Fatima Abdelrahman spoke in Arabic in her Cairo living room while her husband slept on a bed in the corner. Her mother rested in the next room. Four of her children played with the neighbor’s goat in the small, trash-covered courtyard outside the four-flat building.
Fatima is a thirty-nine-year-old mother of six, originally from the western Sudan region of Darfur. Throughout most of her life, her country’s ongoing civil war between the government and the south-Sudan-based SPLA had been a distant abstraction. She lived a peaceful life raising her family in the town of Marla in Darfur.
In 2003, however, war came to Darfur. Janjaweed—government-hired mercenaries—came on horseback, killing and raping Fatima’s neighbors and family members. Fatima fled with her mother and children, eventually making their way to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where Fatima found work as a housekeeper for Jan Pronk, head of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). When a group of men, representing the government of Sudan, kidnapped and threatened to kill Fatima if she did not help them spy on Pronk, Pronk helped her escape with her family to Cairo.
Fatima found no solace in Cairo. She was robbed of her refugee paperwork, including a letter given to her by Pronk. In 2005, her family was beaten in the aftermath of protests outside the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She yearned to return to her home in Darfur.
Millions of people have fled from conflicts and persecution in all parts of Sudan, and many thousands more have been enslaved as human spoils of war. In Out of Exile, refugees and abductees recount their escapes from the wars in Darfur and South Sudan, from political and religious persecution, and from abduction by militias. In their own words, they recount life before their displacement and the reasons for their flight. They describe life in the major stations on the “refugee railroads”: in the desert camps of Khartoum, the underground communities of Cairo, the humanitarian metropolis of Kakuma refugee camp, and the still-growing internally displaced persons camps in Darfur.
Out of Exile is the fourth book in the Voice of Witness series. Using oral history as its foundation, the Voice of Witness series seeks to illuminate contemporary human rights crises by giving a voice to those who experience them.
I. EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE
FATIMA; I was born in Nyala, the capital of south Darfur, in 1969. My family is of the Fur tribe. I grew up in a good life, and my people were happy in that world with our traditions and customs. We are known to be generous people, and we are good people.
I like to remember the Ramadan holy day, and the Eid Ramadan. Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims, and during this month no one eats at his house. All the people go down to the streets and eat together when the sun is gone. People would walk by on the street, and you would ask them to come and eat with you at one table. The children played on the street, and the men would stay together, and the women would stay together, and all the people were happy. It was a very good life.
When I was young, we moved to El Geneina, in the west of Darfur. We lived in a very big house next to our farm. There were about thirty-five people inside this house—my family and my extended family. If there was an old man alone in our tribe, my father would ask him to come and stay with us. If there was a woman with no daughter, my father would ask her to come and stay with us. If you were a stranger, he would ask you to come and stay. So it became a very big house.
Our main income came from farming and raising animals. We had many cows, as well as lambs, chickens, horses, and camels. The children went to farm, too. Yes, we went to school, but when the rainy season would come, we would leave school to help on the farm. My mother would supervise, and she was always working in the gardens. She didn’t have to push us very hard. We would do that work on our own. We rode the horses and bought grass and wood to make a fire.
Everything was somehow possible, and life was not too expensive. I went to school and didn’t have to pay for books. It was totally free. Even medication was free. People would sing songs for [President Jaafar Muhammad] Nimeiri, because so much was available to us at the time. I was still in Geneina then, and it’s a town of the Masalit tribe, but there were many other tribes there as well, and we were friends together. Nimeiri visited Darfur many times and solved many problems for our people.
I knew there was a war in the South, but that was really all I knew. I remember that at seven o’clock every evening the radio would play military marching songs, and they would tell people to go to the South, to kill the southerners in a holy war. When the war got worse, I remember some southerners moving into our towns, and they would get work on farms. They were very simple people, very kind. Many women would come and tell of their husbands and children who were killed. The people were destitute, and scared, you could see. They stayed all through their war.
II. IT WAS A GOOD MATCH
When I was in school, I would dream, like all of my classmates. Some would want to be doctors, some would want to be engineers. We wished, but sometimes something shows up and controls your life.
The first time I met my husband was in about 1989. My family had moved to the town of Marla, in southern Darfur, and this man came from El Fashir, in northern Darfur, to trade currency with my father. I was at a secondary school at the time, a boarding school that was miles away. When school closed for the season, I went back home and I found this guest there, a man named Noradeen. My father told me, “This is my brother’s son.” I stayed with the family for the school holiday. At the end of the holiday, my father asked Noradeen to take us back to school. Noradeen took me, and then returned to my father’s house.
To me, Noradeen was just a guest. He would sit with us and laugh with us. But when I came back from school, I found that everything had turned upside down. Our families had made a contract, and that’s it. In our customs and traditions, the girls themselves do not discuss this issue of marriage.
When I came from school, they told me that school is chalas, finished, “You will become a wife.” Of course, in a way it was difficult for me, because I had plans to take my exams, and perhaps go to university. But I couldn’t say no. This is life.
Thank God, it was a good match. We married in 1990.
There was a big wedding with a big party. So much singing and dancing—maybe too much! Many tribes came and danced. It was a great celebration.
After that, my Noradeen and I were given our separate room to live in. He continued to work as a currency trader with my father. He would travel most days, leaving in the morning and coming back in the evening. We had a nice life, without troubles. Soon I was even able to begin classes at a technical school near home. But within a year I had my first son, Hamad. It was such a nice feeling to have my first child, but, yes, it changes everything. Before Hamad’s birth, I insisted on continuing with school. Once I became a mother, though, it was too difficult to leave the home.
At first, my mother cared for my child, because I had no experience. She taught me how to wash the boy, and how to feed him. Now I know from her lessons. Now, if the baby cries, I take him, I hold him on my shoulder and walk him around the house. And if he keeps crying loudly, I start to cry with him. My mother taught me that.
III. I BEGAN TO HEAR TOO MUCH
For years, the Arab and African tribes had coexisted. We grew up with each other. We married each other. My grandmother is from an Arab tribe. In our land, it’s difficult to find a Fur without Arab blood, or an Arab without Fur blood. Still, when you ask me, I say that I am Fur.
I don’t know when the problems started in Darfur, but I know that some Arabs had insulted the black African tribes for a long time. Then, in maybe 1995 or 1996, there was mazara—mazara is a traditional term we used to describe when the government started giving Arabs the tribal leadership of the land. There are many Arab tribes in Darfur, but the biggest tribes are not Arab. The government created a problem when they started giving the small Arab tribes all of the big leadership positions. This was completely unfair.
My father had many Arab friends, and he would speak with them about the troubles that were beginning. They would advise each other that these were problems of government, not of people. They would say, “Let us avoid it.” They were friends who had grown up with each other, and now they were in business together. They made agreements to remain friends and not make problems for each other. They agreed to live in peace.
The troubles came closer to me on the first day of Eid, at the end of Ramadan. It was 2000, or 2001. People from our tribe went to visit the neighboring Arab tribe to give their greetings for Eid. It’s a custom. Our people took a sheep with them and went to visit an Arab tribe. Unfortunately, the Arab tribe had bad blood for the people of our tribe. The Arabs started beating them and killed them. They killed two men, cut one’s head off and opened the other one’s stomach. Then they put the head inside the other one’s stomach. They killed most of them. The others told us what happened.
Soon I began to hear too much. Every day people would be talking, and you would just hear stories. Arabs stealing and killing. We would hear about the janjaweed. People would come to town saying: “Beware, all of you. They come, they kill, and they loot.” Men would hear news about their tribes, and they would become so angry. You could see they just had to react. We would hear the voices of people who had seen clashes. By 2003, we started seeing military planes, and that was when we recognized that this was coming from the government. We saw the planes come and bomb parts of our town of Marla. The planes came at night and dropped bombs, not on us, but near us. A helicopter came, flying over us and shooting in the distance.
Many people started fleeing the village and going to the big town of Nyala. I told my father that we should leave. He said, “It’s difficult for me to leave my land of Darfur, my grandfather’s land. Better for me to die here.” And it happened. My father died on his land.
IV. AT THE DAWN
It happened like this: Officials from the provincial government in Nyala came to my father. They came to the house and told him, “We want to buy your land.” My father took them in, and they spent the night at our house. The next morning the officials began to discuss the issue with my father. My father told them, “This is my land, and my grandfather’s land. It has been ours for a hundred years, and I don’t want to sell it.” That was the end of the negotiation. The men left. It was a few weeks later that they came back for us.
They came to us early, at dawn. I was sleeping, and all the men were at morning prayer. I woke to the sounds of people and horses. It was an army of men, most of them wearing uniforms. No planes in the air, just men and horses. They kept shouting so loudly, “Banish the slave! Banish the slave!” They shot guns into the air.
There was nothing we could do. The women were rising from sleep, and the men were in the mosque. Suddenly everyone was running in different directions. When the fires started, everything went out of control. I picked up my girls—Sahar, Sarah, and Sammar. My boys were at the mosque. At the time, I was pregnant with my son Abdulrahman. We started running. My mother started running, too, but then she turned back home. She wouldn’t leave so quickly. She went back towards our home, and it was then that she saw men killing her husband, killing my father. My mother told me that the men shot him. She saw him fall in front of the house. My uncle was killed also. Many people died. Women and children, too.
We ran away, towards Berli Valley, about a kilometer outside the village. My daughter Sarah fell and broke her arm as we were running, but my mother carried her and we continued. The same men in uniforms followed us to the valley. It was in the valley that they raped the women.
When we got to Berli Valley, we met many others from the village, mostly women with their kids. It was not long before the soldiers caught up to us. They attacked everybody. My mother tried to explain to the men that I was pregnant, that my children were with us. I remember her saying, “You have no pity in your heart.” When she said that, one man beat my mother with the bottom of his gun and broke her legs. She cannot walk well to this day. The men raped me, and they raped my mother. Then they left.
After some time, two of my sons found us. We were lucky for that. My mother was vomiting, and of course she couldn’t walk. My sons found a donkey, put my mother on the donkey’s back, and we started walking. We walked all day until we reached a village called Bilel. We were confused and lost. Where could we go? We thought about turning back, but my sons insisted that the village was completely destroyed. It was finished. We had no village, and I had no idea about my husband. I did not see him run away. I did not know if he was alive.
We arrived at a small railway station, but after some hours, the station manager told us we could not stay there any longer. He offered us some food and water, and then he pointed us toward a camp called Kalma. It wasn’t far away, but we were so weak and my mother was hurt, so it took us a day of walking to reach the camp.
It was the middle of the next day when we reached Kalma Camp. We were a group of newcomers by then, meeting along the way, heading towards the camp. When the workers at the camp saw us, they brought us a meal. We sat and ate. I said nothing. It would be months before I could think normally again.
V. EVERY DAY IN KALMA
Kalma is this very big camp, run by hawajas, white people. The land was mud. In some places, it was solid, and in some areas so wet, and in other areas just sand. We were close to a mountain, and the sand would slip down the side of the mountain in every direction.
We saw many hawajas as well. They were very kind. I still remember a lady named Elizabeth. She was from Holland and worked for Oxfam. She helped me give birth to my son Abdulrahman. I think it was my fourth day in the camp. I had started to feel pangs on the day we were attacked, and then finally I bore him. It was a month earlier than expected. He was very, very small when he was born, and we thought he was dead. He survived because Maryam, from the next tent, showed me a traditional way to make a womb for the baby. She told me to boil tea, and to polish the baby with seed oil, and to wrap him in cloths dipped in tea to make him feel warm, like he was still in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth gave me medical assistance, food, additional blankets, even some money for the market.
I stayed at the camp for about five months. When the Sudanese government policemen started coming at night and raping women inside the camp, I thought it was time for me to leave. The policemen and soldiers would come into the camp at night, walking around without any problem, saying they were there to protect the displaced persons. But they protected nobody. If one saw a woman he liked, he would take her and rape her, even in front of her children’s eyes. If a woman refused, they would beat her, and they beat young men who tried to stop them. My son Ashraf was beaten. So I left the camp.
There were big trucks that brought food from North Sudan to Kalma Camp. I knew one of those truck drivers because before driving a truck, he used to work inside the camp. His name is Al-Bakr. I saw him and I asked, “Al-Bakr, I want to go to Khartoum, can you help me?” He said, “Okay, but you have to get outside the camp.”
I begged people and managed to collect a bit of money. I hired a small cart and donkey and took my family out of the camp. We pretended we were walking toward one of the other camp centers so nobody would ask questions—the people in charge didn’t want anyone traveling to other cities. But I took my mother and my children on that cart. Early in the morning we left. We just left.
Al-Bakr took thirty people on that truck and drove us for four days. Of course, we were scared the whole time. If anyone had caught us, they would return us to Darfur. We were in the back, in the bed of the truck, with a little bit of food we had brought with us. The youngest children had no idea what was going on. I told the older ones we were going to search for their father, and they were excited for that. On the fifth day of traveling we arrived in Omdurman.
We got to a bus station at the very edge of town. I was just thinking, Find my husband, or one of my brothers, and when the situation calms down in Darfur, we’ll return back. Instead I stayed in Khartoum for thirteen months. And I have not returned to Darfur to this day.
When we arrived in Omdurman, we went to a neighborhood called Sheikan, because lots of Darfurians lived there. It was not an IDP camp—there were no services, or borders, or anything like that. It was just a space of land where people stayed. Sheikan was way on the edge of the city, and everyone there lived in houses of mud. When we arrived, we found an abandoned house and we just moved into it. No rent or anything. Just a mud house in the sand. My oldest son, Abdullah, started going to Souk Libya, the Libya Market, to earn some money washing cars. The rest of us stayed at home. There was no school for my children.
Soon I met a southern Sudanese woman named Genevia, and she gave me some assistance and a bit of money. She told me, “Fatima, you can find work.”
I asked her, “Work doing what?”
She told me, “I know an organization helping people to work as cleaners.”
At the cleaners’ organization, I met a very nice Somalian man named Abdullah. He looked at me with kind eyes, and told me, “I will do my best to find the best job for you. You deserve it.” He asked me if I had any documents. I told him that I was coming from a war, and that I had no identification or documents. He asked me to come back the next day, and when I returned, he told me he had a job for me. It was a special job. He sent me to the house of Jan Pronk.
VI. GOOD WORK
They had told Mr. Pronk, “We have a woman who can clean your house, but she’s from Darfur and has almost no papers.” He still let me come. I only knew that Mr. Pronk was the representative of the United Nations, of Kofi Annan. He told me that I would be responsible for the house, and he showed me what to do, but he didn’t speak with me about his work at all. The first day, he sat with me and an interpreter, and I told him all my stories and all my problems. He listened, and from the start, he was listening like he was my father.
It was good work. I went every day, but Mr. Pronk wasn’t there very often. He was usually traveling. He would never stay at home more than a day at a time. It was mostly just security guards around the house. I only spoke to them to say hi, to see if they wanted me to clean their spaces. But I wasn’t friendly with them. They were Sudanese security people—how could I be friends with them? But Mr. Pronk was so kind. He bought a bed for my baby son, Abdulrahman. Sometimes he paid me extra from his own pocket. He helped me so much, and I will never forget it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t work for him for very long, just three or four months. This is the thing: When I was working for him, they used to pick me up in a car, and at the end of the day they would take me home. It was incredible—a United Nations car! It was a big white truck with a big antenna and dark glass. I mean, even the president didn’t have a car like this! But that was the problem. People saw me in that car, and they would get suspicious.
It was one night at about ten o’clock that four Sudanese security officers came and arrested me in my house. They came and asked, “Are you Fatima?” I said yes. “We need you,” they said. They took me and also my two oldest sons, Abdullah and Hamid. They put us in a police car, and after it started moving, they hit my two sons and kicked them out of the moving car. They drove away with only me.
They blindfolded me and drove for a long time, maybe an hour. After a little while, I really just gave up—I felt certain I would die. When the car stopped, they removed the blindfold and walked me into a house, just a normal house. They sat me down in a dark room. After a short while, a man came. He started asking me basic questions, and he was actually very nice to me at that point. That was the first day.
The second day, a different man came. He took my clothes off and he beat me severely. He used a water pipe and hit me all over my body. He would beat me, leave, come back, and beat me again. He didn’t ask me anything. He just beat me without saying a word.
On the third day, my health was bad. I was bleeding all over and exhausted. I told them that I was weak and that I’m living with one kidney. The nice man from the first day came back, and said to me, “We ask you to confess.” I told him, “Confess what? I have nothing to say.” He told me, “You are Darfurian. You are foolish and stupid, dealing with hawajas and foreigners, giving them misleading information about our country. Those hawajas pretend to come in to help us, but they are just coming to colonize the country. This man you are working with, he’s the top man coming in to colonize Sudan.” I told him I was just working as a cleaner. He argued, saying I was providing secrets about the country.
We went back and forth. Then he said, “Okay, if you didn’t provide Pronk with information about the country, how about if you provide us information about him?” The officer told me, “You just need to go into his office in his house, take the diskettes and CDs from his office, and replace them with the ones we give you. You take the things from his office and put them in your bag. Next to Pronk’s house, there’s a market. Someone will wait for you there, and you give him the data. He’ll copy it very quickly and then you can bring it back to the office. And if you refuse this offer, we will kill your children. Then we will kill you.”
I told the officer, “Okay, no problem,” and just begged him to release me. They gave me my clothes back, and I put them on. They drove me back to my home. When I came back, I found my mother and children crying. They started asking questions, but I remember that I just kept asking for a cup of tea without sugar. That was all I wanted. I started to drink the tea, but I couldn’t hold it in. I vomited it back up.
I lied in bed for a day, resting so I could return to work. When I returned to Mr. Pronk’s house, he was there, and he came and asked me, “Fatima, where have you been? Why have you been absent for five days?” I told him I had malaria, and nobody else from my family knew how to get the message to him that I was sick. Mr. Pronk believed my story, but just as he was getting inside his car to leave for work, I ran to knock on the car door. I said to him, “Mr. Pronk, I need to speak with you in private.” He told me, “I have no time right now, but if you can, come to see me in two days. On Friday at ten a.m. we can talk.”
VII. JUST GIVE ME TWO DAYS
It was the unluckiest time, those days. When I went back home from work that day, I found that the government had destroyed most of the Sheikan neighborhood. Police had come with bulldozers and just destroyed the homes, and they had taken all the people away in trucks. They took them thirty kilometers into the desert and told them they would have to build new homes there. I had a bit of pocket money with me, so I hired a taxi to take us to the home of my cousin, Hassan. I knocked on the door and he saw us all. You can imagine what he thought. I explained what had happened to me, and the danger I was in. I just needed two days.
The next day was Thursday, and I went to work normally. Friday is the day of rest in Sudan, and that was when I went to meet Mr. Pronk. I said to him, “You are a nice man. You pay me well. Sometimes you give me even more, from your own pocket. It is a good job with a high salary, but I face many troubles with my family. I am sorry, but I have to leave this country.” I didn’t tell him exactly what was wrong. I said nothing about being held by security. He had enough problems of his own, and I didn’t want to increase that.
Mr. Pronk was suspicious that there was something else, though. He said to me, “Fatima, if you have family problems, it’s not reasonable to leave Sudan. But if you face other problems, I can protect you. I can protect you at my house, or even at my office.” I told him I could not stay anymore and just asked for assistance to get out of the country. He understood.
My cousin Hassan had told me that I could get to Egypt by train, so that was in my mind. I told Mr. Pronk that Egypt would be good for me. He asked, “Do you have enough money?” I said no. He gave me $800 U.S., and told me he would help me more if I needed it. He asked me if I had a passport and I said no. He advised me to start the process for a passport and that he would help me if I had trouble.
It’s not easy for Darfurians to get passports, so we had to pay extra to make it work. We decided that my mother would stay in Khartoum with Hassan. She was too weak to travel on a train or ferry, but Hassan promised that he would find a way to send my mother later.
I returned to Mr. Pronk and told him I had passports and visas now, but no more money. I told him I would take the train from Khartoum to Halfa, and then the ferry to Aswan, Egypt. He gave me $2,000 U.S. I thanked him, and he wished me well.
During these days, of course, the security was watching for me. I had to avoid them by traveling in different ways. I would take rickshaws and public transport, and of course I was now in a different neighborhood with my cousin Hassan. We were close to leaving for Egypt, but then my first travel visa expired before my children’s paperwork was ready. Now we had to renew the visas. At this point, Mr. Pronk was nervous. He told me to go to Juba, in south Sudan, and then to go to Nairobi. He wrote me a letter, and told me to go anywhere and just find a UNHCR office. He told me to just show that letter to any UNHCR employee. But I waited quietly for another week and got the papers to travel to Egypt. I said thank you to Mr. Pronk. I thanked him for everything, and my family got on the train to leave Khartoum.
VIII. “THIS IS MY HUSBAND”
When we first got to Cairo, there was a southern Sudanese woman working at a church—I think her name was Mary. I introduced myself to her and explained I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. Oh, that woman was so kind. She just said, “It’s okay. Wait for me here until I finish my work, and then I will take you to my house. Step by step, you will learn everything. You will learn how to deal with life here.” She offered my family tea and biscuits, and we sat in the church while we waited for her.
While we waited, Sudanese people started gathering. They would come to the church some days to find out news about Sudan. We were just watching, and it was my son Abdullah who saw one of my relatives, a man named Ishmael. Abdullah went up to Ishmael, but Ishmael has bad eyes and didn’t recognize Abdullah. My son introduced himself out loud and said, “My mother, Fatima, is with me and with my brothers.”
When Ishmael came close to me, he started crying, and then all of us started crying. He asked, “What’s happened to you? I hear your father is dead.”
He asked, “Where is your husband, Noradeen?”
I told him that I didn’t know.
He smiled, and then he replied, “Noradeen is here in Cairo.”
I told him, “I can’t believe it.”
Ishmael said, “Believe or don’t believe, but I am here at this church to meet him, and after a while he should be coming here. Each Saturday, Noradeen and I come to Sakakini Church to learn what’s going on in Darfur.”
I kept asking questions, and Ishmael kept answering, and then suddenly Ishmael pointed and said, “There is your husband.” I turned and looked, but I just couldn’t believe it was my husband. When Noradeen came close to me, all of us started crying and crying and crying.
The woman Mary, who had provided the tea and food for us, came and asked, “Who is this guy?”
I told her, “This is my husband and the father of my children.”
IX. THE SADNESS OF CAIRO
Since June 2005, I have been a refugee in Cairo, living with a blue card that makes me a protected refugee. We get some assistance from organizations. I now have an apartment for my family, and I send my children to school. Several months after I arrived, Hassan kept his promise and sent my mother to come here. She lives with us now, but she is old and very weak. Some days, she does not leave her bed. Other days, she sits on the steps in front of the building and watches the children play. My husband is sometimes ill, but he tries to work selling belts and wallets and sunglasses on the streets. He likes to paint—our apartment has his drawings on the wall. He draws the villages of Darfur from memory, with great detail.
The sadness of Cairo started when I was attacked in August 2005 by three Egyptians and a Sudanese man. They attacked me in the street and took my bag with all my documents and UNHCR refugee cards, all my passports, everything. The first thing I did was go to the police, to file a report. It took a week, but I succeeded. I took the report to UNHCR, so I could get new documents. I went to the office, stood in line, and they told me, “Come tomorrow.” I came tomorrow, and they told me, “No, come tomorrow.” It happened six times, just like that. The last time I went to UNHCR, I met an officer outside. I tried to speak with him, but he ignored me, didn’t listen to me at all. I just wanted new refugee registration cards for me and my children, but they weren’t helping me. While I was waiting for those six days, I saw Sudanese gathering in the park in front of the UNHCR office. I asked them, “What’s going on? Why are you here?” They told me, “We have problems with UNHCR.” I told them my story, how I had a problem, too. They asked me to sit with them. That was how I joined the protests, and that was what led to my next problem.
X. WE WILL DIE HERE
The Moustafa Mahmoud protests were at the end of 2005. I joined the protests at the beginning, in September, and I stayed in that park the whole time, until the end. We were protesting for rights. I felt safe in that park.
I don’t know what to say about what happened at the end. A huge number of policemen came on a Thursday night in December and surrounded the park. There were thousands of policemen. We used to go to the mosque nearby to use the toilets, and on my way to the mosque that day, I asked one of the guards what was happening. He told me that a political rally was scheduled and that the police were there to protect us from the rally.
At eleven o’clock that night, the police started shouting, using loudspeakers: “You are Sudanese, you stay here for three months; the UNHCR says you are not their responsibility, and you refugees must leave this park. We have prepared houses for you. Take your children and your things and get inside our buses.”
Our leaders told them that we didn’t believe them. We needed to hear it from the mouth of someone at UNHCR. It was less than an hour before we heard the shouting: “One, two, three, four… ” and on the count of five, they opened the water cannons from all directions. It was winter, and the water was very cold. It lasted about thirty minutes. I couldn’t protect my children or my mother at all. It was just too much water. They stopped the water cannons and told us again to get inside the buses. We told them, “We will not go anywhere. We will die here.” They opened the water cannon again for about five minutes. Then they sprayed us with something different. It must have been mixed with chemicals or something, because it made us breathe differently. It made us feel dizzy. I lost Abdulrahman, my baby son. I had been carrying him against my chest, and then he was gone. Thanks be to God, because my husband was able to find him and save him.
The police stopped the spraying, and that was when they started beating everyone. They beat everyone hard—the children, the women, the elders, everyone. There were children lying on the ground being run over by police boots.
I fell down. My trousers were falling off. A group of police officers started dragging me away and hitting me. I couldn’t feel anything really, but I could hear the sound of sticks hitting my body. Then I lost all my feeling and lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was on a bus being taken away. I was detained for a few hours in the prison and then released. When I got out, I found that my husband had been beaten hard on the left side of his head. His eye was swollen, and infected. We took him to Caritas, the organization that helps refugees get medical assistance. Caritas sent him to an eye doctor and gave him antibiotics, but the medicine didn’t work. To this day, he can’t see well with that eye, and he gets terrible headaches. He has not been the same since we were attacked at the protest.
My son Abdullah also started having very bad headaches. He was beaten so badly that he passed out, and police put him with the deceased bodies after the protest. They considered him a dead body.
XI. BAGS OF PILL BOTTLES
In March of 2006, they kidnapped my oldest son, Abdullah, from the streets of Cairo. I believe it was the Sudanese security working here. I don’t know why this happened, but one day he was just gone. After several days, some Sudanese men came. They said if I gave them Mr. Pronk’s letter, they would bring back my son. But I lost the letter when I was attacked. I have not seen my son in over a year. He is eighteen years old now, if he is still alive. I don’t think we will ever find him. It’s been one year and three months now. That is a long time.
In the past year, my illness has gotten worse than before. You see, I lost my first kidney in 1996, when I had a kidney stone. I was in the hospital for nine days, and they had to remove the kidney. When a person like me is sick in Cairo, there is no good treatment. I have this garbage bag full of the medications. A garbage bag full of smaller plastic bags of pill bottles and needles, painkillers and digestives. I keep the empty bottles so that when I go to a doctor I can show him what I have used, so they know and they can see. It’s my medical history in this garbage bag.
Maybe I will live, or maybe my kidney will quit. But someone must take care of the children. Now I have six children with me. Abdullah is gone, but one of my nephew’s sons has joined us from Darfur. The children are happy, I think. They go to a school—it’s not an official school, it’s like a center. They cannot go to an official school, because refugees are not accepted in the Egyptian public schools. We are not allowed. The center they go to is somewhere they can learn, and it is close to being a real school, so they can say they are going to school. My children enjoy it. They don’t understand the problems around them. They don’t know anything about this life.
XII. AN IMAGE IN MY MIND ABOUT AUSTRALIA
In spring of this year, 2007, I was given an appointment at the Australian embassy to have an interview about resettlement there. They took me into an office, and a man asked me questions about small parts of my story, but he didn’t give me the chance to tell them all of my story. It was only official business in there. But I would like to go to Australia. I still can’t believe that it’s even a possibility, but they tell me we have a good chance at resettlement.
Australia might be the end of this long story of suffering.
We have no guarantees that we’re allowed to go yet, so I have not said anything about this to my mother. She doesn’t know anything about it. It is for the best that I keep it a secret from her for now. My mother has lost her husband, and many of her children. She’s completely traumatized. She feels no real happiness anymore and has no good feelings about the future. I can’t disappoint her again. I will tell her something only when we are ready to go.
I can be happy, though. If my children live in a stable condition, and they go to school, and I find some treatment for my kidney, I will definitely be happy. I have an image in my mind about Australia. It’s thousands of times better than Egypt. For us as refugees—African, Darfurian refugees—it’s hard to know how we would be treated in Australia, or America. I don’t think it would be easy, but I think there would be opportunities. I like the idea of a school bus, and of having a job, and a house close to the ocean. I have never seen an ocean.
In August 2007, two months after this interview, Fatima and her family were approved for resettlement to the United States. They moved to San Diego, California, in early 2008.