Canada and some of its allies halted rescue flights from Sudan’s capital on the weekend, as escalating fighting between rival military factions made it too dangerous to continue. But with an estimated 230 Canadians who want to leave still stranded in the country, evacuation efforts continue through other means.
The path to safety now runs through Port Sudan, the country’s main international trade hub on the Red Sea, a perilous 800-kilometre journey by road from Khartoum.
Defence Minister Anita Anand said the federal government was doing its utmost to help Canadians and their family members who were still seeking assistance in getting out of Sudan. “Canada and our allies are continually assessing how we can assist our citizens in leaving Sudan from various locations,” she said in an update on Sunday.
Canada and other Western countries had focused their rescue efforts on getting citizens on flights leaving from Wadi Seidna airfield, just outside the capital. Six Canadian Armed Forces flights departed over the past few days, evacuating approximately 550 people in total, including about 175 Canadian citizens and permanent residents, along with citizens of other countries. More than 210 Canadian citizens and permanent residents left on flights organized by allies. And an unspecified number of Canadians have gotten out of Sudan through other means.
Ms. Anand said that countries tried to evacuate “as many people as possible from that location for as long as possible,” but by Saturday night, escalating violence had made it too dangerous. No further Canadian flights are planned and Canadian Forces’ personnel had been pulled from the airfield, she said.
“Despite the fact that a ceasefire agreement is in place between the two warring factions, fighting continues in Sudan and in close proximity to the airfield,” Ms. Anand said. “The situation remains volatile, dangerous and unpredictable.”
Asked whether any Canadian citizens were left behind at the airfield when the rescue flights were halted, General Wayne Eyre, chief of the Defence Staff, said he didn’t believe so, but the situation on the ground was so chaotic that he couldn’t be sure.
“There was fighting around the airport as our aircraft were approaching,” he said on Sunday. “In fact, our pilots on night-vision goggles were able to see small-arms exchanges as they approached.”
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands wounded in Sudan since a long-simmering power struggle between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) erupted into conflict on April 15.
Both sides said a formal ceasefire agreement, which was due to expire on Sunday night, would be extended for a further 72 hours.
While Canadian officials on Sunday painted a picture of broad co-operation among allies and a pull-out-all-the-stops effort, some Sudanese-Canadians are frustrated by what they say is a lack of information and follow-through.
Hisham Mohamed was in Khartoum visiting family when the conflict broke out.
“I was just a few kilometres from the presidential palace, so the fight was intense,” he told The Globe and Mail. “From the first day, we didn’t have water or power.”
Mr. Mohamed said he registered on April 15 with Global Affairs, but to this day, he has not received any news from the department, other than a confirmation e-mail and advice to shelter in place.
After three days of hiding out, and with food running low, Mr. Mohamed went out to get water. When he crossed a military checkpoint, he reached a breaking point. “They shot the next car, the guy that was in the next car,” he said. “That’s when I said: ‘Okay, that’s it for me.’” He decided to flee by himself.
It took him three days to reach the Egyptian border to the north, a journey that would usually take fewer than 12 hours. He rode in cabs, buses, pickup trucks, a motorcycle and a small boat – whatever he could find.
“Along the way, you know, I see just burning bodies, burning tents, motor vehicles, armed vehicles – all kinds of stuff,” he said.
Mr. Mohamed is still in Egypt, waiting for his brother who got stuck at the border. He hopes to make it back to Canada in a few days on a commercial flight. He said it’s a good thing he left Sudan by himself, as he still has not received any guidance from Global Affairs.
“I’m very sad,” he said. “Imagine if I waited for them.”
Aida Elbadri of the Sudanese Community of Ontario said Canada’s response to the crisis in Sudan came late and fell short. “The government basically dropped the ball on this one. They haven’t done anything,” she said.
She said stranded Sudanese-Canadians didn’t receive clear information from Global Affairs, while community organizations like hers stepped up to provide information on social media.
Ms. Elbadri heard reports that immediate family members of Canadian nationals were sometimes denied boarding on allied planes even though Ottawa had said they would be eligible for evacuation. In other cases, she heard of Canadians who were evacuated, but left in third countries with few resources or support from the federal government.
“Come on, we can do better,” she said.
Global Affairs and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. is leading a series of multinational convoys from Khartoum to Port Sudan. General Eyre said he had spoken to his U.S. counterpart about the effort and that seats were open for Canadians. So far, two convoys had been successfully completed and more were planned. Canada has two ships nearby in the Red Sea.
But Sébastien Beaulieu, director general of security and emergency preparedness at Global Affairs, warned that the situation on the ground is perilous and people would have to assess what was the safest course of action. If the situation called for it, the department recommended sheltering in place.
“It’s a decision that everybody needs to take on their own initiative, based on their own circumstances, their ability to travel, their mobility, and their assessment of the risks,” he said. “Evacuation by road from Khartoum is a 30-hour journey with many risks along the way, and not everyone is able to do that.”
SHANNON PROUDFOOT AND FRÉDÉRIK-XAVIER DUHAMEL
The Globe and Mail, April 30, 2023