India on Wednesday evening flew back the first group of citizens who were stranded in crisis-torn Sudan. The development that after several days of preparation that and was enabled with support from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and other stakeholders. A civilian Saudia aircraft was used to fly the 360 Indians to Delhi from Jeddah, where they were earlier taken from Port Sudan. The evacuation is the beginning of a complex and risky process as hundreds of Indians are still stranded in Sudan as they are unable to get out as of now.
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“India welcomes back its own. Operation Kaveri brings 360 Indian nationals to the homeland as first flight reaches New Delhi,” said External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar. This airlift is expected to be followed by similar flights if the 72-hour ceasefire can hold.
The fighting in Sudan broke out with such speed and ferocity that many Indians who had been living in the country for multiple generations did not have the time to collect their identity papers. As a result, Indian officials facilitating the evacuation from Port Sudan, had to process a significant number of special cases where people could not produce passports or OCI cards (proving that they are Overseas Citizens of India). Many Indian-owned business houses also did not anticipate the fighting and had to leave all their assets behind.
“The Sudanese capital is made of multiple cities that are connected through bridges. As soon as the fighting began, the bridges were sealed over by the Sudanese Armed Forces which stopped many expats from reaching homes or workstations to pick up their personal documents like passports,” said an Indian businessman, who is among those who left his OCI card behind while fleeing Khartoum.
Indian officials from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) who are coordinating the evacuation from Port Said and Jeddah had to overcome challenges in processing the evacuation of a large number of those who did not have such documents. To deal with the matter, government stationery was flown in a C-130J aircraft on Tuesday to Port Sudan, after which temporary identity documents were provided to these individuals.
Taking advantage of the 72-hour ceasefire, India started evacuations on Tuesday and the first batches of rescued citizens reached Delhi on Wednesday evening.
The evacuees explained that there are two kinds of Indians who have made Sudan their home over the last century. One group, numbering around 800, consists of Gujaratis who have been settled in Sudan for more than four generations. They own extensive businesses in the country and have rich local contacts.
The other, larger group entered the country later, especially over the past three decades. These individuals number around 3000, according to a Gujarati entrepreneur who owns major plastic manufacturing outfits in Khartoum. “Don’t ask me about my factories and storehouses. I am leaving with my life and that is enough,” he told The Hindu over phone from Port Sudan.
Surprised by war
Many of the settlers of Indian origin did not update their identity documents as no one anticipated the current meltdown. “The Indian officials said that they would evacuate both Indian passport holders and OCI card holders. However, a lot of our people did not have updated Indian ID papers like Aadhar and OCI cards. Many did not have the originals and only had copies of Aadhar cards, as we did not require them in Sudan,” said the entrepreneur.
Till the early 1980s, Indians worked in various sectors of a solid Sudanese economy: oil and gas, mining, manufacturing, IT and other businesses. However, as Sudan underwent Islamisation in the 1980s, problems began. The vast country also gradually failed to handle its diverse population who began to complain of discrimination and regional disparity, which led to the earlier conflict in Darfur.
Conflict over resources
The latest war has also brought the spotlight back on the enormous resources at Sudan’s disposal. In 2022, the Sudanese Mineral Resource Company announced that it had extracted 18 tons of gold from its mines, the largest production of gold in the history of the country. This only highlights the resource potential of the country which is also known for its vast agriculture and livestock sector.
The narrative of the war on the ground, according to several evacuees, is that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti” and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under General Abedl Fattah al-Burhanare both trying to hold on to territory and resourcesas the war is expected to linger. Indians who are being evacuated said that the RSF fighters are often non-Arabic speakers. Outsiders have noticed that the younger fighters of the RSF speak French, which indicates that mercenaries from Chad and Niger that are part of Francophone Africa have joined the RSF.
The leader of the RSF has grown in importance over the last two decades as he supplied mercenaries from Chad to the Sudanese Armed Forces during the Darfur crisis. In that process, he became a centre of power in the Sudanese Armed Forces where the original RSF holds allegiance to him. The RSF is armed with heavy machine guns mounted on Toyota jeeps and tanks, have a vast number of anti-aircraft guns, and are aggressively holding on to territory. The Sudanese Armed Forces, on the other hand, have fighter aircraft and tanks that they are using against the RSF. The fight, however, has a clear connection with the resources, say the Indians that The Hindu spoke to.
Sudan is one of the largest countries of Africa and its dysfunctional political system has further heightened the vulnerabilities of its resource-rich economy. A reflection of this is in the north of the country where the gold reserve is located near the town of Merowe, which is one of the major areas of fighting. The Egyptians are reportedly eyeing Merowe as a base. There are reports that other regional and global powers are also interested in Merowe and much of this interest is evidently linked with the gold mines that have attracted a number of countries, including Russia under Vladimir Putin.