PARIS (AP) — Leila Oulkebous’ research for her doctorate from one of France’s top universities was going well when the explosions started.
Oulkebous had decided to focus her field work on Sudan when the country exploded into violence.
The chiefs of the country’s army and its rival Rapid Support Forces rose to power after a popular uprising in 2019 prompted them to remove longtime autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir. They started fighting this month amid tensions over a new plan to re-introduce civilian rule.
The bombing shook the house where Oulkebous was living in the capital, Khartoum, investigating the effects of dams on rivers that cross borders.
“We were hiding all the time under the bed,” she said Wednesday at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport as hundreds of people arrived in harrowing evacuations. World powers were rescuing people from Sudan on planes and warships in operations prompted by the eruption of the fighting that sent thousands of foreigners and many more Sudanese people fleeing for safety.
A French frigate carrying hundreds of evacuees docked Wednesday morning in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as part of broader efforts involving several warships, in addition to airlifts.
French military spokesman Col. Pierre Gaudilliere said France evacuated more than 500 civilians from 40 nations by plane over the weekend after securing the airbase north of Khartoum Saturday, using its airbase in neighbouring Djibouti for the airlift.
Gaudilliere said the French military was the first to land, and organized the flow of its own and other nations’ planes.
“You still had airstrikes as the operation was going on, crossfire in the streets, artillery fire, so it was and still is very intense fighting,” Gaudilliere said. The French military had personnel on the ground to assess the situation during the operation, he said.
Several nations, including Japan, thanked France for rescuing their citizens.
Some other countries quickly joined evacuation efforts.
Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said Wednesday three nationals have been evacuated with help from Germany, and his country is now working with Turkey to help evacuate two other citizens.
Greek national Christos Dedes, who was in Sudan for work, said he and his colleagues managed to leave their Khartoum hotel Tuesday via the Portuguese embassy, which sent a car to drive them to the airbase where there were Italian, French and German soldiers.
“We just happened to leave with the Italians, on a transport plane,” he said on Greek TV channel Mega Wednesday, after he arrived in Athens.
From their Khartoum hotel, he said, they could see that “every day the battles were heavier. Both (sides) were using heavy weapons.” He said they would hear explosions at night, and see bodies in the street.
More than 1,000 people from 58 countries were to arrive Wednesday by ship to the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, including many on the French warship Lorraine.
Saudi Arabia on Saturday organized the first evacuation convoy by land, via cars and buses bringing people to Port Sudan, where a navy ship took them to Jeddah.
The French foreign affairs ministry said a flight carrying 184 French nationals and their families and about 20 other nationals returned from Djibouti and landed in Paris Wednesday morning.
Among them was Oulkebous, a Moroccan PhD student at Bordeaux Montaigne University.
“The feeling I had since the first day of fighting was I felt really paralysed, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to get out, the airport was closed, we could not leave,” she said, describing “the explosions, the smoke, so really, I didn’t have the time to fully realise what was going on.”
A Royal Air Maroc plane arrived at Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport on Wednesday, carrying 136 Moroccan nationals evacuated from Sudan.
In contrast with France and some other nations, the U.S. and Britain didn’t evacuate non-diplomats at first.
The British government has come under growing criticism for its failure to airlift civilians. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended the government’s approach, saying diplomats had been evacuated first “because they were being targeted.”
The British government since said that 301 people have been evacuated on four U.K. flights from Sudan over the past 24 hours, and four more are scheduled Wednesday. Britain intends to keep running the flights for as long as possible. In addition, “rapid deployment teams” of U.K. officials are in Port Sudan assessing potential for a seaborne evacuation.
The Foreign Office says U.K. passport-holders are eligible, “and priority is given to family groups with children and/or the elderly or individuals with medical conditions.”
Officials have said there are as many as 4,000 British citizens in Sudan, 2,000 of whom have registered for potential evacuation.
The White House said Monday the U.S. is helping from afar as thousands of Americans left behind in Sudan seek to escape fighting in the east African nation, after the U.S. Embassy evacuated all of its diplomatic personnel over the weekend and shut down.
The Biden administration is considering several options for assisting private American citizens in getting out of Sudan.
Two U.S. officials said one option being considered would be to send U.S. Navy vessels in, or en route to, the Red Sea to dock at Port Sudan and take Americans to Jeddah or another location. The officials said this would depend on the security situation and whether it was deemed safe for the ships to dock.
A U.S. official said the military has developed other options for getting Americans, including using an airfield that some European countries have used to fly out citizens. To date, it has not been told to do that, the official said.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters.
Karel Janicek in Prague, Jill Lawless in London, Elena Becatoros in Athens, Tarik El-Barakah in Rabat, Matt Lee and Tara Copp in Washington contributed to the story.
This story was first published on April 26, 2023. It was updated on April 27, 2023 to make clear that Oulkebous’ decision to focus her research on Sudan was not related to the civil war in Ethiopia.