A Nigerian professional footballer based in Sudan, Henry Akwari, speaks to FATTEH HAMID about Nigerians who missed evacuation and are currently stranded in the war-torn North African country
How long have you been playing professional football in Sudan?
I have been playing professional football in Sudan since 2016.
How old are you and which state are you from?
I’m 30 years old. I’m from Imo State, born and brought up in Lagos State.
What football club do you currently play for in Sudan?
Though I have played for different teams within the past six years, I currently play for Alwadi Nyala.
Many Nigerians have been evacuated from Sudan, why are you still stranded there?
Before the war started, there was no indication and there was no announcement that there was going to be a war. It was a normal day and as a footballer, I had to travel with my team because we had a match and the league was going on. I left the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, just a day before the war started. Due to the breakout of war, we couldn’t play the match we went for; we couldn’t travel and we were stuck. The first evacuation started in Khartoum and when this was happening, those of us outside Khartoum couldn’t come inside. That was why I was unable to come to Khartoum for the evacuation.
What happened afterward?
I stayed in a city called Agbara for over a month; precisely a month and 10 days before I heard that they were evacuating Nigerians from Port Sudan. I told myself that if that was the case, I could take the risk of coming down to Port Sudan. I took the risk and I joined the Nigerians here. As I speak, many Nigerian footballers and others who are into other professions are stuck here in Port Sudan. For the footballers, we are stranded because we were working. Most of us were with our football teams when the war started and were unable to meet up with the evacuation deadline. Many Nigerians here are still waiting for evacuation.
How many Nigerians are still in Sudan?
From the camp here and the other camps, I believe we are roughly 350, let me not say we are more than this. Three hundred and fifty Nigerians are here; yes!
Are you all in the same location?
For the men, we are in the same camp while the women are in another camp.
Is the camp in the same location?
Yes, it is in the same location but at different points.
What is the name of the location?
We are all camped in an abandoned school here in Port Sudan.
Do you think you were abandoned intentionally or you missed the bus that transported people to the border countries?
I will not say anything bad about the government because of our firm belief in the new government. We believe in them so much. We also appreciate the fact that the embassy in Sudan has been taking care of the evacuation all this while, but the truth is that we do not know our stand. This is beyond missing the evacuation or missing any bus. We have spoken with the ambassador several times. Personally, I’m a very famous football player in this country and I’m well-known.
When I got here, even the embassy knew me well enough. I have tried talking to them to know what exactly the problem is, but the ambassador keeps assuring us that we will leave. Now, we know we will leave, but when exactly are we leaving? They have refused to tell us the day we are leaving. It is either they tell us that they don’t have clearance or tell us that there’s no plane or that the government has not sent funds.
We don’t know why they kept giving us different answers. When we had a meeting with them (the embassy), they told us we would leave but they didn’t know if it would be in a month’s time or after a month. Meanwhile, we have stayed here for over a month and they are still giving us words that indicate that they don’t know when we would leave. We have lost hope. I won’t lie to you. We are just trying to be strong.
Mentally, I’m not okay. The footballers and other professionals here are all worried. We want to know when we are leaving, we need help. They can’t continue keeping us in the dark and telling us we will soon leave but we don’t know when we will leave for Nigeria. Is Nigeria that poor?
What do you want from the new government of President Bola Tinubu?
We know this is a new government and with the steps we heard they have been taking in the first few weeks in charge, we know that they are starting on a good note. Starting on a good note will also mean bringing back Nigerians stranded in Sudan. This is a good thing for the new government. We don’t know why we are still being kept here. We are really suffering. Nigerians are suffering, we are really suffering here.
How have you been coping in terms of food and shelter?
The food here is nothing to write home about. Everybody is just trying to survive. For the shelter, we sleep in abandoned classrooms; we sleep on the floor while some lie on the stools in the classrooms. It’s an abandoned school as I said earlier; so, anyone just finds a floor and sleeps. We have not eaten today. We had to start fetching firewood to cook here in these classrooms in order to eat. We fetch firewood to cook here. Sometimes, the Qatar Foundation brings food for us once in one or two weeks and this is how we have been surviving.
What are the consequences of staying longer in Sudan?
One of these is the fact that people are not working and they have started to steal from one another. It is just like a fight to survive the situation. This is terrible. We also have information that ladies in their camps have started getting involved in prostitution just to ensure that they feed themselves. A lot of things are happening but people just want to survive. Also, Port Sudan is so expensive; a bottle of water here goes for 1,000 Sudanese pounds. The item was normally sold for 300 Sudanese pounds. How do we eat and survive in this situation?
As footballers, we are trying our best to be here and fend for ourselves but what about those who do not have any means? How do they survive? We have old men here; we have elderly people here. How do these people survive? I don’t know why they are doing this to us. Like I said earlier, we believe in the new government and we so much believe in the Federal Government. I don’t want to talk down on the Embassy because they have also evacuated people from the beginning but we don’t know what they are doing at this point. If any one of us loses his or her life here, it’s on their (the embassy’s) head because they know there is war here and people are not safe.
What about the Sudanese? How have they been surviving the war?
Even Sudanese themselves are trying to leave this country. Why are they now keeping us here? We don’t know. We want to go home; we want to unite with our families. We are tired and we want to go home. This trauma is too much to bear. How can we be sleeping in a classroom for a month? We are not used to this. We sleep on the bare floor and the temperature is not friendly in Port Sudan. Most people are almost naked, we are not wearing clothes; we are not doing anything. We don’t even know what to do. As I speak, we have not eaten, but we don’t even care if we can be evacuated from here tomorrow. If a plane is brought, we are ready to go. We just want to go.
What is the current situation of the war in the location where you are?
At the moment, in Port Sudan, there’s no war. The security is tight but outside Port Sudan, there’s a terrible war going on out there and we can only pray that it doesn’t get here. We have been receiving many security alerts that they have been trying to break into Port Sudan. Last week, they caught a container filled with ammunition belonging to the Rapid Support Forces in Port Sudan here. We heard they brought them (ammunition) in through the sea and all of that.
This is making us scared. We have been receiving several reports that anything can happen at any time in Port Sudan. Does the Nigerian government want to wait till these things happen and our lives are wasted? We want to leave, the one we have seen, the one that has happened is enough and we just want to leave. They should help us. We are not imposing it on them; we are begging them to please, take us back home for God’s sake. We beg the Nigeria Government to please help us out of this. We beg the President, Bola Tinubu to please order the immediate evacuation of all Nigerians stranded in Port Sudan.
Have you been in contact with your family?
Yes, I have been in contact with them but I have chosen not to speak with them these days because they are worried. My friend here, his mum fell sick just because of this situation. The woman has been worried thinking something bad has happened and we are just lying to her that we are coming back to Nigeria, whereas we are still stranded here. Our families are going through a lot. If there’s a way they can help us reunite with our families, we will be glad.
We know this is something an individual in Nigeria back home can do for us. We are not a poor country and evacuating over 300 persons should not be something difficult for us. We are stressed and this is painful.
What are the other efforts you have made to get the attention of the government to ensure safe evacuation?
We made several videos. We showed our passports and used different languages. We have done a lot of things but it seems our voices haven’t been heard by the powers that be. Knowing we are here is not enough; they should just help us out of this place.
What do you intend to do if you get to Nigeria?
For me as a footballer, if I get out of here to Nigeria, I don’t even want to think about football. People are telling me to continue pushing but we are really tired.
Would you have thought of being in this situation a few days before the war broke out?
Never! At no point did I think so or did it occur to me that something like this will happen. We know God is the master planner and everything that happened is for a reason but I’m not sure anyone expected this. For me or anyone here, no one thought they would be on the roads, be in a war, sleeping in classrooms, but we thank God that we are still alive.
How have you been securing your lives?
The only thing you do is not going anywhere. It is the only way we know that our lives can be protected because there are soldiers everywhere. Some of us ran out of the warzone without our passports and walking around in the warzone without that is at your own risk. Anything can happen at any time and it is not safe. The only thing we do is that we pray more and try to stay together all the time. That’s what we do.
When was the last time you spoke with the Nigerian embassy?
That should be four days ago when we had a meeting with the ambassador.
What was the last promise given to you by the embassy?
The ambassador had a lengthy talk and his last word was that the embassy was with us, the Nigerians Government was with us and we would go home, but he did not tell us when we would go home. That was the last conversation.
How are you controlling the people and making them remain calm amidst all these as leaders?
I must tell you that the people are really not comfortable. Everybody is stressed, including me. I’m just trying to keep myself together and have hope that this will be over one day but the truth is that everyone is stressed. We are all just trying to survive. No one is used to this life.