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Inside the scramble to evacuate a US embassy surrounded by the chaos of street fighting, gunfire, and explosions

Jake Epstein   

Inside the scramble to evacuate a US embassy surrounded by the chaos of street fighting, gunfire, and explosions
  • US forces evacuated the American embassy in Sudan days after violence erupted in its capital.
  • Insider spoke with three Marines and a Diplomatic Security Service official about closing the post.

The day the rescue aircraft came, Cpl. Christopher Wolfert watched plumes of smoke rising in the distance amid the booms of exploding mortars and cracks of machine-gun fire in Sudan's capital.

It was Saturday, April 22. The US Marine Security Guard was protecting the American embassy in Khartoum, which had been engulfed by deadly violence for a week at that point. As the situation deteriorated, the Pentagon dispatched Special Operations Forces to evacuate US diplomatic staff in a dramatic helicopter operation. A little under 100 people were rescued from the US embassy compound in just under an hour on the ground.

As Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces rushed in, Sudan's capital was spiraling toward civil war. Tensions between rival powers had finally boiled over, and street fights raged.

"It was audible and visual," Wolfert later said, referring to the fighting nearby. "The evacuation itself — fairly surreal."

Wolfert is one of a dozen Marines whose detachment was assigned to guard the US embassy in Africa's third-largest country and one of three Marines that Insider spoke to, along with an official from the Diplomatic Security Service, an agency under the State Department, about the April 22 drawdown and evacuation of America's diplomatic outpost in Sudan.

The men Insider spoke with described scenes of chaos outside the embassy walls and a rush inside to quickly close up shop and get out of Sudan, from destroying sensitive national security information to lowering the American flag. It wasn't what anyone had wanted to see happen.

"Unfortunately, we really didn't have a choice," Staff Sgt. Derek Ferrari, the detachment commander, told Insider. "When it was time to leave, it was time to leave."

Fighting in Sudan first broke out on April 15 when clashes erupted between forces loyal to Gen. Abdel Fattah al Burhan, commander of the Sudanese army, and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The two have been competing for power ever since they orchestrated a 2021 military coup together.

Within days, violence quickly gripped the country, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more. Foreign governments began efforts to pull out their diplomatic staff and, in some cases, also moved to evacuate their civilians.

At one point, armed fighters even opened fire on a clearly marked US embassy convoy that had identification plates and an American flag. No one was hurt, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken slammed the incident as "reckless" and "irresponsible." By April 20, US forces had been deployed to positions near Sudan in case they had to quickly extract diplomatic staff.

Though there were signs, the Marines didn't know for sure an evacuation was coming, but it's something that they were ready for. It is something they prepare and train for. "It's not likely to happen," Ferrari said. "But you need to be ready if it does."

A symbolic moment

Marine Security Guards are a 24-hour presence at US embassies around the world, and their mission is to protect classified information, US government personnel, and the physical facility. At any given diplomatic post, the Marines work under regional security officers (RSOs) from the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) — the ambassador's security and law enforcement advisors.

"We could not do what we do overseas without Marine Security Guards," DSS Deputy Assistant Director Thad Osterhout told Insider. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Bonasera said "they take care of us as we take care of them."

Security officers train to handle a wide range of scenarios, such as intruders at the embassy, medical issues, and bomb threats, as well as emergency embassy evacuations and shutdowns.

"There are some things that are out of your control," Ferrari said, but this is why they train. When the Marines learned the embassy had to be evacuated, they sprang into action to start shutting it down.

One order of business was lowering the American flag. All the Marines who weren't occupied with other security-related jobs at the moment took part in a ceremony that involved lowering the flag and presenting it to the ambassador, John Godfrey.

"The American flag represents our footprint in that country and everything that the American people are bringing to that country through our diplomatic channels," Ferrari said. "There's symbolism in lowering the flag."

Getting people as violence gripped the capital

Before the evacuation could take place, all the diplomatic staff had to be consolidated at the embassy, which is one large compound protected by a wall. But US government personnel were scattered several miles away across Khartoum in a separate main housing compound and several auxiliary compounds.

Osterhout said DSS special agents had to slip outside the embassy and rescue people as fighting raged throughout the city. Sometimes, they had to wait until a safe window opened up so they could move people back to the embassy. In other cases, agents had to make multiple attempts to retrieve people who were staying temporarily at hotels.

Consolidating everyone in one location "was critically important for our Department of Defense partners," Osterhout said. "Had the DOD evacuation force had to go to more than one location in a city under the conditions Khartoum was in, [it] would've both complicated their planning and execution, but it also would've entailed significantly more risk."

Outside the embassy walls, there was a lot of confusion on the ground, with poor command and control from the top down on behalf of both warring parties. Osterhout said that while the US was "confident" the embassy would not be specifically targeted by senior leadership on either side, there was no assurance that local fighters would avoid this.

Moving about Khartoum meant traveling in a contested environment, one in which an American could easily end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. At least two Americans have been killed since the fighting began.

Osterhout said there were "significant concerns" that low-level forces may seize an opportunity to hold up an embassy convoy or try to gain access to a housing compound, rather than the embassy itself. Osterhout said the embassy is a "very hard target" because the Marines guarding the facility are a "very effective deterrent."

During the evacuation preparations, the Marines had to protect the national security information at the embassy, which meant safeguarding and destroying sensitive equipment and classified information. Doing this meant balancing available manpower because the Marines had to continue guarding the building like they would normally on a round-the-clock basis and also staff various security posts.

Though fighting was happening in the immediate vicinity of the embassy, neither the Sudanese army nor the RSF were intentionally trying to attack the embassy, Ferrari said. Still, there was a lot of indirect fire and ordnance being thrown around in the surrounding areas.

"You could see and smell and hear everything around you that could at any time ... have been a great threat to the embassy, whether it was intentional or unintentional," he added.

Evacuating the embassy

Fighting like this can always threaten air operations, but when President Joe Biden gave the orders to evacuate the embassy in Khartoum, it signaled that Washington was willing to take that risk.

At 9 a.m. EST on April 22, three MH-47 Chinook rotary aircraft took off from Djibouti and stopped to refuel in neighboring Ethiopia before flying another three hours to Khartoum. As is standard practice for diplomatic outposts, the embassy had a pre-designated landing zone in an open field around 500 feet outside the southern entrance to the compound.

Even as the evacuation unfolded, the Marines were constantly busy conducting their standard operating procedures, as they had been since the moment the conflict broke out. They manned the security posts until the very last hour, at which point they had to be shut down.

Physically moving dozens of personnel from the embassy to the helicopters fell entirely on the responsibility of the more than 100 US troops — all Special Operations Forces — who had flown into Khartoum that day. Once the Marines and diplomatic staff were loaded up onto the helicopters, the mission was complete.

"The evacuation was conducted in one movement via rotary wing," Lt. Gen. D.A. Sims, director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters later that day. "The operation was fast and clean, with service members spending less than an hour on the ground in Khartoum."

The Marines said that departing Sudan was a "bittersweet" moment. There was a sense of sadness to leave behind their Sudanese colleagues and the friends they had made in the country, yet there was also a feeling of satisfaction in knowing that they did their duties.

"Even though it's seems like we're leaving our diplomatic footprint behind in Sudan, we were leaving with all the personnel that we were supposed to," Ferrari noted. "No one had been killed, no one had been seriously injured, everybody had been evacuated safely. So that is a successful mission as a whole — that is something that no one should be sad or upset about."

"Our job is to protect the embassy," Wolfert said. "We had done our jobs well."

With the embassy staff gone, questions remained over whether Washington would move to evacuate US citizens, as some other Western nations had been doing. At one point, the State Department and the Pentagon organized a land convoy — with drone support overhead — to bring Americans to a part city along the Red Sea, where they could then travel onward to Saudi Arabia. Naval support had also been moved into the region.

Meanwhile, fighting in Sudan shows no signs of slowing down, and civilians continue to pay the ultimate price. According to United Nations estimates, over 600 people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands more have either become internally displaced or fled the country.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, warned last week that the violence is crippling the country at an economic and social level.

"As well as facing shelling and insecurity, people are dealing with dwindling supplies of water, food, medicines, and electricity," he said. "Establishing safe routes for humanitarian aid is critical. But the ultimate solution is peace."