As It Happens

Canadian woman relieved to escape Sudan with her 90-year-old grandmother

A Canadian woman who was stranded at a Sudanese military base has been airlifted to safety in Kenya with her elderly mother and grandmother.

Safia Mustafa's grandmother was initially turned away from an evacuation flight because of her citizenship

Safia Mustafa of Calgary told CBC News Canadian military personnel assisting evacuation efforts in Sudan seem overwhelmed.
Canadian Safia Mustafa has been airlifted to Kenya with her elderly mother and grandmother after the family spent two nights stranded at a military base with no bathrooms or shelter. (CBC News)

A Canadian woman who was stranded at a Sudanese military base has been airlifted to safety in Kenya with her elderly mother and grandmother.

Safia Mustafa was stuck several days at a base outside the Sudanese capital Khartoum in what she described as "horrific conditions" because officials wouldn't let her 90-year-old grandmother, who is not a Canadian citizen, board an evacuation flight.

But on Monday, she says her family was finally able to board a Canadian Air Forces flight to Kenya.

"It was a relief, but also disbelief that we finally actually made it on a flight," Mustafa said Monday in an interview with The Current guest host Robyn Bresnahan

"And then just thinking about everybody and everything that we're leaving behind. So it was just a lot of emotion."

It's not clear why officials changed their tune about letting Mustafa flee with her grandmother, whom she takes care of. Global Affairs said last week it is only evacuating Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their dependents, the definition of which does not include grandparents. 

CBC reached out to Global Affairs for more information about Mustafa's situation. However, a spokesperson said the agency cannot comment on individual cases.

LISTEN | Safia Mustafa and aid workers on the situation in Sudan: 

Mustafa grew up in St. Catharines, Ont., and later moved to Calgary. She relocated to Sudan two years ago to care for her elderly parents and grandmother. Her father died three months ago, she said.

Earlier this month, violence broke out between Sudan's army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces

She and her family lived on Tuti Island near Khartoum. She said the violence hadn't reached them directly, but their community was surrounded by fighting on all sides, and supplies were no longer getting in.

Turned away by U.K. soldiers

As the situation in Sudan became more dire, Canada and other countries began airlifting their citizens and their families to safety.

Last week, Mustafa told CBC Radio's As It Happens that Canadian officials instructed her to take her 75-year-old mother, who is Canadian, and 90-year-old grandmother, who is not, to the Wadi Sayyidna Air Base north of Khartoum to catch a U.K. evacuation flight out of the war-torn country.

At that time, Canada had not yet organized its own rescue operations and was partnering with ally countries to get Canadians in Sudan to safety.

Mustafa says she used all her gas and cash getting to the base, and risked her family's safety driving through the dangerous streets of Sudan.

But when they arrived on Wednesday, British soldiers wouldn't let her grandmother board without a Canadian visa.  Rather than leave the older woman behind, all three remained at the base.

"She is our immediate family and we can not leave her," Mustafa told As It Happens at the time. "Like, we take care of her."

Global Affairs said during a press conference last week that it was not their policy to instruct Canadians to flee with relatives that fall outside its definition of dependents, and that it would look into her case.

It's not clear if the policy about who can be evacuated out of Sudan has changed, or if an exception was made for Mustafa. 

"I honestly don't know how it was resolved," Mustafa said in a WhatsApp voice memo to The Current producer Meli Gumus. 

Soldiers and citizens stand near a bus.
This photo supplied by Canadian soldiers shows members of the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment, giving out water bottles to evacuees from Sudan boarding a reception bus in Djibouti on Sunday, April 30. (Master Cpl. Bryan Carter/Combat Camera/DND)

She and her family spent Wednesday and Thursday night at the base, sleeping outside. She says there are no bathrooms there, and they haven't been able to get any sleep. She says the situation was particularly rough on her grandmother, who is frail. 

When Canadian Air Force (CAF) rescue flights arrived on Friday, she says a Global Affairs official told her on the phone to explain her situation to the Canadians on the ground. So she tried her luck with a Canadian official who was checking documentation and waving people through to board flights.

"I gave him our passports and I gave him my grandma's, and he's like, 'Oh, I've heard of you.' And he had a smile on his face," she said. "And I laughed. I was like, 'I'm sure you have, My family's been raising a stink.' So they let us through.'"

Crowded and chaotic

The flight out was crowded and chaotic, she said. 

"I remember everybody just huddled together, really trying to make themselves as comfortable as possible," she said.

She says she could sense tension among the military personnel on the plane. Earlier that day, a Turkish evacuation flight was shot at as it attempted to land. Both warring factions in Sudan blamed each other.

"So you can tell that the [soldiers] were worried about getting everybody out safe," Mustafa said. "And everybody else, I think, were just, like, disoriented and tired and just happy — even though it was extremely uncomfortable, just happy to be on the plane and finally getting out."

WATCH | Canadian Armed Forces on the ground in Port Sudan: 

Canadian Armed Forces on the ground in Port Sudan

5 months ago
Duration 1:06
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says military members are in Port Sudan 'as we speak' as Ottawa tries to offer options to Canadians seeking to flee the conflict in Sudan.

In a press release on Monday, Global Affairs said approximately 400 Canadian citizens and permanent residents have escaped Sudan on evacuation flights organized by Canada and its international partners. 

The airlift operations have now ended, and Global Affairs says any Canadians left behind should make their way by road to Port Sudan, where international evacuation efforts are continuing by sea.

"At this point we are seeing our partner and allies' efforts shift to Port Sudan as an assisted departure centre. The CAF have moved a small reconnaissance team into that location in anticipation of continued partnering in the effort," reads a Global Affairs press release.

South Sudan — which has offered to mediate the conflict in its neighbour country — announced on Tuesday that Sudan's warring military factions agreed in principle to a seven-day ceasefire.

Previous ceasefires, however, have not held.

Mustafa and her family, meanwhile, are in Nairobi, applying for a visa for her grandmother in the hopes of bringing her to Canada.

She says she's grateful for the help she has received, but can't help think about what she's left behind — especially her friends, family and neighbours who have no way out.

"I'm very worried. I have lots of family there. I had started to build a life there. I opened a business," she said, her voice shaking.

"It's really difficult to imagine that it's obviously never going to be the same. And we don't know, like if we're ever able to come back."

With files from Meli Gumus and Chris Harbord

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