My Cat and the Rapid Support Forces

Ruba El Melik

On navigating grief, loss, and heartbreak during a war. 

People think my cat, Kastar, is named after his big yellow eyes, which are liquid and still like two pools of custard. When guests visited my family’s house in Khartoum, where I’d been living for the past five years, and discovered I had a cat named after the Arabic word for the dessert, they’d unimaginatively conjure up an image of a ginger or tabby cat. People laughed upon discovering his long-haired, silky black coat. “It’s because of his big yellow eyes,” I would say. Truthfully, the name comes from a sweet memory; custard was one of my late father’s favourite desserts. The name hadn’t come to me immediately; there was a moment in which I considered my mother’s suggestion when she jokingly said, “Name him Labab-Sharq, since I hate cats.” Labab-Sharq was an area in northern Sudan where my father tried to get an agricultural business project going – something that took up seven out of the 12 years he was able to enjoy his retirement in Sudan before he passed from COVID-19. My mother, always the sharp accounting mind, knew the project was destined to fail; my father was a great banker and employee, but as a businessman, he was often whimsical and impulsive. I considered naming my cat Labab, mostly to appease my animal-hating mother about having a cat in her house but ultimately rejected the notion. I didn’t want to name my cat after something that was hated. Plus, the Labab-Sharq project was a failure, and my cat was beautiful.

Then, one day, about a week after Kastar became my cat, I recalled an afternoon lunch with my father. We were sitting at the dining table in our house in Khartoum. He had been a confident, successful, merry person who was committed to being a family man whilst still chasing his Capricornian urges for greatness, many of which he achieved. He had indulged in his guilty pleasures the same way he indulged his business ambitions: firmly, happily, and with minimal remorse. On that particular day, my mother announced that we were having dessert; bowls of custard appeared on the table. Before I could say anything, my father picked up a spoon and paused to set a clear boundary, “Don’t ever ask me about it when I’m eating custard,” he said, referring to my and my sisters’ ever-persistent appeals to cut back on sugar, “because I’m always going to have two bowls. I can’t resist it.”

April of this year marked two years and two months into my father’s “permanent move to his home village” as my siblings and I liked to refer to his death, and one year and eight months of being Kastar’s human. The political situation in Sudan was dire, there had been whispers and growing fears regarding a potential conflict, but my home country was much like a beloved kitchen appliance that you couldn’t let go of. You always knew it was on the edge of collapse, but in your heart, you still believed it would continue with you forever. On the morning of 15 April, I woke up to the sound of gunshots – repetitive, loud. It was unmistakably a battlefield. The country finally collapsed. A long-dreaded war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces had erupted in full, unrestrained force. 

*

While we were still in Khartoum, my brother and I openly pondered the ways our father would have taken action if he were still here. “He is headstrong and would’ve never been okay with leaving the house behind,” I theorised. I am the youngest in the family; I had seen the least of him. 

“No,” my mother denied, “he would’ve wanted to leave.” Having been his darling for 38 years, her weigh-in often ended these speculations because we trusted her model of him the most. My brother threw in his two cents: Baba would have packed up all his sisters, who lived one neighbourhood over, with us onto a big bus and taken the whole family out of the city. “He would have taken you up north to the village,” my two sisters, who were both living in the States, said over the phone, agreeing with his theory. 

Five weeks into the war, my mother got a call from the security guard  looking after our house – and Kastar. He tells us the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary force that was previously associated with the army but eventually mutinied by waging open war in Sudan’s capital, raided the house. They had essentially held the entire city and its civilians hostage, and once the first 350,000 of us managed to flee, they began to raid our empty houses. They targeted gold, cash, foreign currency, and cars. We were in Saudi Arabia when this news arrived; we had landed there about three weeks into the war, having decided to leave after a gunshot had come clean through a window in one of the bedrooms and gone deep into the opposite concrete wall. The fighting had been getting closer every single day. The weapons got louder, the fighter jets flew lower, and a few terrifying days later, we left. We travelled by road through Sudan and took a ship to Jeddah.

“The RSF came into the house. They stabbed me in the thigh. I’m injured,” Mohamed the security guard informed us. In a sense, the raid wasn’t a surprise. The night before, our two next-door neighbours had called us in Saudi Arabia to let us know that the RSF had looted their houses. “They’re robbing the houses in order,” I joked to my mother when I heard. “We must be the next hit.” We were. Seven RSF soldiers looted our home the next day, humiliatingly asking Mohamed to help them break the windows to our house with our lawn chair, and went into every room, taking the gold and cash in my parent’s safe, with a brief kitchen interlude in which they raided the fridge for some water and bottles of Pepsi. Satisfied, they took the key to the house’s front door from Mohamed and told him they would return for the car later. 

I joked to my sisters that RSF soldiers, when kicking down the doors to each room, must’ve thought that they found the rebel child’s room when they got to mine. I had abortion pills buried under a pile of sweaters in the back of my closet because of a time I had to source them for a friend and a rolled-up poster of a cunnilingus art piece I used to hang above my bed in college. When my mother told me, seven days into the war, that we were heading to Medani, the nearest major city to Khartoum and reachable via a three-hour car ride, I unconvincingly announced I was bringing Kastar with us. “We’ll only be gone a few days, a week or two,” my brother said. We decided we’d leave him with our guard, who had chosen to stay. I went upstairs and packed a backpack’s worth of clothes. I opened the door to my room and picked up Kastar, who was lying peacefully on the dining table where my father made his two-bowls-of-custard declaration, and hugged him tight to my chest as the soft vibration of his purring soothed my heart. I whispered something urgent and desperate against his soft ears that I cannot remember anymore. A promise of return maybe. Or an apology. 

*

A few weeks later, Mohamed, the guard, contacted us to let us know he was out of the hospital and had passed by the house with his brother. We were surprised by his return but grateful nonetheless. Mohamed had said my cat was still at the house, alive, and that he gave him some food and water. Then things started to get shady, and a feeling of unease crept up on me as Kastar did sometimes while I napped. He sent me a photo of Kastar lying in the garden, which he claimed he had taken hours before, but I knew the photo was older, taken before the raid. We also never managed to get any photos of our desecrated house from him. “I’ll send photos tomorrow,” he’d say, but the photos never came. Despite his shadowy reports, I knew Mohamed adored Kastar, so I reassured myself that his reports of Kastar’s aliveness were true. Much of my life started to take the shape of uncertainty; I no longer knew if Kastar was alive or not, if the RSF was still at our house or not, if any more bullets had riddled it or not, if I’d ever see Khartoum again. 

When my mother and I arrived in Minnesota, the last of the eight-stop journey that we ended up on since the moment we left our house, my sister asked me about my father’s watch – the one he wore when I checked him into the ICU ward in late January 2021. I had initially placed it in my bag for safekeeping. When his health grew worse, I put it on, and after he passed, my siblings quietly allowed me to claim it as mine. 

I shake my head. “I didn’t bring it with me. I wanted to be optimistic about coming back.” She smiles and laughs; the thought of returning was a faraway romance to her, one that we should all grow out of. 

“I’m worried about Kastar,” I say. “I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead.” 

“You are not more merciful upon him than Allah,” my sister says. She means that I cannot impart more mercy upon him than God can. God has everybody in his mercy. She had done much to comfort my mother and me since our arrival. She bought my mother, who was to now live with her, a wardrobe for the clothes my mother recently bought during our stop in Saudi Arabia, a sweet gesture only made slightly sombre by the eight shirts my mother hung up. For me, a dresser. “We made you a corner,” my eight-year-old nephew had exclaimed on the ride back from the Minneapolis–Saint Paul airport, referring to the set of framed pictures of my father that my sister had set on the dresser atop a row of books. The photographs were from our trip to our family’s mango farm an hour outside of Khartoum, where we celebrated my father’s 69th and final birthday two years ago. How strange that we had no idea he would die a month from then, I thought to myself, choosing to selectively forget the air of fear and despair that had choked me relentlessly throughout the pandemic. Up until my father’s passing, I had been desperately trying to protect my parents from COVID-19. We had celebrated my father’s birthday on the first of January, his death day, February 17th.

*

At my other sister’s in New York, where we first landed before heading to Minnesota, my mother made a therapy joke. “Hey,” she said to my sister, “If you were in therapy now, what would your therapist say about these clothes on the floor?” A strange warmth spread inside my chest. The punchline wasn’t the therapy; it was the behaviour. What an excellent joke, I thought to myself. I had been thinking about a text I recently got from my college best friend that said, “Your trauma is starting to outpace its comedic potential.” This was also a particularly proud moment for me as I considered myself the champion and translator of my mother’s sense of humour, which was so glib and dry that it passed under the radar; often it would feel like she was ignoring her joke as she was telling it. I remembered a night in Khartoum when my brother, taking a bowl of naked chickpeas out of the fridge, held up a small canister of dark brown spice. “Is this thyme?” he asked himself as he spiced the chickpeas and tasted them. It was not thyme. My mother slowly extended a spoon towards the bowl and gave the chickpeas a taste. “Mmm,” she said. “Cinnamon roll.” I burst out laughing. 

*

“This is a nice house,” I told my father one day as we sat in the garden. It was late evening, and a perfect breeze made the air feel especially open. The sky hung above us like a nightcap, Venus winking at us far away and at an angle. 

“It is, isn’t it?” he said simply. 

My father knew how to enjoy things. He knew how to enjoy things so much that he also knew exactly how to lose them. “I give myself one day to be sad,” he would say, “and then I move on to the next thing.” He somehow knew exactly the amount of space to give something in his life. 

A journalist once asked him, “What was the happiest moment of your life?”

“My wedding day,” he replied. 

“And your saddest?” 

“The day my father died,” he said. 

When my father passed away, I realised everything he had done made perfect sense: every misplaced moment of trust in someone that later led to disappointment, the failed agricultural ambitions, the money he spent on luxury, his desire to move back to Sudan after 30 years of living in the Middle East that was so strong it manifested as his bank opening several branches in East Africa and assigning him as regional manager. He had no secret yearning or regrets that I knew of. When, in January 2021, a few weeks after the mango farm birthday party, my mother and I started exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, I begged my father to isolate from my mother. I still remember him, silhouetted in the doorframe of their bedroom in the Khartoum house. “What if you both die? Why should the burden be on us to lose both of our parents?” I said. 

“You will catch up to us eventually,” he responded matter-of-factly.

*

“Sometimes, the fact that we keep losing things my father worked for makes me feel like he was secretly a bad person,” I confessed in therapy recently. We’d lost our dad to the pandemic and his laptops to two incidents of theft, and now his house, his clothes, his awards, his favourite chair. It made sense to me that other people who escaped the war mourned their books more than they mourned their TVs and their photographs more than their clothes. “There is no gold or cash here,” one professor wrote on a sign she taped to her house as the RSF kicked her out, “just books and memories.” It seemed like there was no end in sight to the amount of loss I could experience. I’d even lost Kastar and his meows and his withholding nature. “I feel like he’s slipping out of my hands,” I said. My therapist remarked that it was interesting how I focused on the material. He asked me where I was. “At my sister’s in Minnesota,” I said. 

“And where did she come from?” he said smartly. “Where do you come from?”

*

During my stop in New York, I met with a friend who had almost broken up with her partner that day. The emotional toll of the event was displayed on her face. We sat on a dewy rock in Central Park and discussed the pros and cons of their potential separation, swapped insights, and shared analyses. A couple of hours in, my friend exhaled. “I’m sorry for talking about my breakup when you’ve literally just come from a war,” she half-joked. 

I laughed and told her about my ex and all of the fantasy revenge plans I had come up with for him: getting him jumped in Chad, where he managed to escape the war to, starting a rumour amongst his friends that he had been secretly working for the RSF before the war started, offering my allegiance up to his abusive ex-boss as if we were in a mafia movie where things like allegiances mattered. “Even while going through a war,” I said, my laughter peeling out into the night, “it ultimately just became a backdrop for my heartbreak.” 

All anyone had, as bullets and bombs rained across Khartoum, were the people who loved and claimed them. I thought of the brief, hurried calls between my friends and me as we checked in on each other daily. The fears that were shared and forgivenesses requested when the weapons got closer. The prayers for ourselves and each other. I think about my grief and my heartbreak, about what my family lost in terms of my father. The connections we form make the world feel new and pristine, but the loss of the people we form those connections with cuts across everything like a dark swatch of crimson paint atop a white canvas. Grief is enduring and topographically versatile – it will find you no matter how cratered your life is, no matter the bullet holes.

Ruba El Melik is a writer and researcher from Sudan invested in shaping futures for African expression and scholarship beyond institutional walls. She received her undergraduate degree in Anthropology from UCLA, where her research interests spanned arts education, indigenous languages, and the paradigms of gender and race shaping the lives of women. In the publishing sphere, her work has included production and editorial work for the award-winning literary journal, Mizna: SWANA Lit + Art. She is the co-author of (Un)Doing Resistance: Authoritarianism and Attacks on the Arts in Sudan’s 30 Years of Islamist Rule (Andariya, 2022).

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