Port Sudan, the Red Sea refuge for many fleeing Sudan's violence

People fleeing Khartoum are finding respite in Port Sudan – whether they choose to ultimately leave Sudan or stay.

People seek shade in makeshift camps in Port Sudan
People seek shade in makeshift camps in Port Sudan [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]
People seek shade where they are camped in Port Sudan [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

Port Sudan, Sudan - With the ease of someone who has done this many times, Mohamed stacks falafel, fresh-cut vegetables, then french fries onto pita bread, adding sauces and a sprinkle of salt before swiftly wrapping it all in white parchment paper.

The Red Sea glimmers blue behind him, and Mohamed, who did not want to share his last name, assembles the sandwiches with a smile, despite the heat and his circumstances.

The Syrian man fled Sudan’s capital Khartoum in recent days with his wife and children, just two years after the family fled their hometown of Hama, a west-central city in Syria.

Mohamed left behind an air conditioning shop in Khartoum to retreat to the safety of Port Sudan after fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and its rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Khartoum on April 15.

Despite past broken truces, the warring sides have agreed to a weeklong ceasefire starting on Thursday, in efforts to ease the deadly conflict that has so far killed some 550 people, injured another 4,926, and displaced some 330,000.

As Port Sudan swells with Sudanese and foreigners hoping to escape the conflict-struck country, Mohamed is selling falafel to be able to afford the city’s soaring rents.

“This job I’m doing now is just something to make sure we have food on the table,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Daily rent is 20,000 [Sudanese] pounds (about $34) - no one can pay that,” Mohamed added. “So we had to start working.”

Still, Mohamed serves anyone who wants his sandwiches, even if they don’t have money.

Other Syrian refugees are making money by offering services such as haircuts or selling cigarettes.

Syrian refugees in Sudan cut hair in Port Sudan to make money
Syrian refugees in Sudan cut hair in Port Sudan to make money [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

Unlike many who have travelled to Port Sudan to be evacuated out of the country by boat, Mohamed doesn’t want to leave Sudan – and certainly not for Syria.

About 200 Syrians have been evacuated since the crisis began, including 35 on Friday on a vessel bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“I have to wait and just pray that things calm down in Sudan so we can go back [to Khartoum]. Or I’ll stay here and open an air conditioning shop in Port Sudan,” he said.

Falafel for the fleeing

Mohamed, a Syrian refugee who left his air conditioning business in Khartoum, is selling falafel in Port Sudan to survive.

Mohamed at his makeshift stall selling falafel sandwiches
Mohamed sells falafel sandwiches at his makeshift stall in Port Sudan [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]
Mohamed at his makeshift stall selling falafel sandwiches [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

Like Mohamed, Ahmad Mahmoud isn’t keen on leaving his country and is also fleeing Khartoum to find safety in Port Sudan.

But if the fighting between Sudan’s duelling rivals doesn’t end in a peace deal with a return to establishing democracy, Mahmoud said, he will leave immediately.

The filmmaker and video journalist is worried about the possibility of another military dictatorship, fearful of a crackdown against those who work in the creative industry.

“If one of the armies remains, I'm not staying for a minute. I'm leaving immediately because this is going to be a situation similar to Egypt, where the artists, the cultural institutions and civil society were completely destroyed,” Mahmoud told Al Jazeera, referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule following his military coup in 2013.

Mahmoud’s wife is also an activist, and the pair are worried they could be jailed.

"Military rule = hunger", reads graffiti on a bank in Port Sudan [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

But leaving presents an obstacle: Mahmoud is one of many Sudanese whose passports are stuck at deserted foreign embassies.

In his case, his Sudanese passport is with the Swedish embassy in Khartoum, because he had applied for a visa to travel to Sweden for a film festival before the conflict erupted.

Mahmoud begged a Swedish diplomat via WhatsApp to either retrieve his passport or receive a stamped copy of it from the Swedish embassy.

The diplomat told him neither was possible.

The videographer has his expired passport with him and plans to seek out authorities in Port Sudan who can extend the validity of that passport.

“If we have to leave, [my wife] would not accept to leave without me. But I can't leave with an expired passport ... I have to figure it out,” he said.

Many of those hoping to leave Sudan from the port city have visas to go to Saudi Arabia, either a tourist one or a work permit, while others have obtained one through invitations from family in the kingdom.

But Mahmoud and his partner would likely leave for Kenya, a country where the pair could pay to get a visa on arrival.

Waiting for a way out

Many who fled from the capital to Port Sudan have been queueing for nearly a week to get onto boats mainly headed for Saudi Arabia.

A man in Port Sudan sits exasperated near an out of service ATM
An exasperated man sits next to an out-of-service ATM in Port Sudan [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]
An exasperated man sits next to an out-of-service ATM in Port Sudan [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

Still, having a visa for travel to places like Saudi Arabia does not mean an immediate departure.

Every day, hundreds queue to see if today will be the day they can leave the country. They are waiting to submit their passport information to the authorities.

On Tuesday, Saudi authorities split the crowd into two, calling on people with more urgent reasons to flee to be processed at a nearby hotel.

But many people who have fled from the capital to Port Sudan have been queueing for nearly a week, some with no food or basic services in the sweltering heat.

Efforts are being made to address the crowds gathering there, with the first provisions of international humanitarian aid having arrived there earlier this week.

Meanwhile, buildings near the port have been repurposed into camps, including one called the Ports’ Club, where food is prepared for those in the camps.

But as other buildings, including mosques and hotels, continue to fill up, many people sit on the ground in the port area in makeshift camps, with all the luggage they could take scattered around them.

Lines snake out of banks, where people are scrambling to take out money.

Lines snake outside banks in Port Sudan
Lines snake outside banks in Port Sudan [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

Ahmed Babiker is one man among hundreds in the queues, who has a tourist visa for Jeddah.

“I have our passports and every day I come here and stand in this line, until we get a chance to move to Jeddah,” he told Al Jazeera.

Babiker, like many, is relying on citizen volunteers who have been bringing water, food, and even arranging shelter for those arriving in Port Sudan.

“They are such nice people and I salute them, may God help them,” he said.

Port Sudan volunteers
Port Sudan citizen volunteers offer people water [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]
Port Sudan citizen volunteers offer people water [Ahmad Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera