'The kids were clinging to me, but I had to leave'

time:2023-06-08 23:01:58 source:The Washington Post

A British woman fleeing conflict-hit Sudan has spoken of her nieces and nephews "crying" and "clinging" to her as she was evacuated from the country.

Wafaa Salim spoke to the BBC at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus, where British evacuation flights are arriving from Sudan before onward journeys to the UK.

She was not allowed to bring the children with her due to rules on who the UK is evacuating.

"I had to give them back to their dad. It was so horrible," she said.

"They are vulnerable immediate family members and they should have been allowed onto the aeroplane.

"They were telling me because numbers are limited, only British citizens who hold passports are allowed. And I was begging him, this is immediate family."

Downing Street has said eligibility requirements had been set out "very clearly" and had not changed, but there was "an element of discretion" for those working on the ground in Sudan.

The Foreign Office said eight flights had airlifted 897 people from the east African country to Cyprus on Thursday.

However, this is a fraction of the thousands of British nationals thought to be in Sudan.

Ms Salim, a planner with Amersham Town Council in Buckinghamshire, arrived at the airfield north of the capital Khartoum, where she said people were being assisted by the Red Cross and the Sudanese army.

She had been in Sudan with her 12-year-old son Hasan, visiting family for Eid during the Easter break.

They had been due to return to the UK a week ago, but this was delayed after fighting broke out.

She had been able to pass some checkpoints and make it to the airport with her son and her brother, along with his five children who are aged between three and 10.

It was after speaking to a British official her brother and his children "were rejected".

"In the regulations or the guidance, they said British citizens and immediate family," she said.

"Those are vulnerable kids, allow them to come with me. My brother can stay, but allow the kids to come. They refused that."

She said her brother and his family now plan to try and escape through Egypt, adding the journey would have been easier if he did not have to bring his children.

Currently, British passport holders and immediate family members with existing UK entry clearance are being told they are eligible for evacuation.

Speaking earlier, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Sudanese nationals without travel documents were being blocked at checkpoints by the Sudanese army.

"Where we have families where a British national has a Sudanese national as a spouse or extended family, it makes the extraction more complicated," he said.

"We have given advice as to the status or the prioritisation of the people that we are able to withdraw. We have said it's British nationals and Sudanese with travel documents."

He has advised British citizens that it is unclear what would happen once a ceasefire between the warring sides ends on Thursday at midnight local time (22:00 GMT).

The 72-hour truce, agreed by Sudan's army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has been in place since Tuesday.

Downing Street said the British ambassador was continuing to speak to the warring parties to lobby for an extension to the ceasefire.

Speaking in the House of Commons, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy called on the government to allow the Sudanese families of British nationals to be allowed to also leave the country.

"It is not right that British nationals are unable to leave because their close Sudanese family members are being excluded from safe passage, especially as we know that planes have left the airfield without being full," he said.

Alicia Kearns, the Tory chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has called for elderly people dependent on children who are British citizens to also be accepted.

Accompanying Ms Salim at the airport was her 12-year-old son Hasan, who had struggled to sleep during the past week with the sound of bombs and shooting.

He said it was "really disappointing" to leave his cousins behind, and he was expecting to "get home and see them happy, at our house".

BBC News was later told Ms Salim had been taken to hospital after becoming unwell during the flight to the UK.

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