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 those displaced by the war, with people using cloth and chairs to construct makeshift tents, packing a local amusement park for shelter and waiting for help in three-digit heat.
Saudi Arabia has played a central role in the evacuation, extricating more than 5,000 foreigners from Sudan since the fighting erupted just over two weeks ago between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals. Saudi Arabia is one of the closest countries to Sudan — less than 150 miles across the Red Sea — and has the means to manage a large-scale evacuation.
The operation also fit efforts by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to position Saudi Arabia as a rising global power and neutral mediator. Saudi officials have relationships with both of Sudan’s warring generals, and Saudi Arabia is a member of the four-country group that tried and failed to steer Sudan to civilian-led rule.
Although international evacuations are now focused on Port Sudan, tens of thousands more people have fled by land into Chad, Egypt and South Sudan since the conflict erupted between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group.
At least 50,000 people have left Sudan since the fighting began, according to the United Nations, and the violence has killed more than 500 civilians, according to the World Health Organization. The true number of casualties is likely much higher.
The conflict has thrust Africa’s third-largest nation into chaos, with many people displaced but unsure of how to escape the violence. A three-day extension to the latest cease-fire was announced on Sunday, but heavy fighting was still reported in the capital, Khartoum, including an accusation from the Rapid Support Forces, or R.S.F., that the army was shelling its positions.
On Port Sudan’s waterfront, video footage and images shared on social media showed families waiting under the scorching sun, in temperatures of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Some people rested on suitcases which contained the few possessions they had managed to take.
But unlike in Khartoum, in Port Sudan there was no fighting, and restaurants and grocery stores were open, said Yasir Zaidan, a lecturer in international affairs at the National University of Sudan, on Monday. Mr. Zaidan, a U.S. permanent resident who arrived in Port Sudan with an American convoy on Sunday morning, said the army was in control of the city and that the convoy passed army checkpoints on its way in.
Behind the hotel where he was waiting for news from the U.S. consul, he said, was an amusement park with roller coasters and other rides. The park was overflowing with women, children and older people, suffering in the heat.
“It’s becoming more like a refugee camp,” he said.
Saudi Arabia said that its rescue operation, using warships and private chartered vessels, had evacuated 5,197 people of 100 nationalities as of Sunday, of whom only 184 were Saudi. But the demand has far outstripped supply.
So far, some Sudanese who are dual nationals have been evacuated. But many of the people waiting to leave Port Sudan only hold Sudanese passports, and there is concern that 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.
Some of those who did board ships for the 180-mile trip to Saudi Arabia’s second-biggest city, Jeddah, wept for the home and family 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.
The Saudi media was quick to hail the kingdom’s evacuation efforts. Newspapers printed photographs of Saudi soldiers welcoming evacuees in Jeddah, handing out flowers and cradling babies. Some evacuees held tiny Saudi flags.
Sudan had already hosted one of the biggest refugee populations in Africa: about 1.1 million people, most of them from South Sudan, according to the United Nations refugee agency. 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 passed through many R.S.F. checkpoints on their way out of the city. At one, paramilitary forces stole the cellphones from the occupants of one of the seven U.S. buses, and gold jewelry from one woman, he said.
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.
A State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, said on Sunday that American officials continued “to assist U.S. citizens and others who are eligible with onward travel to Jeddah,” where there were additional American personnel.
Aid is 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 it was headed. The United Nations said aid distribution was delayed in part because its supplies in Sudan had been looted.
Even before the conflict broke out, many Sudanese suffered from hunger. The World Food Program, which had suspended its work in Sudan after three staff members were killed, resumed operations on Monday — though it said that 16,000 metric tons of food had been looted, about 16 percent of what it had stocked in the country. The remainder was not enough to take them through the lean season, according to the food program’s country director Eddie Rowe, speaking from Port Sudan.
“With this unprecedented conflict, there are millions that are on the brink,” he said.
Ahmed Al Omran and Declan Walsh contributed reporting.