In the frantic days before American diplomats evacuated their Khartoum embassy under darkness by helicopter last month, one crucial task remained.
Armed with shredders, sledgehammers and gasoline, American officials following protocols destroyed classified documents and sensitive equipment, officials and eyewitnesses said. By the time Chinook helicopters carrying commandos landed beside the embassy just after midnight on April 23, sacks of shredded paper lined the embassy’s four floors.
But the piles also contained paperwork precious to Sudanese citizens — their passports. Many had left them at the embassy days earlier, to apply for American visas. Some belonged to local staff members. As the embassy evacuated, officials who feared the passports, along with other important papers, might fall into the wrong hands reduced them to confetti.
A month later, many of those Sudanese are stranded in the war zone, unable to get out.
“I can hear the warplanes and the bombing from my window,” Selma Ali, an engineer who submitted her passport to the U.S. Embassy three days before the war erupted, said over a crackling line from her home in Khartoum. “I’m trapped here with no way out.”
It wasn’t only the Americans: Many other countries also stranded Sudanese visa applicants when their diplomats evacuated, a source of furious recriminations from Sudanese on social media. But most of those countries did not destroy the passports, instead leaving them locked inside shuttered embassies — inaccessible, but not gone forever.
Of eight other countries that answered questions about the evacuation, only France said it had also destroyed the passports of visa applicants on security grounds.
The U.S. State Department confirmed it had destroyed passports but declined to say how many. “It is standard operating procedure during these types of situations to take precautions to not leave behind any documents, materials, or information that could fall into the wrong hands and be misused,” said a spokeswoman who asked not to be named under State Department policy.
“Because the security environment did not allow us to safely return those passports,” she added, “we followed our procedure to destroy them rather than leave them behind unsecured.”
Ms. Ali, 39, had hoped to fly to Chicago this month to attend a training course, and from there to Vienna to start work with a U.N. organization. “My dream job,” she said. Instead, she is confined with her parents to a house on the outskirts of the capital, praying the fighting will not reach them.
“I’m so frustrated,” she said, her voice quivering. “The U.S. diplomats evacuated their own citizens but they didn’t think of the Sudanese. We are human, too.”
Alhaj Sharafeldin, 26, said he had been accepted for a master’s in computer science at Iowa State University, and supposed to collect his passport and visa on April 16. A day earlier, the fighting broke out.
Five days ago the U.S. embassy notified him by email that his passport had been destroyed. “This is tough,” he said, speaking from the house where has sheltered since violence engulfed his own neighborhood. “The situation is so dangerous here.”
The decision to destroy passports was gut-wrenching for American officials who realized it would hinder Sudanese citizens from fleeing, said several witnesses and officials familiar with the evacuation.
Particularly distressing was the fact that the passports of Sudanese staff members were also destroyed. Some had applied for United States government training courses; others had left their passports in the embassy for safekeeping.
“There was a lot of very upset people about this,” said one U.S. official who, like several others, spoke on the basis of anonymity to discuss a sensitive episode. “We left behind a lot of people who were loyal to us, and we were not loyal to them.”
But the officials were following the same protocol that led to the destruction of many Afghan passports during the hasty evacuation from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, in August 2021, which was also a source of controversy.
Then, Afghans deprived of their passports could at least apply to the Taliban for a new one. But that option is impossible in Sudan because the country’s main passport office is in a neighborhood experiencing some of the fiercest battles.
Given those circumstances, angry Sudanese question why evacuating U.S. officials could not have carried their passports with them. “Couldn’t they have just put the passports in a bag?” Ms. Ali said.
A passport is a “precious and lifesaving piece of property,” said Tom Malinowski, a former congressman from New Jersey who helped stranded Afghans in 2021. “It’s a big deal to destroy something like that, and when we do we have an obligation to make that person whole.”
In interviews, foreign diplomats said it was practically impossible to operate in Khartoum after the first shots were fired on April 15, when clashes between Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group, quickly spiraled into a full-blown war.
Warplanes zoomed over the Khartoum district including most foreign embassies, dropping bombs. R.S.F. fighters rushed into the streets, firing back. Stray bombs and bullets hit embassies and residences, making it too dangerous to even reach an office, much less hand out passports, officials said.
Still, Sudanese critics said the embassies could have tried harder — especially as they poured so much effort into evacuating their own citizens. Military planes from Britain, France, Germany and Turkey flew out thousands of people from Khartoum. Armed U.S. drones watched over buses carrying Americans as they traveled to Port Sudan, a journey of 525 miles.
Sudanese visa applicants who asked for help at foreign embassies holding their passports say they were met with obfuscation, silence or unhelpful advice like being told to get a new passport.
“There are no authorities in Sudan now,” said Mohamed Salah, whose passport is at the Indian Embassy. “Just war.”
One country did, however, provide some relief. Two weeks into the war, the Chinese Embassy posted a phone number online for visa applicants to retrieve passports.
The American Embassy, a sprawling compound by the Nile in southern Khartoum, was miles from the most intense fighting. Even so, officials worried that it would get cut off from critical supplies. So they began destroying sensitive material five days before President Biden formally ordered an evacuation on April 21, in scenes that one witness compared to the beginning of the movie “Argo.”
Classified and sensitive documents were fed into shredders that chomped them up and spat out tiny pieces. Officials wielding sledgehammers crushed electronics and an emergency passport machine. Burn pits glowed at the rear of the embassy.
The destruction grew more frenetic as the evacuation neared. Officials appealed over the embassy loudspeaker for help with shredding. Finally, a few hours before Chinooks landed in a field between the embassy and the Nile, throwing up clouds of blinding dust, U.S. Marines lowered the flag outside the embassy.
At the same time, other embassies were also in “full shred mode,” as one diplomat put it. A European ambassador said he personally smashed his official seal.
It is not clear if embassies that didn’t destroy passports made that choice or simply didn’t have enough time.
No government has said how many Sudanese passports it destroyed or left in shuttered embassies.
No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that helps Afghan military interpreters, estimated that several thousand passports were burned during the U.S. evacuation from Kabul in 2021, said Catalina Gasper, the group’s chief operating officer.
Fighting has surged in recent days, despite American- and Saudi-led efforts to broker a cease-fire. With little prospect of an immediate return to Khartoum, foreign diplomats say they are offering to help visa applicants left behind.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry said in response to questions that it was in “active contact” with affected people. The Spanish advised them to “obtain another travel document.” The Indians said they were unable to access their premises.
“The embassy area is still an intense fighting zone,” an Indian diplomat wrote.
Some people did manage to flee without passports. An official from France, which evacuated about 1,000 people from 41 countries, said people without papers were allowed to fly because officials knew that “their administrative situation would be resolved later.”
That option was not available to most Sudanese.
Mahir Elfiel, a development worker marooned in Wadi Halfa, 20 miles from the border with Egypt, said the Spanish Embassy hadn’t even responded to emails about his passport. “They just ignored me,” he said. (Others made similar complaints.)
There was at least one solution: Local officials were helping stranded people cross the border by extending their old, expired passports with handwritten notes. But Mr. Elfiel’s previous passport was stowed at his office back in Khartoum.
It presented a dilemma: return to the war zone and risk his life, or linger in Wadi Halfa until the fighting eases.
“I don’t have any options, really,” he said. “I’m just waiting.”
Edward Wong contributed reporting.