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American teacher escaped Sudan on French evacuation plane, with no help offered back home

<i>Stephanie Lecocq/Reuters</i><br/>French nationals and other European citizens
Stephanie Lecocq/Reuters
French nationals and other European citizens

By Mohammed Tawfeeq and Jessie Yeung, CNN

By the time word arrived of a potential evacuation, Deana Welker was already tired and scared from days of moving around the Sudanese capital Khartoum in search of safe shelter as gun battles raged across the city.

The American teacher had fled her home soon after intense fighting broke out between two factions warring for power in the country, and was in her second hotel when she and other teachers were woken up in the dead of night.

“Our (school administration) said, ‘Get dressed, get your bags ready and just wait,’ because we had heard that the embassy staff was being evacuated by helicopter,” she told CNN. “And we kind of thought that they were going to take us.”

They waited, well into the early hours of the morning — before finally getting an email from the US State Department. The message amounted to, “Oh yay, US embassy staff has been evacuated. Private citizens should not expect help,” Welker said.

US President Joe Biden announced last Saturday that the military had extracted US government personnel from Khartoum, the evacuation coming after a week of conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, and the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF — which has left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.

However, the US State Department has advised that American citizens in Sudan “should have no expectation of a US government-coordinated evacuation at this time” due to the security situation and the closure of the airport in Khartoum.

“It is imperative that US citizens in Sudan make their own arrangements to stay safe in these difficult circumstances,” said State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel at a news briefing last Friday.

Many American citizens have voiced anger and disbelief that they have been left to fend for themselves — many, like Welker, having to rely on other countries’ evacuation operations to get out of the country.

Welker finally made it back home to North Carolina on Wednesday — but knows she’s one of the lucky ones.

“I’m out, I’m safe, but so many people I care about and worked with (aren’t),” she said. “I just worry because now the internet keeps going out, so it’s hard to get information and find out who’s where and who’s safe.”

Dodging gunfire

Welker, who worked at an international school in Khartoum, woke up on April 15 to loud gunfire and explosions outside as fighting between the rival groups erupted.

She and many other teachers live on a main road that leads to the airport, one of the main sites of conflict, meaning “there was just gunfire and artillery going off right in front of our building,” she said.

She spent the entire first day on the floor of her dining room — the only room in her home without windows.

“I spent the whole day just listening to gunfire and hoping it wasn’t going to be coming through the walls and windows,” Welker recalled.

The heavy clashes kept her up for the next two nights — before things escalated on April 16, with several RSF fighters entering her building, she said. They held the building guards at gunpoint and only left after they were offered water and food, she said.

The incident shook the residents; Welker and her fellow teachers decided to flee that night, grabbing a single bag of essentials and heading to a nearby hotel frequently used by US embassy staff.

They stayed there for the next two nights — but didn’t feel much safer, with the constant sound of artillery close by. Even when the two factions agreed to ceasefires, they were repeatedly broken, and the fighting never stopped, she said.

Another problem soon arose. With the entire city sheltering indoors, gunfire raining down on the streets, buildings shelled and hospitals attacked, everyone was running low on supplies.

“The hotel staff called us in and said, ‘Look, we’re running out of everything, and we’re not going to be able to provide water or food, and you’ve all got to find somewhere else to go,'” Welker said.

So the teachers, under the school administration’s guidance, found a bigger hotel down the road further from the fighting. Welker recalls taking a winding path there in the car, trying to avoid checkpoints and passing by destroyed houses on the way.

They had been there for two nights when they got the 3 a.m. call — and waited for an evacuation that never came for them. “That was pretty deflating, to say the least,” she said.

Another way out

Anxiety and uncertainty set in, with nobody sure what would come next — but good news came a few hours later. The French Embassy in Sudan was carrying out a separate evacuation for French citizens, and foreigners of other nationalities were welcome.

Welker and the other American teachers crammed into several cars with their bags, driving again through war-battered streets until they arrived at the French Embassy. They were herded onto charter buses that drove north of Khartoum to an air base, put onto a military plane, and finally flown out of Sudan to neighboring Djibouti on April 24.

From there, everyone booked their flights home; between all the travel, it took her two days to get back to North Carolina. “But I was like, I don’t care as long as I’m out of there,” Welker said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US is now working to develop “a sustained process” that would allow Americans to leave Sudan over land, likely to Port Sudan.

“We believe that the best way to have an enduring capability to help people leave Sudan if that’s what they so choose is overland,” Blinken said at a news conference at the State Department on Thursday.

“And we are working to establish a process that would enable people to move overland to a place where they can more easily exit the country, in all likelihood port Sudan. So that’s under very active development.”

But many Americans stranded in Sudan — and those who have escaped — say it’s not enough, and comes too late.

CNN spoke with multiple people who say the State Department has provided “barely any assistance” since the deadly violence broke out, and that they and their family members have had to make “life or death decisions” about when and how to leave Sudan with very little guidance.

Those who spoke to CNN also pushed back on the argument made by US officials that they had warned Americans not to be in Sudan.

The travel advisory level has been “Level 4: Do Not Travel” since June 2021, and the State Department has consistently advised US citizens to “have evacuation plans that do not rely on US government assistance.”

However, there were no recent security alerts explicitly advising Americans to leave the country.

Welker also argued that Americans in Sudan are largely there for humanitarian and educational reasons — and that the US should help retrieve all those who want to leave.

“It’s not that these people went there on holiday,” she said. “There’s no reason they should be left behind.”

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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