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Sudan crisis: Top football coach forced to flee Khartoum

Sudan crisis: Top football coach forced to flee Khartoum
Florent Ibenge has been coaching Al-Hilal SC since last year

Florent Ibenge, coach of leading Sudanese football club Al-Hilal SC, went to bed on Friday a fortnight ago thinking about his team’s next match in the battle for the league title, but woke up to find himself in a war zone.

“We could hear gunfire… I was in disbelief,” he told the BBC.

His home was right in the middle of where the conflict began in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum – he lived in between the presidential palace and the airport that had earlier been taken by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group.

He was stuck and soon realised he was not able to reach his 14-year-old daughter, who had left the house early on Saturday morning to go swimming with her school club.

“She is training in a hotel that is one minute away from the airport. And from my house, I could see the air force shooting towards the airport. It was horrible because you can’t move, you can’t go and get your daughter.”

They would not be reunited for a whole week, on the tarmac of the military airport, as they awaited evacuation.

Once he realised she was relatively safe in the hotel and had food, Ibenge started to turn his fatherly attention to his team and his staff.

But his calm and composed nature was truly put to the test.

“I first managed to get my assistant goalkeeping coach out of the area.

“Then a Burundian couple got in touch with my wife, asking if they could come over because fighters had entered their home.

“They had forced their way into his house and put a gun to his head while he was with his wife and his four-month-old baby.

“It was horrible. They stayed there for three days before they got an opportunity to escape.

“He finally managed to call my wife and we told them to come straight away. When he arrived, he didn’t even sit down, he slumped down there for hours. It was really horrible.”

‘Hard to keep everyone positive’

A comforting thought was to know a majority of his players had stayed overnight within the compound of the stadium in Omdurman, just over the Nile from Khartoum. They had played on Friday and were due to play again there on Sunday.

“The hardest part is to find the words to keep everyone positive,” Ibenge said.

As a French citizen, the coach was able to get help from France’s embassy and he and his family were part of the first convoy out of Sudan.

But everyone contributed to the effort to get people out, he said.

“I was asked if I could help find buses to transport everyone to the evacuation point. We were told it was for Port Sudan but, at the last minute, they redirected us to the military airport. “

The RSF had agreed to escort foreign citizens to their point of departure.

Two days before the day they were due to leave, his daughter, who was still in the hotel where she had had swimming practice, boarded an RSF jeep. It would take her through the streets of Khartoum to the French embassy.

“[It was] a great relief,” Ibenge said, “until you realise that the air force planes could have opened fire on that jeep and then you are horrified.”

After being flown out of Sudan, the family spent two days in a military base in Djibouti before landing in Paris on Wednesday.

Despite the relief, Ibenge is not happy.

“We are still worried about all the people we left behind. Starting with my players and all the Sudanese people who are very nice people,” the coach said.

All the non-Sudanese who played for the club have managed to leave and are now at the Egyptian border waiting for visas.

“As soon as they arrive on the other side, I will join them and my assistants in Cairo. We’ll set up a base camp there.”

Ibenge said he talks with his players every day.

And despite the ordeal everyone is going through, he is hoping they will be able to play their next Arab Club Champions Cup fixture against Tunisian club CS Sfaxien, originally scheduled for May.

“We don’t play an individual sport. We play a collective sport and sometimes the therapy comes through the fact of being in a group. It can be a therapy for all of us to get together and do what we love.”

The Sudanese players might decide to stay in their home country, so Ibenge will have to reassess the composition of his team as well as his players’ mental fitness when he is reunited with them. But his positivity keeps on driving him forward.

“I lived through this for seven days, others in the Democratic Republic of Congo for example, have lived through this for decades. You can never give up. There are always better days.”



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