Sudan conflict: Kiwis sheltering in Khartoum describe harrowing days as they wait for chance to leave

Fighting is intensifying in Sudan as calls for a ceasefire are ignored.

For more than a week, the fighting between warring Sudanese generals has killed an estimated 400 people and injured thousands more as the country's army and a paramilitary unit, known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), grapple for control.

With major airports turned into battlegrounds, countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are drawing up emergency plans to evacuate thousands of foreign diplomats from the capital Khartoum.

Seven New Zealanders are known to be in the city, and among them is New Zealand teacher Michelle who, along with her husband Paul, has been sheltering in their apartment since the violence began.

The pair arrived in Khartoum in August last year and both work at an international school. Michelle is the primary principal while Paul is a design technology and PE teacher.

A friend had assured the pair Sudan was a safe place to work, but that changed just last week during a game of golf.

"We heard some gunshots and bombs. And we looked behind us and we could see this smoke," Michelle told Newshub.

For the past eight days, Michelle and Paul have been camped out in a corner of their Khartoum apartment conserving power and food. They've got gas and luckily Paul got another bottle a couple of weeks ago as a backup. 

"We basically just live in the dark. You can see behind me we've got our mattresses. There's a window here so we've put a mattress up against this window and then we've pushed a couch [against it to hold it up]," Michelle said.

"We're just really trying to economise, and to be honest, we're not actually that hungry anymore."

The fighting is heaviest in the capital Khartoum. Even while talking to Newshub, Michelle said there were sounds of fighting in the distance.

"I haven't heard the jet for a couple of days, but then you'd often hear the jet and then it's just flying over and [then] 'bang, bang, bang, bang, bang'," she said.

"We are starting to learn the difference in the gunfire, as sad as that sounds. It's like, 'Okay, so that's anti-aircraft, so that's going upwards. Oh no, that's not, that's coming downwards.'"

But the current official advice is to stay put and not attempt to leave by road.

New Zealand doesn't have an embassy in Sudan - the closest is in Ethiopia. While Michelle said officials have been in constant contact, they've told her any evacuation plan falls under the British Embassy, which they have had limited communication with, even though Paul holds a British passport. 

Michelle said the British Embassy told them that any decision to move is taken at individual risk.

"People are mobilising, people are going overland, what are we doing? Are we sitting and waiting, are we going, are we trying to get ourselves out? What do we do?" Michelle said.

"I think that's the disconcerting part. If you're partnered with a big embassy like the British Embassy but you hear nothing from them, what are we supposed to do?

"Right now we just want to get out. Taking anything more than a go bag won't be possible anyway, regardless if it's over land or by plane. And right now, we have no idea."

Michelle and Paul.
Michelle and Paul. Photo credit: Supplied

Michelle and Paul have been watching as other foreign embassies begin evacuating diplomats, including Saudi Arabia and the United States. The United Nations is also planning to leave and has told Michelle there are seats.

"I don't know what we're going to do, actually. What do you do? The UN and UNICEF have a bus and they say, 'There's space, do you want to come', what do you do?" Michelle said.

"Your embassy says stay put, but other people are offering you a way out. I don't have the answer to that question right now."

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told Newshub seven people are registered on the New Zealand Government's Safe Travel website.

While New Zealand doesn't have an embassy in Sudan, they said staff from our embassy in Ethiopia are in contact with the registered New Zealanders.

"We encourage all New Zealanders in Sudan to register on Safe Travel. This enables the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to gain an accurate picture of where New Zealand citizens are in Sudan, to have contact details, and provide important information," the spokesperson said.

"The New Zealand Government's travel advice for Sudan is Do Not Travel due to the threat of terrorism, kidnapping, violent crime, and violent civil unrest (level 4 of 4)."

New Zealanders in Sudan who need consular assistance can call the New Zealand Embassy in Ethiopia (accredited to Sudan) on +251 (11) 515 1269 or the 24/7 consular emergency number +64 99 20 20 20.

Michelle and Paul said staying in contact with friends and family back home, including Michelle's two university-age children, has helped.

"You guys are amazing, and we need that. You know, it really helps. We might not always answer, because some days it's harder than others, but it's nice to know that you have our backs and we just have to trust that the universe has our back," Michelle said.

Now they just need some certainty about getting back to them.