Azza's story: Bittersweet ending for Sudan evacuees

time:2023-06-02 13:07:51 source:CNN (Cable News Network)

The mobile phone footage is wobbly as Azza weaves her way through the crowd to the door of the Coral Hotel in Port Sudan.

"Are there any staff here from the British embassy?" the 39-year-old mother of three asks the man at the door.

He holds the door open just enough to hear the question - but not enough to let her in. "Those people packed up and left yesterday," he replies.

All around Azza, people are crowded on the steps of the hotel.

It is where the UN has its headquarters, and the British Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) recently set up a temporary consular office to help British nationals trying to flee Sudan.

Many sit on chairs in the shade of the building's portico, seeking relief from the sun, clutching mobile phones and folders full of documents.

They all want to get out of the country while they can.

It's Thursday morning and Azza and the children have been there since the previous day. They are desperate.

But the last British flight has left and the British consular presence seems to have disappeared.

A few hours later, the FCDO travel advice page for Sudan, which had pointed would-be evacuees to the hotel since flights from Khartoum ended earlier in the week, abruptly changes.

It now reads: "Due to the changing security environment in Port Sudan, we do not have a presence at the Coral Hotel."

For Azza, a British citizen, a door has been slammed shut.

Azza writes an anguished statement: "I want to express my frustration and disappointment with the British government's handling of the recent evacuation efforts in Sudan.

"I was told that my children would be allowed to travel with me out of this war-torn country to the safety of Britain."

Her statement describes an 11-hour journey from Shendi, north of Khartoum, with warplanes flying overhead, and the disappointment of being rejected at the Coral Hotel.

"To our shock and dismay, we were told we could not travel," she writes, adding: "The British government's advice had been misleading, and we were left stranded in a dangerous situation with no clear guidance or support."

Her husband Ahmed Abuelgasim, who is back in Khartoum, spoke to me from his car in al-Manshiya, a neighbourhood east of Khartoum International Airport.

The 46-year-old businessman said the fighting nearby made him too nervous to sit in the apartment.

Ahmed grew up in west London. His father was an engineering director for Sudan Airways at Heathrow Airport.

After studying engineering at Kingston University, the family returned to Sudan. Ahmed's three older brothers left in 1989, when Sudan's democratically-elected government was overthrown by Omar al-Bashir.

While they settled in the UK, Ahmed stayed in Khartoum and never bothered to get a British passport.

Azza was born in 1983, in Dorchester, where her father worked as a psychiatrist. As a child born in the UK to parents with indefinite leave to remain, she was automatically a British citizen.

Azza and Ahmed tried to get their children British passports last year - but the process was complex and costly so they gave up, intending to try again another time.

They were not planning to move to the UK but, with Sudan's troubled recent history, thought it would be wise to have options.

"Lots of people have UK passports, but don't want to live there," Ahmed explained, adding: "It's a safe haven to go."

Then suddenly it was too late.

With fighting raging around them, they decided Azza and the kids should leave.

By now, the UK airlift from Wadi Saedna was drawing to a close. When they contacted the FCDO hotline, they were advised to make their way to Port Sudan, about 805km (500 miles) away.

They explained the children were not UK citizens and had no UK visas - and that Azza's passport was locked in a safe at the bank where she works as a financial analyst. The fighting meant it was too dangerous to retrieve it.

Ahmed says the official they spoke to said it would not be a problem - Azzas's details were in the system and the FCDO's crisis travel advice suggested that children under 18 might qualify.

He found a car willing to drive his family through the night, paying $2,000 (£1,582) for a journey that would normally cost $50 each by bus.

But when they reached Port Sudan, their hopes were shattered.

Arriving at the Coral Hotel on Wednesday, ahead of a 10:00 (08:00 GMT) deadline for British nationals to register, Azza was told she could board a flight - but the children could not.

"If I hadn't received the invitation, believe me, I wouldn't have sent my kids out in the middle of the night," Ahmed said.

It seems the couple missed a bit of different advice which appeared on the constantly changing Sudan page of the FCDO website earlier in the week.

Evacuation was open to children under 18, it stated, "who are either non-visa nationals or those with existing UK entry clearance".

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said last month that border force staff were "empowered to exercise discretion" when it came to dependents.

At the Coral Hotel, Azza was told that, had she arrived with toddlers, there would have been no problem.

The speed of events in Sudan over the past three weeks has been almost impossible to keep up with. Evacuation plans have had to be developed from scratch, travel advice revised again and again.

But on Friday afternoon, thanks to the intervention of the former British Ambassador to Sudan, Irfan Siddiq, Azza and the children boarded a Spanish ship bound for Jeddah, where a flight will take them on to Cyprus and the UK.

It is a bittersweet moment for Ahmed. His family will soon be reunited with relatives in the UK - but he has no idea when he will see them next.

"I really don't want to be thinking about that now," he tells me. "I just want them to be safe."

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