The US embassy destroyed passports when it fled Sudan. Some Sudanese are now ‘stranded in this war zone’

Ibrahim Mohamed heard gunfire outside his house as bullets streaked over the skies of Khartoum, where, he said, he saw warring militias killing people and looting houses.

“I even saw many people who were shot by… the people who were fighting in the streets near our house,” he said. “It is not safe at all to be in Khartoum, so I had to flee.”

More than two months later, fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has descended into a brutal conflict, characterized by reports of sexual and genocidal violence and civilian casualties, and triggering an exodus of refugees.

As many as 3,000 people have been killed since the conflict started on April 15, Sudan’s minister of health, Haitham Ibrahim, told Saudi-owned al-Hadath News Television on June 17. Almost 2.5 million people have been displaced inside and outside the country, according to recent figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), amid ongoing hostilities against the civilian population that have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.

Many Sudanese have fled the fighting to neighboring countries like Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia and South Sudan. But some, Mohamed among them, found themselves trapped by a bureaucratic nightmare – and they say the United States is responsible.

They have been stranded in the country without their passports, some left to fend for themselves while their families found safer refuge. The passports, they say, were destroyed by the US embassy, where the documents were being held for visa processing when the fighting broke out.

This is not the first time passports have been destroyed by an evacuating American embassy. When Afghanistan’s civilian government fell to Taliban fighters in August 2021, American personnel destroyed the passports of some Afghans at the US embassy in Kabul in preparation for a full evacuation.

‘Standard operating procedure’

“It is standard operating procedure during a drawdown to take precautions to not leave behind any documents, materials, or information that could fall into the wrong hands and be misused,” the email said.

The embassy advised Sudanese visa applicants without passports to apply for a new passport with the Sudanese embassy in Cairo, despite Egyptian authorities issuing a raft of entry requirements for refugees from the country. Nearly 256,000 refugees, the majority from Sudan, have entered Egypt since the fighting started on April 15, according to recent figures from the UN’s refugee agency.

On June 10, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry changed the rules to require all Sudanese to obtain electronic visas for entry. Previously, only men between ages 18 and 49 required an entry visa, with exemptions for women, children and the elderly.

“As we receive new information, we will provide individuals, with whom we are in communication, information on how to obtain a new passport or travel documents,” the spokesperson said. “We recognize that the lack of travel documentation is a burden for those seeking to depart Sudan. We have and will continue to pursue diplomatic efforts with partner countries to identify a solution,” the statement added.

A bureaucratic logjam

Arwa Idris, 20, said her family escaped Khartoum several weeks into the conflict, embarking on a treacherous journey to Port Sudan on the Red Sea in the hope of reaching a safe neighboring country by air, as the land route towards Egypt is unsafe.

Before the violence broke out, Idris, a pharmacy student, applied for a visa to attend a UN youth conference in New York in April.

“(It) was the biggest opportunity I have (had) in my entire life,” she said.

Idris explained that her visa was approved, and she was due to collect her passport in mid-April. But the fighting uprooted her life in Sudan and shattered her hopes of traveling to the US or escaping the violence at home.

Instead, she says she was thrust into a bureaucratic logjam on June 8, when the US embassy confirmed her passport had been destroyed. She said she managed to manually renew her old passport on May 26 during a stopover in Wadi Halfa, in northern Sudan – a procedure the US embassy recommended to Sudanese visa applicants. But Idris claimed that days later, Egyptian authorities would not accept her travel documents.

Her family refuses to flee the country without her, leaving them stuck in the port city with no recourse.

Mohamed, the software developer, was scheduled to travel to the US in the spring after being accepted to a computer science master’s program at a university in Iowa.

Without any travel documentation, Mohamed was forced to stay back in Sudan while his family reluctantly left him to find refuge in Egypt in late April.

“They had to leave because it’s a life or death matter if they stayed (in Khartoum).”

On May 27, he says he left the capital via an indirect route to Port Sudan, in an attempt to avoid clashes between the RSF and the Sudanese army.

“You don’t know if you’re going to be shot or not,” he added. “Along the way inside Khartoum state, you can see dead bodies everywhere… I am grateful that I made it in one piece.”

After nearly three days Mohamed reached the coastal city, where he says he is now staying at a distant relative’s house with at least 25 other family members.

Alhaj Sharafeldin, a 25-year-old university graduate, was also due to travel to the US after he was offered a place in a computer science master’s program at a university in Iowa.

Sabah Ahmed, a 47-year-old stay-at-home mother, relocated her family from Khartoum to Wad Madani, southeast of the capital, a week after the conflict started.

Before the situation boiled over, Ahmed says she and her four young children had reached the final stages of applying for family reunification to join her husband and their daughter in Columbus, Ohio. The two were granted asylum by the US in 2018.

Ahmed said she feels “practically trapped.”

Fierce clashes between the Sudanese army and RSF paramilitary forces have persisted despite attempted negotiations and shaky ceasefires, leaving stranded civilians with a future colored by war.

Speaking about her passport, Idris said: “It’s the ticket to go, to run away from this tragedy, and now it’s destroyed.”

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