Sudan’s main seaport fills with crowds of those seeking rescue

They are waiting to be evacuated from the chaos-stricken nation after more than two weeks of fighting has increasingly turned the country’s capital of Khartoum into a ghost town

Sudanese and foreigners arrive in Port Sudan, the country's main seaport, as they wait to be evacuated out of Sudan, Saturday April 29, 2023.Smowal Abdalla (AP)

Exhausted Sudanese and foreigners joined growing crowds at Sudan’s main seaport Tuesday, waiting to be evacuated from the chaos-stricken nation. After more than two weeks of fighting, areas of the capital of Khartoum appear increasingly abandoned.

The battle for control of Sudan erupted on April 15, after months of escalating tensions between the military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and a rival paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

Other nations have tried to convince the two generals to stop the fighting and come to the negotiating table. The government of South Sudan, which officially split from Sudan in 2011, said Tuesday that the two rival generals have agreed in “principle” on a weeklong cease-fire starting on Thursday, and on engaging in peace talks. The statement did not elaborate on the possible venue or timing for the talks.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir spoke with both Burhan and Dagalo over the phone, the government said in a statement. There was no immediate comment from either the army or the paramilitary.

Meanwhile, civilians were packing buses and trucks for Sudan’s northern border with Egypt. Many others headed to Port Sudan, on the country’s Red Sea coast. The relative calm of the port city, from which many foreign governments have evacuated their citizens, seemed the safer option.

“Much of the capital has become empty,” said Abdalla al-Fatih, a Khartoum resident who fled with his family to Port Sudan on Monday. He said they had been trapped for two weeks, and that by now, everyone on his street had left.

When they arrived in Port Sudan after a 20-hour journey, they found thousands, including many women and children, camping outside the port area. Many had been in the open air for more than a week, with no food or basic services in the sweltering heat. Others crowded into mosques or hotels inside the city.

Tariq Abdel-Hameed was one of around 2,000 Syrians in Port Sudan hoping to get out by sea or air. Some 200 Syrians have been evacuated since the crisis began, including 35 on Friday on a vessel bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The first Damascus-bound flight was scheduled to take off later Tuesday, Abdel-Hameed said, with about 200 on board, mostly pregnant women and sick people.

At the congested crossing points with Egypt, thousands of families have waited for days inside buses or sought temporary shelter in the border town of Wadi Halfa.

Yusuf Abdel-Rahman, a Sudanese university student, said he and his family entered Egypt through the Ashkit border crossing late Monday. They had first gone to another crossing point, Arqin, but said it was too crowded to make the attempt. Families with children and the sick were stranded in the desert landscape with no food and water, waiting for visas which are mandatory for Sudanese men to enter Egypt, he recounted.

In Khartoum, Abdel-Rahman said he had seen widespread destruction and looting. He knows many people whose homes have been commandeered by the paramilitary forces and thinks they are lucky to have left before their home was stormed.

“We could have ended up dead bodies,” he said.

The fighting has displaced at least 334,000 people inside Sudan, and sent tens of thousands more to neighboring countries — Egypt, Chad, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia, according to U.N. agencies. Aid workers are increasingly concerned about lack of basic services in these areas.

Between 900 and 1,000 people arrive daily at the border with Ethiopia, Paul Dillon, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said at a news briefing Tuesday in Geneva. At least 20,000 people crossed into Chad, which borders the Darfur city of Genena where clashes last week killed dozens and wounded hundreds.

Aleksandra Roulet-Cimpric, the Chad Country Director with the International Rescue Committee, described dire conditions for the arrivals there, many of them women and children who have no choice but to seek shelter from the heat under sparse trees.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned that the number of people fleeing to neighboring countries could surpass 800,000.

Early Tuesday, the sounds of explosions and gunfire echoed though many parts of Khartoum, with fierce clashes taking place around the military’s headquarters, the international airport and the Republican Palace, residents said. Warplanes were seen flying overhead, they said.

The fighting continued despite the newest extension of a shaky cease-fire, meant to allow safe corridors for healthcare workers and aid agencies working in the capital.

“The war never stopped,” said Atiya Abdalla Atiya, Secretary of the Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate. Morgues across the capital are filled with bodies and people are still unable to collect the dead for burial, he said.

At least 447 civilians have been killed and more than 2,255 wounded since the fighting began, according to figures provided Tuesday by the Doctors’ Syndicate, which tracks civilian casualties. The Sudanese Health Ministry said it counted at least 550 people killed, including civilians and combatants, with more than 4,900 wounded as of Monday.

In addition to the South Sudanese proposal, there has been other suggestions aimed at stopping the violence and avoiding a worsening humanitarian disaster. Both sides agreed to send representatives for talks that would potentially be held in Saudi Arabia, according the U.N. envoy in Sudan, Volker Perthes. The kingdom has joined the United States in pressing for a lasting cease-fire.

Another proposal, put forward by Sudan’s former Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, who met this week with regional leaders and Western diplomats in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, set forward a series of five steps to help the two sides reconcile.

“This war can lead to a global emergency unless halted immediately,” he said.

The power struggle has derailed Sudan’s efforts to restore its democratic transition, which was halted in Oct. 2021 when Burhan and Dagalo, then allies, removed Hamdok’s Western-backed transitional government in a coup.

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