On April 15, Bluffton residents Denise DiBiasi-Bowers and her husband Chris were doing their regular Saturday grocery shopping at the market 15 minutes from their apartment in Khartoum, Sudan, when they got a school security alert on their phones.
“If there’s a protest or demonstration, we get an alert from the school. It’s an order to avoid the area, stay at home, seek shelter, or do not leave, but we were already out and there were no details,” said Denise.
Not knowing what the alert was for, the couple “literally raced through the store” and got what they needed.
“All the locals were like ‘No, it’s fine. It’s Sudan. Inshallah. It’s going be fine, nothing bad happens here.’ But we [thought] we’ve got to get home, and on the way home we started getting texts from friends saying that the airport was attacked, and fighting had begun,” she said.
The conflict was between the forces of Sudan’s paramilitary chief Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and the country’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a situation that had been simmering for some time.
That was not the kind of educational experience the Bowers anticipated when Denise signed up to teach kindergarten at the Khartoum International Community Schools in Sudan.
“I’ve taught since I was fresh out of college, but always in the Beaufort County area, public and private schools. Then I had a few friends that went international and so I was interested, but it was never the right time for me,” she said. “When our youngest graduated high school and secured a job in the fire department, I said to Chris, let’s do this. Now’s the time. We don’t have any other responsibilities.”
Their Sudan experience wasn’t anything like what they had when living in Bangladesh, where they were able to immerse themselves in the local culture and activities.
“When you’re an international teacher, part of it is the travel experience, so this was the gateway to all of Africa,” she said. “I accepted the contract, and then the coup started. I called back and said I couldn’t take this. I don’t know how safe it is. They assured me it was safe. They talked to the people who used to work there, and current employees, and they said, ‘No, it’s safe. The coup is relatively quiet. They do demonstrations, but at a given time and location.’ You just don’t go to that area. It’s very peaceful.”
Denise was told the school had a tight evacuation plan.
“The school uses private planes so if anything happens, we hop on these planes and out you go. The more people I talked to confirmed that it was a safe posting,” she said.
So off they went.
“Now, in hindsight,” Denise said they recognize that “the first thing that they attacked was the airport.”
Within half an hour of returning to their apartment, the couple started hearing explosions and fighting. The apartment faced the airport, and though they weren’t near where all the fighting was, every time they heard an explosion by the airport or the palace they would see smoke columns – and it didn’t stop all day long.
As night descended, some of the conflict outside could be seen from the windows of the apartment building.
“We saw planes flying around, and I actually saw a plane shooting its missiles,” said Chris. “It wasn’t shooting towards us. I could see it was going away from us. At nighttime you could see tracer rounds going through the air.”
Eventually, sleep was hard to come by.
“One night [gunfire] woke us up. It was relatively close. The whole building shook. All the windows were rattling,” Denise said. “You wake up and your heart is racing because you don’t know where it’s coming from. You don’t know how close they are, and it’s dark.”
Their building was one of four within a two-mile radius that housed teachers and staff for the school. No one was allowed to leave their buildings, so the residents pooled their water and food, played games, spent time visiting other apartments and tried to keep each other calm. After eight days of lockdown, the school told them to pack a “go bag.”
“That’s one of the disappointing things to think about Sudan because I was excited to go there, and I wanted to see and experience their flavor, things like that. But we didn’t get a whole lot of that,” said Chris. “You’d go out and the police would stop you just because they wanted to get some money to eat themselves.”
By the time the Bowerses arrived in Khartoum, the atmosphere had changed from what everybody told them had been a flourishing city that was clean and established to a place that was very depressed and sad.
“With the coup, there’s no government, right? So, there’s no trash pick-up, no true police force. Everything is dirty and filthy and old,” said Chris, “and people are burning garbage everywhere because there’s no trash pick-ups so you have to get rid of it somehow. They just dropped it off on the side of the road until there’s enough gathered and then someone will start burning it.”
Among other amenities, the school had gardens, stables, a boathouse and a golf course. The school property ran down to the waters of the Blue Nile. In addition to handling most of the household chores while his wife taught, Chris spent a lot of time fishing on the bank of the Blue Nile.
“We are about four or five miles south of the confluence of the Blue and White Nile where they come together. When we got there in August, the water was really high and just the last couple of months the water level dropped probably 20 to 25 feet easily,” he said.
He had planned on returning to the States to buy more supplies to catch bigger fish. “I was trying to catch tilapia. I also wanted to catch tiger fish and Nile perch. Those were the three that I was after, and I only caught catfish. I didn’t plan on anything bigger than about 18 inches.”
Any fish he caught, Chris gave to the guards or the staff that worked there.
When they got a break in the schedule, the couple managed to travel and experience some of the continent’s culture.
“We went to Ethiopia. We went to Egypt. We went all the way down from Alexandria to Sudan on the Nile River,” said Chris. “We got see all of it: all the temples and pyramids, and saw all the local tribes in Ethiopia. Egypt was really cool. Ethiopia was a very unique experience. In Ethiopia, we got to eat the local food. It was different.”
It was far different from sharing limited food supplies while fighting raged in the city.
“I don’t remember the exact day, but it was about 12:30 at night and I was with one of my friends upstairs,” Chris said. “I could hear helicopters flying. Our apartment was literally as the crow flies less than a mile away from where the embassy was.”
When he finally pinpointed the direction of the helicopters, he realized the sounds were coming from the embassy, with military jets escorting the copters in and then returning to get them out.
“I knew that they were doing the military exercise to get the embassy people out, so then I went up on the roof. I looked over there and I could see the smoke screen. I couldn’t see anything else as they had all their lights off,” he said. “After that was over, I went downstairs. I was kind of expecting them to say now’s when you can come because they kept telling us to have our bag ready.”
He said the embassy staff knew where the Americans were, and that they all wanted to get out.
“About five minutes after the operation was over, they came back to us and said that they suspended their embassy operations in Khartoum, they evacuated the embassy staff, and pretty much we were on our own,” he said.
Nine days into their lockdown, the staff finally got the word that everyone had one hour to get to a certain location with their bags with no further information. They knew they would be taking a bus to the Egyptian border, but not via Port Sudan. They were all also told not to tell anyone, not even their families, where they were going.
“We had called our kids and said we didn’t want them to worry because we knew we’d be without WiFi or any sort of connection. We said if you don’t hear from us for up to 48 hours, it’s OK. If we give you a thumbs up emoji, that means we’re getting out somehow and we’ll be in contact as soon as we can,” said Denise. “It took us almost 24 hours to get out of Khartoum because you go this way, and then the police would stop and say ‘No, can’t go down that road. You go another way.’ And locals were ‘No, there was fighting down there.’”
“It took us five hours to get on a 23-hour bus ride to get out of Khartoum,” Chris added.
Denise said it was a scary bus ride because they would be pulled over and soldiers with loaded automatic weapons would get on the bus and scream at them in Arabic. They’d pull certain people off the buses with their passports.
“You don’t know if they’re coming back on the bus. You don’t know what they want. You hear gunshots in the background. They let everybody get back on the bus,” she said. “At one point they asked all the men to get off, and all the women were absolutely terrified. It was really scary. And then we finally we got all the way up to the safe house.”
Almost 100 people ended up housed there, with people sleeping everywhere.
“It was just a normal home, and they opened it up to all of us, and the kids were able to play and run around, and we had a safe place to sit. We even slept outside on the floor with the mosquitoes,” Denise said. “It was the first time in over a week that we didn’t hear any bombs going off. Even though we slept on the ground it was the best night’s sleep we had had in a while.”
On the bus the next morning they got to the Egyptian border, were processed, bussed to the ferry, and spent the night in a makeshift house that had chairs, tables and a couple of beds, as well as snakes and scorpions. The next day the ferry took them to Abu Simbel and on to Aswan.
“Once we got to Aswan, the school had secured us tickets on the sleeper train to Cairo,” Denise said. “By the time we got to the train station, the railroad had sold our tickets out from under us, and with all the evacuees, there weren’t any hotel rooms left in Aswan. So now we have no bus, no train tickets, no hotel room. We haven’t showered in days. We haven’t slept in days. We’re all on the verge of a breakdown. And again, the school worked wonders, and they ended up getting hotel rooms.”
A few hours sleep in a bed, a hot shower, a hot meal and some of the stress was lifted but that wasn’t the end of the journey. At 4:30 the next morning, they boarded a bus for Cairo that took 16 hours. Once there, they boarded a United Airlines flight for Frankfurt. Then it was on to Newark and Savannah, finally arriving home April 28.
While Africa is off the list for a while, at least, they’re still planning on another teaching assignment.
“Somewhere in Asia, maybe India – if I find a good fit. I’ll take maybe a one-year posting somewhere in Europe,” Denise said. “I just feel like my soul is craving to go somewhere. You get that wanderlust in your blood. I just love learning about other cultures. It just teaches you to be so open minded. I would absolutely recommend doing this. It’s the best learning experience. Next time, just go to a safe country.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.