After a long, nerve-wracking journey, a man originally from Manitoba has safely made his way out of Sudan without help from the Canadian government, he says.
Fighting broke out between two military factions in Sudan on April 15 and continues despite a ceasefire agreement in principle between warring generals.
Edward Parsons and his family holed up for eight days in their home in Khartoum as air strikes and artillery fire hit so close, it rattled their windows.
“My daughter can now tell the difference between an AK-47 and a PKM and a 12.7 just by the sounds of it,” Parsons said. “And that’s not something I really wanted my seven-year-old daughter to have to know.”
Originally from Birtle, Man., Parsons is no stranger to war zones. He’s lived in Africa for decades, working as a medical rescue specialist in hot spots, mainly in Somalia, while his wife is a Japanese national who works for the UN World Food Programme.
But Parsons said this conflict hit him differently.
“It’s not so much for myself as my daughter,” said Parsons, sadness in his eyes despite an otherwise stoic demeanour.
“At a checkpoint, soldiers opened fire on a vehicle behind our vehicle — that she was in,” he said.
The girl put on her riding helmet and jumped onto the floor.
“That’s of course traumatizing for seven-year-olds,” Parsons said.
The family finally got out of Khartoum with help from the UN. They joined a 1,000-kilometre convoy to Port Sudan, where hundreds of people, from hardened veterans to newborn babies, loaded into buses, trucks and personal vehicles, sometimes at risk from looters and gangs.
The gruelling trip over rough desert roads took 33 hours.
“We stuffed some things in a suitcase or two,” Parsons said. “We escaped with a couple of bags of key documents and keepsakes. Others lost everything.”
Friends in Port Sudan helped the family board a Japanese self-defence forces cargo plane to Djibouti, where Japanese officials put them on a flight to Tokyo a couple of days later.
Now safe with family in suburban Tokyo, Parsons said the dark reality is sinking in.
“I guess we should be very thankful for how things worked out for us, and for those we know have gotten out safe,” he said. “But I think we’re still at the point where we’re dwelling on the unknowns, and the people we are missing.”
The family constantly checks social media for people who’ve lost touch. The stress is giving their daughter nightmares, as she worries about her friends in Khartoum, as well as the family cat, Tito.
Many Sudanese are making dangerous trips on foot and by road in hopes of reaching nearby countries like Egypt and Ethiopia.
Parsons is grateful for help his family got from the UN and Japan, but wishes his own country had shown more commitment. The Canadian Embassy closed quickly after fighting began, and Parsons said Canada made no effort to contact them or help them get out.
“At the beginning, when I was trying to make contact with [the embassy], I was referred to someone in the emergency management centre, probably in Ottawa,” he said.
“[They] took our passport details and information and said they would get back to us as soon as they had information.” Parsons said.
“That was the last contact I had with the Canadian Embassy through the entire crisis.”
Parsons said he and his wife will continue their work in international aid and rescue operations, but with new awareness that they might be left to fend for themselves.
“Canada has a long history of helping other countries,” he said.
“This has been a point of pride for Canada, and for them to pull a no-show when the Canadians who are doing these things were in trouble, that was somewhat disappointing, and held in sharp relief by how fast seemingly the Japanese swung into action.”
In a written statement, Global Affairs Canada said Canadians should make their own way to Port Sudan, where commercial travel might be available. A small team of Canadian troops are stationed off the port, the statement continued, but only “in the short term as our allies develop options for Port Sudan assisted departures.”
The government facilitated two-daily evacuation flights from the Wadi Sayyidna Air Base, 22 kilometres north of Khartoum, for a total of six flights, helping 550 Canadians make their way home. The flights happened from April 27 to 29, after Parsons and his family had already left.
Parsons heads back to work in Somalia next week.