British people trapped in Sudan have described being forced to make impossible choices about whether to fly home without family members the UK government will not allow on flights.
Suleiman, a British national who asked to withhold his family name, said a British official had called him to say he could be evacuated with his two children only if he left his pregnant wife behind. His children are also British nationals, and their mother is a Sudanese citizen.
“He said: ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to fly with your children, but your wife cannot.’ When I told him that’s impossible, the children are dependent on their mother and I can’t leave my wife who has a high-risk pregnancy, he just refused and said that’s all I can do,” Suleiman said. Fearing that the journey to Port Sudan might endanger his pregnant wife, he did not take the flight and the four of them remain in Sudan.
Roza Mohamed, a British citizen, described how her Sudanese sister, Amina, and her three-year-old niece, Samrin, were prevented from boarding an evacuation flight out of Port Sudan on Monday evening because Amina lacked a UK visa and was not able to prove Samrin’s British citizenship obtained via her father, currently in Brighton.
“She was told we can’t allow you to enter the UK. When my sister asked why, they said your daughter doesn’t have original documents, only copies of her passport. She explained to them that their house is in an area that’s being bombed, and they couldn’t get there to retrieve the documents but they refused,” said Mohamed.
She added: “I called them myself and begged, cried for them to help. I even contacted the Foreign Office and they said they couldn’t do anything.”
Mohamed estimated that a crowd of 100 people had gathered in front of a hotel designated as a temporary office for the British embassy in Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast, desperately pleading with officials to be able to leave the country on an additional evacuation flight that left last Monday. British officials, she said, turned many away including her sister. Amina and Samrin were able to board a flight the next day, but only after sustained pressure from Mohamed and other family members back in Britain.
Growing numbers of British citizens and their children, or Sudanese citizens with British children, have decided to stay in Sudan because their family members have not been allowed to board evacuation flights.
In some cases, British officials gave the parents of young children visas and allowed them to board. In other cases they turned them away, presenting some families with a choice about whether to split up and allow their children to fly to safety or to stay together in a war zone. It is unclear why certain cases were treated differently.
Some young children with British passports were prevented from boarding evacuation flights because their accompanying parent lacked UK visas that were later provided by officials after pressure from British nationals in the UK, as was the case for Amina.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) has faced criticism for its handling of evacuations from Sudan as fighting between two warring generals has overwhelmed the capital, Khartoum, and the Darfur region, with tens of thousands displaced by the violence. After a week of pressure from the British Medical Association, in late April the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, permitted a number of NHS doctors and their dependents stranded in Sudan to board evacuation flights from an airstrip north of Khartoum, and an additional flight from Port Sudan.
While Foreign Office policy shifted rapidly, British people with relatives stuck in Sudan said they were frantically trying to figure out how to ensure that their families could board evacuation flights without separating parents from children.
“I’ve not been able to sleep or eat because of the stress,” said Amr Elnazir. The 23-year-old from Manchester lobbied the FCDO to allow his uncle, Kamal, and his uncle’s wife, Batool, along with their four children aged between six and 13 to be able to board an evacuation flight.
Kamal is a British citizen, and Batool’s Sudanese passport had been submitted to the British embassy in Khartoum as part of their children’s British passport applications. While her children have British citizenship, Batool does not.
Their family saw a potential evacuation as their sole chance to escape growing violence across the capital. “It was an all-or-nothing trip; there is nothing left there for them and they have young children,” said Elnazir.
His uncle arrived at the Wadi Seidna airbase north of Khartoum, a perilous route amid airstrikes and gunfire, with his passport, birth certificates for his children, a marriage certificate, and naturalization documents to prove he was his children’s father. “They told him he didn’t have all the relevant documents and one officer told him to go back to his house and fetch additional ones,” said Elnazir. “It was not compassionate.”
Elnazir spent three days calling the FCDO, attempting to parse shifting guidelines and what he described as “confusion,” about whether the Foreign Office in London or officers on the ground had the final say over who could leave. While he worked, Kamal, Batool, and their four children stayed at the evacuation centre next to the airbase, at one point being forced to sleep on the floor outside the centre.
After pressure from Elnazir and his local MP in Manchester, Kamal, and his family were able to board an evacuation flight from Wadi Seidna on Friday night. “I didn’t believe it until my uncle sent me a picture to show he was on the plane,” said Elnazir.
After evacuation from Wadi Seidna ended last weekend, the FCDO announced an additional flight from Port Sudan, 500 miles away from the capital on the Red Sea coast on Monday. Those looking to reach Port Sudan faced a treacherous journey out of Khartoum in a rapidly deteriorating security situation where fuel is scarce and transport prices can be hundreds of pounds.
Before they managed to escape to Port Sudan, Amina and Samrin had already fled fighting twice in Khartoum after enduring airstrikes and shooting in two neighborhoods in the centre of the city. At one point they were trapped in a neighborhood in North Khartoum for eight days without water or food.
“The army was everywhere, shooting randomly, they don’t care about anyone. My sister decided they had to leave as otherwise they wouldn’t live longer than a few days,” said Mohamed.
The family began searching for ways to get them out of Sudan and reunite with Amina’s British father and brothers in Brighton. They had been separated since late last year, as Samrin waited for a visa to the UK.
Amina had also contracted tonsillitis and a high fever shortly before fighting started in April, and was taken for care in a clinic once they reached Port Sudan. Meanwhile, Mohamed and their family members frantically called the FCDO to try to ensure they could be evacuated as her sister waited outside a hotel that functioned as a designated meeting point for those looking to leave.
“Bear in mind those people standing there in front of that office without food and water, they were scared that if they left they wouldn’t get a chance to travel,” said Mohamed. Although her sister was told she would be granted a visa to the UK, Mohamed initially didn’t believe her sister would be evacuated.
“The only reason they allowed her and my niece to travel is because we pressured them,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to experience what happened to my sister.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “The UK has carried out by far the longest and largest evacuation of any Western country from Sudan, bringing 2,341 people out in under one week. It has always been the case that the evacuation has been open to British nationals and their eligible family members.
“Preventing a humanitarian emergency in Sudan is our focus right now. Alongside the UK evacuation effort, we are working with international partners and the United Nations to bring an end to the fighting.”
Credit – The Guardian