Thousands of Sudanese have found refuge in Aswan, in neighboring Egypt, helping to revitalize the tourist season in this pharaonic southern city, where they are trying to forget the horrors of war.
Hicham Ali, 54, arrived in Aswan after a thousand-kilometer journey from Khartoum, Sudan’s embattled capital, to the Egyptian border in the north.
Having found an apartment to house his family in the large city in southern Egypt, this former civil servant now wants his children to enjoy their new city.
“I’ve come with my family to spend a beautiful day here together,” he says from the terrace of an inn which, during the high tourist season in winter, attracts a large number of foreign visitors.
He hopes that this day will enable his loved ones to “forget the war, the bombs, the air raids and the shooting”, he confides, his voice covered by his children’s bursts of laughter.
Since the start of the war on April 15, which pitted two generals against each other in the struggle for power, more than 310,000 people, like Mr. Ali, have sought refuge in Egypt.
On the other side of the border, many people are waiting, stopped en route by Egypt’s sudden decision in July to re-impose visas on all Sudanese fleeing the war. Previously, women, children and men over 50 crossed without any formalities.
Zeinab Ibrahim, 30, managed to cross three months ago.
Before that, she and her family had spent two months holed up in their Khartoum apartment for fear of air strikes, artillery fire and street fighting.
“I was pregnant and there was no hospital left to give birth,” she tells AFP, while millions of people have no access to healthcare, the war having severely damaged Sudan’s already fragile health system.
Once in Egypt, many Sudanese refugees made their way to Cairo, while others, like Mr. Ali and Mrs. Ibrahim, remained in Aswan, the first major Egyptian city from Sudan, 300 kilometers from the border.
Bathing in the Nile
The two neighboring countries share the same language and a large part of their history dating back to the time of the Pharaohs. Before the war, more than four million Sudanese were already living in Egypt, according to the UN.
Most of the new arrivals aspire to settle permanently in Egypt, far from a country they don’t expect to recover from for decades.
Every winter, Aswan residents see waves of Egyptian and foreign tourists arriving to discover the extremely well-preserved Pharaonic sites in the surrounding area, bask on the banks of the Nile and enjoy the mild temperatures.
But what they didn’t expect was the influx of refugees and the opportunities they brought.
At the beginning of September, when the sweltering summer heat had scared off Egyptian visitors, the boat captains had to get back to work.
They weighed anchor once again to skim the winding Nile, speakers blaring music at full volume, between the Nubian islands that dot its course.
On a sandy shore, where guides recommend that travelers take a dip between sips of Nubian coffee, families enjoy a refreshing dip.
“Since the war and the arrival of our Sudanese brothers, we have resumed our activities and have more work,” rejoices 19-year-old Mahmoud al-Aswany, perched on the deck of the felucca on which he has been sailing for the past five years.
A godsend in a country going through its worst economic crisis, with inflation at an all-time high.
But not all Sudanese are welcomed in the same way.
In Cairo, they complain of discrimination, crooked landlords who inflate rents and racism.
In Aswan, where Nubian communities have straddled the border for millennia, the Sudanese found volunteers waiting for them with hot meals.
“Aswan is a beautiful city and its inhabitants are kind,” Hicham Ali repeats over and over again.
But beyond small private initiatives, refugees in need are often left to their own devices.
The Egyptian authorities do not allow UN agencies and other international NGOs to set up camps to receive migrants, Cairo arguing that, in exchange, the new arrivals are not deprived of the right to work or move around freely.