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Milan woman shares her amazing story of escape from war-torn Sudan

For Katie Okonski, the safety she had come to know in the Sudanese compound where she was teaching for more than a year was shattered April 13. Her husband had just flown back to his native Senegal a few days earlier for surgery. Katie was alone with her two-and-a half year old son Otis. She needed to go shopping for food in case of an emergency.

“I was really nervous, I was terrified of getting stopped by RSF of just seeing armed men in the streets if they were going to stop us.”

Katie and Otis made it safely home. They had stocked up on all that they could find. Two days later, all sense of safety was shattered.

“On April 15 at 9 o’clock in the morning, we heard a huge explosion, and that was the start of everything. We got a security message from our school that said stay at home, shelter in place. From the roof we looked up and saw plumes of smoke from all directions of the city.  And we were able to see fighter jets circling the north part of Khartoum by the presidential palace. And we knew this was developing into something serious.”

It was the beginning of a nine-day ordeal where they were told to shelter in place. She invited a family of five with three little children who lived on the top floor of the building to join her and her son in their second-floor apartment. They began rationing food and trying to bring calm to each other from the airstrikes overhead and looting going on in the city.

“On the second day, we heard airstrikes closer to us. That night is when the fears got to us. We talked openly about the fact that RSF was going into people’s homes and taking their supplies. There were instances of sexual assault, rape. And so, at night, every noise you hear, every bomb that’s dropping, you ask, 'How close is that?'”

They discussed escape routes, and the impossibility of running with four young children. They worked to make it look like their building was already empty. They worked out ways to keep the children safe and, at the same time, shield them from the fear all the adults were feeling.

“Then we started to hear more and more frequent bombs at night and airstrikes. And so, we decided we would set up what we called forts for camping in our living room which were all the tables we could find in our two apartments and we set them up with couches in the direction of the windows to protect against glass from breaking. We slept under those at night."

Then, after eight days of sheltering with no word on evacuation from the U.S. embassy, U.S. officials reached out and offered an option for the school workers to get in their own cars and follow a Turkish envoy. Katie struggled with what she saw as a life and death decision.

“I just didn’t think I could do it. I could not drive in my own vehicle, having my own son driving for 24 hours, not sure of the safety of the roads. The choice I was going to make would determine the fate of my son and my life.”

Katie chose to turn down the Turkish convoy offer, hoping she had made the right choice. A day later, her school messaged, offering the international school staff an escape route by bus to the Egyptian border. Katie had finally found reason for hope, but as she rushed to the bus, she couldn’t help but feel pangs of fear for the Sudanese families at the school they were leaving behind with no food, no water, no power, no one to protect them.

“I’m heartbroken not only for the situation of having to leave colleagues behind who I thought we’d get out together, but also colleagues who were from Sudan.”

A few hours into the 19-hour bus ride, shots rang out, waking Katie from a restless sleep. As screams to take cover were heard throughout the bus, she immediately moved to protect her little son on her lap.

“…covered him as much as possible. And got down as low as possible. I just kept whispering to my son how much I loved him, what a good boy he was, how proud I was of him. And just, trying to make, if they were our final moments, to just make them as comfortable as possible.”

The bus trip was interrupted several times with armed guards demanding to see passports. Specifically, says Katie, they interrogated those who looked African. Then, as the bus finally reached the Egyptian border, they were separated again. Those from English-speaking countries received Egyptian entry visas after a 24 hour wait. Those from other countries – like an American colleague with a husband and son from Africa’s Burkina Faso, are still there.

“They’re still stuck sleeping on the pavement five days later. “

And while thankful for finally making it to safety in Cairo, Katie is left with disappointment with the American government.

“There’s a lot of disappointment when the first evacuation option we were sent by the US government was to join with another embassy. That’s just not what we expected at all from our government.”

With the chaos and danger to the civilian population continuing in Sudan, Katie says she will not be returning there to finish her two-year teaching term. Instead, she will be returning to her husband, and a new teaching opportunity in Senegal.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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