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Thousands fleeing violence in Sudan are crossing the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Thousands of people, anxious and exhausted, are making their way out of Sudan and telling their stories. There is another cease-fire declared now between the warring factions, but these cease-fires have frequently been broken. Border crossings out of the country are jammed, prompting some in Sudan to make long road trips to ships on the Red Sea. NPR's Aya Batrawy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was there to meet them at the port.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS ENGINE IDLING)

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: I board a bus carrying evacuees that have just arrived to Saudi Arabia after crossing the Red Sea. They came here on a U.S. naval ship from Sudan.

I'm from National Public Radio - anyone from the U.S.?

I ask if there are any Americans on the bus. Ghalia Satti is seated in the second row, tears streaming down her face as she tells me, yes, she's from the U.S.

GHALIA SATTI: I've been living in Khartoum maybe for 11 years since I came from U.S.A.

BATROWY: How does it feel to just have everything uprooted so fast?

SATTI: Actually, I can't express my feeling. It's so sad. This is the most sad thing that happened to me in my life. Thank God we are safe. But we are scared that the people that we love, we left them there, and we don't know if we can meet them again or not.

BATROWY: The people she loves and left behind include her husband and her father. She fled with her four teenage children. She has a sister in the U.S. who she'll stay with for now. Seated in front of her is a Sudanese British couple with a 3-week-old baby in their lap and a toddler. Mohammed Kodak says his wife was terrified and crying every night at the sound of fighter jets and anti-aircraft fire. He's also fighting back tears as he tells me about his relatives stuck back in Sudan.

MOHAMMED KODAK: Everything is one step at a time. I mean, we're trying to get them safety first so I can get to work so I can keep things going. It's pretty tough.

BATROWY: But they are among the lucky ones with foreign passports, safe and in Saudi Arabia now, after hours or even days of waiting in Port Sudan. It's a 10- to 12-hour voyage across the Red Sea to Jeddah. Saudi Arabia has become a major hub for evacuation efforts and has sent warships to help people leave. Saudi spokesman Fahad Nazer says the kingdom is geographically and politically well-placed to even mediate in Sudan.

FAHAD NAZER: You know, we are, I think, uniquely positioned not just to lead this effort, but frankly, I think we're uniquely positioned to help mediate this effort. So we will try to do whatever we can to alleviate the crisis and to reduce tensions and promote dialogue.

BATROWY: The kingdom is only allowing in foreign expats from Sudan - and just temporarily. It's not hosting Sudanese refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP ENGINE IDLING)

BATROWY: At the port, I see how the kingdom is greeting people evacuated on an Indian warship from Sudan. It's clear from the Saudi flags that are about to be handed out to the Indian evacuees and the roses that two female Saudi officers are holding to also pass out to the evacuees as they land, that this is a photo-op really for the kingdom, and an opportunity to showcase their humanitarian role in accepting citizens of other countries fleeing the fighting in Sudan.

A 17-year-old girl disembarks. We're not naming her because she's a minor, but she tells me she's anxious about life in Mumbai after growing up in Sudan.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I was in the last year of school. So it was just two months left of my exams. Now I had to leave the country and I don't know how I'm going to feel.

BATROWY: The fighting forced Dimpal Jelani and her husband to leave their jobs in Sudan, but she's not yet ready to say goodbye to the life she had there.

DIMPAL JELANI: As early as possible, if Sudan has good situation, we'll definitely come back.

BATROWY: Really, you love it there?

JELANI: This is here. Everything is here. We can't leave and go like this. So we'll definitely come back. Return back.

BATROWY: But if the fighting drags on, life in Sudan, as people once knew it might never look the same. Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.