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Escaping Sudan: ‘My mother’s body was left by smugglers in the desert’

Wednesday -Feb-28-2024-{HMC}  Desperate to escape Sudan’s war, people have told the BBC how they have handed over their precious savings to unscrupulous people smugglers-cum-gold miners, to make a terrifying journey to Egypt.

“They left me and my dead mother in the desert,” 25-year-old Salama, who made her first desperate attempt to cross the border with her family in August, told the BBC.

Like all those interviewed for this article, her name has been changed for her safety.

She was travelling with her 65-year-old mother and four other relatives in the back of the smuggler’s pick-up truck when it crashed, throwing her mother out of the vehicle.

They had been travelling for eight hours and stopped to sleep overnight before the accident happened.

“We kept trying to tell the driver to slow down,” Salama said.

But the advice went unheeded and her mother died after hitting her head.

The smugglers refused to transport her dead body so bundled Salama, who was crying uncontrollably, along with the rest of the family and their belongings off the truck – and to their horror drove away without them.

Salama had made the decision to leave her home in Omdurman – a city just across the River Nile from the capital, Khartoum – as the fighting was creeping ever closer.

She moved her family to the northern town of Gabgaba from where smugglers operate. It has been nicknamed “Gabgaba Airport” by locals because of the influx of those seeking an escape.

The conflict – a vicious power struggle between the military and a paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – erupted last April.

It has forced more than 10 million people from their homes, with an estimated 450,000 fleeing to Egypt.

Salama, who is a widow with two children, said they could often hear gunfire in their neighbourhood.

“We had to leave. Our lives were in danger,” she said.

Those organising the smuggling are often gold miners in the area with access to pick-up trucks

Before she had set off with her mother, she had already organised for her children to escape across the border with other relatives using the desert-smuggling route as it had become “impossible” to get a visa to travel legally to Egypt.

Women and children used to be able to enter Egypt without a visa but with the war came new restrictions.

The smugglers are usually men who are involved in gold mining in the area, so know the tough desert terrain along the 1,200km (745-mile) border and have access to trucks.

They charged her $300 (£235) per person for the crossing – money that she did not get back when she was abandoned in the desert.

Eventually, after hours of waiting by the side of the road with her mother’s body and with little food and water, Salama managed to flag down a driver, who was travelling into Sudan with food and electrical goods.

He took the family to the northern Sudanese city of Abu Hamad, where they were able to bury Salama’s mother.

Salama’s experience is not unusual – though people are reluctant to open up about their own journeys.

However, those who agreed to talk to the BBC said accidents were common as the smugglers drive at high speeds to evade the authorities.

Ibrahim, a government employee from Khartoum who made it to Egypt last August, told the BBC a man he was travelling with broke his neck and died after the truck they were in hit a rock.

The smugglers insisted on leaving his body and burying it in the desert.

“Everyone was horrified. I stared at the unmarked grave as we drove away, while the women and children in the truck wept,” Ibrahim said.

Robberies are also common. Halima told the BBC about a frightening experience in December before their truck reached the border.

“We were attacked by four masked gunmen when our truck broke down. They fired gunshots in the air, slapped my daughter and stole our belongings,” said the 60-year-old who had fled Gezira state after RSF fighters attacked her home.

The desert attackers were scared off when another car came along and luckily that driver agreed to help them and took them over the border.

Halima said her 25-year-old daughter, a psychologist, was badly shaken by the incident – and died the day after their arrival in Egypt.

“She had a panic attack and couldn’t breathe,” she said, explaining that they could not get her medical aid in time.

The BBC has seen a copy of the death certificate, which cites respiratory problems as the cause of death.

People the BBC spoke to said the activity of the smugglers has increased with prices going up by 200% since the RSF carried out attacks at the end of last year in Gezira, a state which had been a safe haven for those escaping the fighting in Khartoum.

Most of the smugglers insist on payment via a banking app. Some people scrabble together their scant savings to make the payment or get the money from their relatives in the diaspora.

The BBC has contacted the Egyptian government to ask what it is doing to tackle the smugglers but has not received a response.

Sudan’s consulate in Aswan in southern Egypt said it had launched a campaign to warn of the dangers associated with people smuggling.

“We are working with the Egyptian government to help speed up the visa process, to help increase the number of approved applications and allow more Sudanese people into the country legally,” a Sudanese official in Aswan, Abdel Qader Abdullah, told the BBC.

People in Sudan can apply for an Egyptian visa in two places – Wadi Halfa in the north and Port Sudan in the east. Most head to Wadi Halfa as it is nearer to Argeen, the main land border crossing.

But there is almost no infrastructure in Wadi Halfa and people wait in queues for hours to be processed.

After applying, it can take months to find out if they are successful. Displaced and with little money, they wait and sleep anywhere they can – in nearby schools or on the streets.

After her failed attempt, Salama decided it might be easier to head to Port Sudan to try a legal route.

But after waiting for two months, she had no response from the Egyptian consulate about her visa request so she opted to try the smugglers again, heading to the northern city of Atbara in October.

“This time we prepared for the journey,” she said, explaining how they packed more provisions.

“We spent around six days in the desert,” she said, before successfully getting across the border into southern Egypt.

Sudanese migrants queue for hours in Cairo to get a UN appointment for refugee status

But once in Egypt, the plight of Sudanese migrants is not over. If they do not have refugee status or cannot prove they have an appointment to apply for it, they can be deported.

To make an appointment they have to travel to either Cairo or Alexandria.

At the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) centre in Cairo, thousands stand in long queues waiting to register their names and obtain what is known as a yellow card.

“You stand in the cold weather for hours, only to schedule a meeting for four months later,” Halima said.

“Obtaining a yellow card, which you get once you’re a registered UN refugee, allows you to legally get work and receive monthly funds from the UN,” she said, adding that she had been told to return in April to find out if she could get one.

But Ibtessam, who has managed to get refugee status, told the BBC that since her arrival in June she had received no funds from the UN.

“My husband is dead. I have rent and school fees to pay every month, and no-one is helping us.”

UNHCR’s Christine Beshay acknowledged such frustrations but said the organisation was “facing a shortage of funds”.

“We have expanded our capacity by 900%. So we have to prioritise and think: ‘Who needs help first?'” the spokesperson said, adding: “We have set up medical services at the border with help from the Egyptian Red Crescent.”

Salama has been reunited with her children in Cairo, living in a small apartment with other relatives.

She has received her refugee status and would like to move into her own home but this is impossible with little help or money.

The young woman tells me she worries about the future all the time – and ideally would like to return home.

She is grateful to have found safety but remains angry and traumatised that she was forced to pay the smugglers who cost her her mother’s life.

SOURCE BBC

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