Refugees queue at Port Sudan airport, praying and hoping to flee

Thursday May 11 2023
Sudan refugees

People from various nationalities on May 5, 2023 queue to enter the Spanish frigate Reina Sofia during an evacuation from Port Sudan toward Saudi Arabia. PHOTO | AFP


As exhausted war refugees form a long queue near a gate at Port Sudan airport, some look up at a large banner above showing a Muslim prayer for travellers.

After nerve-wracking days on the road at risk from Sudan's rival forces, many of them quietly recite the prayer as they hope to finally escape the country.

Civilians are still trying to flee, boarding evacuation planes with just a few belongings and leaving behind their homes, relatives and lives nearly a month into Sudan's bloody conflict.

For those queueing at the airport, after their perilous journey from Khartoum, some 850 kilometres (530 miles) away by car or bus, escape from Sudan was tantalisingly close.

Saudi Arabia evacuation exercise

South Korean nationals on April 24, 2023 arrive by military aircraft at Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia from Port Sudan. PHOTO | SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENTIAL PALACE | AFP

But after hours of waiting, only a handful of them walked, slowly under the scorching sun, towards two planes on the tarmac, carrying children and small bags.


Dentist Saeed Nour-Addaem Saeed, 25, was one of the lucky dozen or so evacuees who boarded an Emirati plane to Abu Dhabi.

"I was on the road for two days," said Saeed, wearing bright red shirt and white trousers, who was preparing to join his parents in the United Arab Emirates.

"I woke up to gunfire when the war broke out and I've seen horrific things since then," he told AFP.

Two years ago, despite Sudan's political turmoil, Saeed made the decision to stay after graduating from a university in the capital Khartoum, hoping to one day open a clinic.

"I don't really understand what happened. I left everything behind. My dream is broken," he said.

More than 750 people have been killed since battles erupted between the army and paramilitary forces on April 15, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

Read: Fighting heaps suffering on Sudanese

About 177,000 people have fled the poverty-stricken country, while at least 736,000 are internally displaced, says UN agencies.

Safely aboard the Emirati plane, 16-year-old Abdul Rahman Ibrahim Abdul Khaleq recounted how he, his mother and sister decided to flee their home in Khartoum when the fighting closed in.

They took a public bus to Port Sudan and finally managed to board the plane. His mother was praying as it took off.

"There is no more safety, it's chaos. Many of my friends already left," said the young Sudanese, who had wanted to study electrical engineering and had plans to enrol in university.

"I think this is over now. I was actually hoping to see the country develop but now I think Sudan needs at least 10 years to regain its stability."

Those unable to escape are grappling with shortages of food and other essentials, surviving only thanks to informal charity networks.

Workers load aid supplies from WHO

Workers load aid supplies from WHO and UAEAID into a plane bound for Port Sudan at the Abu Dhabi International Airport on May 5, 2023. PHOTO | GIUSEPPE CACACE | AFP

Neighbouring nations have been providing aid supplies and evacuating hundreds of people of various nationalities since the beginning of the fighting.

On Wednesday, the same Emirati plane that carried the evacuees delivered tonnes of medical supplies.

UAE so far sent 10 planes

According to the UAE Ambassador Hamad Mohammed AlJneibi, his energy-rich country has so far sent 10 planes carrying more than 450 tonnes of food and medical aid.

Read: Sudanese hope on Jeddah talks

"The Emirati air bridge shall continue," he told AFP.

At the Port Sudan airport terminal, anxious passengers approached officers to ask about ways to get out of the country. Some of them carried plastic bags filled with food and fruit.

Nearby, Sudan's breakdown was all too real for by Mohammed, a 70-year-old airport employee wearing a white turban who said he was waiting to receive his late pay.

"No money. Things should get better, God willing," he said in English, sitting on a bench.