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‘Will Go to Hell, but Not Sudan’: Rescued Indians Open Up After Operation Kaveri

While some Indian nationals had smooth journeys back to India, others narrated haunting incidents from Sudan.

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“Please don’t ever send me back to Sudan. I’d rather go to hell, but never again to Sudan,” Avtar Singh, an Indian rescued as part of Operation Kaveri, told The Quint a few hours after he landed at an airport in Mumbai.

Avtar, an electrical technician at Khartoum’s Aarti Steel is one of 3,000 Indians who lived in Sudan and were left helpless after violence erupted in various parts of the country - a direct result of a vicious power struggle within the country's military leadership.

A Chandigarh native, Singh was rescued as part of Operation Kaveri, a coordinated effort between the Indian government and its embassy in Khartoum to ensure the safe return of Indian citizens stuck in crisis-hit areas of Sudan and is being undertaken from the Sudanese city of Port Sudan. At the time of publishing, close to 1,500 Indians have been rescued.

Singh and 20 other Indians narrowly escaped the Sudanese military’s clutches, who had held them hostage at gunpoint for hours, looted all their belongings, and attacked them.

However, unlike most Indian nationals who have been rescued, Avtar Singh was not able to go home just yet. He had to await the completion of a quarantine due to the presence of Yellow Fever in Sudan and is currently at a quarantine centre in Mumbai.

The Quint spoke to several Indians who were rescued as part of Operation Kaveri and explored their journey from Sudan, the hardships they faced, the rescue mission and their longing to return home.

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Kamlesh Channiyara, a resident of the Soba industrial area in Khartoum, was packing up for a holiday with his friends when he received the news that the military had captured Khartoum International Airport.

He told The Quint that while the first few days of the conflict did not cause any direct problems for them, the group realised that this was no small conflict when the violence did not stop after a week.

"We started running out of food, and the situation worsened to a point where we bought 5 kgs of potatoes and tomatoes each for 40,000 Sudanese pounds (Rs 5,500)," Channiyara asked.

“On April 20, I left for Port Sudan from Soba. We have an Indian group where the Indian Embassy shared the link about Operation Kaveri. And helped me get to Port Sudan by bus. There is an Indian school in Port Sudan which was converted into temporary accommodation, and I instantly got in touch with my family to let them know I’m safe.”
Kamlesh Channiyara

It was just a few days later that Kamlesh got to go back home to Rajkot, in Gujarat, via Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

Similar luck followed for Vasil Charuthala, a Kerala-native who travelled to Sudan to conduct a survey of the Al Kahir port within Port Sudan, along with colleagues at the Mumbai-based offshore survey company.

Charuthala spoke to The Quint and said:

“While I am not a victim of the war, since Port Sudan city is under government control and saw no fighting, a complete blackout meant that our families had no idea if we were alive or not. We weren’t sure if fighting would reach Port Sudan, so we decided to pack up and leave."
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His office in India coordinated with the Indian embassy, who asked the group to move to the school in Port Sudan.

“We arrived in Saudi Arabia aboard INS Sumedha and were then put on a flight to Mumbai,” he added.

However, Avtar Singh’s journey was not as smooth.

‘Held at Gunpoint’: Avtar Singh’s Journey Back Home

On the morning of April 15, 400 Sudanese military men entered the Aarti steel factory and took over 150 employees, hostage. Amongst those held at gunpoint were Avtar Singh and 20 fellow Indians, who were held in one room.

“They looted all our belongings and cash. All we had left were the clothes on our body. They stole the company’s money and vandalised the factory,” he narrated to The Quint.

The military also grabbed close to $1500 that belonged to Singh, and when the 44-year-old attempted to resist giving his last Rs 15,000 (in Indian currency) to the military, he was attacked with rifle butts and held at gunpoint.

“We were held hostage from 9 am to 5 pm. At 5 pm, a high-ranking person from their group came in. We requested that he let us go. He also agreed and said that now that we have been ‘looted entirely,’ we are free to go," Singh narrated.

The group of Indians scrambled and, after a strenuous journey on foot, arrived at a Sudanese colleague’s home, where they stayed for a few days. An empty building near his colleagues' house became the group’s temporary residence.

But Singh was not out of danger, stranded with minimal supplies in the middle of a warzone, and knew it would take a miracle to reach Port Sudan without assistance.

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To get to Port Sudan, the group were in conversation with a company called Omega Steel. While the company had a few busses, they had no diesel, and their factory had been turned into a military base.

As a result, close to 200 workers from Omega Steele and the 20 Indians, raided the Omega Steel factory when it was empty, in an attempt to pull off a heroic escape from Khartoum.

Speaking to The Quint, he said:

“Without registering our entry, we filled the tank with diesel along with big barrels of extra diesel in case we needed it on our journey. We informed the supervisor at the factory to allow these people to come in and use the diesel since it was being used to transport Indians to safety in Port Sudan. We heard that after the army realised that the diesel was missing, they set up a larger camp around the factory."
Avtar Singh

But Avtar Singh could not be bothered about the Sudanese military anymore. He entered Port Sudan in one of five busses, all powered by the diesel taken from the military, ready to go home.

A Yellow Fever Quarantine

Singh was informed that he could not get on a flight to Delhi with the rest of his colleagues since it was full and was subsequently placed on a flight to Delhi via Mumbai. However, authorities cited “protocol” and asked him to de-board in Mumbai itself.

Since I landed in Mumbai, I have been quarantined because of an issue with yellow fever vaccinations. My team members, who landed before me, easily left the airport.

While he was not diagnosed with Yellow fever and had been vaccinated, the commotion in Sudan led to Singh losing his vaccination card, and he said that it “ended up in the things that were looted from us in Sudan.”ss

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Singh told The Quint that he was released from the Quarantine centre on Saturday, 29 April and is scheduled to board a flight to Chandigarh on Sunday morning.

Moreover, he added that there was no such protocol in Delhi, and the quarantine was limited to rescued Indians who landed in Mumbai.

“I asked them why there were no such issues in Delhi, so the officer told me that there is no official order but ‘this is the protocol.’ If there was an official order, the Delhi airport would have done the same, right?” Singh asked, during a phone call with The Quint.

Meanwhile, Vasil Charuthala described the conditions of the quarantine centre and said:

“The airport officials told us that it is protocol from the Ministry of Health’s protocol, but they should have some humanity. The people who have been quarantined with me have no belongings of their own and are still struggling here.”

He added that several families within the quarantine centre have been unable to contact their loved ones since the military looted their possessions in Sudan.

“They only have their passport and the clothes they are already wearing. They don’t have money either.”

Moreover, Charuthala shed light on another grievance of the rescued Indians who’re currently quarantined.

“Every state government had arranged transit from Mumbai to their states for the day we landed. But now these people do not have the opportunity because of the quarantine, and they’ll have to make travel arrangements on their own.”
Avtar Singh

“How can someone who was just looted of everything they own afford any form of transport?” he asked.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Indians Abroad   Sudan Crisis 

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