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New Castle local narrowly escapes Sudan’s civil war

May 23, 2023

News News | Jun 4, 2023

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Missiles, bombings and a cacophony of small-arms fire suddenly erupted outside Isela Ventura's apartment in Khartoum, Sudan. Incoming attacks sounded like an airliner taking off right next to her building, she said.

Electricity off, running water nil, communications cut, airport bombed, the New Castle resident was told by her missionary team to stay put.

"I was surviving off of one tuna can a day," Ventura said, adding that the situation was worse for others. "One tuna can a day was a whole lot better than sharing with a whole family."

The atmosphere of Khartoum's city streets was more tame leading up to this harrowing point. Before a Sudanese paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) began an uprising against the government, Ventura spent a month teaching and feeding villagers and tribespeople.

Afterward, she’d get dropped off at her apartment. In Sudan since March, the only semi-inflammatory activity outside on the street were occasional protests and tear gas deployments, she said.

"The night before the war happened," Ventura said, "my team leader sat me down and told me that there were rumors about a potential war breaking out and how I have to be ready to evacuate at any moment."

Once the impending chaos ensued, Ventura's missionary team was to hop a flight to South Africa. That plan fizzled when the airport got bombed, marooning her in her apartment for eight straight days.

"You would just hear explosions and you just hear gunshots that don't stop for hours. Your building is shaking," Ventura said. "There were times where I would have to get on the ground and just cover my head and just pray, because it felt like my building was about to fall right on me."

The day before the war broke out, Ventura's immediate response was to call her mother, Crystal Mariscal, a New Castle Town Council member and Colorado Mountain College employee. She told Mariscal to start taking notes.

"She said there have been some issues here in Sudan and things are getting bad," Mariscal said of her daughter. "‘We are probably going to have to evacuate’ and she said ‘don't panic.'"

Ventura also instructed her mother not to contact her out of caution.

"Saturday morning I was at church and she texted me," Mariscal said. "She said they just bombarded their airport.

"And in that moment, I start shaking."

Hit the road

Not having a flight ready to sweep her away from an active war zone meant Ventura was at the mercy of tenuous instruction. Charging her phone using intermittent electricity at 3 a.m., she’d wait for messages from her missionary team on what's next and who's going to pick her up.

"No matter how many times they would send people to come get us, they would have to retreat just because of how bad the situation was," she said. "Anybody that was out on the street was getting shot at. Any plan we had of leaving just wasn't able to ever actually happen."

By the eighth day living on canned tuna and wondering if she’d ever be able to leave, Ventura heard news that a group of non-governmental healthcare workers were fleeing by vehicle and that her apartment was on the way. Soon, Ventura got picked up.

"My apartment was right along their way to the UNICEF building, so they were able to stop for me," Ventura said. "However, when I got into the car, we would have to hide underneath the trees so that we wouldn't get attacked."

The day after Ventura arrived at the UNICEF building, all the workers were evacuated. Ventura, however, decided to stay put because her team members were still in Khartoum.

"I was a woman by myself in this building," she said, adding that she lived off a packet of pepperoni. "I was able to eat that for the day."

A pleasure cruise

Rain typically doesn't fall in Sudan until July or August. But the next day at the UNICEF building, Ventura woke up to heavy showers, in turn creating a lull in fighting.

Seizing the opportunity, Ventura said she reunited with her missionary team at a nearby hotel. From the hotel they would hitch a ride on a two-bus convoy that took them 16 hours to Port Sudan, with one of the buses breaking down halfway through the journey.

"The driver was amazing," Ventura said. "You could tell that he was just so tense because he wanted to get us out of there quick."

Once Ventura reached Port Sudan, she had to wait for the next Saudi Arabian Navy ship to flee the country.

"The minute that we got there our hearts fell because you just see people sleeping all over. I mean, people are camping out on the streets, just waiting for the next navy ship," she said. "The chances of getting on a navy boat were slim to none."

Luckily, the next morning, Ventura and her team got their visas stamped and were ferried across the Red Sea by the Saudis. Though most of the women were told to stay in cabins underneath, Ventura was allowed to ride out the 20-hour boat ride on the deck.

"They gave us their sleeping bags to sleep at night, and they fed us, they gave us food," Ventura said of the Saudis. "They made sure that we constantly had cold water. They were just kind."

Home sweet home

One would think Ventura hopped the next flight back to Denver International after this ordeal. But according to her, she didn't. Instead, after Ventura spent a night in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she flew to Kenya for team debriefing and counseling.

Ventura said she wanted to make sure she was the absolute best before returning to her family. She had gone through so much with her team and to completely leave after such an experience didn't make sense to her.

But despite now being out of harm's way, it wasn't until she finally reached American soil that she rested easier.

"My biggest moment of relief was actually when I landed in Springfield, Missouri," she said. "That was the first time when I could feel myself, I could allow myself to breathe."

Ventura is now safely back in Garfield County. She's currently spending time with her family while searching for a job that she said "gives back." As far as missionary work, Ventura said she would do it "1,000 times over again."

Meanwhile, the war in Sudan rages on. More than 1 million people have been displaced from their homes, while nearly 2,000 people have been killed.

It's because of this Ventura now sometimes has to tell herself she's nowhere near Sudan — she's in Colorado and she's safe.

"I will never see the world the same again," she said. "I’m very fortunate to even live in a town where it's just peaceful, where I don't have to worry about dirty water coming out of the faucet or gunshots going off at any point and people dying."

Post Independent western Garfield County reporter and Assistant Editor Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or [email protected]

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New Castle resident Isela Ventura, back right, poses for a photo with a group of children in Sudan. New Castle resident Isela Ventura speaking to a group of children in Sudan. Hit the road A pleasure cruise Smiles all around from Sudanese children and New Castle resident Isela Ventura, foreground. Home sweet home Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference. Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.