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InFocus Yemenis Stranded in Sudan: The Last Community

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

In one month, from April 15 to May 15, tens of thousands of foreign nationals evacuated Sudan as clashes escalated between the Sudanese military and the country’s main paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Armored convoys wound out of Khartoum, evacuees were airlifted in military planes, and warships from different nations worked together to ferry people to safety. Yemen was the last nation to organize an official evacuation — which only began after other countries had completed their own. Except for internal measures to relocate Yemenis from Khartoum to Port Sudan, Yemen’s evacuation only started on May 14 and 15, when Yemenia Airways flew approximately 775 Yemenis, including 75 children, on four direct flights from Port Sudan to Sana’a and Aden, according to a source from the Emergency Committee to Evacuate Stranded Yemenis. This left 1,239 people huddled in a rented wedding hall in Port Sudan or sleeping on the streets until seven additional Yemenia flights took them to safety on May 27 and 28.

Yemen’s Foreign Ministry estimates that 17,000 Yemenis were living in Sudan at the beginning of 2023. The majority were residents of Sudan long before Yemen’s war. However, most of the Yemenis who requested emergency evacuation were those who had fled the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Sudan hosted around 3,500 such Yemeni refugees, now uprooted twice, according to a source from the Emergency Committee. Many were students or had restarted their careers in Sudan, and some had brought their young families with them.

On April 24, Yemenis in Khartoum and Madani, in east Sudan, began a community-led emergency evacuation to Port Sudan. Two days earlier, Saudi warships had launched from the city, the first nation to use their navy to ferry foreign evacuees to safety. In the largest evacuation Saudi Arabia has ever coordinated, the Gulf nation transported civilians from over 110 countries out of Port Sudan, completing evacuations for many nations, including Syria and Iraq. By May 12, when Saudi Arabia concluded its operation, around 864 Yemeni refugees had been evacuated via Saudi ships, according to an attaché for expatriate affairs at the Yemeni embassy in Sudan. Thousands of Yemenis were left behind, however, often because they couldn’t make it to the port. To buy time and protect themselves, Yemenis in Sudan formed their own committee, “The Emergency Committee to Evacuate Stranded Yemenis,” which included community leaders and the local student union, as well as representatives from the embassy.

Evacuations began as violent clashes erupted in Khartoum’s streets. Local Yemeni community leaders arranged transportation for Yemenis stranded in neighborhoods under siege, first relocating them to safer areas. When fighting escalated, discussions of a complete evacuation of Khartoum began, as street battles turned neighborhoods into war zones. The city experienced rolling blackouts, and public services, including electricity and drinking water, were in short supply. Grocery stores doubled prices as they ran out of food, and many shops either closed or were destroyed. Committee members shared reports of several Yemenis being robbed, allegedly by the RSF.

As gunshots and artillery fire shook the Sudanese capital, many Yemenis fled, and volunteers arranged transportation for those who couldn’t afford to evacuate. The committee did not have the resources to support a complete evacuation during the early days of the fighting, and so encouraged people to travel independently to Madani, four hours drive from Khartoum, or to Port Sudan, around 12 hours away. Those who could not afford local transportation were asked to shelter in place until the committee could raise funds from Yemeni corporations for an evacuation, providing five tourist buses that transported 300 Yemenis to Madani and on to Port Sudan, according to Dr. Ismail al-Ganad, a member of the evacuation committee. Later, the Hayel Saeed Anam Group, one Yemen’s largest business conglomerates, intervened and used company money to transport remaining groups of stranded Yemenis. Logistical challenges were compounded as it became impossible to transfer money in or out of Sudan, preventing the local committee from accessing financial support.

When Yemeni evacuees arrived in Port Sudan, they faced another crisis. A total of 2,246 Yemenis arrived in the port city and registered with the evacuation committee, and another 500 arrived in Madani, where they requested transportation onward. A small city with limited infrastructure, Port Sudan could not accommodate the influx of people, and Yemenis were forced to crowd into a rented wedding hall. A field kitchen was assembled nearby, as owners of Yemeni restaurants in Sudan banded together with their staff, and the Yemeni government provided financial support for meals.

The Hayel Saeed Anam Group repeatedly tried to evacuate Yemenis from Port Sudan to Yemen, according to a member of the evacuation committee. First, they attempted to repurpose a nearby shipping vessel, but it was not approved to transport passengers. The Anam Group then targeted a cruise ship, but the vessel was not given the necessary permits to enter Sudan by the Sudanese government nor was it authorized to dock in Yemen by the coalition. Tarco Aviation, a Sudanese airline that had worked with the Yemeni government to transport RSF personnel to Yemen when Sudanese forces fought alongside the Saudi-led Coalition, offered to take the stranded Yemenis to Sana’a and Aden at a price of US$900 per passenger. The offer required the government to arrange the necessary entry permits with the coalition for flight clearance to Yemen. Belatedly, the government resorted to an alternative solution of evacuating stranded Yemenis via Yemenia Airways.

The official evacuation was planned in partnership with Yemenia Airways, which is partially state-owned. The airline contacted a British insurance company to insure flights to and from the warzone. The insurance company requested a million dollars to insure seven flights, with each flight expected to transport approximately 280 civilians, to evacuate the almost 2,000 Yemeni citizens still stranded in Port Sudan. But the government was unable to pay the insurance premiums. The operation was then separated into two parts, with four flights taking off on May 14 and 15, and seven flights to Sana’a and Aden scheduled for late May. Thousands of people were left waiting for weeks, unsure if the second evacuation would ever take place.

According to a source in the emergency committee, the government’s response to the crisis was completely inadequate: “After transferring emergency funds to the embassy in Sudan, they seemed to think they had done enough.” Other countries took action and implemented plans to evacuate their citizens, while Yemenis were left behind. Despite the efforts of restaurateurs, bare minimum subsistence rations were provided for food. An elderly Yemeni woman who was sick during the Port Sudan evacuation died due to lack of medical care, and a woman and her daughter were killed in a traffic accident trying to make their way to safety.

After two more weeks, the long-awaited second phase of the operation evacuated the remaining 1,239 Yemenis on seven flights, which took off on May 27 and 28. In total, 2,894 Yemenis were reportedly evacuated from Sudan, although more fled the country using private resources.

There was one bright spot in this period of misery: two impromptu weddings were held in the hall where Yemenis took shelter. Young love, and a desperately needed celebration, brought a modicum of joy in the midst of the suffering.