'Smile, papa! We are safe now': Rare moment of relief for Sudanese fleeing to Egypt

Refugees escaping war in Khartoum take a break from their ordeal with scenic ride on Lake Nasser ferry

Smoke rising above buildings after an aerial bombardment during clashes between the army and a rival paramilitary in Sudan. Reuters
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“Smile, papa! We’ve finally arrived. We are safe now,” a teenage daughter told her father on the deck of a ferry that took them across Egypt's Lake Nasser with scores of other Sudanese fleeing the fighting in their country.

The father, Nizar Al Warraq, smiled as his daughter steadily held her mobile phone to capture a rare moment of peace at the end of a perilous and exhausting journey.

Thousands of other Sudanese braved the escape from Khartoum's violence to find refuge in neighbouring Egypt.

They enter through two crossings on either side of Lake Nasser; Qastal and Argeen.

Their arrival caps journeys of between two and six days, include two to three nights at the crossing points with little or no food, water and shelter, and cumbersome passport control.

Men between the ages of 19 and 49 need visas that can only be obtained at the Egyptian consulate at Wadi Halfa on the Sudanese side of Lake Nasser. It takes up to four days to get one.

Those who enter through Qastal travel for another 35km to one of two docks on Lake Nasser, one run by the military, the other by the local government.

Only when they arrive on the shores of the lake do they realise that their ordeal is nearing its end.

The beauty of the lake’s greyish blue water, glittering under a gentle afternoon sun, and the unique rock formations within and on the shores of the lake bring some joy.

Men, women and children take out their mobile phones to capture the scenery. Some just stare at the water, taking in the cool breeze, with an unmistakable look of contentment, albeit temporary.

Their arrival here is marred by memories of taxing journeys. They don't wait long before their resilience is again put to the test.

An ambulance is parked next to buses and lorries on the ferry’s deck. Inside is a woman who broke her hip while disembarking the bus at Qastal and a diabetic man suffering excruciating pain in his leg.

“They should be fine until they receive treatment at Abu Simbel hospital,” the ambulance driver said, confidently.

When the ferry docked at Abu Simbel after the hour-long trip, the refugees faced a 270km journey to Karkar bus terminal near Aswan, from where they take a second bus to travel farther north in Egypt.

Those destined for Cairo have a 12-hour, 1,000km journey ahead of them.

Among the 40,000 Sudanese who have arrived in Egypt so far, many endure the unbearable pain of leaving loved ones behind because they were too old or sick to travel. They abandoned homes that are easy targets for bands of burglars roaming the Sudanese capital.

Now they are bracing for the uncertainty that comes with a new life they never chose, joining the 100,000 that the UN refugee agency says have fled to countries like Egypt, Ethiopia and Chad.

A seat on a bus from Khartoum to Aswan costs between $300 and $500. A double room in a three or four-star hotel in Aswan is between $50 and $100 a night. Furnished apartments in Aswan are now rare after most of them were taken in the early wave of arrivals. Prices are much higher in Cairo.

The UN has warned that more than 800,000 people could flee the war in Sudan, where the army has been fighting a rival paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces, since April 15.

Hundreds have been killed and thousands wounded in the fighting. Those left behind in Khartoum are surviving without running water or power, dwindling food supplies and virtually no fuel.

Medical services have been crippled and most streets are too dangerous, with artillery shelling and air strikes continuing despite a series of ceasefires mediated by foreign powers.

Despite leaving, memories of the deadly violence haunt the Sudanese here.

“One day an artillery shell landed as close as that,” Mr Al Warraq told The National while pointing to the shore 30 metres away, as the noisy ferry slowed to dock at Abu Simbel.

“The building it directly hit was almost totally destroyed. Nearby homes were damaged and many cars were destroyed.”

A father of six, Mr Al Warraq, his wife and children, live in the Khartoum district of Al Jeref Sharq. It took them two and a half hours to get out without being caught in the crossfire, he said.

“Now, we don’t know what to do. Stay in Aswan or carry on to Cairo,” he said as he walked back to his family, seated on a wooden bench by the vessel’s railing on the deck.

Nabil Abdel Jaleel, a retired Sudan Airways employee, was also on the ferry, travelling with two of his children. His wife was in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, performing Umrah when the fighting broke out.

They live in a part of southern Khartoum that did not see street fighting, but the loud shelling and air strikes could be heard, sometimes shaking their apartment.

Stranded in Saudi Arabia, his wife was so alarmed by television footage from Khartoum that she insisted they travel to Cairo, where she plans to join them.

“We were treated well at the crossing, but processing our passports took four whole hours,” said Mr Abdel Jaleel. “There was water to buy and a large cafeteria that had cold snacks.”

His journey, however, took six days to complete because his son, a 25-year-old civil engineer, needed a visa to enter Egypt.

“It took me four days to get my visa in Wadi Halfa. It looked like half of Sudan was there with me applying for a visa,” the son said.

Days before they left their home in southern Khartoum a stray shell hit their building, setting ablaze a ground-floor apartment they own and violently shaking their fifth-storey flat.

“It looks like I will have to look for a job now in the Gulf region,” the son Khalid said, with resignation as he looked at younger Sudanese taking photos of the lake as the ferry sailed.

“They have earned the right to behave like tourists after all they have gone through,” he added.

Updated: May 02, 2023, 12:39 PM