The first sign that Sudan was on the brink of civil war occurred shortly after 9 a.m. local time on 15 April, when a bomb exploded in Khartoum. Canadian mining consultant Colin Crane heard the explosions from his machine shop and immediately felt a sense of foreboding.
“I was never scared in Sudan until then,” said Crane, 62, who recounted his ordeal to CTV News from his home in Edmonton after being evacuated from Sudan on the first flight of the Canadian Armed Forces.
They had worked in the northeast African nation for more than two decades, searching for gold and oil, and were used to mass protests that periodically occupied the capital – but with machine gun fire. The voice stopped the wind.
Khartoum was coming under the grip of urban warfare as Sudan’s military battled the Rapid Support Force – a militia group – for control of the country. The streets of the capital city were a void in their fighting.
As soon as the first bang was heard, Crane scrambled to gather his work tools and ran for home. In her haste to the safety of her apartment, she left her Canadian passport behind.
Saras lived in the Jabra district of Khartoum. When he returned to his apartment, he heard gunshots and heavily armed Sudanese government soldiers chased the security guards from his residence. Crane said he barricaded himself inside his apartment, bought extra data on his cell phone and emailed the Canadian embassy in Khartoum for help.
“I am currently sheltering in place … I would like to be informed if there are any evacuation plans for Canadian citizens,” Crane wrote in an email provided to CTV News.
The next day, as artillery fire and airstrikes rained down on Khartoum – he moved to a hotel with more security and relied on his Sudanese co-workers to help him stock up on food and water.
Emails from Global Affairs Canada (GAC), which Crane shared with CTV News, showed the department provided little information other than to confirm he had registered for alerts. Crane was advised to stay away from windows, make sure she had essential supplies and keep her phone charged at all times.
While he waited for more details from the GAC, the hotel’s power and water were cut off, and the City Plaza shopping mall in his neighborhood was shelled.
“They torched the mall using heavy guns. It went on for about 16 hours,” he said.
Crane hid in his hotel bathroom during the blasts and videoed the black plume of smoke rising from the mall. They worried that a stray bomb would destroy their building, or that the security guards stationed in the lobby would be attacked by robbers. African media were reporting that thousands of prisoners had escaped from captivity. He watched at his hotel as Indian nationals boarded shuttles sent by his government to take them out of the city.
Then, 10 days after first engaging with the GAC, just after a temporary ceasefire was brokered, an email arrived outlining vague plans for an evacuation.
An email from the GAC’s SOS account on April 25 said to be ready to go on short notice and that only Canadians with valid passports would be eligible for flights, but there was no guarantee of seats. At the time, Canada had not yet launched its own evacuation flights and relied on allies such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and France.
Canadians were also informed that they would need to find their way to Wadi Sidna Air Base in order to board the rescue flights.
“Global Affairs Canada cannot provide advice or recommendations for safe transportation … (and) cannot guarantee spots on any specific flight as they are offered by partner/like-minded countries.”
The email also came with a clear warning:
“The security situation is highly volatile. There have been reports of looting of private homes. There have also been reports of assaults and sexual assaults, including rape. Foreigners and employees of international organizations have been targeted,” the email said.
Crane said, “It wasn’t very reassuring. It felt like we were left to fend for ourselves.” But luckily for the consultant, his local contacts were ready to help, and even though the banks were closed, he had the cash.
After her driver obtained her passport from her place of work, Crane tried to hire a taxi to take her to Wadi Sidna airport on April 26—but they were too scared to travel. So he flagged down a trucker and offered him US$400 to take him for the approximately 25 km trip to the airfield. During the three-hour journey, Crane said they passed through more than 20 checkpoints. He saw soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs, artillery and even tanks in the back of pick-up trucks as they exited the ruined city.
“There were so many damaged cars and destroyed buildings,” Crane said. “There was so much destruction.”
Crane reached the airbase in time to spend a restless night in a hangar among hundreds of foreigners. He woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning, but was told that the only flights out were reserved for British citizens. Later that morning on 27 April, two Canadian Hercules transport aircraft landed. By afternoon, Crane was flown to Djibouti, where he and dozens of other passengers were greeted by Canada’s ambassador to Sudan. Eight hours later, he was transferred to a commercial flight to Nairobi, Kenya. From there, Crane bought a flight to Edmonton via Denver, Colorado.
The Government of Canada flew a total of six evacuation flights from Sudan and evacuated approximately 550 passengers. About 175 were Canadian. The GAC says that more than 200 other citizens and permanent residents were brought out of the country on flights offered by the allies.
The government also provided $274,283 in financial assistance to 108 people to help them pay for flights to Canada from a safe third country.
Now safe at home, Crane says he believes the government did the best it could under the extreme circumstances.
Crane said, “I wish there was better communication, but the military did a great job in the short amount of time it took to coordinate the flights. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes to get these flights off the ground.”
The mining consultant says he wants to return to Sudan soon to continue his work, but in the interim he wants to raise money to help Sudanese citizens who helped get him to safety.