It was wild jubilation as 376 Nigerians, the first batch of evacuees from war-torn Sudan, arrived in Nigeria late Wednesday night.
The returnees, who were first evacuated to Egypt, touched down at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, NAIA, Abuja about 11.30p.m., and 11.54p.m., respectively and were received by aides of the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Sadiya Faruk, officials of the National Emergency Management Agency and Nigeria in Diaspora Commission, NIDCOM, among others.
Others were the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Dr. Nasir Gwarzo; Director General, National Emergency Management Agency, Ahmed Habib; and Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa.
The returnees were airlifted back by Air Peace, which brought back 282 persons and C-130 aircraft of the Nigerian Air Force, NAF, 94 returnees.
The evacuees had encountered numerous encumbrances following stringent formalities issued by the Egyptian authorities to enable their airlift back to Nigeria.
The Federal Government’s plan to evacuate Nigerians from Sudan was almost completely ruined when more Nigerians smuggled themselves onto the flights.
Evacuees, who spoke at the airport, said they experienced sporadic gunfire and thought they would not see another day in Nigeria.
Among them is a 32-year-old woman, Zainab Haruna, who said she had lost hope of survival in Sudan, adding that she went incommunicado and without water for days.
“My experience in Sudan was horrible. Things were going fine, although we had rumours of a looming crisis but we didn’t take it seriously, only to wake up to gunshots and people running everywhere to save their lives,” she said.
Another returnee, Clement Mustapha, had arrived Sudan to study for a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Studies, a few weeks before the war started.
Mustapha said Sudan was like hell for him, adding that at some point, he had to say his last prayers and waited for the worst to happen.
I said my last prayers and waited for death
His words: “Sudan currently is not where your worst enemy should be. Have you seen war movies and how terrible they are? We just went through that. I am sure some people here may end up using drugs to stabilise their mind because it was draining and scary. We spent days walking to safety, hiding and explaining ourselves to gunmen, whose minds are in their guns. We begged for water. There was no electricity to charge our phones, because there was tension everywhere. We trekked under the sun and I heard that some of our ladies were molested.”
I didn’t know I’d ever return to Nigeria
Also speaking, Margaret Dauda, while expressing gratitude to the Federal Government for coming through for them, said they had given up hope of returning to Nigeria.
Her words: “Many other people from different countries are experiencing pain but I thank God for how Nigeria has come through for us because we literally saw the face of death in war. We saw a bullet. That’s something I have never seen or even heard before.
“We woke up on Saturday morning with heavy bombings and fire everywhere. It was that bad. I don’t know how to describe it, it is something that we have not seen before, we only saw it in the movies.”
We were sexualy harrased, broke, stole to survive — students
Recounting their ordeals, some students among the returnees said that some females were sexually harassed and were so broke to the extent of picking things from shops and running away.
A returnee female student told journalists on arrival that they faced humiliation and slept in the open.
“We spent all the money we had. We were so hungry and thirsty. They were harassing us sexualy. There was no food, no water to drink. It got to the point we picked things from shops and ran away,” she said.
Another female student told the BBC Hausa Service in an interview, that their legs were swollen due to long hours of stay in the buses.
We paid money to be allowed to urinate
A male student, who had a semester to finish his studies said the situation was so bad that they even had to pay money before they were allowed to urinate. He prayed that the war should end soon to enable him go back to Sudan and complete just a semester to round up his programme.
We paid to bathe, brush teeth
Miss Fathai Alliory said the Nigeria missions in Egypt and Sudan did not take care of them. “They didn’t give us food, they didn’t give us water, they didn’t give us anything, we had to pay to take our bath, you pay to brush your teeth, you pay to do anything you want to do and things were very expensive there.
Refusal of Nigeria missions to pay visa fees delayed our evacuation
“We got to know that one of the reasons that we were delayed for days was that the Nigerian Mission in Egypt was not ready to pay for our visa, so, the Egyptian government was waiting for us to pay for our visa and we learned that the Federal Government gave them money to make all the necessary arrangements for us to leave the country.”
Sharing his experience, Mr. Ibrahim Musa, a student, who lived on the outskirts of the capital, Khartoum, said he was devastated when he heard sounds of gunshots and grenades.
“At the time I started hearing the sound of gunshots, the first thing that came to my mind was to escape and I thank God this is where I am,” Musa said.
I feared my children may not survive
A father, Ibrahim Sardius, who was on standby to receive his children, said: “I feared my children may not survive the war in Sudan because the videos I saw and things I heard were horrible. I stayed days praying and was following the government closely to know what to do. At some point, I lost contact with my children but with faith I came here today to see that they are here. I am really grateful.”
FG gives each returnee N100,000 cash gift
The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Farouq, while addressing the returnees said that there was N100,000 cash gift that would transport them back to their families, which she noted was supported by the Dangote Foundation.
Farouq explained that the task had been hectic for the Federal Government but that they would not fail to ensure the safe return of every Nigerian.
“A very good morning to all of us. It has been a very hectic period for us for the past two and a half weeks. We have been on this since the crisis in Sudan erupted. It has been a very tough moment for the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Today, we are very happy to receive them. They have gone through a very traumatising period but we give thanks to Almighty Allah that all of them are back safely. No life was lost, which is the most important thing. All the efforts put in place were not in vain.
“Today, we have received the first batch of the evacuees. The C-130 aircraft of NAF brought about 94 of them while the Air Peace, which I commend and appreciate the Chairman/CEO (Chief Allen Onyema) for the support and bringing back our nationals. They brought back about 282 Nigerians.
“They will be in the hall and they will go through a process of profiling and after which they will go through the immigration and they will be given their dignity packs for them to get back to their respective destinations. Some of them, their family members are here to receive them while others would be under our care until they get to their families.
“There is N100,000 that would transport them back to their families, which is supported by the Dangote Foundation as transportation fare and as well as dignity kits and also N25,000 recharge cards from MTN and 1.5 gb data courtesy of MTN.
“All efforts have been put in place and everyone has contributed in ensuring that at least Nigerians have some comfort when they return home.
“We are here with the Ambassador to Sudan, who has been very supportive throughout this period. He is here to receive them and I want to use this opportunity to pray to Allah that the situation in Sudan gets to an end and we pray for peace in Sudan.
“War is not a good thing. People went to study and they became refugees all of a sudden. It is an international crisis and also a humanitarian crisis as people had no food, water and where to go. Nigerians should pray for peace and also not to experience this kind of situation.”
She expressed her gratitude to President Muhammadu Buhari, MTN, Chief Executive Officer, Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema and Aliko Dangote for being important instruments in ensuring Nigerians are brought back home safe.
How they returned
The Air Peace flight arrived at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja about 11:35pm on Wednesday.
The Nigerian Air Force, NAF, plane C-130 Hercules aircraft conveying another set of 94 Nigerians from Aswan, Egypt landed at 2254 UTC (11.54p.m local time).
Director of Public Relations & Information, Nigerian Air Force, Air Commodore Ayodele Famuyiwa made this known in a statement, yesterday.
He disclosed that NAF’s effort was in furtherance of its constitutional role of aid to civil authority, and in line with the commitment by the Federal Government to rescue and successfully return Nigerians living in Sudan back home.
“The airlift operation is most heart warming as it coincides with the NAF’s 59th anniversary celebration holding in Enugu from 4-7 May 2023,” he said.
Recall that hostilities broke out on April 15, 2023, between Sudan Armed Forces and the Paramilitary RSF after an attempt to integrate both parties broke down.
The humanitarian assistance by the Nigerian Air Force and other well-meaning Nigerians has, however, ended days of anxiety with regards to the safety of Nigerian citizens in the troubled country and raised hope for those yet to be airlifted.
The death toll since the fighting between the rival factions erupted has been reported to be above 500 people including foreigners caught up in the capital, Khartoum.
Azman Air to airlift second batch
Meanwhile, Azman Air has confirmed that its aircraft was on its way to airlift a second batch of Nigerian evacuees stranded in Egypt.
A post on Azman airline’s Facebook page read: “Having obtained the necessary approval in Egypt; Azman Air Airbus A340-600 with Registration 5N-AAM is on its way to Egypt to commence the evacuation of stranded Nigerians amid Sudan Crisis.
“This is a call to serve and we are delighted to be of great service to our country.”
The Nigerian Airline in a tweet on May 2, said it had received the approval of the Federal Government to airlift the stranded Nigerians.
Azman airlines Airbus with 400-seating capacity was said to have departed Abuja for Aswan at 3.45pm, yesterday.