When fighting in Sudan erupted in mid-April, Abdel-Rahman Sayyed and his family tried to hold out hiding in their home in the capital, Khartoum, as the sounds of explosions, gunfights and the roar of warplanes echoed across the city of 6 million people.
They lived right by one of the fiercest front lines, near the military’s headquarters in central Khartoum, where the army and a rival paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces, battled for control. Three days into the conflict, a shell hit their two-story home, reducing much of it to rubble.
Luckily, Sayyed, his wife and three children survived, and they immediately fled the war-torn city. The problem was their passports were buried under the wreckage of their home.
Now they are among tens of thousands of people without travel documents trapped at the border with Egypt, unable to cross into Sudan’s northern neighbor.
“We narrowly escaped with our lives,” the 38-year-old Sayyed said in a recent phone interview from Wadi Halfa, the closest Sudanese city to the border. He said he was stunned that Egyptian authorities wouldn’t let his family in. “I thought we would be allowed in as refugees,” he said.
Two months in, clashes continue to rage between the two rival forces in Khartoum and around Sudan, with hundreds dead and no sign of stopping after talks on a resolution collapsed. People continue to flee their homes in droves: This week the total number of people displaced since fighting began April 15 rose to around 2.2 million, up from 1.9 million just a week earlier, according to UN figures. Of the total displaced, more than 500,000 have crossed into neighboring countries, while the rest took refuge in quieter parts of Sudan, according to the UN.
More than 120,000 Sudanese without travel documents are trapped in Wadi Halfa and surrounding areas, according to a Sudanese migration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to brief media. Among them are those who never had a passport or whose passport expired or was lost during the rush to escape.
Wadi Halfa, which normally has a population of few tens of thousands, is also flooded by huge crowds of Sudanese men, women and children who do have their passports but must apply for visas at the Egyptian Consulate in the town to cross the border. Getting a visa can take days or even longer, leaving families scrambling for accommodation and food, with many sleeping in the streets.
Calls are growing for Egypt to waive entry requirements. The Sudanese American Physician Association, a US-based NGO, called on the Egyptian government to allow those fleeing the war to apply for asylum at the borders.
Instead, the Egyptian government last week stiffened entry requirements. Previously, only Sudanese men aged 16-45 needed visas to enter Egypt. But on June 10, new rules require all Sudanese to get electronic visas. Ahmed Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said the measures are aimed at fighting visa forgery by groups on the Sudanese side of the borders.
Sayyed described the June 10 decision as a “stab on the back” to all those trapped at the border. He was one of 14 Sudanese who fled Khartoum without passports and spoke to The Associated Press. All said they had thought that Egypt would ease the entry requirement for the fleeing Sudanese.
“We’re forced to leave our homes,” Sayyed said. “It’s a war.”
The passports of others were trapped in foreign embassies because they were applying for visas before fighting erupted. Embassies in Khartoum have almost all been evacuated, in which case procedures often require those passports be destroyed so they don’t fall into wrong hands. The US State Department said in a statement that it had destroyed passports left there “rather than leave them behind unsecured.”
“We recognize that the lack of travel documentation is a burden for those seeking to depart Sudan,” it said. “We have and will continue to pursue diplomatic efforts with partner countries to identify a solution.”
Sayyed and his family arrived in Wadi Halfa after a two-day journey from Khartoum. He took refuge in a school along with over 50 other families, all depending on humanitarian assistance from charities and the local community to survive, he said.
Every day for the past five weeks, Sayyed visited the Sudanese immigration authority offices and Egyptian Consulate in Wadi Halfa, a ritual many others followed as well in hopes of getting travel documents or visas.
But Sayyed has little chance, unless Egypt opens the border. New Sudanese passports are usually issued from the main immigration office in Khartoum, which stopped functioning since the onset of the war. The branch in Wadi Halfa doesn’t have access to computer records, so it can only renew expired passports manually, not issue new ones or replace lost ones, the migration official said.
Al-Samaul Hussein Mansour, a Sudanese-British national, left his travel documents at his home amid his chaotic escape from the fighting in Khartoum, according to his younger brother, Ibn Sina Mansour.
Al-Samaul, a 63-year-old pediatrician-turned-politician, didn’t get to the British Embassy in Khartoum to be evacuated with other British citizens. He thought that the clashes would stop “within a couple of days,” Ibn Sina said.
He first went to the western Darfur region, where he stayed with a relative for about a week. But as fighting continued, he headed toward the Egyptian border. Unable to find a place to stay in Wadi Halfa, he went to the nearby town of Shandi.
It was too dangerous to return to Khartoum and retrieve his documents, with continued street fighting and stray bombs and bullets hitting houses, said Ibn Sina, who is also a British citizen.
“Returning to Khartoum means death for Samaul,” he said in a recent interview in Aswan, the closest Egyptian city to the border with Sudan. Ibn Sina, a retired aviation engineer, came to Aswan from London to be closer to his older brother.
Also among those trapped were three brothers from Khartoum’s neighboring city of Omdurman, who either lost their passports or never had one. The three — ages 26, 21 and 18 years old – were separated from their parents and five sisters, who were all able to enter Egypt in early May.
“This war displaced and separated many families like us,” their father, Salah Al-Din Al-Nour, said. “We have nothing to do with their struggle for power. They destroyed Sudan and the Sudanese people.”