In the dead of night, as HMS Al Diriyah approached Sudan’s coast, Saudi officers flicked on sweeping search lights to secure safe passage for their warship into a harbour rapidly transforming into a major evacuation and humanitarian hub in Sudan’s deepening crisis.
Even at 2am two other hulking vessels were also anchored offshore at Port Sudan, its largest port, waiting their turn in this international rescue effort.
“I feel so relieved but also so sad to be part of this history,” Hassan Faraz from Pakistan told us, visibly shaken.
We reached the quayside in a Saudi tugboat at the end of a 10-hour journey through the night in HMS Al Diriyah from the Saudi port city of Jeddah. A small group of foreign journalists were given rare access to enter embattled Sudan, if only briefly.
“People will be speaking about these events for many years to come,” Faraz reflected, as a long queue formed on the wharf for passports to be checked against the Saudi manifest. This time, it was many young workers from South Asia who said they had waited here for three long days – after two hard weeks in this hellscape of war.
Another man from Pakistan, who said he had worked at a Sudanese foundry, spoke of having “seen so much, so many bomb blasts and firing”. Then he fell silent, staring into the sea, too traumatised to say more.
The fighting which raged in recent weeks, amidst very imperfect and partial ceasefires, is a pitched battle for power between the Sudanese army led by Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group headed by Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti.
“Port Sudan has fared relatively better in this war,” my British-Sudanese colleague Mohanad Hashim explained. “Fighting only erupted here on 15 April, the first day, but now this port city is overwhelmed by people fleeing Khartoum and other places.”
We had just sailed past the graceful Naval Club turned tented village for the displaced. Many people are now sleeping rough on the streets as they wait for a way out. Local hotels are swamped by people with passports from the world over, along with emergency consular services hastily established by embassies who have evacuated most of their staff from the capital.
Many fear there is no way out. Port Sudan is packed with people who have less lucky passports, including Yemenis, Syrians and Sudanese.
Some 3,000 Yemenis, mainly students, have been stuck for weeks in Port Sudan. “The Saudis are rescuing some Yemenis but they’re nervous about accepting large numbers,” admitted a security adviser trying to help them find a way back to their own war-torn country.
Many passengers arriving in the Saudi kingdom are provided with a short hotel stay. But it’s made clear that their own countries are expected to soon pick up the bill and arrange onward travel.
Mohanad Hashim scanned the wharf at Port Sudan, hoping to catch sight of any of his own Sudanese relatives who may be trying to make it out. The day before, at the King Faisal naval base in Jeddah where we began our journey, he suddenly found himself embracing a cousin who had made it to the Saudi city, along with two of his teenage children, after an 18-hour passage across the Red Sea.
For the Sudanese with foreign passports who make it to safe shores, the moment is bittersweet.
“Please, please help our family left in Sudan,” a pink-scarfed Rasha pleaded, one child sleeping on her shoulder, three more waving flowers handed out by Saudi soldiers. “Please tell the world to protect Sudan,” she implored us. Their family had been living near Sport City in Khartoum where gunfire erupted the morning of 15 April.
Her eight-year-old daughter Leen, speaking fluent English with an American accent, recounted in excited detail how armed men burst into their home. “We had to all hide, all ten of us, in the back room,” she declared with youthful bravado. “I stayed calm. I didn’t cry because we couldn’t make any noise.”
“They were bad, bad guys,” her younger brother chimed in. Her father explained that it had been RSF forces. Their gunmen are blamed for much of the looting and violence.
This worsening and deeply worrying war between Sudan’s two most powerful men is fuelled not just by deep personal and political animosities, but also by the competing interests and influence of major powers.
Regional heavyweights, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long bankrolled Hemedti, who grew ever richer by sending forces to fight for their side in the early years of their destructive war against Yemen’s Houthis.
But in recent years Riyadh has also drawn close to Gen Burhan and also has longstanding ties to Sudan’s army. The tangled political geography in a country with vast mineral wealth and agricultural potential also includes Egypt, Israel and Russia, including the mercenary Wagner group.
But in this current crisis, where the United States and Britain and other would-be peacemakers are also weighing in, outside powers are now said to be speaking with one voice in trying to end this dangerous spiral and the enormous suffering of civilians.
Diplomats express gratitude for Saudi Arabia’s evacuation effort. So far, more than 5,000 people, of 100 nationalities, have made the Red Sea crossing on Saudi warships or private vessels chartered by the Saudi military. The biggest single operation on Saturday, which carried some 2,000 passengers, even included Iranians. Arch-rivals Riyadh and Tehran recently moved towards a cautious rapprochement, including reopening their embassies and consulates.
“It is our luck. We hope there will be peace between our countries,” 32-year-old civil engineer Nazli remarked as she disembarked in Jeddah with her engineer husband, who has also worked for years as an engineer in Sudan.
In Port Sudan on Sunday, as another packed tugboat sailed in choppy waters to a waiting Saudi warship, its passengers turned en masse to wave a final farewell to a country they regretted, with sadness, they may never return to.