About Refugees, By Refugees
Pictures taken in:
Photo and interview by:
Bosnia and Herzegovina
ElSayed Mahmoud ElSehamy
“At the end all I wanted was to take my children to safety,” says Ahmed (pseud, 45). A trader from Sudan, he built his life from scratch. But everything changed following the military coup in 2019. “People can’t feed their children,” he says. “There is a shortage of medicine, health, security… Maybe your sister is walking; they can rape her and it’s considered normal.” The head of a trade union, Ahmed was captured and tortured for three months. Even afterwards, threats were ongoing, and he had to flee to protect his family: “My son saw people being killed in the streets… Those children lived a life that’s too much for their age.” The difficult journey from Turkey to Bosnia left his children “psychologically tired and traumatized.” But Ahmed’s enduring love for them gives him hope. He wants them “to be raised like all the children in the world, to go to school and finish their studies,” he says. “My dream is to see them more successful and better than me in life, that is my only wish.”
Trigger Warning: Sexual violence/rape; violence/murder; suicide
If you are going to only write it then.
Yes, if you do not want to talk about anything and if you say something and then you want me to erase it as we are talking just let me know about it, as I told you also if you would like to change the name that you are referred to we can change it, be comfortable with me, I mean.
Okay, Ahmed. Tell me, who is Ahmed?
I am from Sudan, Ahmed. I was an ordinary person in Sudan. I started my life from scratch. I had trade projects in Egypt and Sudan. Things were going very well. I was living by faith in God. After that, I developed my business from Dubai to Sudan and from China to Sudan and then the problems with Islamists and the government in Sudan had started. The situation worsened very badly, even the new ministers are Janjaweed gangs. They imprisoned Omar al-Bashir and seized the country and put pressure on traders in the market. They narrowed them down. People started running away; some went to Egypt and some to Libya or Turkey. The ones whose income was seventy or eighty thousand dollars came down to zero because of pressure. They are known to have gangs in Yemen.
Yes, Janjaweed. They monopolized Sudan. They are uneducated and have taken ranks as soldiers; they are considered gangs and mafias. There was a disaster that happened in June 2019 one day before Eid in Ramadan. The protesters were sitting in front of the General Command. The gangs raped girls, kicked people out, beat and killed many others. The numbers of killed people were huge. Janjaweed are known throughout the world. They denied doing this and they said it was done by the old government although they put the old government in prison. There were problems. People started to flee Sudan; even the ones who had good work in Sudan, their situation became worse and worse. People can’t feed their children. There is no medicine or security while walking on the street. They take your mobile phone – the gangs take away your mobile phone, take your money and also take your car from you. The situation worsened and people started running away. After these problems, we fled to Turkey, then from Turkey to Greece. We stayed in Greece for a while, then we went to Albania and also stayed there for a while then came to Kosovo. From Kosovo to Serbia, we stayed for a while then we came to Bosnia. I have children with me, and I said we would see a better future for them instead of homelessness in Sudan. The situation was very bad.
How many children do you have?
I have two.
Regarding the situation in Sudan. You told me that you were a trader between Egypt and Sudan and other trades, but about the change that happened, did it happen with the political change or is there a problem with you personally?
It’s everyone’s problem. I mean, there is no security or safety, your things are taken away from you against your will. Even regarding the customs, if you bring goods, they get stolen. They are the ones who steal them. They act as if they are a government. They are not a government of course, they are armed gangs. These gangs have been known since the 1990s until the 2000s. They were well known in Darfur; they used to kill people in Darfur. The whole world knows that they are wanted internationally in fact. These gangs were displaced from Darfur to Khartoum, and there was a coup. The president went to prison after 30 years. Bashir went to prison and now there’s an exaggeration, I mean in the inflation rate in Sudan. The bread was worth one pound before but now bread is worth 60 pounds within two or three years. The situation is very bad. I mean, a family eats one meal in Sudan – there are people who eat one meal a day in Sudan. There is a shortage of medicine, health, security and everything. The main problem is in security and safety. There is no security. You may be walking down the street, going to work. They loot your mobile phone and money. Maybe your sister is walking; they can rape her and it’s considered normal. It was a disaster that never happened there before.
So you decided to leave Sudan and never go back again.
Yes, I made my decision in 2019.
Did something specific happen?
Lots of things happened. My friends were arrested, some traders were looted and their money was robbed. The situation was awful and people received threats, for example people who had been working in trade for generations, the gangs started working in trade and if you are a merchant they will threaten you. They are gangs; each one is a General or a Colonel who has a police car. They work in everything. Everyone has to pay customs but them. The situation was bad; people started investing in other countries again. Some people went to Malaysia, some went to other places. Each one went somewhere.
And what were you thinking of doing in that situation?
I thought of going to Turkey and I found the situation there even worse.
You went to Turkey as a job or not?
In Turkey if you don’t have more than 250,000 dollars, you can’t buy a property or do any business or anything. Even working in Turkey, if you work for 14 hours, you only get 3,000 pounds which is less than 200 dollars and you will not be able to pay rent. We went to Greece – the situation there was worse. There were many refugees; Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistan. The situation in Greece was extremely bad. The UN had withdrawn from Greece by the way, Greece was in the UN but not anymore and even the refugees in Greece withdrew to Bulgaria, Romania and other countries to flee Greece because the situation there was very bad. Then we went to Albania, from Albania to Kosovo and from Kosovo to Serbia. We found the situation in Serbia a little difficult so we came to Bosnia. Bosnia has been much better than other countries in which we stayed.
You mean Bosnia is good in terms of what?
In their humane treatment; they respect you as a refugee and a human being. There is no racism – they are really kind, so compared to other countries, Bosnia is much better. The situation in Bosnia is also better; refugees here are relieved, they are in a healthy mental state, they come to Bosnia with comfort knowing that they are safe and secured and all their medical needs are met. My son was sick and they treated him very well here.
Here in the camp?
Yes, there are doctors here and we are well treated. I mean, there are entertainment programs and a school in which there’s a club and a cafe. I mean, we are given good treatment. There is no psychological stress. Thank God, the country is good.
You mean that you intend to stay here for a while?
Well, yes, I am staying here for a while, but even if I wanted to leave it’s hard and requires lots of money. Your friends or family members have to send you money in order to continue your way. Some people say pay your way to Italy and some say you have to pay one thousand and four euros.
People who go to Croatia were returned.
I’ve heard a lot about many people being returned.
But people who walk there for like five days or have children with them may be able to stay, but if their way is like an hour or two hours long, they will be sent back. There are two families with us who were returned from Poland.
As you are thinking about the people who got sent back and their tough situation, how do you feel?
I feel pessimistic, it makes me feel too afraid to leave in case we get sent back also. Because even if you have money, you will have to pay for a taxi which takes 75 euros per person. After that, the smuggler takes 250 euros per person, thus you have to at least pay 400 euros per person. If you go and get sent back it’s a big loss.
But you are also a father and you will not go alone.
No, actually me and a couple of families go together.
Exactly, so how does it make you feel like or think knowing that you are not alone and going with a group?
The group encourages us to stick together. I mean, I will not be afraid because someone is there for me and will support me on my journey in case something happens. We help each other. For example, my family and I can not go alone. We go as a group of four families together.
We go as a group of 15 or 12 people, maybe even 20 people.
Do you remember how you felt when you were in Sudan in 2019 and you decided to leave?
I was so disappointed back then. I felt that it was over, my country had been destroyed and I have no home anymore. I look at my children; they were studying in a private school and the fees were 10,000 pounds at that time, but now in this year the fees are around 160,000 pounds.
That is like 16 or 15 times more.
Yes, all within three years. A piece of bread was worth one pound, two pieces for two pounds. Today a piece bread worths 60 pounds in Sudan. In the past, if someone sends you 100 or 150 dollars from outside Sudan it’s enough for the family to live. But now if you want to send 100 or 150 dollars to your father or brother in Sudan, it will not do anything.The least you have to send is around four or five hundred dollars, for a family consisting of two people, and they may not be able eat a lot of meat or chicken. In Sudan, a sheep was worth seven or eight thousand. Today, a sheep in Sudan is worth sixty or seventy thousand pounds which is more expensive than here. Although Sudan used to export meat, there’s a lot of pressure now. Today in Sudan if you have a family of three members and you buy some bread for breakfast, it costs 4,000 Sudanese pounds at least for a small family. You buy beans for 1,000 pounds, so you would spend around ten or twelve thousand without buying any meat – you can only get beans or lentils, but no meat, and that’s without the cost of housing or electricity which is about 360,000 Sudanese pounds. And with this 360 pounds they only ate two meals without meat or chicken which is about 500 and a few dollars. Five hundred dollars in this country is way cheaper than Sudan. Even there was a show on Al-Jazeera that spoke about this matter, it was called The Opposite Direction. I mean, can you imagine that houses in Sudan have reached the price of one million dollars? This means an exaggeration.
What is rare in your story that you did not leave because of the economic conditions or the rising prices but also because of a problem, let’s say political.
Yes, I faced a political problem but it’s a long one. When the Janjaweed came, I was the head of a trade union and there was a problem. They looted things from traders like cars and equipments, we went to get them back but the gangs refused. We went to the prosecution because the police said that they can not do anything about it and that we have to go to the prosecution. Then we made a report there and they were called by the judge. They did not present themselves to the court. I submitted another report, the police said that they cannot arrest them because they are like gangs. We were not able to get justice.
Even by the prosecution?
Yes. They took our phones and phone numbers and said that they would give us compensation. The trader’s stolen equipments were around 20 cars. After that, they also took our addresses, then after a month, the gangs knew about this whole thing and they came to our homes and arrested us for three months. Eleven people and I were arrested, they said because we acted like a union and tried to defend the rights of the oppressed. We were arrested and abused for three months. We were subjected to all kinds of violent abuse and torture such as removing nails and burning skin. This is a scar of a burned skin [pointing with his fingers to his legs] and I still have pains and difficulties while walking.
Uffff… Do you have anything on your hand?
Yes, as well. Anyway, after arresting us, they said that we have to drop the lawsuit in order to get our freedom back. We stuck to our opinion. They also said that they would wipe us out completely unless we drop the lawsuit. If we do not drop the lawsuit, we would be put in prison. [00:15:45] [In Sudan] until now, because the police, traffic authorities and prosecution and courts have higher educational degrees, they are not like the rest of state workers. They are part of the ruling regime. [11.9s] In this case, the cars and the equipments are registered under our own name, so if we dropped the lawsuit they would take everything somehow by force. Due to all the torture we were so tired and decided to give up. We talked to some lawyers but they said that we should not do that. So we were stalked by those gangs – mind you, they have no authority in passports nor prosecution nor law. The only authority they have is the street. I ran away and sold my house and started thinking of emigrating. I renewed my passport, but I started getting messages from them saying that they would get me wherever I go. I told them I’ll go to Egypt. They said we’ll catch you, the Egyptian security is ours, we’ll catch you no matter what. I was thinking of going to Egypt and then from Egypt to Libya and from Libya to Italy, but then I was scared they would get me if I went to Egypt, so I went to Turkey and I did not even go on the time I had booked. My flight was in 15 days. My friend, who’s a lawyer, said that I should go to the airport every day and if someone missed a flight to Turkey I would be there to take his seat.
So I traveled before the flight I booked in 14 days because I was scared for my life. So I went to Turkey before 14 days ahead of schedule. My phone was still working. I got a threatening message saying that they knew I was in Sudan and going to Turkey and at that time I had not left yet. They said that they would not leave me alone.
And how did that make you feel?
We had a Nubian guy with us. He was very angry and threatened them; they beated him to death in front of us at night.
I heard his name was Abdu. Things got worse so I called my friends, who are traders in Egypt. They said the situation became bad and they worked at October factories and lived in 6th October city. They said the situation in Sudan is so messed up. They also said if you’re going to emigrate then also work there and never go back to Sudan unless the whole present government changes, and right now, we’ve got no idea about it. Now the Marshal, the vice president of the sovereign council, the who Al-Bashir had hired to hit gangs in Darfur, South Sudan’s, and they provided him with weapons to knock them down. He was lieutenant and kept getting promotions and now he’s a Marshal although he was born in 1975.
They go to restaurants, they stand in line to eat from the barrel in which restaurants put their leftovers. If you see those children and ask “Where’s your father?” they say “I don’t know.” After that they start taking drugs and riot, breaking auto glass and stealing phones. You may find 14- and 15-years-old girls pregnant with no idea who the father is because they were raped many times in front of other young boys so the situation was horrible, nothing is worse than this. All I thought of is to save my children from this. Even their mother. When the problem happened to me she was emotionally sick to the degree that she went to the hospital. Her brother and her father said that she won’t be able to travel like this, she has to be treated first. After she saw what happened and how I was arrested many times at night and they hit her. She was frightened. She started having mental issues that even led her to beat our children. She became mentally retarded, I was in shock, a huge shock. I I said to myself alright, I lived for 40 years. I have lived long enough, so let me give a better life for my children in any safe country.
So do you think having your two children and your wife with you was a challenge?
Well, I came from 2019 and entered Greece in 2020. My friends are in Britain now because they are young and were able to hike on the road that is called ‘the challenge road’ for 15 days heading to Italy from here, and from Italy to France, then finally from France to Britain. So if I did not have children with me I would be there too. My children were too young; in 2019 my child was only four – he couldn’t walk. He’s seven now and he can walk long distances a little. I did not bring their mother with me – she’s still sick in Sudan, she is mentally retarded living with her father and brother. Imagine how hard it is for two children to be homeless and be separated from their mother all within one day because of the government. My young child was in kindergarten and the older one was in the first grade and they haven’t been to school since 2019, such an unstable situation. I mean, they can go to school now but they are psychologically tired and traumatized. If I talk to them they’ll tell you about all the tragedies they had witnessed on this long way. We even slept for a week in a jungle because we were hiding from the police, afraid that they would send us back. We used to walk in daylight and sleep at night. All they ate was some biscuits or cheese, it was an awful and sad situation for such young children. All what I care about is my children. I used to carry my child unaware that his feet are bleeding because my main concern was to save their lives.
And of course that was a big challenge for you. Do you mean that your children are the reason you overcome difficulties?
Yes, because I had a good childhood but they didn’t. They lived a life is full of torture and discomfort. I mean, we were in Sudan, they were beaten in the street once they went outside. In other countries they bring Molotovs. Imagine these gangs of 7,000 soldiers came in cars carrying rockets and guns shooting people in demonstrations with the aircraft weapon DshK. Imagine someone in demonstrations being hit with a cannon? My son saw people being killed in the streets and others being beaten in demonstrations. The whole situation was awful. Those children lived a life that’s too much for their age. They talk politics, gangs and demonstrations – it’s a pity. I know demonstrations throughout the world, they use Molotovs, rubber bullets and tear gas but not like this.
Even in Egypt.
No, it’s more difficult there. If you search Janjaweed or the dispersal of 2019 demonstrations in the web, you’ll see four or five men hitting a woman and they would even raped her in front of her children. I mean, the situation was extremely painful.
And how does it make you feel that you decided to leave and you’re in a foreign country now?
When I come to a country and find good people who treat me well and respect me, I feel heartbroken about what happened in Sudan, 13 armed movements. Sudan was at the time of rebellion between South Sudan and Sudan before the secession. Thirteen armed movements trying to take over the country, each wants to take a ministry such as the Ministry of Minerals or the Ministry of Petroleum. They go on the TV and say, “Even if it rains stones, I won’t leave you.” The situation was very difficult; they claim that they do not hit citizens but people are being killed every day.
Until now I’m still watching movies about it.
Those who die are typically between 18 and 22 and even 16 and 14, it’s an overkill.
As you are thinking about Sudan and the current regime, how do you feel?
It’s done, Sudan is destroyed. Sudan was never like that, there was law and sovereignty. Now if you walk in the streets gangs stop you and loot your mobile phone. If you were a doctor, wearing your stethoscope, they would rob you and even if you go to any policeman they would say, “We can’t do anything about it because those are gangs so deal with it.” The situation is bad, even the salary of a policeman is much less than theirs. For example, a policeman takes 15,000 and those gangs take 100,000.
Consequently, policemen became thieves. If you walk alone a policeman may rob you but if four or five people are walking together the policeman may be scared to do that. But imagine that someone’s going to school or work with a mobile phone, he’d get robbed, or if a woman going somewhere, she’d be raped. The whole thing is very difficult.
As you’re thinking about the situation in Sudan, what are your hopes and dreams?
I hope I do not return to Sudan, and live in any other safe country.
Your dream is to never return?
Yes. After everything I’ve seen and been through, I would never go back to Sudan. Why would I torture myself more? I have already suffered enough. I mean, in 2018 I was imprisoned, I escaped in 2019. And in the past I used to live in comfort. I was a businessman. I had three cars and I used to ship containers from outside. I was financially stable.
You said that you used to ship goods from Egypt and China?
Yes, I used to travel China a lot taking the Emirati airways or Egyptian airways. I used to live in peace. Of course when you’re an expatriate you don’t really feel anything. I wanted a refuge. Whenever I go to a country I think to myself it’s better than the one before. At the end all I wanted was to take my children to safety. That was all I sought, a country in which there is safety, a country in which I won’t be physically or spiritually hurt. I wanted serenity, because when you see more than 400 people being beaten, killed and raped in front of you, you will be devastated. It was an expelling country. You see a woman crying with four children and she’s starving, if she goes to an insurance office they beat her and her daughters. It was very painful to see such things.
All that happened after the revolution or before?
After the revolution, when the Janjaweed took over.
The situation kept going from bad to worse. Sudanese lawyers’ unions and Sudanese journals, all of them fled Sudan. It was a tragedy. If you open Facebook you can see all the suffering.
You said that you were a head of a union back when you were in Sudan, which is a high social status.
Yes, everything was going well. I used to leave my car keys inside my car and no one would ever steal it. Now you can’t even ensure that you’ll survive if you walk on the street. The gangs would come for you, and the majority of them are not from Sudan, they are groups from Chad, Niger and from other neighboring countries. Those gangs are funded. I heard that if you go to Yemen for six months you’ll get 8,000 dollars. They take young people to Yemen to kill its people and destroy it completely. Have you seen Yemen?
Oh, yeah, I did.
Okay, these gangs are from the same gang. The same gang where Muhammad Hamdan, this is the Janjaweed, they are the same.
From the same source.
Yes. Saudi Arabia, the UAE gave them weapons and vehicles.
Yeah, I understood.
I mean, a human get killed with a flying cannon? That’s something we’ve never seen before and they even use multiple rocket launchers.
What are your dreams for the current situation in Sudan?
There are no dreams left. As if I was sleeping and woke up to a nightmare, a painful nightmare. I mean, if you walk with your children on the street and they rape your wife in front of you, you may commit suicide at the moment. Then children will see such traumatic things happening to their mother, what are the consequences of that? So I said to myself, the land of God is vast. There should be a better country with kind people to welcome us. So it’s better for me to seek refuge in other countries.
How were you feeling in Turkey, then Greece and now here?
When I first came to Turkey, I felt better but then when I realized how bad the financial status was there, the asylum procedure takes too long and there are many refugees. So I went to Greece from Turkey and it was also difficult, we were trying to go through the sea and we failed many times. The police caught us and sent us back to Turkey. The Turks do not say anything.
The Turks deliver you and you would get there without problems but the Greek will send you back. We tried for two or three months, there were groups of people who kept trying for a whole year but did not succeed. We finally did it and went to Greece. They arrested us and we were in lockdown. Due to Covid-19 we stayed at the refugee camps.
And you could not get out? And how do you feel at the moment?
I feel that I’m imprisoned, but at least I’m safe. The UN used to help. After Covid-19, there were problems between Greece and Turkey. The UN withdrew completely. So they got us out of the camps. The camps were open, we went to Athens. The UN used to give aids, they gave 60 or 70 euros for each person. The food in the camps was not edible so we had to go to supermarkets. The situation was better. When the UN withdrew, money stopped, things got worse. So I started working. I built stone houses in the mountains.
In Greece or here? As you’re thinking now on a personal level about your children, what are your dreams for them?
Their education and a safe country where I can find a job to make a living for my children and give them a decent life. That’s all I want in life.
Can you say that my dream for my children is, for example, to live a decent life.
I want my children to be raised like all the children in the world, to go to school and finish their studies and to achieve their academic dreams whether they want to be engineers, lawyers or doctors. I’m willing to work in anything to provide them with comfort, just like any father – that is all I wish. After what we’ve been through, and I found a safe country, I’m willing to even work as a janitor, I have no problem with that. The most important thing is that my children and I are safe and relieved and there is no threat or anything that would impede my children’s way, they would live in comfort. I want to make up for the three years they had lost.
How important are your children to you? What do they mean to you?
My children are all my life, it is my dream to raise them. I’m their father after all.
How do you dream of raising them?
My dream is to raise them well and give them a decent upbringing.
My dream is to see them more successful and better than me in life, that is my only wish. And organize the happy tomorrow of the need for my children. I also wish there’s any organization that would help me and my children or any country that would help to resettle the refugees in a settlement.
And how did you feel about it?
I was so happy, because I was working and providing my children’s needs.
Even with the half pay?
Yes. It was enough for me. I never felt any greediness.
You did not feel exploited?
There is nothing else to be done. As for the situation of the country, I work in black. I do not pay taxes. It is a tragedy. But what can I do?
Our children, I walk the bazaar, I buy some things for 15 euros which is enough for me for two days, it makes me feel comfortable.
You’re still in touch with your family in Sudan?
Yes, I communicate with them, even my family tells me to never go back to Sudan.
Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.