For more than a year, Reem Abbas, a member of the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, sensed that war was coming to her country, Sudan. Yet nothing prepared her for the moment when fighter jets started flying over her home in the capital, Khartoum.
Three weeks after the eruption of violence, she and her family made the difficult decision to leave their home, maybe for good. Today, Reem, who is also a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, lives with family in Cairo.
We caught up with Reem in this interview, where she reflects on the situation in Sudan and critiques the media’s coverage of the war.
Tell us what life is like for you and your family in Cairo at the moment?
We are trying to build a new life here, while trying to process what happened to us. I know Cairo well because I studied at university here, and Cairo is very close to my heart. But we are suffocating. It’s one thing to come here for a holiday, and another thing when you come here because you don’t have a home to return to.
Our old home in Khartoum is now occupied by the RSF (the Rapid Response Forces commanded by General Mohamed Dagalo, widely known as “Hemetti”). We know they looted our house and we’re trying to deal with this loss.
For the last four years, I was paying installments for an apartment of my own. I had recently purchased more books and a painting by Essam Abdelhafiz, which was still wrapped in my library when we left.
I left hundreds of books collected over nearly two decades. I was only able to take a few books with me: “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” by George Packer, “The Stillborn” by Arwa Salih and “When Peace Kills Politics” by Sharath Srinivasan.
I’m also trying to give my five-year-old daughter a sense of normalcy. She was upset when I took her to do an admission test for a school here in Cairo because she wants to return to her school in Khartoum and be with her friends. We’re still trying to deal with what happened. We were in such a hurry that we never got to grieve for our country.
Were you surprised by what happened in Sudan, especially taking into consideration the political tensions in the lead up to the war?
I saw this war coming for a year and a half, and I would panic at the prospect of it every now and then. I would go out and buy things for the house because I felt we needed to be ready. But you can never really prepare for a war, even if you hoard things. There was also this part of me that was worried that if I prepared for the war then it would turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I was worried that if I prepared for the war then it would turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy
Now, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to tell the world what’s happening, which is why I spend a lot of time sharing developments on my Twitter account. There are stories that never make it to the headlines, such as the story of animals starving in a rescue shelter, and the looting of the National Museum. A few years ago, my family donated my great-grandfather’s entire book library to a research centre, and that centre has now burned down.
How do you see the current news coverage of the war in Sudan in the international media?
A lot of it is not great. There’s a lot going on in the world now and we quickly became just another crisis. Sometimes I feel like I’m working all the time to report things on Twitter that are not being reported.
I think Sudan disappeared from the headlines for many reasons. First of all, we don’t have that many Sudanese journalists working with international media and pushing for better coverage of Sudan. Second, there’s a language barrier. Most Sudanese journalists write only in Arabic. Third, there are global priorities and we’re having to compete for attention. This is why we try to connect Sudan with other current stories. For example, parties in this conflict are connected to Russia and the mercenary group Wagner, so this is a way of keeping it in the headlines.
It’s difficult to convince editors to keep covering Sudan when there’s nothing “new” happening. If there is no breakthrough in the fighting, if there are no political negotiations taking place, then editors are less inclined to look at the story.
Reuters has had good coverage because they have a good infrastructure in Sudan that allows them to report well. But how can this coverage lead to more pressure? Media coverage should be used to leverage more political pressure and bring about change.
Do you really believe that rigorous journalistic coverage can influence the political outcome?
I would hope so because right now the Freedom and Change coalition is compromised by this war. So unless they can leverage major advocacy and international pressure then the coverage will die out. In times of war, you have to keep the media momentum going, otherwise people will just forget about you.
Is there anything in the current coverage that you feel is being overlooked or not put in its proper context?
I think there’s little talk about the fact that, to some extent, this is a proxy war. There are several international entities involved, and this hasn’t been articulated enough. There’s very little talk about the role of Gulf countries or the supporters of the RSF, or how this war has no objective other than to completely destroy all infrastructure - political, cultural, social, economic - in Sudan.
There is a pattern taking shape in the region. The same actors involved in Yemen and Libya are now also involved in Sudan
But what could be the vested interest in destroying Sudan? If this is a proxy war, what are the strategic interests?
I don’t think it’s even clear to us, the Sudanese people. A lot of things have been brewing that we’re not aware of. But there is a pattern taking shape in the region. The same actors involved in Yemen and Libya are now also involved in Sudan, and that’s why I see a pattern of destruction. Sudan is a rich country full of resources and it’s very rare in the MENA region to have such a huge land with such agricultural resources. So it is up for grabs when government systems are weak and when you have two armies.
You can tell a thing or two about the involvement of some Gulf countries from the biassed coverage of TV channels that are owned by them. They want this war to take a specific direction and for Sudan to be divided in the same way that Libya was divided into a country with two governments, each supported by a different entity.