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Civilians flee Sudan to fight for beleaguered neighbor

Civilians fleeing fighting between Sudan’s two rival generals poured into the neighboring country on Monday, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis spreading to a country already grappling with conflict, hunger and dire economic woes.

Heavy artillery fire, shelling and airstrikes have rocked Sudan for 10 days, prompting foreign countries to begin evacuating diplomats and nationals over the weekend. It has also driven tens of thousands of Sudanese and others across the border into Chad, Egypt and South Sudan, aid workers said.

The massive movement of people could overwhelm Sudan’s neighbors, some of which already host large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons. Sudan, a country of 45 million people and the third largest country in Africa by area, is surrounded by seven countries plagued by poverty and instability.

Nearly 3,000 people had arrived in the South Sudanese border town of Renk as of Monday, according to the United Nations agency International Organization for Migration. Most of them were South Sudanese returning home after fleeing Khartoum in cars and trucks, carrying all they could on the 280-mile journey south.

“The first to leave are the able,” said Peter Van der Auweraert, the IOM representative in South Sudan. “We are preparing for the arrival of many more vulnerable people in the coming days and weeks.”

More than 400 people have been killed and another 3,700 wounded as fighting raged in Sudan, according to the World Health Organization. The conflict has left countless people in the country without food, water or electricity. Many hospitals in the capital Khartoum have been closed, and some humanitarian groups say their warehouses and offices have been looted.

Multiple attempts to broker a ceasefire between the two rival forces – the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Force – have failed.

According to relatives and aid workers, hundreds of families are fleeing to small towns in eastern and southern Sudan, and some are considering crossing into Ethiopia, which was still recovering from a two-year civil war in the northern region of Tigray until November. Only then calmed down.

In Sudan, foreign countries began evacuating diplomats by air and coach convoy to Egypt or a port on the Red Sea over the weekend. But they left behind resentment among some Sudanese who say they feel both abandoned and angry that international diplomacy has failed to prevent a military rival from turning to war.

The evacuation of foreign citizens continued on Monday, with the EU evacuating 21 diplomats and “more than 1,000 civilians”, according to the bloc’s top diplomat. Several African countries, including Djibouti, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, have also announced plans to evacuate their nationals.

The United Nations mission in Sudan said its international staff had arrived in the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast and would travel from there to neighboring countries. However, Volker Perthes, the UN special envoy to Sudan, will remain in the country.

While some have found a way to leave the most dangerous part of the country, many are still trapped in Khartoum, where the conflict is most intense. Javid Abdelmoneim, whose father is an 80-year-old British national who lives in Khartoum’s Garden District, is one of them.

Mr Abdulmonem said his father had rejected offers from relatives to leave the city because he said he had received a promise from the British embassy that he would be evacuated. But the British government evacuated only diplomatic staff on Sunday, a move Abdulmonem said he and his family learned about on Twitter.

Mr. Abdelmoneim said in a telephone interview from Blantyre, the Malawian city where he works, that he could not reach his father on Monday. He said he was coordinating with relatives abroad to contact two uncles who were about to leave Khartoum and perhaps bring his father along, but the phone and internet networks were spotty.

“This is a precarious situation,” Mr Abdulmonem said through tears. “My only hope is that we can somehow get in touch with our relatives and let them get my dad out.”

To further complicate matters, Sudan has been hosting some 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Most of these people are from South Sudan, which split from Sudan in 2011 and has been ravaged by civil war ever since. Sudan is also home to refugees from conflict and authoritarian rule in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria.

Violence is now forcing some of these refugees and asylum seekers to hit the road again and into neighboring countries. For those who are just starting to put down roots in Sudan by starting small businesses or otherwise, many of their hopes of regaining a stable life are now once again in limbo.

The countries they fled to are inherently fragile. In just the past few years there has been civil war in Ethiopia, hunger and economic challenges in South Sudan, and a coup in Chad. Aid workers have warned that the displacement of more people fleeing the fighting in Sudan could be disastrous for the neighboring countries.

While fighting erupted in Khartoum, violence erupted in West Darfur. According to the UN refugee agency, this has led to as many as 20,000 people, mainly women and children, fleeing to neighboring Chad, which already hosts more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees.

South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, is already bracing for a potentially catastrophic economic shock. While the majority of South Sudanese living in Sudan are refugees, the rest are migrants who often support their families in their home countries. Fighting could disrupt those financial flows and limit cross-border trade.

Mr Van der Auweraert of the International Organization for Migration said markets in northern South Sudan were flooded with goods from Sudan, but supplies had dwindled as fighting disrupted supply chains. And the South Sudanese pound has started to depreciate.

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is grappling with its own internal problems, especially as a years-long civil war has devastated the economy, killed more than 400,000 people and displaced 4.3 million. According to the International Organization for Migration, about three-quarters of the population, or more than 9 million people, require humanitarian assistance.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we have to disenfranchise people who are also in need in South Sudan,” said Mr van der Overaert of the IOM. “There will be tough decisions.”

Martina Stevens-Gridnev Contribution report.

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