Thousands Flee to Sudan’s Main Seaport, Seeking Ships to Safety
Thousands of people have descended on a port city in eastern Sudan in recent days, fleeing the violence in the capital and trying to secure their escape aboard vessels heading over the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
The coastal city of Port Sudan — the country’s biggest seaport — has been transformed into a hub for displaced people, with people stringing together makeshift tents, packing an amusement park for shelter and waiting for help in three-digit heat.
The conflict that erupted on April 15 between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group, has killed more than 500 civilians, according to the World Health Organization, and has thrust Africa’s third-largest nation into chaos, with many people displaced but unsure of how to escape the violence. The true number of casualties is likely much higher.
A three-day extension to the latest cease-fire was also announced on Sunday, but heavy fighting was still reported in the capital, Khartoum, including an accusation from the R.S.F. that the army was shelling its positions.
On Port Sudan’s waterfront, people who had fled strung cloths to chairs and railings to form makeshift tents, video footage and images shared on social media showed. Some rested on their suitcases, which contained all the possessions they had managed to flee with. Families waited under the scorching sun, in temperatures of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
But unlike in Khartoum, in Port Sudan there was no fighting, and restaurants and grocery stores were open, Yasir Zaidan, a lecturer in international affairs at the National University of Sudan, said on Monday. Mr. Zaidan, a U.S. permanent resident who arrived in the port city in an American convoy on Sunday morning, said the army was in control of the city that the convoy passed army checkpoints on its way in.
Behind the hotel where he was waiting for news from the U.S. consul was an amusement park, he said, with roller coasters and other rides. But now it was overflowing with women, children and older people, suffering in the heat.
“It’s becoming more like a refugee camp,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has launched a major rescue operation, sending warships and chartering private vessels, which it said had evacuated 5,197 people of 100 nationalities as of Sunday, of whom 184 were Saudi. But the demand has far outstripped supply. So far, Sudanese appear to have been evacuated only if they are dual nationals.
Many of the people in Port Sudan only hold Sudanese passports, meaning they could be trapped indefinitely in the port as countries prioritize getting dual nationals out. For those without any passport, it could be even harder to escape the fighting.
People boarded the ships for the 180-mile trip to Saudi Arabia’s second-biggest city, Jeddah, weeping for the home and family members they had to leave behind.
The head of Saudi Arabia’s General Department of Passports said the country would grant free visas for all foreign nationals who had been evacuated from Sudan on a legal basis, but that they must have scheduled plans to leave the kingdom. Details of the process remained unclear on Monday.
Saudi Arabia, less than 150 miles across the Red Sea from Sudan, has played a central role in the process of extricating foreigners from Sudan since the violence erupted. The evacuation also fit with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to position the kingdom as a rising global power and neutral mediator between various leaders: Saudi officials have relationships with both of Sudan’s rival generals, and have played a part in efforts that tried and failed to steer Sudan to civilian-led rule.
Sudan hosts one of the biggest refugee populations in Africa — about 1.1 million people, according to the United Nations refugee agency, most of them from South Sudan — and many of those people, including Yemenis and Syrians, are now again trying to escape to safety. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, around 3,000 South Sudanese are fleeing back to their fragile country every day.
The 500 mile journey from Khartoum to Port Sudan is a harrowing one. Mr. Zaidan fled with his wife on Saturday afternoon, leaving his grandparents behind, and passing through many checkpoints operated by the R.S.F. on their way out of the city. At one, paramilitary forces stole all the cellphones from the occupants of one of the seven U.S. buses, he said, and one woman’s gold jewelry.
When they arrived in Port Sudan, the scene was chaotic, he said, and there was no U.S. representative who could tell him or the other 140 people in the American convoy how they would be evacuated. Some U.S. citizens had been waiting with no news for three days, he said, and the price of a spot on a private ship was rising steeply, if one could be gotten at all.
The State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, said on Sunday that the United States had helped evacuate nearly 1,000 of its citizens from Sudan since the crisis began. He said American officials continued “to assist U.S. citizens and others who are eligible with onward travel to Jeddah,” where there were additional American personnel.
As the conflict in Sudan enters its third week, aid is also beginning to arrive in Port Sudan. Eight tons of medical supplies sent by the Red Cross were unloaded there on Sunday, the organization said, but it was not immediately clear where they were going. The United Nations said it had taken so long to get aid to Sudan because its supplies in the country had been looted. The U.N. secretary-general announced on Sunday that he was dispatching his humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, to the region.
After Sunday’s announcement of an extended cease-fire, both the army and the Rapid Support Forces almost immediately accused the other of violations, with the army claiming to have destroyed R.S.F. convoys moving toward Khartoum from the west and the R.S.F. saying the army had attacked its positions in Khartoum Province with artillery and warplanes.
Vivian Nereim and Ahmed Al Omran contributed reporting.
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