B.British families fleeing Sudan have described how they dodged heavy gunfire and shelling in their attempts to escape the war-torn country after the Foreign Office “failed” to secure safe exit routes.
Many have spent thousands to escape the country safely, with the first flights evacuating UK citizens on Tuesday afternoon.
Dr Lina Badr, 42, an NHS gynecologist in Birmingham, was visiting family in Khartoum with her three children, when she found herself caught in the epicenter of fighting between Sudan’s top warring generals.
She is one of about 2,000 Sudanese citizens who have registered with the Foreign Office for aid since the conflict broke out 12 days ago.
Despite desperate pleas to the British authorities, the mother-of-three received no communication other than automated emails telling them to shelter in place. She said they repeatedly tried calling hotlines, but none of them worked.
After stray bullets tore through her family’s living room, food and supplies ran out, and her two-year-old son fell ill, she took matters into her own hands to save their lives.
“I completely lost hope in the system. As of this morning, I haven’t received anything on a solid evacuation plan. Just a piece of advice to stay at home and ask for psychological support,” she said. the independent from the border in Egypt where he hoped to cross to safety.
“Without connection we had to make a decision. We risk it.”
Along with their cousin, a Brighton dentist who was also visiting the Sudanese capital for the holidays, the British mothers were forced to rent a bus for almost $20,000 as prices for vehicles and fuel soared amid the escalation of violence
They packed up some cookies and chips they had left behind and with 11 children on board they drove 24 hours to the Egyptian border. They were based on information shared in Sudanese WhatsApp groups for a route.
“On the way out, we stopped at the house of someone who was going to provide us with cash. At the door of his house, in the middle of the discussion, there were shots from heavy weapons and we had to abandon everything, jump on the bus and leave quickly so that we could not get money, ”he explained by phone.
“Later they told us that the area we left was badly hit. Some of us…we couldn’t bring passports, some have expired passports.”
He said that at different checkpoints Sudanese soldiers and their rivals from the Rapid Support Forces boarded the bus to question them on the way, terrorizing their children, who are 15, 11 and two years old.
Her husband, Ousama Suliman, also an NHS doctor in Birmingham, said he was worried the family might be kidnapped en route.
“They told us that RSF was looking for doctors to treat their wounded and that they had been removing fleeing doctors from evacuation buses,” he said. the independent from his home in Birmingham.
“There are several other families that I know who are making the same journey. They have left everything behind, all the bags, everything.”
Dr Badr’s experience was echoed by other British citizens who also fled on their own.
William, a teacher from Coventry, who was also waiting at the Egyptian border, said it took UK authorities five days to “realize that we were here in Khartoum” despite helicopter rocket fire in his area. .
After British diplomats were flown out of the country but no evacuation plan was announced, the school where he has worked arranged for a bus to navigate a war zone and transport nearly 50 multinational employees to safety. .
With fighter jets roaring overhead, missiles and bombs landing just miles from them, they were forced to hide in their bedrooms until they could get out.
“It has been Armageddon. Some parts [of Khartoum] now they are flattened. It was imperative to just get out. There is no way people want to stay in Khartoum anymore,” William said. the independentasking that his last name be withheld for security reasons.
He said the journey to the Egyptian border took 24 hours and there was shooting on the way.
“It was an overnight and difficult journey,” he added.
“I have not received a message from the embassy. The British need reassurance that something is going to happen.”
The British government has been criticized for its slow response to the crisis, particularly after several other countries, including the United States, Gulf states such as Qatar and European nations, successfully evacuated their citizens.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly defended the Foreign Office’s actions on Tuesday saying “the circumstances of each individual nation are different.”
“There are considerably more British citizens in Sudan than other countries,” he said.
He added that the RAF had now begun evacuating citizens using a shaky ceasefire between the warring factions. But he admitted that the civilians had to make the risky journey on their own to the airbase near Khartoum, which is reportedly being secured by German forces.
He warned that it is “impossible” to know how long the lull in fierce fighting will last and that “the situation remains dangerous, volatile and unpredictable.”
“It is impossible to predict how long any other evacuation route will remain open,” he added.
The government is also facing increasing criticism for not providing emergency visas to immediate family members of British citizens, so that families are not separated.
An NHS doctor, who asked that his identity be withheld for security reasons, said the independent her father, also an NHS doctor who was shot in the leg in Khartoum, and her sister were told they would have a place in an evacuation convoy. However, her 87-year-old grandmother, who does not have British citizenship and is sheltering with them, would not.
“The UK cannot expect my wounded father to evacuate and leave his 87-year-old mother alone in the middle of the war in Khartoum,” she said desperately.
“It’s inhumane,” he added.
Questions have also been raised as to why the British government removed its diplomats first, apparently abandoning the citizens.
Azhar Sholgami, a researcher at Cornell University in the US said the independent his British grandfather Abdalla Sholgami, an 85-year-old retired businessman, has been stuck on the front lines without food or water despite living directly opposite the British embassy. “The RSF raided and ransacked his house, taking food and water. There is no electricity or telephone connection, so we have no contact with him,” he said.
“We have called different people at the embassy to help for the last eight or nine days,” he added. Amid reports that RSF has also been kidnapping doctors and looting ambulances, the Red Cross has been unable to rescue the couple. Relatives and Sudanese civilian volunteers have been shot while trying to access the street. “My grandfather always said that he is happy to live next door to the British embassy because if something goes wrong, they are right next door. It’s super disappointing.
“The least they could have done was knock on the door and give him a single bottle of water when they left, but they didn’t even do that,” he added.
Back in Birmingham, Dr Suliman, who is anxiously awaiting the return of his family, said that with so little help available, the British in Sudan have no choice but to try to flee the country themselves.
“Pretty much everyone I know has done the road trip to Egypt. Most of the people who have registered with the Foreign Ministry are not going to be there to evacuate,” he added.
“When the hotline numbers aren’t working, when you can’t get through to anyone and then you hear from the diplomats, the embassy has been evacuated, you panic.”
Back at the Egyptian border, Dr. Badr said she feared many would be forced to leave their passports behind in the fighting and therefore not be given permission to cross. She said that while she appreciated that it’s hard to plan an evacuation, if she was able to do it, then she “can do it.”
“Other countries managed to evacuate their civilians safely, efficiently and without problems,” he added.
“If other countries could execute an evacuation plan, I hoped the UK would be one of the first.”