As governments airlift hundreds of their diplomats and other citizens to safety, Sudanese are desperately seeking ways to escape the chaos, fearing that the country’s rival generals will escalate their all-out battle for power once evacuations are completed.
In dramatic evacuation operations, convoys of foreign diplomats, civilian teachers, students, workers and families from dozens of countries wound past combatants at tense front lines in the capital of Khartoum to reach extraction points. Others drove hundreds of miles to the country’s east coast. A stream of European, Mideast, African and Asian military aircraft flew in all day Sunday and Monday to ferry them out.
But for many Sudanese, the airlift was a terrifying sign that international powers, after failing repeatedly to broker ceasefires, only expect a worsening of the fighting that has already pushed the population into disaster.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had helped broker a 72-hour ceasefire to begin late Monday. It would extend a nominal truce that has done little to stop the fighting but helped facilitate the evacuations.
Global Affairs Canada, which is helping Canadian citizens evacuate, said in a tweet that it welcomes the ceasefire and urged both parties to respect it. On Monday evening, the agency released a statement advising Canadians to avoid all travel to Sudan.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of a “catastrophic conflagration” that could engulf the whole region. He urged the 15 members of the Security Council to “exert maximum leverage” on both sides in order to “pull Sudan back from the edge of the abyss.”
Food, fuel, clean water in short supply
Sudanese face a harrowing search for safety in the constantly shifting battle of explosions, gunfire and armed fighters looting shops and homes. Many have been huddling in their homes for nine days. Food and fuel are leaping in price and harder to find, clean water is in short supply, electricity and internet are cut off in much of the country, and hospitals are near collapse.
Those who can afford it were making the 15-hour long drive to the Egyptian border or to Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. Those without means to get abroad streamed out to relatively calmer provinces along the Nile north and south of Khartoum. Many more were trapped, with cash in short supply and transport costs spiralling.
“Travelling out of Khartoum has become a luxury,” said Shahin al-Sherif, a high school teacher. The 27-year-old al-Sherif was frantically trying to arrange transport out of Khartoum for himself, his younger sister, mother, aunt and grandmother. They had been trapped for days in their home in Khartoum’s Amarat neighborhood while fighting raged outside. Finally, they moved to a safer district farther out.
But al-Sherif expects things to get worse and worries his sister, aunt and grandmother, all diabetic, won’t be able to get the supplies they need. Bus ticket prices have more than quadrupled so that renting a bus for 50 people to get to the Egyptian border costs around $14,000 US, he said.
Amani el-Taweel, an Egyptian expert on Africa, warned of “horrific suffering” for Sudanese unable to leave. In a country where a third of the population already needed humanitarian aid, aid agencies can no longer reach most Sudanese because of the clashes.
Once evacuations are complete, “warring parties will not heed any calls for a truce or a ceasefire,” she said.
Shama-el Sidahmed’s parents were sheltering in place in Khartoum last week. After their plans to cross the border into Egypt by bus fell through, they planned to try a second bus the next morning.
Then, Global Affairs called their daughter to inform her that there was room for her parents — both Canadian citizens — on a scheduled Dutch evacuation flight.
“They didn’t give much detail other than they gave us the location, and the scary part was they told us that it was up to us to figure out how to get there,” she said. The bus driver agreed to drop them off halfway to the military base where they would be evacuated by plane.
After losing communication for a stretch of time, Sidahmed said she recently found out that her parents arrived at the base and were airlifted to safety.
“They were very worried, they were very scared, this thing has been very risky, every step of the way. There were challenges, there were hurdles,” she said, adding that they feel “a sense of guilt” for having to leave siblings who are Sudanese citizens.
Heavy gunfire and thundering explosions rocked the city in continued fighting between the military and a rival paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In the afternoon, intensified airstrikes hammered Khartoum’s Nile-side Kalakla district for an hour until the area was “razed to the ground,” said Atiya Abdulla Atiya, secretary of the Doctors’ Syndicate. The bombardment sent dozens of wounded to the Turkish Hospital, one of the few medical facilities still functioning, he said.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said an administrator at its Khartoum embassy was killed on his way to work to help oversee the evacuations, without saying who was responsible. Cairo has close ties to the Sudanese army but has joined calls for a cease-fire. Earlier, Egypt had denied any of its embassy staff were harmed after the Sudanese military reported that one had been killed, blaming the RSF.
Over 420 people, including at least 273 civilians, have been killed and over 3,700 wounded since the fighting began April 15. The military has appeared to have the upper hand in fighting in Khartoum but the RSF still controls many districts in the capital and the neighbouring city of Omdurman, and has several large strongholds around the country. With the military vowing to fight until the RSF is crushed, many fear a dramatic escalation.
For foreign nationals, the need to abandon Khartoum had become overwhelming by the seventh day of the conflict. Khartoum’s wealthy neighbourhoods, where most foreigners live, saw some of the heaviest shelling and drone strikes, and several fell under RSF control.