In the first days of Sudan’s war, the two university students felt helpless.
They locked themselves into their apartment in the capital, Khartoum, glued to Twitter as the battle unfolded. They winced as the walls shuddered from blasts and gunfire, taking shelter in the corridor. They wondered where Sudan was going.
On the fifth day, April 19, the phone rang: Someone needed a taxi.
A senior United Nations official, a woman in her 40s, was trapped inside her home in an upscale neighborhood, the caller explained. Her situation was desperate. Pickup trucks mounted with machine guns stood outside her building, firing at warplanes that zoomed overhead. Black smoke was streaming into her apartment following an airstrike nearby. She had run out of water. Her cellphone battery was down to 5 percent. Could they rescue her?
The students, Hassan Tibwa and Sami al-Gada, in their final year of mechanical engineering, had a side gig driving a taxi. But this call wasn’t a paying job — it was a mercy run. Mr. Tibwa phoned the woman. “She was screaming,” he recalled. “We had only a few minutes before her phone died. She was on her own.”
They jumped into Mr. al-Gada’s car, a dinged, seven-year-old Toyota sedan, and set off into the city, horrified at its transformation. Bullet holes pocked buildings. Charred vehicles littered the streets. Fighters were everywhere.
Crunching over bullet casings, they navigated a gantlet of check posts manned by jittery fighters from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, some wearing bandages or limping. The fighters scanned the students’ phones and peppered them with questions. It took an hour to travel four miles.
“We went through hell,” Mr. Tibwa said.
They found the U.N. official, named Patience, alone at her apartment in an apparently deserted building. She had been hiding in her bathroom for days, slowly depleting three cellphones, she said, showing them a scatter of bullet holes in her living room wall.
The students consoled her, wrapped her in an all-covering abaya robe, and devised a cover story: Their passenger was pregnant and needed to get to a hospital. They paused to say a prayer. “We knew that the moment we stepped out, there was no going back,” Mr. Tibwa said.
Forty-five minutes and 10 check posts later, their Toyota pulled up outside the Al Salam, one of Khartoum’s most expensive hotels, now a five-star refugee camp. Patience wept with relief. After collecting herself and checking in, she sat the students down to ask an urgent question.
Could they go back and rescue her friends too?
Over the following week, Mr. Tibwa, 25, and Mr. al-Gada, 23, rescued dozens of desperate people from one of Khartoum’s fiercest battle zones, according to interviews with the students, those they extracted and hundreds of text messages. Along the way they were robbed, handcuffed and threatened with execution. Fighters accused them of being spies. Diplomats implored them to retrieve their passports and pets. Shellfire and stray bullets fell around their car.
“The bravery of these guys is just amazing,” said Fares Hadi, an Algerian factory manager who survived a hair-raising ride with them through Khartoum. “So impressive, so courageous.”
Every rescuee interviewed said the students had not asked for payment.
Over six days, as the war surged between two feuding military factions — the army and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group — the students helped at least 60 people: South African teachers, Rwandan diplomats, Russian aid workers and U.N. workers from many countries, including Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sweden and the United States. Ten passengers said the students had swooped to their aid at terrifying, life-threatening moments, when large organizations with drivers and security guards were nowhere to be found.
“The only word for them is heroes,” one U.N. official said.
Like most U.N. employees interviewed, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticizing an organization that, by many accounts, failed to rescue its own employees, even those facing immediate danger.
“Despite all the chaos, the fear, the bombing,” he said, “Sami and Hassan were the ones who turned up.”
From Students to Rescuers
Even as Mr. Tibwa drove strangers to safety, his own family didn’t know he was in Sudan.
He arrived in 2017 from Tanzania, where his family runs a modest hardware store at a small town on Lake Victoria. An Islamic charity provided a scholarship to study engineering at the International University of Africa in Khartoum.
But he told his parents that he was going to study in Algeria, in deference to their concerns about Sudan’s history of violent unrest — a lie he easily maintained for six years, because he never had enough money to go home.
Mr. al-Gada is Sudanese, but was raised in a sleepy town in northeastern Saudi Arabia, where his father was a car mechanic.
Classmates in university, the two young men soon became friends. They shared a bright, open disposition and a gritty entrepreneurial streak, working odd jobs at night to make rent. Mr. Tibwa drove a taxi that catered mostly to African U.N. officials, with whom he also socialized.
“Everyone knew Hassan,” said one Kenyan. “An outstanding gentleman.”
Sudan’s turbulent politics disrupted their ambition. Classes were canceled for much of 2019 when roaring protesters, including Mr. al-Gada, helped topple President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator of 30 years.
Then in October 2021, Sudan’s two most powerful military leaders — Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the army and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan of the R.S.F. — joined forces to boot out the civilian prime minister and seize power for themselves in a coup. Protests flared. The economy tanked.
The two students thought little, at first, of the shots that rang out across Khartoum early on April 15 this year: Anti-military demonstrators had been clashing with riot police for over a year.
But when Mr. al-Gada went to campus to submit a paper, the guards sent him home. This time it was not a protest, they said. It was war.
Months of tension between Sudan’s ruling generals exploded into gunfights between rival units that quickly spread to the city center, concentrated around the military headquarters and the international airport.
That zone also happened to abut two of Khartoum’s most expensive districts: Khartoum 2, known as K2, and al-Amarat, which were filled with embassies, U.N. offices and the homes of foreigners and well-heeled Sudanese. The area also contained several R.S.F. bases. Fighters surged through its streets, taking up positions on rooftops, breaking into homes and, in some cases, robbing their occupants.
The European Union ambassador was assaulted inside his house. A shell landed outside the British ambassador’s front door but failed to explode. An American convoy came under fire.
The United Nations, like most organizations, ordered its 800 employees and dependents in Khartoum to “shelter in place.” But although its security division rescued a handful of people in the first days of fighting, it soon stopped.
The U.N. had only a few armored vehicles, which were shot at or stolen, several officials said. Drivers refused to work, effectively grounding the fleet. In a conference call on Day 6 of the fighting, the U.N. security chief in Khartoum told colleagues that his department could no longer rescue anyone.
“The message was: ‘You’re on your own,’” said one of two senior U.N. officials who recounted that call.
Mr. Tibwa and Mr. al-Gada were not the only rescuers. Local Resistance Committees, formed years earlier to push Sudan toward democracy, pivoted to helping Sudanese and foreigners flee.
But for some stricken residents, the two students were the only option.
“They called us,” Mr. Tibwa said. “They didn’t have food. They had no power. Their phones were going down. We tried to imagine ourselves in that same situation. So we went out.”
Hours after delivering Patience, the two students received an S.O.S. from another U.N. official. The guards at her building had vanished, and the R.S.F. had given residents three hours to get out.
“Plan to occupy the building,” she texted, describing her predicament with an expletive. “I’m resigned to my fate.”
Eight minutes later Mr. Tibwa responded. “We are coming to pick you,” he wrote. “I promise.”
Mr. al-Gada was less sure. It was nearly dark, and a fragile cease-fire was about to end. A tense argument ended with a decision to go, reluctantly. “We were not so happy with each other,” Mr. Tibwa said.
At the apartment they found more than they bargained for: about 15 people, including a Korean couple with two children. They were being evicted, a U.N. official said, because the R.S.F. commander’s second wife lived next door.
A three-vehicle convoy pulled out, windows down to show they were transporting women and children. Fighting resumed in the city, with airstrikes and shooting.
In the second car, Danielle Boyles, 27, a preschool teacher from South Africa, cowered under an abaya. At one checkpoint, a fighter threatened to shoot the Malawian U.N. official beside her. She started to tremble and pray.
“The R.S.F. guy cocked his gun,” she said. “When I heard that sound, I thought he was dead.”
Reaching the Al Salam hotel, they piled out, exhausted.
A Five-Star Refugee Camp
The Al Salam was known as the capital’s political salon, a place where the rich, powerful and heavily armed wrangled over the future of Sudan. Luxury four-wheel drives with dark windows pulled up before its revolving doors. Militia leaders rubbed shoulders with Western diplomats over its $50 buffet. Negotiators from the African Union sipped coffee in the lounge. Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military company exercised in the gym.
The war transformed the hotel. By Day 5, all 236 rooms and suites were occupied, the manager said, some sleeping six people to a room.
Stray bullets punctured the lobby window and guest rooms. Guests filmed gunfights from the upper floors. Food had to be rationed. When a pitched battle erupted on Africa Street, outside the main gate, guests crowded into the basement and the gym locker rooms.
Mr. Tibwa and Mr. al-Gada became fixtures in the lobby, flopping onto sofas after rescue runs. It was still Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and they didn’t eat or drink until sunset. Guests marveled that they kept making more rescues. “They didn’t seem to eat much,” said the wife of a senior U.N. official. “I think they were just going on adrenaline.”
Some guests were local residents who had run directly to the Al Salam when the war erupted. They asked the two students to pass by their homes to collect passports, laptops or a pet dog and cat. The students entered the deserted home of the head of the U.N. refugee agency in Sudan, lighting their way with a candle and guided by a video call with a family member. They held their noses as they passed a fridge filled with rotting food.
Mr. Hadi, the Algerian factory manager, had been using the hotel pool on his day off when the fighting started. The students drove him home to get his passport. But when a soldier at a checkpoint found something he thought suspicious in Mr. al-Gada’s phone, chaos erupted. Guns were drawn and Mr. al-Gada quickly found himself face down on the street, a cocked Kalashnikov at his head.
Mr. Hadi, watching from the back seat, braced for the worst. “I was waiting for his brains to come on my face,” he said.
But Mr. al-Gada kept talking and, after a long 15 minutes, the fighter backed down. As the car rolled away, Mr. al-Gada was “sweating like hell,” Mr. Hadi recalled. “He was terrified.”
Camel Meat and Kalashnikovs
The R.S.F. fighters could be friendly or frightening, and the student rescuers experienced both these faces directly.
Formed in 2013 from the feared Janjaweed militias that once terrorized the western region of Darfur, the R.S.F. has in recent years sought to rehabilitate its image. But few Sudanese can forget the group’s participation in a massacre of over 120 democracy protesters in 2019.
The R.S.F. has spread across Khartoum in recent weeks; Western officials estimate it controls 80 percent of the city. Some residents tell of being robbed or assaulted by R.S.F. fighters, while others say smiling fighters gave them money and assurances.
As Mr. Tibwa and Mr. al-Gada drove back to their apartment on the sixth night of fighting, they said, R.S.F. troops stole from their car a cellphone and $1,100 — cash pressed on them by grateful passengers. When Mr. al-Gada reported the theft at the next checkpoint, an R.S.F. officer insisted on investigating it, even as fighting raged around them.
With R.S.F. soldiers at the wheel of their car, Mr. Tibwa and Mr. al-Gada were driven back to the post where they had been robbed, then to a makeshift R.S.F. base at the back of the city airport. Scared, Mr. Tibwa sent his location to Patience and another U.N. official he had saved.
The second U.N. official urged them to get out. “Please Hassan, I’m begging you!!!!” she texted.
It was too late. Moments later, a new officer appeared, a scowling man who began treating the students as suspects, interrogating them and placing them in handcuffs.
The episode ended hours later when, finally assuaged, the fighters freed the students, handed back $500 and insisted on escorting them home. On the way, the convoy stopped at a checkpoint where soldiers were eating a meal: a giant platter of camel meat and rice. They insisted the students join them.
The R.S.F. commander gave them a bag of leftovers to take home and, days later, sent Mr. Tibwa a memento: a photo of their shared meal at 3 a.m. on the deserted streets of a shellshocked city.
A Final Rescue
The students’ final mission was their longest: a trip across the Nile to the city of Omdurman, at the request of Rwandan diplomats, to rescue a woman who, unlike the first they rescued, really was pregnant.
As their Toyota approached the house, the woman, who gave her name as Fifi, texted them. “Alhamdulilah,” she wrote — the Arabic for “praise be to God.” She was eight months pregnant, and had been stranded with her young son for 10 days.
By then, an exodus of foreigners from Khartoum was underway.
A dramatic helicopter evacuation the previous night of the American Embassy, led by SEAL team 6 commandos, set off a cascade of evacuations. British, French and Turkish military aircraft landed at an airstrip north of Khartoum, leaving with diplomats and private citizens.
Most of the people the students had deposited at the Al Salam finally left on a United Nations convoy of buses, cars and four-wheel drives that made a grueling 35-hour journey to Port Sudan, 525 miles away. From there, many took ships across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
The United Nations rejected criticisms, voiced privately by numerous staff members, that it had failed to protect endangered employees or to prepare for the war despite ample warning signs.
The organization’s Department for Safety and Security “is not a protective service,” a U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, said in an email. “It has neither the mandate nor the capabilities to perform systematic extractions or ‘rescues.’”
Asked if the United Nations intended to investigate any shortcomings, Mr. Haq wrote, “In any crisis situation, we always look for lessons learned.”
As the foreigners left, most of Khartoum’s 5 million residents remained, sheltering in their homes and praying for a real cease-fire. The students stayed behind too, at first.
“Khartoum is getting empty now,” Mr. Tibwa said from their apartment last week, the sound of gunfire rattling in the background.
But a day later they were gone. A friendly R.S.F. commander had warned them that “something big was coming” in the city center, Mr. Tibwa said. He advised them to get out while they could. They packed up the Toyota and drove 14 miles to the edge of the capital, where Mr. al-Gada’s family has a house.
For a few days they considered their options, working out, drinking coffee and reading novels (Mr. Tibwa started Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”). Fighter jets scudded over the horizon and a stray bomb landed nearby, killing members of a family in their home, they said.
Mr. Tibwa wanted to stay in Sudan, a country he said he had grown to love — and where he was a single semester away from completing his engineering degree. But his time had run out.
On Wednesday, Mr. al-Gada dropped his friend on a street where he hoped to catch a bus to Ethiopia, and from there back to Tanzania.
A personal reckoning loomed, Mr. Tibwa noted ruefully: Now his parents would learn that he had been studying in Sudan, and not Algeria, all along.
As they separated, Mr. Tibwa pulled out his cellphone and began filming.
“Saying goodbye to my boy, Sami,” he said as the Toyota rolled down the street, his partner waving through the window. “See you man. See you.”