KHARTOUM, Sudan: Abdullah can’t understand why his fellow Syrian went home to fight with rebels after working for a year in Sudan. “I tell him, he shouldn’t go,” Abdullah says. “He is Islamist ... I don’t know what happened in his head.”
While more than 200,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries from the nearly 18-month revolt against President Bashar Assad’s regime, an unknown number like Abdullah and his compatriot have also reached Sudan in North Africa.
But Abdullah doesn’t consider himself a refugee.
He says he came to Sudan because he got a contract to manage a business, although the job offer arrived about the same time he saw protesters shot early last year in Deraa, an initial hub of Syrian dissent.
Many others have also reached safety in Sudan, says a businessman with family and relatives in Syria.
“They don’t say they come here as refugees. They say they come here for investment,” he tells AFP, adding nobody knows the number because they do not need a visa.
Although Sudan is beset by its own troubles, with unrest in the far-western Darfur region and rebellions in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the capital Khartoum is peaceful.
The city hosts an established community of immigrant Syrians running restaurants and other businesses.
They arrived years before the fighting in their homeland which, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has claimed more than 26,000 lives since it erupted in mid-March 2011.
Sudan is also home to a dwindling group of Christians who first came from Syria as early as 150 years ago. Most of this group, Sudanese nationals, already emigrated because of decades of Sudanese military and Islamist rule, the businessman said.
He and others interviewed asked not to be named because they still have family or other links to Syria.
“Now the situation is very bad,” says the businessman, the day after finally making telephone contact with his relatives after trying for more than a week.
“There is a power cut now of at least five hours a day,” he says, and the price of cooking gas has shot up tenfold.
He calls the rebels “bastards” and “terrorists” – a term commonly used by the Assad regime.
“This opposition, they are targeting civilians, targeting government offices, kidnapping rich people for a ransom. They are driving the area into a religious war, Sunni-Shiite confrontation,” he says, calling the West “stupid” for opposing Assad.
The regime asserts it is fighting extremists funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar out to destroy religious coexistence in Syria.
With no chance for the government to win against an opposition with such powerful backing, the businessman says he may have to go and rescue his family, bringing them to Sudan.
Not everyone in Khartoum’s Syrian community shares his opinion about the war, the businessman concedes.
“Everybody has his own feelings. Some are pro-government. Some are against,” he says.
In Sudan those differences have generally not been aired in public, although dozens of Sudanese and Syrians rallied outside the Damascus Embassy last November to protest the violence.
“If the West doesn’t quickly intervene, they are going to leave the place to the extremists and terrorists to take power,” leading to sectarian war, said a man who spent two decades in Damascus before fleeing last year. He ended up in Sudan working for an international company.
“Three or four weeks ago I got some information from family, that a shell came down in front of our house and killed three teenagers,” he said. “After that, it became a phantom district ... Everyone left after that strike by the Syrian army.”
He accuses the regime of a “massacre” against its people.
U.N. investigators say Syrian government forces and their militia allies have committed crimes against humanity, but rebels have also carried out war crimes although on a lesser scale.
The former Damascus resident said he can’t understand how some people are still traveling back and forth between Sudan and the “hell” of Syria.
“No problem,” a Syrian businessman who returns regularly to Damascus tells AFP.
For Abdullah, working long hours at his Khartoum job to send a few hundred dollars home every month for his family, the only place he wants to go now is Europe.
“A lot of the Syrian people here, they feel Bashar Assad will fall,” says the man in his 20s, who fears civil war will follow. “Everyone who has ... Kalashnikov, he will be president.”