Sudanese find themselves in war zone after US destroys their passports

Azim Alhajaa received a generic email from the US Embassy in Khartoum on May 16 that hit him like a bullet. His family’s passports, which they had left there for visa processing, had been “destroyed”.

His wife and children hoped to leave the country and join him in Columbus, Ohio, where he had lived for five years. Their departure has become increasingly urgent in recent weeks as violent gangs battle for control and the country descends into deadly chaos and humanitarian crises.

The US embassy “tied our hands and put us in hell,” said the 59-year-old Sudanese national. “I feel like we’re not being treated as human beings.”

Others found themselves in the same bind. The US State Department confirmed in a statement that diplomats destroyed an unspecified number of passports before evacuating the country last month.

“It is standard operating procedure during the retrieval to take precautions not to leave behind any document, material or information that could fall into the wrong hands and be misused,” the letter received by Alhajaa said.

The decision has sparked a storm of anger and fear among some Sudanese at home and abroad, accusing Washington of taking a careless approach that puts people at risk rather than doing more to return the documents safely or provide an alternative.

In March, Alhajaya’s family surrendered their passports to the embassy in the final stages of their US visa application process. The kids couldn’t wait.

In April, the news of destroying their passports shattered their hopes. She said what hurt her most was that Washington had not offered a solution to the mess she had left her family in.

The US embassy closed its doors on April 15 after a fight between rival generals. Deadly violence and a humanitarian crisis have ravaged the nation of about 45 million people. Almost all public services have been closed, including the Sudanese Passport Agency, which will be able to issue new documents.

“The US embassy evacuated their people and left us to our fate,” said Ibrahim Mohamed, 27, a software engineer in Khartoum whose passport was destroyed. He was in the process of applying for a student visa. “They don’t seem to care about us at all. They don’t even respond to our emails or phone calls.”

“I’m not asking for much,” he said. He lives for weeks without electricity or stable access to food and water. His family members have fled Egypt, but he still can’t. “I just want my passport or travel document taken back to a safer place, out of the danger zone.”

The Ministry of State did not answer the questions regarding the specifics of the policy. “Because the security environment did not allow us to safely return these passports, we followed our procedure to destroy them rather than leave them insecure,” State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel said.

“We recognize that the lack of travel documents is a burden for those who want to leave Sudan,” Patel said. “We have and will continue to make diplomatic efforts with partner countries to find a solution.”

Even before the latest conflict, embassy services were curtailed and delayed by the pandemic. A Sudanese national living in the United States, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his visa status, said he is lobbying congressional representatives on behalf of 10 individuals and families who also learned their passports had been destroyed.

Many governments evacuated their diplomats when Washington did. Some passports were left locked in empty embassies, still out of reach of their desperate owners.

More than 200,000 people have fled Sudan since March, most on foot, to neighboring countries, and many more have been internally displaced, according to the UN refugee agency.

The French embassy also destroyed the passports it had.

A French foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to agency protocol, said French diplomats had destroyed “all documents containing personal data at the embassy as soon as their integrity can no longer be guaranteed.”

The policy is not unprecedented. Officials at the US Embassy in Kabul also smashed passports during the chaotic evacuation as the Taliban retook the country in 2021. The Taliban have targeted Afghans with ties to the United States, but the policy has sparked resentment among Afghans who have tried. leave the country.

Emma DiNapoli, a London-based war crimes expert who focuses on Sudan, said it was unlikely that Sudanese applicants for US visas would be threatened by the two warring parties, both of which have participated in US-led ceasefire talks. .

“Governments worked so hard to get their own citizens out of the country, fully aware of how dire the situation was and could be, and then didn’t take other steps, as we saw in Ukraine,” such as creating alternative documents and visa-waiver programs, he said. :

In the weeks following the international community’s withdrawal from Sudan, passports held at the Chinese and Spanish embassies were retrieved by their owners under different circumstances.

In late May, Sudanese workers at the Chinese embassy, ​​after taking up higher positions, were given permission to set up distribution points around the city. When the fighting subsided, people came to collect their documents.

Over the weekend, looters appeared to have broken into the Spanish embassy in Khartoum and seized passports, according to some reports on social media that could not be immediately verified. It is still unclear who broke into the embassy and what was taken. A Spanish foreign ministry spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with agency protocol, did not deny the reports but said by email that officials “cannot confirm the status of the Spanish embassy due to a lack of reliable information.”

Mahir Elfiel, 40, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he got his passport back that morning from the Spanish embassy after paying a man he found on Facebook about $30 to get it back. for him: Within hours, Elfiel was on his way to the Egyptian border.

“I’m just blessed to have my passport in my hands,” he said.

Alhajaa, for her part, said she continues to worry that each day could be her family’s last.

His wife and their six children, aged 7 to 28, escaped armed fighters and bombs to leave Khartoum for a slightly quieter countryside. She has not seen them for five years, as she traveled to the United States with her teenage daughter for treatment for her severe scoliosis. She spent years fighting red tape and working long hours to pay her family’s immigration case, which the pandemic put on hold.

In recent months, Alhajaa said he felt conditions in Sudan had deteriorated and tried to speed up their implementation, only to have all his efforts thwarted.

“This protocol has no excuse,” he said. “It is a record of murder. Now my family is trapped. And I 100 percent can’t do anything to help them.”

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