‘Hungry, exhausted, traumatised’: Sudanese scramble to flee their homeland

Thousands of refugees face transport chaos, cash shortages, scammers and visa delays as they race to escape to neighbouring countries

Long queues are building on Sudan’s borders, where people fleeing intense fighting are facing daylong waits and demands for visas in order to cross to safety.

On Tuesday, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was expecting 270,000 refugees to cross into Chad and South Sudan, including South Sudanese returning home. It did not have projections for Egypt or Ethiopia, where many fleeing from the capital, Khartoum, have headed, or for other neighbouring countries. The UNHCR estimated that, so far, up to 20,000 refugees have crossed into Chad from Darfur, and 4,000 into South Sudan.

The intense fighting in Khartoum, which has killed 459 civilians and left many short of supplies, medicine and cash, has caused a scramble for buses heading to the borders or to Port Sudan, where ferries to Saudi Arabia operate.

WhatsApp groups set up to help people get out of Khartoum have been circulating numbers of bus services that promise to reach the borders. Many have headed for Kandahar bus station on Khartoum’s outskirts – some on foot despite the danger of being caught in the fighting – but have found it increasingly crowded, with prices rapidly rising. Tickets reportedly cost more than $500 (£403).

While the UK announced evacuations of British citizens on Tuesday morning, delays and communication failings have led many to organise their own journeys. Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, a doctor working in Malawi, said his 80-year-old father had received a message during the night calling him be evacuated from a location he was unable to reach by himself.

Many who travelled to the Egyptian border have reported being stuck behind convoys of buses, and said that people are being turned back if they do not have the correct paperwork.

Sudanese activist Asmara Adanis said it took her brother 53 hours from the moment he left Kandahar to have his passport stamped at the Egyptian border near Aswan, and that he had still not crossed into Egypt after several further hours.

“No one packed enough food, water, clothes or diapers for babies. There are sick people who were already suffering in Khartoum from lack of access to much-needed medications. There are people with disabilities who have been in an extremely uncomfortable state,” said Adanis.

Afnan Hassab, a doctor whose hospital was closed by the fighting, said finding a way out of Khartoum has been stressful. She needed support from relatives abroad, who helped find the money to pay drivers.

“Bus drivers are unreliable, some are scammers. They take money and never show up. Some ask for ridiculous amounts,” said Hassab, who managed to find a group that had hired a bus and had a spare seat, at a cost of 170,000 Sudanese pounds (£240). The bus will only take her to Wadi Halfa in north Sudan, where she will have to find further transportation to the border.

Hassab said that, because of bank closures and a breakdown in mobile banking apps, she’d had to gather the money for the trip through a complicated process of informal transfers. She added that many people were stuck in the fighting because they could not access the large sums needed to pay drivers. Some women are trying to sell gold on Facebook to raise the cash, she said.

“Many are stuck. I know a family of eight who eventually decided to take a lorry to Dongola [in the north]. Even though they have money, it won’t be enough, considering the crazy ticket prices. Even going to other cities and states isn’t cheap now, but those who can’t leave the country are moving there.”


Alaa Elsaied Sirelkhatim, 25, said she first escaped with her sister to Wad Medani, south of Khartoum, and decided it would be a shorter journey to go to Ethiopia than to Egypt. She got a visa from the Ethiopian consulate in Gedaref, near the border, but said the crossing itself was chaotic, and UN employees at the border were unable to help.

“There was confusion. People didn’t have the right documentation but were just trying their luck out of desperation. The border control teams on both sides were overwhelmed trying to help people out, but were only helping those who had money to give them,” said Sirelkhatim, who is planning to leave Ethiopia for another country.

“A majority are not able to cross. Most people simply cannot afford it, and those who can may not have access to cash as the banks are closed and ATMs are empty. They were turning away those without visas.”

The UNHCR had no information about facilities to receive refugees in Egypt or Ethiopia.

Zainab Elnaiem Elmahdi, who lives outside Sudan, said that when she tried to arrange a visa for the United Arab Emirates for relatives, she was told by a travel agent that no visas were being processed for Sudanese “for security reasons”.

“Sudanese need access to the outside world as people fleeing a war-torn country. We’re not going to other countries as tourists, hence the tourist visa requirements should be waived,” she said.

Several ceasefires have failed to help Khartoum civilians caught up in the fighting, which has trapped residents in their homes with dwindling supplies and patchy access to electricity, water, medicine and communications.

Sudanese people and their families abroad are demanding more active international intervention. Adanis said: “Imagine being in the middle of the desert and being thirsty, hungry, traumatised, tired after a 20-hour trip. Then, after waiting another 20 hours, someone telling you: ‘Sorry, you can’t come in because you need a tourist visa.’

“And you have to embark on another trip to get one, then come back to join a queue of over 100 buses,. We need the world to recognise the humanitarian crisis and the refugee crisis at hand and deal with it immediately.”

James Wani, South Sudan country director at Christian Aid, said its estimates of 9,000 arrivals in South Sudan are higher than UNHCR’s, and include returning South Sudanese refugees and Sudanese people fleeing this conflict.

“Currently, there are no facilities to receive those crossing the border. Those who have arrived are camped at a school, and there are a few who have occupied a judge’s compound.”

Kathryn Mahoney, global spokesperson for UNHCR, said refugees in Chad also need urgent help. “Most of the new arrivals are women and children. They are out in the open, sleeping in makeshift shelters or under the trees. New arrivals need protection and assistance.”

Dallia Mohamed Abdelmoniem, a former journalist from Khartoum, described a difficult 26-hour journey to Port Sudan, where she is now considering her options, which include taking a ferry to Saudi Arabia. She is travelling with children and elderly people, and said that the route has been quieter than the Egyptian border, but that this might change as reports of chaos there emerge.

“Our journey to Port Sudan was long, exhausting and on roads the former government didn’t improve for 30 years,” she said. “But the highlight was fellow Sudanese meeting all the buses with juice and water, even though they have little themselves. It was very emotional.

“It reminded me of the beauty of this country and its people. That’s the reason why we can’t just roll over and allow these two men to continue with their destructive ways,” she said.


Kaamil Ahmed

The GuardianTramp

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