A photographer’s 11-day trek to escape war-torn Sudan


On the eve of his perilous flight from his home country last month, Sudanese photojournalist Mohamed Zakaria left his camera gear with a friend, unsure if he would ever see it again.

He was fleeing from El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, where a fierce battle is raging between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Mohamed had been covering this hotbed of Sudan’s 15-month civil war for the BBC, but as the situation became increasingly desperate, he decided it was time to escape.

The RSF stepped up the siege of El-Fasher in May, targeting the last military stronghold in Darfur.

Shortly afterwards, Mohamed’s house was hit by a shell, and another hit him as he tried to take injured neighbours to hospital. Five people were killed and 19 injured – Mohamed still has shrapnel in his body, while his brother lost an eye.

Pockmarked vehiclePockmarked vehicle

This pickup truck was damaged during the shelling of Mohamed’s house (Mohamed Zakaria)

Two weeks later, Mohamed saw his mother and three brothers leave for the safety of Chad, their neighbor to the west. He stayed behind to continue working to support them, he says.

But as RSF fighters drew closer, civilians found themselves trapped in a war zone of indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes by the army, and food supplies were cut off.

“I couldn’t move, I couldn’t work,” he says. “The only thing you do now in El-Fasher is stay in your house and wait for death… some residents had to dig trenches in their houses.”

It was dangerous to stay, but also dangerous to flee. Eventually he decided to go to South Sudan and finally to Uganda.

He thought that this journey would be safer for him than trying to join his family in Chad, and he also thought that he would be able to work once he reached his destination.

From El-Fasher to South Sudan, Mohamed passed 22 checkpoints, five of which were manned by the army and 17 by the RSF.

He was frisked and sometimes interrogated, but managed to hide his identity as a cameraman who had recorded the war. Except once.

A vehicle with the hood upA vehicle with the hood up

Mohamed drove through Darfur in several vehicles to reach the border with South Sudan (Mohamed Zakaria)

The first stop, on June 10, was the Zamzam refugee camp on the outskirts of El-Fasher.

Mohamed and his traveling companion, his cousin Muzamil, spent the night at a friend’s house, where he hid his camera and other tools of the trade.

But he also took with him a precious document containing his photos and videos, stored on memory cards and two external hard drives, as well as his laptop and phone.

“The biggest problem I faced along the way was how to hide them,” he said.

“Because these are dangerous things. If the RSF or a soldier sees them, you can’t explain it.”

For the first major part of the journey, Mohamed hid them in a hole under the foot pedals of the pickup truck, without telling the driver.

He and Muzamil were stopped at a checkpoint by Sudanese soldiers who suspected they were heading into RSF territory to join the enemy. But otherwise they reached Dar es Salaam, the city that marked the end of the army control, without incident.

Here they joined other travellers – a convoy of six vehicles heading for the village of Khazan Jadid.

“We paid the RSF soldiers to come with us,” Mohamed says. “If you want to arrive safely, you have to pay the RSF.”

The drivers collected the money from the passengers and handed it over at the first checkpoint. An RSF fighter got into each car.

Mohammed hid his memory cards in a piece of paper that he placed with the other documents.

A person resting on the back of a pickup truckA person resting on the back of a pickup truck

People on the journey rested wherever and whenever they could (Mohamed Zakaria)

At the bus station in Khazan Jadid, Mohammed found only three vehicles.

“The road was very dangerous,” he says, “and all the cars were stopped.”

But they managed to send one to the city of El-Daein, the capital of East Darfur, and they arrived there in the early afternoon of June 12.

At a checkpoint in the city center, people coming from El-Fasher were separated, Mohamed says, on suspicion of working for the army.

This is where he got into trouble.

He had deleted all messages, photos and apps on his mobile phone.

But the RSF agent found a Facebook account he had forgotten to delete, complete with posts he had shared about the el-Fasher bombing and civilian suffering.

An interrogation lasting several hours followed, during which Mohamed was separated from Muzamil and accused of being a spy.

“I was threatened with torture and death if I did not provide the information I had,” he says.

“I felt lost. It was a very bad situation. If he wanted to kill you, he could do it and no one would know. He can kill you, he can beat you, he can do anything to you.”

Mohamed was finally released at 7pm after negotiating the payment of a large sum of money.

Two men crouch over a puddle of rainwater on the road as they leave SudanTwo men crouch over a puddle of rainwater on the road as they leave Sudan

Mohamed and others drank rainwater after being stranded in the forest (Mohamed Zakaria)

“This was the worst moment,” he says, looking back on the experience, “not only of the trip, but I think the worst moment of my entire life… because I saw no hope. I can’t believe I’m here.”

Mohamed suspected that his interrogator would alert another checkpoint further away to arrest him again.

He and Muzamil ran to the station to get out of the city as quickly as possible. There was only one vehicle, a pickup truck that was completely full, but they managed to squeeze into a small space on the roof.

They reached the village of Abu Matariq, where the engine broke down and it took two days to repair it.

After surviving his arrest, Mohamed wanted to get to South Sudan as soon as possible. Instead, he faced a long delay.

The travelers finally left Abu Matariq on June 14 and headed for el-Raqabat, the last town in East Darfur before the border. The road led through the forest of el-Deim, a flat plain of grass and sand dotted with acacia trees.

People pushing a carPeople pushing a car

Heavy rain and engine problems delayed the journey (Mohamed Zakaria)

Heavy rain slowed and halted their progress as the pickup truck became stuck in the mud. They were stranded.

“It was a tough ordeal,” says Mohamed.

“We were without drinking water and food for almost six days. We mainly depended on rainwater and dates.”

By a stroke of luck they were able to buy two sheep from passing shepherds.

During the journey, Mohamed says, he had no trouble finding food. The RSF-controlled areas they passed through had seen fighting early in the war, but had since stabilized somewhat.

There were markets and small restaurants. Food was expensive, but not “super expensive” like in el-Fasher, where many people were forced to limit themselves to one meal a day.

People sleeping outsidePeople sleeping outside

It took Mohamed several days to get through the El-Deim forest (Mohamed Zakaria)

In the forest the men slept in the open air, sometimes in the rain, while the two women and two children in the party stayed in the vehicle. They had to pick thorns from their feet from walking barefoot in the mud.

Eventually they pushed the pickup back onto solid ground. But the engine was running sporadically due to a weak battery. And then it ran out of fuel.

At this point two men set out to find the nearest village. It turned out to be a nine hour walk. To everyone’s relief they returned late in the day with extra fuel and another vehicle.

When Mohamed and Muzamil arrived in El-Raqabat, they were just a 15-minute drive away from safety in South Sudan.

But the next morning, before the travelers could leave, they were picked up and taken to RSF headquarters, where they were interrogated for three hours.

Someone had reported that members of the Zaghawa ethnic group had entered the city. This included Mohamed, as well as the family who shared the car with him.

The Zaghawa are one of the armed groups fighting alongside the army in El-Fasher, and the RSF considers them enemies.

Mohamed hid his memory cards, hard drives and laptop with one of the women and told the RSF agent that he was a computer technician.

Once again, it came down to a payoff: 30,000 Sudanese pounds ($50; £39) from everyone. Mohamed and a few other members of the group paid extra to free another man who had been found with a photo of an army soldier on his phone.

Mohamed and Muzamil then got into a motorized rickshaw and drove to the border.

Acacia treeAcacia tree

(Mohamed Zakaria)

Crossing the border into South Sudan on June 20 was an “incredible” moment for Mohamed.

“When I saw the South Sudanese men, I thanked God and prayed,” he says. “I felt alive. I really didn’t believe I was alive, that I was here. I reached South Sudan with all my data and my laptop, even though I had many meetings with the RSF.”

He called his mother as soon as he could buy a local SIM card. “She didn’t believe I was alive,” he says.

Mohamed was off the internet for 11 days and his family had no idea where he was or what was happening to him.

“They were very worried,” he says. “Most of them told me don’t try this road, don’t go there, you can’t make it.”

But he had succeeded.

He stayed for a few days in the South Sudanese town of Aweil, where he was received at the home of the Zaghawa family, with whom he was travelling.

He then traveled to the capital Juba.

Muzamil decided to stay there, but Mohamed traveled to Uganda and registered as a refugee in a camp near the border because his passport had expired.

People smiling and looking at the cameraPeople smiling and looking at the camera

Mohamed (R) and his fellow travelers started laughing with relief when they crossed the border into South Sudan (Mohamed Zakaria)

Twenty-three days after leaving el-Fasher, Mohamed arrived in the Ugandan capital Kampala on July 3. He is staying with his uncle.

“I really have no idea where life will take me from here,” he says.

His first priority is to take care of his family and try to reunite them. In addition to his mother and three brothers in Chad, he has a brother in Turkey and a sister in the United Arab Emirates.

His dream for the future is to return to Sudan in more peaceful times and set up a university in Darfur to teach filmmaking, photography and media studies.

“My work did not stop after leaving el-Fasher,” he says. “I believe it was just a phase and now I have really started to arrange the second phase by working on conveying the truth of the situation there.

“I hope that my effort, even if only a little, will help shorten the duration of the war and save the people of El-Fasher.”

Map of SudanMap of Sudan

(BBC channel)

More BBC stories on Sudan’s civil war:

A woman looks at her mobile phone and the image BBC News AfricaA woman looks at her mobile phone and the image BBC News Africa

(Getty Images/BBC)

Go to BBCAfrica.com for more news from the African continent.

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