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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fleeing Sudan, some find Saudi ships ‘a golden opportunity’ to escape

A Saudi evacuee from Sudan disembarking at the Jeddah port in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

By Vivian Nereim

A few weeks ago, Ahmed al-Hassan was a medical student in Sudan working on a campaign to help refugees from a neighboring country. Then, the forces of two rival generals went to battle in the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and he was forced to flee.

He left behind his home, his textbooks and the paperwork proving he was a student — stuffing basic necessities into a suitcase and a backpack — to escape with his ailing mother from the bullets, warplanes and shelling.

After a harrowing 14-hour bus ride across the country, they arrived in the seaside city of Port Sudan, where thousands of Sudanese and foreigners have gathered in hopes of catching a boat or a plane out of the country.

Standing in a line of evacuees waiting Wednesday to board a ship to Saudi Arabia — a 10-hour voyage across the Red Sea — al-Hassan, 21, said he knew that he was one of a lucky few Sudanese with the connections to find a way out of the conflict tearing his country apart. He was born in Saudi Arabia and has legal residency there, giving him and his mother access to the evacuation efforts overseen by the Saudis.

“It was a golden opportunity,” he said. “In Port Sudan, there are so many people who want to leave; it was a 1% chance for something like this to happen for me.”

The Saudis have sent naval ships and chartered commercial vessels on more than a dozen trips across the Red Sea, evacuating nearly 6,000 people so far, fewer than 250 of them Saudi citizens. A New York Times reporter traveled aboard one such naval ship from Port Sudan to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, with a group of evacuees fleeing to safety.

While they are seeking refuge, the vast majority of the evacuees on this route would not be classified as refugees; Saudi authorities say they can take only those who have citizenship or legal residency in the kingdom or who have plans to travel onward.

Yet Saudi Arabia, one of the closest countries to Sudan with the means to manage evacuations, has played a central role in extricating people from the northeast African nation since the violence erupted in mid-April.

There is a large Sudanese migrant population in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi officials have relationships with both of the warring generals, viewing Sudan’s stability as crucial to regional security. And the kingdom is a member of the four-member diplomatic group, known as the Quad, which recently oversaw the failed efforts to have Sudan transition to civilian-led rule.

The Saudi rescue mission also fits neatly with efforts by the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to portray his country as a rising global power and himself as a benevolent international actor and a neutral mediator.

“Welcome to the kingdom of humanity,” Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Dubais of Saudi Arabia told a group of Chinese, Sudanese and Saudi evacuees as they arrived at the port in Jiddah on Wednesday, swarmed by television cameras and accompanied by Fayez al-Malki, a Saudi actor who shared their entire journey with 4.3 million subscribers on Snapchat.

When they disembarked from the ship via a gangway, female Saudi soldiers handed them roses. The ships will continue to retrieve evacuees as long as the journey is safe, a Saudi military spokesperson said.

More than 100,000 people have fled Sudan in less than three weeks since the fighting broke out, and more than 300,000 have been displaced internally, U.N. agencies said Tuesday.

Port Sudan, controlled by the Sudanese army, has become a refuge as fighting rages in Khartoum.

Early Wednesday, tugboats laden with evacuees zipped across the water to Saudi naval ships. Dozens of men, women and children with dazed eyes waited quietly in two lines as Saudi soldiers inspected their bulging suitcases.

Departing was the HMS Mecca, with roughly 200 evacuees, including Rihab Mahdi, 45, a Sudanese mother of five whose family had been able to secure passage because her husband worked for years as a security officer for the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

“There are very few chances and a lot of people,” she said. Despite feeling lucky, she was overcome by sorrow at leaving her home, tossing schoolbooks out of her 7-year-old son’s backpack — “the best part,” he declared — and filling it with pajamas and other items of clothing.

“It’s a difficult thing to leave your country, your family, your friends,” she said.

Asked why they could not bring more Sudanese evacuees, a Saudi military spokesperson, Col. Turki al-Maliki, said that the kingdom’s authorities were exerting “maximum effort” but that certain requirements remained. As they arrive in Port Sudan, he said, priority is given to older people, women and children.

In Khartoum on Wednesday, the Sudanese army, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, continued to fight, even as the army announced that it would agree to extend the current truce by one week, and the Rapid Support Forces affirmed its “full commitment to the declared humanitarian truce.”

The statements came a day after neighboring South Sudan announced that both generals had agreed to a cease-fire from Thursday and would name representatives to peace talks. But no date for negotiations was set, and previously truces have collapsed.

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