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Sudan evacuees ‘went through hell’ and Canada must help stop crisis: Joly in Kenya

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OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says Canadians evacuated from Sudan told her they “went through hell,” and she says Ottawa will do everything possible to help the country find peace.

“This is an urban war that has no mercy whatsoever for civilians,” Joly said in an interview Tuesday from Nairobi with The Canadian Press.

Joly was wrapping up a visit to Kenya, where she heard from people who escaped raging violence in Sudan, and met with leaders from across East Africa to discuss how Canada can help bring about peace.

“They faced a situation that was, actually, extremely dangerous — facing death themselves, or, potential threats to their loved ones and families,” she said.

“Through their stories, I could see how much they have dealt with fear, and still are dealing with trauma.”

Joly said it was an emotional experience hearing from those who helped with evacuations, including the Khartoum embassy team, who gave a two-hour briefing on how it all took place.

“People went through hell, and were fearing for their lives. But at the same time, people are still dealing with the trauma of having to leave their home and their loved ones.”

Sudan has been ruled by military chiefs for most of its recent history, and negotiations to again attempt civilian rule collapsed last month as two unpopular generals fight for influence.

“This is a war for power; this is a war for control, and this is war for the sake of war,” Joly said.

The Sudanese Armed Forces and Sudan’s paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces started brazen clashes in Khartoum, a capital city of five million people, on April 15.

Since then, Canada and other foreign countries have scrambled to evacuate their citizens through airlifts on damaged military-base runways and 30-hour convoys through treacherous checkpoints to the Port of Sudan.

Canadian evacuation flights started days later than many allies, including those stationed in East Asia, although Ottawa insists it has reacted as quickly as possible given logistical and security challenges.

Joly said evacuees in Kenya were grateful that Canadians staff and allied countries helped bring them to safety. But she couldn’t shake an eerie feeling, with the Sudan evacuees reminding her of people she met in Poland just days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in winter 2022.

Joly made a point of Canada evacuating some of its Khartoum embassy staff who aren’t citizens of Canada, known as locally engaged staff.

Diplomats have often urged Global Affairs Canada to ensure their foreign colleagues are included in airlifts, and Ottawa faced accusations of not adequately protecting local staff in its Kyiv embassy amid warnings ahead of Russia’s full-scale invasion that it would targeting Ukrainians working for western governments. 

“My preoccupation right now is that there’s a real risk of spillover, of the Sudan crisis to the broader region,” Joly said in a call from the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi, in between meetings with diplomatic staff and regional officials.

Canada’s diplomatic mission in Nairobi is its best-staffed on the continent, and Kenya is trying to co-ordinate how countries that neighbour Sudan can best respond through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group focused on peace and prosperity in East African countries.

“It showed me how much Kenya (is) and could be playing an even greater leadership role in this crisis. And we need there to be there to support them, because it’s the best way to get to an African-led solution,” she said.

Joly echoed remarks by UN aid chief Martin Griffiths, also in Nairobi, who said the warring factions must agree to allow safe access for humanitarian workers to come save lives.

She said Canada can help by advocating for aid access, putting up its own dollars and elevating the voices of civil society.

“Sudanese people themselves need to be able to have a voice in the diplomatic efforts, and that’s what Canada can do also, by helping provide a way for that these voices to be expressed,” she said.

She said that was the advice of former Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, the country’s only civilian leader in recent decades, who was deposed in a 2021 coup.

“We’re seen as a credible and trusted partner by many countries in the region,” she said, adding that Ottawa “will have more to say in the coming days” about humanitarian aid for Sudanese people.

Joly also met with Kenyan President William Ruto as well as multiple Kenyan cabinet ministers, both about the situation in Sudan and broader collaboration between Canada and Kenya.

She said the talks surrounded everything from collaboration on an upcoming environment summit to possibly working with Kenyan post-secondary institutions to make it easier for graduates to work in Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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