New Delhi: Amidst the deafening roar of bombs and the menacing sound of gunfire creeping closer and closer, Maheen S., a 22-year-old adventurer from Kerala, realised that the sanctuary he sought in Khartoum was no longer a safe haven.
As a traveller who documents his journeys on a popular Malayalam language YouTube channel, Maheen has been to many destinations ravaged by war and chaos. But he had never before found himself at the heart of an active conflict zone.
Maheen had entered Sudan over three weeks ago by road from Egypt, when there was no inkling about an impending explosion in violence despite known differences between the top army commanders. But things changed swiftly, and since April 14, over 420 people have been killed in the intense fighting with heavy ammunition that broke out between forces led by the Sudanese army and a powerful paramilitary group in Khartoum.
“I was waiting for the Indian embassy to help us leave, but it became really hard to stay where I was anymore. There was a massive bombing near my place…I decided to leave on my own,” Maheen told The Wire on the phone.
Maheen said that he first started to walk and then hitchhiked on any available transport on Monday afternoon. As he travelled within the city, some parts seemed “like a war zone”. “I am sure that just a day earlier, it would have been safe for travelling through… It seemed like what we see in wars, in Mosul or Baghdad. There were tanks around, so you can imagine how thick the fighting must have been,” he said.
There had been numerous attempts to have a temporary ceasefire to allow for the movement of civilians, but such plans had been futile till Tuesday. Maheen left Khartoum on Monday afternoon, while the 72-hour ceasefire that led to a lull in fighting began later at night.
After leaving the city, Maheen noticed that the destruction caused by the conflict was less evident, but he was struck by the sheer number of people fleeing the area. The roads were clogged with vehicles, and many people were walking beside them. “The buses are completely full, trucks are full. People were sitting on top or hanging behind. Everywhere, there are petrol queues. People were walking if they had no [other] choice,” he recounted.
During the day, he was pulled on to open trucks by willing hands and allowed space amidst tired refugees anxious to leave the fighting. Overnight, he stayed in a school which had turned into a camp for Sudanese making a beeline for the international borders.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, he finally reached a friend’s house in an area which had not seen any fighting yet. The distance of 190 kilometres from Khartoum took him nearly 24 hours. After resting, he hoped to decide whether to go towards Port Sudan, where India was evacuating citizens from.
“I think that the Indian government is taking people to Jeddah and then to India. Maybe, I can instead go to Ethiopia and travel there for now. I will decide after some time,” he said.
While Maheen was resting at his friend’s house, around 16-17 Indians were still on the road after having left Khartoum over 12 hours earlier on a bus organised by their Sudanese employer.
On a patchy cellphone connection, Ramesh Radhakrishnan Warrier said that they had set out early on Tuesday morning with the hope of reaching Port Sudan within 12-14 hours. However, their journey ended up taking an additional four hours due to the army’s insistence that they take a detour. “So, we had to take a longer route, but a safer one,” explained Warrier, who serves as a financial administrator at an international school established by Sudan’s largest private conglomerate, the Dal Group.
Travelling with Warrier on the bus was also the widow and daughter of the sole Indian who lost his life following the outbreak of violence. Albert Augustine, who served as a security manager for the Dal Group, was killed by a stray bullet that pierced the balcony glass door and hit him in the head when he was in the kitchen. His family had come to visit him in Sudan on a holiday.
Although the first leg of their journey through Khartoum was somewhat tense, they were able to get through without any obstacles. “At all the three checkpoints in the city, we got special consideration from the Sudanese regardless of which party they belonged [to]… They said, ‘Hindi hindi’ and let us go.”
Once they left Khartoum, the scenery outside the bus window was mostly a desert landscape with thickets of dry bush. “We could see civilisation after every 200-300 kilometres. By that I mean huts of nomadic people made out of bamboo,” Warrier said.
There were also checkpoints on the road, but their documents were not checked. “At each checkpoint, they spoke to the driver, who said that the passengers were all Indians. The bus was always let go.”
While the length of the journey was unexpected, they had left Khartoum with enough water. “Also, convoys have been travelling on this route for the last four-five days, so local people have set up stalls with fast food. Pay the money, grab the food and leave,” said Warrier.
For Warrier, the escape from Khartoum has been bittersweet – a relief to leave the fighting with his family, but also unable to say a proper goodbye to colleagues and friends.
He was also all praise for the Indian embassy staff for pulling the community together over the last 10 days. “The mission here is understaffed and unprepared. Obviously, no one was prepared and expecting this violence to break out. But the way they have been resourceful and organised everything is really heroic.”
Warrier told The Wire that him and his co-passengers on the bus were warned not to take any photos during the journey.
After a full day on the road, he finally reached Port Sudan a little before midnight. His next wait will be to get his passport that had been given to the Indian embassy for renewal before the violence – and then to board a ship or flight to Jeddah.
At Port Sudan, hundreds of Indians were streaming in to board either an Indian naval ship or a flight to the Saudi city of Jeddah across the Red Sea. The coastal town had become the focus of international evacuation efforts, with foreign governments conducting safer evacuations from here as compared to the war-ravaged Khartoum.
On the first day of the evacuation mission named Operation Kaveri, 399 Indian nationals reached Jeddah, with 278 on INS Sumedha and 121 on a military plane. As per estimates, around 3,000-4,000 Indian nationals are expected to be transported from Sudan.
All images by Maheen S.