'I thought I was done': Africans evacuated from Sudan conflict share their stories

Many Africans escaping the conflict in Sudan that erupted with little warning last month faced a long wait to get out and severe challenges on the way as their governments struggled to mobilize resources

ByFARAI MUTSAKA and CHINEDU ASADU Associated Press
May 20, 2023, 3:48 AM
Escaping Sudan
Nigerians who were evacuated from Sudan arrive at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, Nigeria, Friday, May 5, 2023. Many Africans escaping the conflict in Sudan that erupted with little warning last month faced a long wait - three weeks for some - to get out and severe challenges on the way as their governments stuggled to mobilize resources. (AP Photo/Gbemiga Olamikan)
The Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Pauline Hungwe huddled in the bathroom of her apartment in Sudan, terrified and only peeking out of a window for a second to see the walls of nearby buildings disintegrate as they were hit by artillery fire.

She was convinced her building was next and she was going to die. The only thing she thought to do was call her son back home in Zimbabwe.

“I thought I was done,” she said. “I told my son, 'I am gone.'”

Teacher Owen Shamu was preparing children at a school in Khartoum for an exam when gunfire rang out meters away from their classroom, throwing him into a panic, he said, let alone the kids.

But having kept himself and his family safe through the first days of fighting, Shamu, also a Zimbabwean, had to think about a plan to get them out of Sudan with hardly any money and no immediate help from his home country. He didn't know how they would survive, he said.

Amina Balarabe walked for several days with her six children to various points in Khartoum, dodging gunfire and explosions, in the hope of linking up with an evacuation convoy. Even after she found buses leaving the capital, getting home to Nigeria was still a long way away. Ahead lay more than a week of traveling to the Egyptian border.

The family slept out in the desert, freezing cold at night, with Balarabe rustling up what she could to feed her children, the youngest aged just 4. They were forced to pay exorbitant prices for everything on their way, Balarabe said, even to use bathrooms at stops.

"We were paying severely," she said.

Many Africans escaping the conflict in Sudan that erupted with little warning last month faced a long wait — three weeks for some — to get out, and severe challenges on the way, as their governments stuggled to mobilize resources.

Some of them, like Balarabe, risked going it alone amid the conflict and the chaos given their food and water was running out.

Others grouped together.

“We contributed (money) among ourselves to buy some food,” said 19-year-old Shehu Hifzullah, a Nigerian student who ran out of cash on the third day of the fighting in Sudan and had to rely on others.

Some African students took refuge at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, where they found strength in unity. But while there, they also had to fight off attacks by men moving around looting and robbing people, according to Abubakar Babangida, president of the Nigerian students' association in Sudan.

Nigeria evacuated more than 2,500 of its citizens, many of them students. The South African government evacuated nearly 100, most on a convoy of buses, although it needed some help from a South Africa-based NGO. Eventually, Zimbabwe successfully evacuated 63 nationals — including Hungwe and Shamu — in two batches.

Other countries had just a few citizens in Sudan and no way to get them to safety.

One of South Africa's convoys took in a Lesotho national and a small group from Angola, who had no help coming, said Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of the Gift of the Givers NGO that aided the South African evacuation. They also helped people from Philippines and Brazil.

All of them were among hundreds of thousands of people, Sudanese included, displaced by the fighting.

Often, the evacuations came during one of the uncertain ceasefires between the warring parties, the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, former allies who became deadly enemies.

Those ceasefires were and still are “highly tenuous” because of the lack of trust between the two sides, said Ryan Cummings, director of Africa-focused security consulting company Signal Risk.

It meant countries, embassies and officials had little time and risky windows to plan escapes. There were fears that people would be sent into the midst of the fighting.

Sooliman said the South African evacuees faced food and water shortages and collapsed phone networks, leaving some isolated, only for the men, women and children to then be exposed to the “psychological trauma of war” as they were moved out. They reported seeing young people being shot and passed dozens of bodies on the street, Sooliman said.

That was corroborated by Derek Morris, whose son Warwick was among those evacuated from Khartoum.

“They realized that the fighting has now become totally all over the place,” said Derek Morris, who said he was in contact with his son by phone as they were evacuated. "Total war going on, you know ... body parts lying on the ground, the bodies were stinking. It was 41 degrees there. Totally unbearable.”

Hungwe didn't think she was going to survive Sudan. When she finally made it home to Zimbabwe, after an exhausting journey to safety on buses, a ship and airplanes, she got down on her knees and kissed the ground at the airport.

Shamu is also safely home, but for days after his family's evacuation, his daughters, aged 4 and 15, were still struggling to leave Sudan's violence behind, he said. He had bought them balloons in an attempt to lift their spirits following a harrowing experience in their young lives.

“They duck for cover and cry each time they hear a balloon pop," he said. “That’s how traumatized they are. So I had to throw away the balloons.”

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Asadu reported from Abuja, Nigeria. AP writer Mogomotsi Magome and AP videojournalist Sebabatso Mosamo in Johannesburg contributed to this report.