The Sudanese were stuck in the war as the US destroyed their passports

Azim Alhajaa received a brief email response from the US Embassy in Khartoum on May 16 that hit like a bullet in the chest. His family’s passports, which he had left there to process visas, were “damaged.”

His wife and children hoped to leave the country and take him to Columbus, Ohio, where he lived for five years. Their exodus has accelerated in recent weeks as militant groups fight for their independence, and the country has been plunged into deadly chaos and a humanitarian crisis.

The US ambassador “tied our hands and put us in hell,” the 59-year-old Sudanese said. “I feel like we’re not treated like people.”

Others have had the same experience: The US State Department confirmed in a statement that diplomats had destroyed several unidentified passports before leaving the country last month.

“It is common practice during a shutdown to be careful not to leave documents, equipment, or information that could fall into the wrong hands and be misused,” said the email Alhajaa received.

The decision has fueled anger and fear among some Sudanese at home and abroad, accusing Washington of taking a reckless approach that puts people in trouble, instead of doing more to try to return the documents safely or provide an alternative.

In March, the Alhajaa family had submitted their passports to the embassy in the final phase of the US visa application process. The kids couldn’t wait.

The news that the passports were destroyed in April dashed their hopes. What hurt him the most, he said, was that Washington did not offer a solution to the mess that left his family.

The US embassy closed its doors on April 15, after a battle broke out between military officials. Terrible violence and a humanitarian crisis have devastated the country of about 45 million people. Almost all government services are closed, including the Sudanese passport agency – which can issue new documents.

“The US embassy moved their people and left us where we are going,” said Ibrahim Mohamed, 27, a software developer in Khartoum whose passport was damaged. He was in the process of applying for a student visa. They don’t seem to care about us at all. They are no longer answering our emails or phone calls. “

“I don’t ask for much,” he said. He has been without electricity or access to food and water for weeks. His relatives have fled Egypt – but they can’t. I just want my passport back or any travel document so I can get to a safe place from the danger zone.

The State Department did not respond to questions about the policy. “Because security did not allow us to safely return the passports, we followed our strategy to destroy them rather than leave them unprotected,” said State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel.

“We realize that the lack of travel documents is a problem for those who want to leave Sudan,” said Patel. “We have and will continue to work with our partner countries to find a solution.”

Even before the latest conflict, jobs at the embassy have been abandoned and canceled since the pandemic. A Sudanese citizen living in the United States, who did not give his name to protect his visa, said he is appealing to congressional representatives on behalf of 10 people and their families who also learned that their passports were destroyed.

Many governments removed their ambassadors at the same time Washington did. Others left passports locked in empty embassies, still inaccessible to their desperate owners.

Since March, more than 200,000 people have fled Sudan, many on foot, to neighboring countries – and even more have moved home, according to The UN refugee agency.

The French ambassador also destroyed the passports in his possession.

A French foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under agency protocol, said French diplomats had destroyed “all the documents that the embassy had with personal information…

This policy has no precedent: Officials at the United States Embassy in Kabul also crushed the passports of those fleeing the conflict when the Taliban retook the country in 2021. to leave the country.

Emma DiNapoli, a London-based war crimes expert who focuses on Sudan, said there is no possibility that Sudanese applicants for US visas will be threatened by the two warring factions, who have taken part in the ceasefire talks involving the United States. .

“Governments worked hard to remove their citizens from the country, fully aware of the situation and how it could be, and they did not take any action as we have seen in Ukraine,” such as creating other documents and visa- purposes for removal, he said.

In the weeks since the countries left Sudan, the passports held at the Chinese and Spanish embassies have been taken by their owners – in different ways.

In late May, after urging the authorities, Sudanese workers at the Chinese Embassy received permission to set up distribution centers around the city. After the war, people came to collect their documents.

Over the weekend, robbers appear to have entered the Spanish Embassy in Khartoum and seized passports, according to some reports shared on social media, which could not be immediately confirmed. It is not known who broke into the embassy and what was taken. A spokesman for the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under the organization’s protocol, did not deny the reports but said by email that officials “cannot confirm the position of the Spanish Embassy due to the lack of reliable information.”

Mahir Elfiel, 40, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he received his passport from the Spanish Embassy that morning after paying someone he found on Facebook about $30 to pick it up. Within a few hours, Elfiel left for the border of Egypt.

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

Alhajaa, on his part, said he is still worried that every day could be his family’s last.

His wife and their six children – aged between 7 and 28 – evaded gunmen and bombs to leave Khartoum for a quieter village. She hasn’t seen them in five years, since she left the United States with her teenage daughter for treatment for scoliosis. He has spent years fighting the administration and working long days to pay for his immigrant family, which was put on hold by the plague.

In recent months, Alhajaa said that he saw that the situation in Sudan was getting worse and he tried to speed up their appeals – because of all his efforts to destroy them.

“There is no need for this protocol,” he said. “It’s a way to kill people. Right now my family is trapped. And 100 percent I can’t do anything to help them.”

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