics student working as a gardener who participated in protests in Haj Yousif, where his parents relocated from Darfur before he was born.
But the revolution was just the beginning of a transformation Sudan will have to undergo to stop the cycle of displacement. On Oct. 25, the country’s top military official, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah alBurhan, launched a coup, renewing protests in Khartoum’s streets and sending jitters through parts of Sudan where the military had committed atrocities in the past.
Conflict also returned to much of Darfur and South Kordofan in 2021, and in just eight months, nearly 420,000 people were displaced. Stress on Khartoum’s already booming population is rising day by day.
“What we have is a problem of scale. We’re not thinking big, we’re not thinking about how to assimilate so many people,” said Abusalih, the architect. “We have, like, one park for a million people. Or one main road for a million people. It feels like we are planning based on a zoomed-out map.”
Abdalla said he is studying economics in part because he wants to help solve these problems.
“The city can’t keep up with the population, so instead, everything deteriorates, and that also drives prices up because everything is more expensive to produce and deliver,” he said.
“In the revolution, that’s partly what we were fighting against. There were big political issues, but it was also about mismanagement,” he added. “How long will it take for the needs of the people to become part of our governance? Ten, 20 years — or after we’re long gone? I guess it will always depend on us, the people, ourselves.”