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How Sudanese women are protecting their families amid war and displacement

“All the responsibilities fall on me. I am now the mother and the father.”

A Sudanese woman holds her child smiling in Chad.

Chad 2024 © Laora Vigourt/MSF

Since the war erupted in Sudan in April 2023, more than 600,00 people have fled the violence to eastern Chad. Most are women and children because many men have been killed, detained, or disappeared in Sudan. Many women are now the sole providers for their families, bearing the full responsibility of caring for their children while struggling to access basic needs like food, water, and medical care.

Refugees are living in extremely poor conditions in isolated desert areas like Metche and Aboutengye, where they are exposed to health and protection risks. In Metche and Aboutengye, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are providing maternal, pediatric, and primary health care, as well as treating children for malnutrition and distributing most of the water in the camps. Despite these efforts, the overall humanitarian response in eastern Chad has been inadequate to meet the needs.

Women selling products at the Adré transit camp market, eastern Chad
Shoes sold by Sudanese refugee women at the Adré transit camp market, eastern Chad.

Refugee women in Chad selling goods to make money. Chad 2024 © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

Many of the refugees have fled ethnically targeted violence in El Geneina, the capital of Sudan’s West Darfur state, which borders Chad, particularly during a massive influx of refugees in June 2023. Among them are courageous women with unwavering determination to protect their families. These are some of their stories.

Taiba, Aboutengue camp

"To save our lives, I denied the truth"

Taiba arrived in Aboutengue camp in July 2023 after fleeing Sudan with her husband Bashir and their two eldest children, Aya, 6, and Ayoub, 2. Their youngest, Ayat, was born four months ago at the MSF emergency hospital in Aboutengue.

"That day [June 16], I was at home with our two kids and my husband was out nearby. Numerous armed men attacked and looted the area. They took our car and entered our house. They threatened me with a gun to my neck and asked, 'What tribe are you?' We are from the Masalit tribe, but to save our lives, I denied the truth and replied, 'I’m from Borgo, I’m not Masalit.' They forced me to speak in the Borgo language to make sure I was telling the truth. Fortunately, I managed to speak a few words and they let me go. Some of my neighbors are from the Borgo tribe so over the years I’ve learned some words from them, just in case. I think that if I hadn’t lied about being Masalit, we would have died that day ...

... I’d heard from neighbors that in previous attacks, the armed men had ordered boys out of the house and killed them, solely based on their gender. So we got in the habit of dressing our boys as girls. Ayoub was about a year old at that time, but I still dressed him as a girl, so he would not get hurt.

Before leaving our house, they took whatever they could steal and told me to leave, saying, it was not safe to stay there because another team of armed men was coming, and, 'They are more frustrated. You must leave now.' I didn’t have much time so I took my kids and the few things I could carry with me, like kids’ clothes. But as we made the journey towards the border these were also stolen by armed men—they wouldn’t allow us to cross the border with anything.

When I left the house, I saw a lot of people dead on the road. Some of the bodies were decomposing. It was horrible to see. Some of my neighbors had been killed. I fled with the other survivors. On the way, I managed to find my husband and we joined the crowd of people fleeing together. We got stopped twice on the way. People were killed. The first time, armed men started shooting at the crowd. My husband got shot in his right foot—he could barely walk. The second time, armed men attacked us again. They kicked me and they badly beat my husband with a stick. After this, he could barely move so I tried to carry him as much as I could with my young baby Ayoub in my arms. A woman kindly offered to take care of my daughter Aya as I strove to carry my husband and son.

On the last stop of our journey, I tried to find my daughter again, shouting her name among the crowd. At last, we found her, still with the woman who had looked after her. I felt so relieved. In the village, I also met the army who told me to leave my husband there and go to Adré to ask for help at the hospital. It took us took us four days to reach Adré. At the hospital, we were taken care of by the medical teams, supported by MSF, and had surgery and treatment. That was when we got the news that my husband’s left arm and leg were paralyzed for life, because of the beating.

Our kids are traumatized by everything they saw on the way. When they hear gunshots or loud noises, even loud voices, they hide and cover their ears, crying. The eldest one keeps asking questions about what has happened, why we were not safe and what will happen now.

In El Geneina, before the war, our life was great. I was a midwife working at the hospital, and my husband was a businessman, trading cars. Once Sudan is safe, we will go back because life here is so difficult. We suffer without access to basics: food, water, school, work. We have no bed, no mattress, we lack many things. The only food we get is from humanitarian organizations. Sometimes people in the community support us and give us a bit of food. But there is nothing we can do here—there is no work, no land, no way for us to save ourselves. I am the only one taking care of my family. My husband cannot move because of his paralysis so I must do everything, from carrying the water to finding food."

A Sudanese refugee woman and her family in Chad.

Nafissa, Aboutengue camp

"That man saved my life with his."

Nafissa fled El Geneina in June 2023. Her husband was killed in 2022 during a previous period of violence. She currently lives with two of her children in Aboutengue refugee camp.
"The war escalated last year, but there was violence in our region before that. In recent years my house was set on fire four times. My husband was killed in 2022, and one of my sons was killed in May 2023. My son was only 10. He was shot in the street and died from his wounds in the hospital three days later. So, when I heard about new attacks coming to our neighborhood [in June 2023], I left my home with my last two children and I’ve never gone back.

I dressed my 11-year-old boy in his sister’s clothes and we set off together on foot. I took only two blankets, a few clothes and a jerrycan for water. But the armed men took everything from me on the way, saying, 'No one takes anything with them to Chad.'

On the streets, we saw a lot of dead bodies. We were following the flow of people; it was very crowded. At one point, we were walking towards Ardamatta to find refuge, [where the army was]. We heard gunshots, armed men started shooting at the crowd, and people were running everywhere. That was when I lost my daughter. She was so frightened that she ran with the others ...

... The day after, I was walking on the road with my son when armed men stopped us. They tried to hurt him with a knife, but I wrapped a cloth around my hand and managed to deflect the blade and protect him. Then they stabbed again and cut my leg. But then they saw a man a little distance from us, and they went over to kill him. That was when I managed to run away with my son. This is how it is: they kill men first, before the women. So in a way, that man saved my life with his.

I couldn't believe it when we reached the border in Adré. The day we fled, I never thought we would get there alive. I saw so many people dead on the street. In every group of people traveling together, some will get shot and some will manage to reach Adré. But at one time or another, we all thought we were going to die on the way. At the border, I found my daughter again. She was exhausted and scared, but I felt so relieved that she was alive.

Arriving in Adré, I could barely take another step. I had a lot of injuries on my feet because of walking all the way. My children and I found shelter in a school. We officially registered as refugees with the UNHCR. A few weeks later, we were moved to Aboutengue refugee camp. We didn’t get an official shelter, so other refugees helped me make one out of scrap wood and mats. There is no work for me here, so I’m fully dependent on humanitarian aid. In Sudan, I was a market trader, selling things like tamir [fritters].

This is the fifth time that my house has burnt down since the beginning of the violence in Darfur. Every time it happens, I lose everything. This time I don’t know what caused it. One day, I was at the market in the camp, my kids were at school under the tree in the wadi [valley], and when I came back, everything was on fire. Once again, the camp community has given me things and helped me build a new shelter, but I am afraid it won't last with the onset of the rainy season."

A veiled Sudanese refugee woman in Chad.

Gamera and Jeta, Aboutengue camp

"I dressed them in girls' clothes so they wouldn’t be killed."

Mother and daughter Gamera, 60, and Jeta, 35, fled El Geneina together with Jeta’s five children. Upon their arrival at Aboutengue camp, Jeta’s youngest daughter was suffering from severe acute malnutrition and was successfully treated in MSF's therapeutic feeding program.

Gamera: "Early in the morning, armed men attacked our home. They called my three sons into one room and made us [the women] leave the house. I begged them not to kill my boys, told them that they were innocent, as they somehow accused them of being spies. But then I heard the gunshots. When I came back to the house, I saw the bodies lying on the floor. One of my sons was shot in his chest, the other in his head, and the third in the neck. Then the armed men threatened me with a knife to my throat and stole our money and phones. They even checked my body to see if I was hiding anything. As they left, they set the house on fire.

We fled on foot from El Geneina to the border with Chad. We saw a lot of dead bodies on the way. It was very crowded, and we lost each other in the flow of people. It was only after crossing the border that we found each other again ...

... We could not find any clean water. It was the rainy season, and we’d found some rainwater on the way, and we slept under a tree at night because of the downpours. We had a few clothes with us, but the armed men did not allow us to cross the border with them. Arriving in Adré, we found refuge in a school building. An organization gave us food and vaccinated the children."

Jeta: "My dad [Gamera’s husband] was killed two years ago during a previous violent attack, and my husband disappeared around the same time—I don’t know if he is dead or alive. So my two boys, Abdel Aman and Mohamad, are the only men remaining in the family. I did what I could to protect them as we fled. I dressed them in girls' clothes so they wouldn’t be killed. But my oldest one was discovered and beaten until he was in a coma. I was very worried, but when we managed to reach Adré, they took care of him at the hospital and he is better now.

After a few weeks in Adré, I became ill myself and spent about 20 days in the hospital, supported by MSF teams. After that we were moved to Aboutengue camp. I was able to officially register as a refugee and got a shelter for me and my five children. My mom [Gamera] did not directly get the registration so does not have anything—she is staying with us. But we don’t have enough. We depend 100 percent on what humanitarian organizations give us. Sometimes my kids must beg for food in the camp. They don’t go to school; they don’t do anything here.

Our life in Sudan was good. We had our house, enough food and comfort. We were working. I was a nanny and housekeeper. Even if we could go back to Sudan, everything is destroyed now—what will we do? What will happen to us now? We don’t feel safe anywhere. Yes, it is better here than the massacres in Sudan, but sometimes here in the camp there is crime. We do not have any protection, except each other. It is worse for my children; they are still afraid, crying and panicking every time they hear a loud sound."

A Sudanese refugee mother and daughter looking at each other in Chad.

Malak, Metche camp

"I hope to return to Sudan in peace and security."

"It was 4 o'clock on a Friday, and my husband told me that there would be an attack. “Take the children and go to your sister’s house,” [he said], “and I will go to the gardens [El Geinena].”
I opposed the idea, but he went there, where he was killed. He was an innocent person. Me and my brothers and his brothers kept searching for him for four days. Finally, there was a strange smell where we were searching. They searched until they found him and told us that his body was there. His name [was] Jaafar and he was 42 years old. At the time, there were too many shooters, so his brothers and some neighbors had to sneak in to retrieve his body so we could bury him.
When I arrived in Adré, I couldn't find my mother and three of my children. I searched for them for four days. When I finally found my mother, she was in a terrible state. I was reunited with my children. We stayed two months in Adré until we settled here in Metche, where I gave birth to my child ...

... We face a lot of difficulties getting food and water. Now, I am alone with my eight children, without my mother and my sisters, because we separated. She’s in Adré and I'm here. My mother can't live here; she has diabetes. It’s been six months since I have seen her.
We don't have any belongings. We came with these clothes. In Sudan, we lived a better life, and people helped each other. Now we have nothing, my whole house burned down. Here we can't help each other and we have no source of income. We have nothing.
If I find a job, I will work. Now we depend entirely on organizations, and we eat cornbread, black eye peas, and receive some water. The food we received from the last distribution has already finished. 

I feel restricted and helpless. I don't have any source of income to buy food. I hope to return to Sudan in peace and security."

A Sudanese refugee woman in a colorful floral scarf in Chad.

Ghalia, Aboutengue camp

"We are not getting killed, but we have nothing to eat."

Ghalia fled Sudan with her husband, their five children, and two of her brothers. They arrived in Aboutengue refugee camp in July 2023. Ghalia gave birth to her youngest daughter, Makarima, at the MSF emergency hospital a few months later.

"The increase of violence in my neighborhood was horrible. I cannot count how many people were killed in the streets, with gunshots and bombs. The day of the attack on my house, I started running, my youngest one strapped to my back. There were so many people outside that I lost my other children and my husband. I remember heading to Ardamatta in the night, but armed men were waiting for us. In the morning, they shouted, 'No one moves' and told us to leave our money and our guns. Then they started shooting at the crowd. People were running everywhere. It was chaos; people were coming [in] waves. The armed men told us to turn around and take the road to the west, the one that goes to Chad.
In the next village, I managed to find my children—they had managed to stay together and support each other. They were thirsty, hungry, tired, and afraid. They were crying. But I was so relieved. I had thought I would never see them again; I had thought they were killed. I felt so happy and relieved to find them ...

... Six days later, I found my husband in the hospital. As the crowd ran, he had been shot in the arm. At the hospital, he had surgery with internal fixations, screws, and plates. He spent a month in hospital to help with his recovery, but today he is still struggling with the pain, and he cannot lift heavy things like the jerrycan for water. So I must take care of him.
We arrived in the new camp mid-July last year. How can I describe it? Well, at least there are no bombs or gunshots. We are not getting killed, but we have nothing to eat. Some days we don’t eat at all. We fully depend on humanitarian aid, especially for food.

Water is a big struggle as well. The queue for water is very long, I must get up early and place my jerrycan in line so I can get water later. 

In Sudan, we were farmers. But here in Aboutengue, there is nothing. We are in the middle of nowhere. The only thing I found for work is to help construct bricks—for that, I earn only a few hundred CFA francs [less than one US dollar].

Today, it is still hard for our children. There’s nothing for them to do; they don’t go to school. They keep asking questions to understand what happened in the war. They told me that when they were separated from me on the journey here, they saw a lot of dead bodies, including children. They told me that armed men asked them, 'Where is your father? Where are his guns?' They were afraid. My five-year-old son keeps waking up at night with nightmares screaming, 'They are coming!' My seven-year-old daughter, Maria, cries multiple times a day."

A Sudanese refugee woman holding her child in Chad.

Ruqaya, Metche camp

“I am now the mother and the father.”

"I lost my husband in El Geneina on June 15 [2023], when the fighting escalated that day. He is missing and so is his family.

I have two children and the living conditions are very difficult, and I have no one to support us. All the responsibilities fall on me. I am now the mother and the father. I'm responsible for food, water, shelter, and providing treatment if the children get sick. I must manage and deal with everything on my own.

People here are hungry and thirsty. There is no food. There is no security in Sudan, and we cannot return. We are living day by day ...

... I don't know if my husband is alive or dead. I don't know where our family members are. We have been scattered between Sudan and here, and we have no news of them. I want to search for my husband and get some answers to see if he is alive or dead. His name is Issam, he is 45 years old. He has green eyes, but isn't tall."

A young Sudanese refugee woman in Chad.

Gisma, Aboutengue camp

"I had no choice but to run."

Gisma turned 18 three months ago. She lives in Aboutengue refugee camp with her mother and her five sisters and is often the family's main breadwinner. 
"We fled El Geneina in June last year. It was very difficult. My dad was killed. During the attacks, we left the house together with my family, but we lost each other on the way. I was with three of my sisters, carrying the youngest one on my back. In the street, we crossed paths with armed men, and they took two of my sisters. They hurt them, but … we can’t talk about that. I had no choice but to run.

We crossed the border and arrived barefoot in Adré as we could not take anything with us. We were exhausted, thirsty, and crying. Some people helped us and gave us water. A nice lady shared her food with us. I felt relieved to reach the border, especially when I met my sisters and mother again ...

... I like studying and am happy to have school here. We study under the tree in the wadi [a dry riverbed]. But I am not going anymore because I must take care of my sisters. My mom is trying to go back to Sudan to grab whatever she can take for our survival. We have nothing here; it is very hard to live. In the future, I want to work for a humanitarian organization so I can help. But I don’t really know what will happen to me in the future."

A Sudanese refugee woman crouching over a fire pit in Chad.

Sudan crisis response