We thought it would last a day, two at most. When the sound of gunfire began to ring around parts of Khartoum early one Saturday in April, calls from family and friends in the city sounded relatively little alarm. People were hearing that there had been skirmishes near the airport, and reported seeing pickup trucks ferrying troops at speed across the city. Those nearer central Khartoum said that they heard the sound of artillery, but others said there was in fact no gunfire, only loud explosions, and speculated that perhaps they were the result of military training exercises. A minority suspected it was the start of a clash between two military factions that had been jostling for power for months, but no one could foresee the scale of what was about to happen. Whatever it was, I was convinced there was no cause for alarm. I had been in Khartoum only a few weeks earlier, and even though the city felt tense, life was perfectly normal. “It’ll die down,” an old friend told me. “It always does.”

It didn’t. In the 48 hours after the first reports of trouble, life in Khartoum shattered. I was in London, and the news came to me in a horror reel of videos posted on social media and sent on WhatsApp. People trying to leave from Khartoum airport crouched in terror, sheltering from loud explosions. Planes preparing for takeoff were bombed on the runway. Military aircraft screeched across the skies of the capital, clumsily bombing militia targets positioned in civilian areas and levelling residential neighbourhoods. Tanks rolled through the city, crushing cars under their tracks. It was the last days of Ramadan, and the streets, which had only hours before been full of people preparing for Eid festivities, were now strewn with dead bodies.

By the Monday, central Khartoum was a battleground. So sudden and precipitous was the descent into armed conflict that even diplomats and foreign NGO staff, usually protected by early intelligence and evacuation, were caught along with the rest of the city’s residents, sheltering inside their homes. People clustered indoors, as far from the windows as possible. Even as it became clear that things were deteriorating quickly, I still held on to the irrational belief that it would all “die down”. That belief was shaken as videos of dead bodies decomposing in cars were posted on social media, and family members sent photos of their walls pockmarked with bullet holes. Since a revolution in 2019 had toppled the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years, Khartoum had become accustomed to episodes of civil unrest followed by security crackdowns. This was different.

News reports said that gunfire and mortars were being exchanged between a powerful militia, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and the army. After Bashir’s removal, the army and the RSF had taken over in a tense partnership that had quickly fractured. Anyone trying to escape the city was caught between airstrikes from the army and ground attacks by the RSF, who drove through the streets, parked their tanks and trucks outside people’s homes and squatted alongside main thoroughfares. “They’re right outside our home,” a friend told me. “They [the RSF fighters] were even greeting people as they opened their doors to check what was happening.”

By the middle of the first week, social media posts brought the news that RSF troops had taken over Khartoum’s airport. That was the moment I knew there was no going back. Every report after that moment felt more terrifying, as it evoked a population now cut off from the rest of the world, held hostage by the RSF. The militia quickly spread into all of the city’s central neighbourhoods, erected checkpoints, and began to harass residents, enter houses and demand money and food.

It seemed, in the blur of those early days, that the RSF was chaotic and lacking in discipline. A family friend on her way to pick up her elderly sister and bring her to safety was stopped by young RSF troops. After a tense standoff she apparently cowed them with her matronly scolding and was allowed to pass.

“They were bewildered kids,” a relative said, when she too was stopped at a checkpoint and interrogated. “Their eyes were popping out of their heads.” She was surprised to find them as agitated and anxious as she was – a jittery, trigger-happy crew who, it seemed, suddenly had more power than they expected.

Soon it would become clear that these incursions into residential areas were not a failure of the RSF’s internal discipline. The RSF was there not just to fight the army for control of the capital, but to ravage its inhabitants as well. Its members were drawn from fighting forces in a lawless region in the west of the country, abandoned by central government, devastated by droughts and famine, where competition between tribes for land and trading routes was fierce. To the militia, war was a living, and Khartoum’s spoils a longed-for reward.

Within the first few days of hostilities, banks, ATMs, mobile money transfer apps and remittance agencies all stopped working. Whatever cash, fuel and food residents had in their possession were all they were left with. No one had any contingency plans. Most had no stockpiles, and within days, food and cash began to run out. Devices died, mobile phone credit ran out, and as the fighting intensified and more infrastructure was hit, phone and internet networks began to flicker. Family and friends who had stayed in touch in the first hours of the fighting began to go dark. My sleep became a feverish half-slumber, stalked by nightmare visions of killings and desperate escapes from homes under fire. Each time I jolted awake, my clammy hand reflexively reached for the phone, which more often than not displayed no alerts and brought no relief.

There was no fighting around my family home, and my sister and her husband, newly married, who lived there, resolutely refused to leave. Once safe routes had been established to Egypt, I, along with other family members who had left the city, tried to persuade them to flee. Every day I would call them, and every day they would report, with an eerie, jolly tone of reassurance, that things were calm where they were, and so there was no need to leave. I would try gentle persuasion, then frustrated scolding. I would give up, then redouble my efforts, seized with terror that if something happened to them I would forever be haunted with regret that I hadn’t done enough.

Their refusal to leave was in part down to denial that the city could unravel so quickly, and in part to fear of leaving their whole lives behind. But their resolve soon crumbled in the face of reality: two weeks into the fighting they fled, making a treacherous journey to a small village in the east of Sudan. The morning they left, I unclenched for the first time in weeks, but the relief of their departure was quickly replaced by anxiety as I followed their progress, mentally tracing their journey as they moved slowly through battle sites and checkpoints, displaced, hungry, sun-struck, sleeping rough, wrenched from all that they knew, thrust into the unknown. Along with them, millions scattered across Sudan and into the neighbouring countries. Khartoum, a city that had for decades sat peacefully along the River Nile, was now a war zone.

A short iron bridge sits on the spot where two rivers, the Blue and White Niles, meet in Khartoum. Their waters join and flow northwards to Egypt and finally, into the Mediterranean. We crossed that bridge every Friday, when I was a child in the 1980s, on the way to Omdurman, a city that is part of greater Khartoum, to visit my maternal grandparents. The journey was long, so my father sweetened it with treats: on the way there, an oily falafel sandwich and cold bottle of soda from one of the kiosks near the river. On the way back, a cone of ice-cream from a small dingy shop that sold one unidentifiable flavour of soft serve. The rest of the entertainment was provided by the changing scenery. The trip from the far east of Khartoum to the far west of Omdurman covered the span of the city at the time, its old wealth displayed in large houses with elaborately designed gates and fences, its grand colonial-era government buildings and presidential palace, and finally, the small homes of uprooted elders such as my grandparents, who had moved from other parts of Sudan to follow their children to the city. My siblings and I gave nicknames to landmarks and houses, and flamboyantly saluted the two smartly dressed guards who stood outside the presidential palace as we drove past them. Without fail, they would tap the butts of their rifles on the ground in response. It never got old.

The Khartoum I grew up in was a peaceful, scenic place, from which the rest of the country seemed hazy and remote. By early 2023, that drive to Omdurman was along busier streets. The riverside kiosks had been replaced by bustling restaurants. In the 80s and 90s, many of Khartoum’s doctors, engineers and academics had moved to the Gulf, and their remittances funded the growth of an urban middle class that built modern apartments and handsome villas across the city. An oil boom that started in the early 2000s tempted most of them back. Expensive private hospitals opened. By 2010, there were 20 universities in Khartoum, up from three in the 80s. Most of them were private, with medical schools being the most expensive and the most popular. They exported doctors to the UK, Ireland and the Gulf.

But while the city prospered, for many, Khartoum remained a harsh, inhospitable place. Outside the university campuses, new residences and old villas, there were no pavements. Those who could afford to, drove everywhere. Ditches crisscrossed the city to drain rainwater, which lay there until it evaporated under the city’s intense sun, but not before it had bred a plague of mosquitoes. Money that could have paid for public infrastructure mostly made its way into the pockets of politicians. The result was a capital city of 7 million people who suffered from power cuts, poor water supply and a public healthcare system in desperate straits.

And yet, through blackouts, lack of water, sandstorms and short but paralysing rains, Khartoum somehow retained its ability to function and, in magical moments, thrive. Over two decades, bouts of economic pain caused by corruption and a lack of investment were exacerbated by sanctions. But as the city swelled and stretched with the arrival of thousands fleeing civil war and poverty in other parts of the country, a social contract remained in place. When the state failed them, extended families stepped in to support poorer relations, paying for their healthcare, housing and education.

The affluent urban population of the city believed they were immune from the strife tearing through the outer regions of the country. Even though Khartoum was periodically roiled by political turmoil and economic crisis, the city never descended into violence. Political elites imprisoned or exiled each other as governments changed hands, but always ensured that Khartoum was safe for them. They saw the importance of preserving Khartoum as a centre of commerce and culture. We told ourselves that, even in times of political upheaval, we were fundamentally a peaceful people.

But on 15 April this year, as the RSF entered Khartoum with the spoils of the city in their sights, it became clear that this peace had always been secured at the expense of the rest of the country.

April 15 marked Sudan’s fourth war, but it was Khartoum’s first. For 50 years, conflict has raged across different regions of Sudan, but not a single shot has been fired in Khartoum. While rebels battled for equal distribution of resources, fighting never reached the central stronghold.

For decades, political and economic power was monopolised by a handful of tribes settled along the Nile – a mix of the descendants of Arabs from the Arabian peninsula in the 12th century, and Indigenous populations from the Nile region.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the city saw an influx of refugees from the south, labouring in menial jobs and living in precarious encampments and squats on the edges of the city. Otherwise the war in Sudan’s south was a distant noise that only ever registered when there was an announcement heralding a breakthrough by the Sudanese army against the rebels. For a period in the early 90s, after Bashir’s Islamist government came to power in a military coup in 1989, Sudan’s longest war, which ultimately resulted in the secession of South Sudan in 2011, was given a higher profile in Khartoum and rebranded as a holy jihad. A weekly half-hour programme on Sudan state television, The Fields of Sacrifice, broadcast religious and racial propaganda against non-Arab southerners, and portrayed Arab northern soldiers as pious patriots. In one episode etched in my memory, a picture of the leader of the main rebel movement, Dr John Garang, was superimposed over that of a monkey.

As that war ended in the early 2000s, another exploded in the west of the country. Rebels from African tribes in Darfur, another vast, marginalised region, took up arms against the central government and demanded their share of the country’s resources. The government’s scorched-earth response, according to global human rights organisations, amounted to ethnic cleansing. In 2009, Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the international criminal court, when he was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The war in Darfur was even less of an event in Khartoum than the civil war. I had graduated from university a short while before the start of the fighting in Darfur, and any information I learned about it was from western media. Bashir spun it as a western campaign to isolate his government for holding on to its Islamic principles and not doing the west’s bidding, and Khartoum’s elites were happy to adopt that narrative. The few times the war was mentioned in my immediate circle, the view was that Darfur rebels were over-dramatising claims of ethnic cleansing. A relative breezily once announced that people from Darfur “weren’t Sudanese anyway”, whatever citizenship they held.

In the early 2000s, Sudan began exporting oil, and the wealth that it generated rendered Khartoum a capital of consumerism, leisure and property, even more remote from the areas under attack in the west. People built larger houses, bought bigger cars, and held extravagant weddings. I was always perplexed at how such lavish lifestyles were funded, even by people in the civil service. I later realised they were drawing on heavy subsidies provided by a government that had created an extensive patronage system.

A thousand kilometres to the west, villages in Darfur were being razed to the ground. But not by the army, which was busily partaking in Sudan’s boom years. Never far from power, the military had always operated on a franchise basis. In Darfur, it appointed Arab mercenary gangs on the ground to fight the rebels, or bombed targets from the air. Otherwise, it did not get its hands dirty. Generals who wore elaborate uniforms, never stained with the mark of live combat, luxuriated in benefits such as free housing. The Officers’ Club in the centre of Khartoum was the largest private club in the city, boasting lush manicured gardens, a swimming pool, several banquet halls, a billiards room and a bowling alley. On New Year’s Eve, there was often a large concert in the club’s amphitheatre.

The government handed over the business of quelling the rebellion in Darfur to the Janjaweed, an informal force made up of nomadic Arab tribes that for years had raided land and cattle from settled African populations. Their modus operandi was to kill the men, rape the women, loot and burn their villages. In 2013, Bashir’s government had come to depend so heavily on the Janjaweed that he regularised them into a formal military unit, the Rapid Support Forces.

As the RSF entered Khartoum three months ago, people were shocked at their violence, their disdain for the sanctity of people’s homes, and their destruction of the city’s landmarks and infrastructure. On social media, RSF troops are portrayed as beasts and monsters, barely human, arriving in Khartoum to raid and loot. Many people I spoke to from Khartoum, notably from older generations, expressed bewilderment at “where these people came from”, or concluded they must be foreign mercenaries.

“When we came, we found the people in Khartoum resting in luxury,” said one RSF soldier on a video recorded after the conflict started in April. “Air conditioners cool the air. The fridge has water so cold it cools your heart. The cars are air-conditioned. People here don’t work very hard. They come home two, three times a day. It’s not like in the provinces, where you go and sit in the bush all day only to come home at night.

“This rest that you are enjoying,” he said addressing the people of Khartoum, “we want to rest like you.” The intent was clear – the people of Khartoum did not deserve these lives, so vastly different from theirs, and the time had come for us to hand them over.

Once large parts of Khartoum and Omdurman were secured by the RSF, its soldiers began entering houses. If the inhabitants were lucky, they were ejected and told not to return. If they resisted, they were killed. By mid-May, it was clear that Khartoum, previously protected as key to the country’s stability, was, to the militia, merely a large pot of loot, ripe for the taking.

An elderly uncle living in central Khartoum heard the RSF entering his home before he saw them, as they smashed whatever was in their way and tore pictures and mirrors from the walls. After he pleaded with them, the troops warmed to him. He and his family were spared, but the troops told them they would have to leave the house. “You seem like a good man,” they said to him, “but your house is large, and even if we leave, there are others who have their eyes on it.” My uncle and his family took whatever precious things they could carry while the soldiers kept their guns pointed at them, and left the home they had lived in for more than half a century. “Did you see what happened?” my uncle asked me, with the same good humour with which he had talked the RSF troops out of ransacking his home. “We became homeless at the end of our lives,” he told me, with a laugh.

Reports of RSF troops stealing cars and looting houses started coming in from all over the city, posted on Twitter and sent to me by those on the ground. Incidents of rape were reported on social media – when connections would allow – and came with requests for emergency contraceptive pills. A graphic video was circulated, recorded by a witness who narrated the time and location, showing an RSF solder raping a young girl, as another stood guard.

Three months of fighting between the RSF and the army have wrecked the city’s infrastructure, historical landmarks and cultural institutions. A video sent to my phone showed Khartoum’s largest and most famous market on fire. Another showed Airport Road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, deserted, strewn with the wreckage of burned cars. Khartoum’s factories, which made everything from wheat products to infant formula, were destroyed. The Sudan National Museum, which contains collections from the country’s pharaonic past, was taken over by the RSF. An archeological lab that housed ancient mummified remains for the purpose of research was broken into by befuddled RSF soldiers, who filmed the contents, including mummies. “These are all just corpses,” one narrates, “boxed up in a way you don’t understand.” Libraries and cultural centres were taken over by RSF troops, who saw these places not as repositories of valuable heritage, but the fripperies of a decadent city. Every time I saw a familiar building, street, market or neighbourhood emptied, destroyed or on fire, I experienced a sort of erasure, as if with Khartoum’s diminishment I myself, somehow, had ceased to exist.

In early July, RSF troops broke into my family home. Witnesses told us that militia men first entered on foot, then left, returning with a truck that they loaded with my family’s possessions. Most of what was in the house held sentimental rather than material value – family pictures, books, old furniture collected and restored by my mother, musical instruments and memorabilia belonging to my late father, including an ancient shortwave radio that was his constant companion, and the only printed copy of my pre-digital age university graduation thesis. These items will fetch little in a war economy, but they were treasured memories and heirlooms. Their loss symbolises the demise of a city that had itself, despite its contradictions and limitations, been a vibrant place of dynamic student politics, academic excellence, and musical and literary heritage. What the militiamen took or vandalised are the hallmarks of a life and a culture that was rich and deep-rooted, and, yes, built on the privilege of class and tribe. As our own home was taken over, that sense of erasure extended to my entire life in Khartoum as I had experienced it.

My family are now sheltering in a small village to the east of Khartoum. Those of us outside the country plot on WhatsApp groups and phone calls, on a daily basis, to try to get them out of Sudan, but our attempts keep failing due to unsafe routes and visa restrictions. An evacuation to Egypt by land was scuppered when Egypt cancelled visa-free travel. Another attempt via Saudi Arabia was abandoned when we realised that the country only allows entry to those with citizenship or residence of certain countries. We managed to send them a small amount of money, which went towards purchasing clean water, antibiotics and food. Other relatives have become refugees, having made a perilous journey by bus to Egypt and Eritrea, a journey that on one leg claimed the lives of three in-laws as their rickety bus overturned on a bumpy dirt road. One elderly diabetic uncle remains in Khartoum, refusing to leave, even though he has run out of insulin.

Six weeks before the fighting started, we were all under one roof in Khartoum, celebrating a family wedding. Now we gather on WhatsApp groups, checking in on people in the north and east of Sudan, in the Arabian gulf and in Cairo, as they veer between deep depression, relief that they have at least escaped the conflict, and anxiety about how to start again with no source of income. The older members are listless and quiet, glued to their phones, watching videos of bombings and house invasions, only springing to life to recount, over and over, the trials they went through or to bring news of another calamity. We, their children, nieces and nephews, plead with them to stop traumatising themselves. But they are stuck, trying to process it all, unable to accept their new reality.

In this new bewildered state, the question – badly timed, but pressing nonetheless – is, are Khartoum’s middle classes finally paying for decades of privilege and protection? If you asked any of the people who have been driven out of their homes, their answer would be that Bashir’s government, and the RSF, victimised the whole country. The 30 years under Bashir visited misery upon millions, including Khartoum’s middle classes. Throughout the 90s Bashir’s regime dissolved labour unions, purged the civil service and replaced those fired with loyalists. Those who resisted, including two uncles of mine, were thrown into secret prisons, infamously called “ghost houses”, and tortured. A cousin of my father’s who participated in a counter-coup early in Bashir’s rule was forced to dig his own grave and then executed, along with 27 others. Officers present at the time said that not all were dead when the firing squad began to fill the graves, and the soil choked the voices of the not yet perished who pleaded for instant death and not slow suffocation. “Just end us,” they pleaded.

Throughout the 90s the population suffered under a repressive sharia regime and harsh security state. Strict public order laws were enforced by the police, who meted out lashings and head shavings for inappropriate dress or partying. Bashir put down any protest movement with disproportionate force. The University of Khartoum was closed twice in 10 years, as students were lashed, imprisoned and tortured for any political activity that was critical of the government. I barely escaped a beating by hiding in a toilet on campus in the mid-90s. Early in Bashir’s government, three young men were executed for black-market currency trading. Along with those who left to build better lives, an entire generation of Khartoum’s middle classes left Sudan in that decade, as political refugees.

When Khartoum did finally reject Bashir in 2019, it demanded that the army return to barracks and the RSF be disbanded. Protesters chanted “We are all Darfur”. It was a moment during which, however briefly, one could see a path, a new model where power was not seized by a violent minority over and over again. For two months, the main protest site became a celebration of art, music, poetry and collectivism, a hopeful visualisation of what Khartoum, and all of Sudan, had the potential to become. I try to remind myself that the descent into war was not inevitable, that there had been an attempt to imagine a different, more equal country. But the hope was smothered when the protests were brutally suppressed by Bashir’s partners in the army and the RSF who refused to relinquish power. A bloody massacre on 3 June left more than 100 people dead, including many members of the professional classes.

Magdi El Gizouli, a Sudanese academic, says the odds were stacked against the would-be revolutionaries. “They probably could have done better,” El Gizouli said to me. “But their history was already determined.” The revolution was “a brave and daring last-ditch attempt to renegotiate the social contract”, he said, but it was fighting a system that had been finessed “for over 100 years in the Nile valley”. Now, as the city is destroyed, the means of political resolution are disappearing with it. “What existed in Khartoum before 15 April,” El Gizouli said, “its urban life, culture, whatever it was worth – is all you have.”

All that we had is gone. My lament for Khartoum and its people rises with the anguish of what is being lost. And yet it catches in my throat. The loss of our home, the scattering of my family, and their hunger and dispossession cannot be mourned without acknowledging that their fate is not the work of a unique and vengeful evil in the shape of the RSF – themselves young, poor and dying under the bombs of the military before they have lived. The RSF fighters’ decision to take up arms, their resentment and nihilism, were all forged in an economic wasteland where war was the most reliable living. They also represent Khartoum’s legacy, its failure to attend to social justice and equal distribution, and to foresee the consequences of that failure. As we yearn to return, the only hope for the city’s survival, and the safety of those who remain, is the acceptance that it can never be as it was before. As Khartoum burns, that tranquil childhood journey to visit my grandparents plays over and over in my mind, as I try to capture the city in my memory one last time, and bid it farewell.