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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Civilians flee fighting in Sudan for troubled neighboring countries


Civilians boarded buses leaving Sudan’s capital to escape the fighting between two rival generals that has killed hundreds of people.

By Abdi Latif Dahir and Lynsey Chutel


Civilians fleeing the fighting between two rival generals in Sudan streamed into neighboring countries Monday, raising concerns about a humanitarian crisis spreading to countries already grappling with conflict, hunger and dire economic straits.


The heavy gunfire, shelling and airstrikes that have rocked Sudan for 10 days prompted foreign countries to begin evacuating diplomatic staff and nationals over the weekend. It also has driven thousands of Sudanese and other people across borders into Chad, Egypt and South Sudan, aid workers said.


The huge movement of people risks overwhelming Sudan’s neighbors, some of which already host large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people. Sudan, a country of 45 million people and the third-largest by area in Africa, is surrounded by seven countries racked by poverty and instability.


Just the past few years have seen a civil war in Ethiopia; hunger, flooding and ethnic fighting in South Sudan; and a coup in Chad.


“The humanitarian impact of this crisis is going to be almost unimaginable,” said Faith Kasina, the regional spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency. “The worst-case scenario is unfolding right before our eyes.”


More than 400 people have been killed and 3,700 others injured in Sudan in the fighting, according to the World Health Organization. The clashes have left countless people in the country without food, water or electricity. Many hospitals in the capital, Khartoum, have closed, and several humanitarian organizations said that their warehouses and offices had been looted.


Repeated efforts to broker a cease-fire between the two rival forces — the army and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary unit — have failed. Everyone from the U.N. secretary-general to the Israeli Foreign Ministry has offered to mediate.


On Sudan’s southern border, nearly 3,000 people had arrived by Monday in the town of Renk in South Sudan, according to the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency. Most of those were South Sudanese returning home after having fled Khartoum in cars and on the backs of trucks, carrying whatever they could on the 280-mile journey south.


“The people that get out first are the people that have the means,” noted Peter Van der Auweraert, the South Sudan representative for the migration organization. “We are preparing for more vulnerable people arriving in the coming days and weeks.”


South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is wrestling with its own problems, particularly stemming from a yearslong civil war that has devastated the economy, cost the lives of more than 400,000 people and displaced 4.3 million others. About three-quarters of the population, or more than 9 million people, are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the International Organization for Migration.


At Sudan’s northern land border, dozens of buses crossed into Egypt on Monday carrying those fleeing the fighting, where they were met by Sudanese relatives.


Hundreds of families, according to relatives and aid workers, are also fleeing to small cities and towns in the eastern and southern parts of Sudan, and some are considering crossing into Ethiopia — which is still recovering from two years of civil war in the northern Tigray region that was quieted in November.


Abdirahman Isak Shangah, a postgraduate student at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, took a half-day bus ride to reach the Sudanese town of Qadarif, and is headed to Ethiopia. He said that members of the paramilitary force barged into his dormitory Friday, took away the little food he had stored, ordered students to vacate their rooms and began taking up positions.


“Our bedrooms became the battleground,” said Shangah, who is 26 and from Somalia. “Ethiopia has its own challenges, but it is safer to be anywhere else now than Khartoum.”


Foreign countries began to evacuate diplomatic staff from Sudan over the weekend in airlifts, and in long convoys by car to Egypt or a port on the Red Sea. But they have left behind a pool of resentment among some Sudanese, who say they feel both abandoned and angry that international diplomacy failed to prevent the military rivals from turning to battle.


The removal of foreign nationals continued Monday, with the European Union evacuating 21 diplomatic staff and “more than 1,000 civilians,” according to the bloc’s top diplomat. France said it closed its embassy in Khartoum. Djibouti, Kenya, Nigeria, Brazil and South Africa announced plans to evacuate their nationals.


Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that “dozens” of American citizens in Sudan have told the U.S. government that they want to leave. The State Department is providing them with advice and guidance, but there are still no plans to offer them transportation because it is too dangerous, Blinken said.


There are an estimated 16,000 Americans in Sudan, many of them dual nationals.


Complicating matters further, Sudan has been hosting about 1.1 million refugees and asylum-seekers, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Most of those people are from South Sudan, a nation that split from Sudan in 2011 and has been ravaged by civil war ever since. Sudan is also home to refugees from conflicts and autocratic rule in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria.


For many of those people, who had just begun to pick up the pieces of their lives by opening small businesses and otherwise putting down tentative roots in Sudan, any hope of regaining a settled existence is now in limbo again.


When the fighting broke out in Khartoum, pockets of violence also flared up in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.


That sent up to 20,000 people — mostly women and children — fleeing into neighboring Chad, which is already home to more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency.


Many of those arriving in eastern Chad walked for a day, carrying little more than clothes and a pair of shoes, said Eujin Byun, a spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency.


Some joined relatives in the already sprawling camps where resources are stretched, she said. But many of the new arrivals chose to sleep in the open area close to the border and wait for word of when it will be safe to return.


South Sudan, one of the poorest nations in the world, is also bracing for what could be a catastrophic economic shock. While most of the South Sudanese living in Sudan are refugees, the rest are migrants who typically support their families back home. The fighting could interrupt those flows of money and limit cross-border trade.


Markets in the north of South Sudan, filled with goods brought in from Sudan, already have less to offer as fighting disrupts the supply chain, Van der Auweraert said. And the South Sudanese pound has begun to lose value.


“We do not want to get into a situation where we have to deprive people in South Sudan that are also in need,” Van der Auweraert said. “There’s going to be difficult decisions to be made.”


Even as some found a way to leave the most dangerous areas of Sudan, many people remain stuck in Khartoum, where the conflict is most acute.


Javid Abdelmoneim, who lives in Malawi, said that his father, an 80-year-old British national living in Khartoum, had declined offers from relatives to leave the city because he said that he had received promises from the British Embassy that he would be evacuated.


But the British government evacuated only its diplomatic staff Sunday, a move that Abdelmoneim said he and his family had learned about on Twitter. The government said Monday that it is using “all diplomatic avenues” to get British nationals out.


Abdelmoneim said that he is now trying to contact two uncles to take his father out of Khartoum along with them, but that phone and internet networks were patchy.


“My only hope is that we will somehow reach our relatives and have them get my father out,” Abdelmoneim said, through tears.

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