(CAIRO) — An international assistance group has come to the rescue of tens of Americans in Sudan, as they joined the thousands scrambling to flee amid fighting that’s raged for weeks between rival military forces.
Eighty-six people, most of whom are American citizens, were airlifted on Monday from Port Sudan to Egypt aboard a plane chartered by Project Dynamo, in the first private air evacuation of Americans from Sudan.
Mohamed Bakr, an American with Sudanese citizenship, was one of those arriving in Egypt. He took the dangerous 18-hour overland journey, traveling from the city of Omdurman to Khartoum, where he and his family joined one of the two U.S. government-organized convoys, and onward to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, some 840 kms, or about 520 miles, from the capital.
The convoy brought the family to a hotel there where they waited for about 12 hours without rooms, food or bathrooms, before they fortuitously learned about the private air operation from volunteer team members there.
“On the convoy’s way to Port Sudan we were stopped 10 times by the different [warring] groups. Some people lost their phones, some lost money. They took it. It was very dangerous,” Mohamed, who fled with his wife and two daughters, told ABC from a bus at the Cairo International Airport where his plane landed.
Others said hundreds of Americans, including those with Sudanese citizenship or permanent residency, who were brought by the U.S. convoys to the hotel in Port Sudan were left unassisted, sitting or sleeping on the ground at the hotel lobby as they waited for up to a whole day to be registered for forthcoming evacuation trips. Locally employed U.S. embassy staff there gave no information about when they were planned to be moved.
The U.S. airlifted diplomats from Khartoum in a military operation a week into the fighting that began on April 15, leaving behind an estimated 16,000 private American citizens. Later, two convoys carried U.S. citizens, locally employed staff and nationals from partner countries to Port Sudan as part of the effort to evacuate Americans from the conflict. Officials had maintained for over a week it was too dangerous to carry out border evacuation operations, amid anger from Americans in Sudan who felt they were abandoned in a dangerous situation.
More people were planned for Monday’s $410,000 evacuation operation but the RSF ambushed a bus of 20 people en route to Port Sudan and took passenger’s money, phones, documents and passports, leaving the rescue team unable to locate them, Project Dynamo CEO and co-founder Bryan Stern told ABC as he was waiting for evacuees to arrive.
Others had document problems and were unable to fly.
“The administrative piece of evacuation is often as complicated as the tactical execution of the operation,” Stern, a U.S. military veteran, said.
Sudan is the third country where the organization works to save Americans in trouble, after war-torn Ukraine and Afghanistan, where it rescued American citizens by air after the Taliban’s takeover following U.S. troops’ withdrawal. It has rescued over 6,000 people in its almost two years of operation.
The deadly violence between the Sudanese army and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) group has killed hundreds and sent thousands fleeing for their lives. At least two Americans have been killed in the conflict.
The conflict has trapped many in their homes in Khartoum and other cities. It’s destroyed or shut down hospitals, caused food shortages and lengthy power and water cuts and led to looting of shops and homes. The United Nations warned over 800,000 people may flee the fighting for neighboring countries.
Intesar, another American with Sudanese citizenship, who was among those arriving in Egypt, made the overland journey from Khartoum to the country’s main Red Sea port after her house was caught in the crossfire.
“I spent seven days under heavy shelling. After that I decided to leave because everything in my house was shaking. We were almost hit by bullets. I found bullets in my yard. It was very scary,” she said.
With an internet outage caused by the fighting in her area, just a few kilometers from the flashpoint site of the military headquarters in Khartoum, Intesar had her Washington, D.C.-based daughter register for her online to be evacuated on the rescue plane. Her husband, a permanent U.S. resident, and two Sudanese sisters were also evacuated.
Almost 1,000 U.S. citizens have left Sudan since fighting broke out, according to the State Department.
“Those were terrifying days,” said American Mohamed Moussa, who joined the second U.S. convoy of around 10 buses. “It’s a very bitter feeling to leave like this and leave your family behind.”
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.