The setting is surreal, unthinkable: thousands of ordinary Sudanese people have descended on the army headquarters and the residence of President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum. They have been here since Saturday, and they haven’t left yet.
Among their number is Dr Nafisa Mohamed. She has helped to gather medical supplies, and set up a makeshift clinic to treat wounded protesters and soldiers in a room nearby. She is not the only medical professional present. Doctors have been at the forefront of the nearly four month-long national protests against the regime, and continue to play a crucial role.
This is the largest anti-government demonstration in Sudan’s recent history, and also the boldest: previously protesters would never dare to go near the army headquarters. They are calling for an end to Bashir’s 30-year rule, and are challenging the economic mismanagement of the country that has led to skyrocketing inflation rates.
Since around 4am on Monday, security forces and militias aligned to the president have attempted to dislodge the sit-in protesters through their usual tactics: beatings, tear gas and, at times, live bullets. But this time the middle and lower army ranks appear to be on the side of the people, tired of decades of neglect by their senior officers and government leaders.
“The soldiers are our first line of defence while we doctors follow directly behind to treat any wounded,” Dr Mohamed explained. Recently soldiers advised the doctors to move their makeshift emergency room inside the army headquarters to provide better protection. “Now we have four small emergency rooms to treat injuries. If very serious, we take them to nearby hospitals.” Doctors are either camping out at the protest site, catching one or two hours of sleep where possible, or taking shifts covering the protest area day and night.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Hassan Ismail said 11 people had died on Tuesday in the protests, providing no further details, according to news reports.
But Dr Nafisa feels safer now that soldiers are supporting them. It has not always been like this. “At the end of the day, there was nothing there to protect me — only God and how fast I can run.”
Security forces have beaten, detained and tortured many participants of the nationwide protests that started on December 19. Doctors have received more than their fair share of unwelcome attention, however. “Being a doctor in Sudan is bad for your health,” said Dr Ahmed Suleiman*, a wry smile on his face. Dr Suleiman, also a medical doctor, felt compelled to flee the country after being repeatedly targeted by security forces in Khartoum.
“They have never liked us,” Dr Suleiman explained. “They blame us for the protests. I stopped carrying my ID and phone to hide my profession to stay safe.” When the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) in Sudan arrests demonstrators en masse, several medical professionals said they are often kept in separate, isolated cells and held for longer periods than other protesters.
The Sudan Professionals Association (SPA) is leading the protests, with doctors playing a central role. Authorities arrested the SPA spokesperson Dr Mohammed Naji Al-Assam on January 4 soon after he featured in a live-stream video denouncing the government and listing a reform plan for the country. The family of Dr Al-Assam has only been allowed to visit him once and found him psychologically impacted and physically diminished, according to the human rights organisation, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), in a recent report. Later in the month, doctors withdrew from hospitals affiliated to the security forces and those established by prominent members of the ruling National Congress Party.
“If you are a doctor or nurse who wants to practice ethically/professionally in Sudan you will struggle, you will be threatened — everything from being shot and killed, to being arrested and threatened,” said Dr Sara Abdelgalil, President of the Sudan Doctors’ Union in the United Kingdom. “The threat [for medical professionals] is heightened because we are involved in supporting the casualties of the protests and we are reporting, we provide accountability to the reports of casualties on the frontlines of the protests.”
A doctor’s report is seen as a credible threat to the ruling party by exposing the violent tactics used by security forces against the protesters, Abdelgalil, especially in the eyes of the international community.
As of April 5, at least 15 physicians remain in detention with limited information on their whereabouts or physical condition, according to the PHR report. “We talk about 15 doctors that we believe are in jail now but 150 or more medical personnel have been detained over the last three months alone,” said Dr Rohini Haar, medical expert and research adviser for the Physicians for Human Rights. “And just because they are released does not mean the end — many experienced torture which has long term effects on one’s mental and physical well being.”
On January 17, plainclothes security officers fatally shot 27-year-old Dr Babiker Abdel-Hamid, in Buri, northern Khartoum. Dr Babiker and other medical staff had set up a makeshift emergency room within a house to treat a number of wounded protesters, according to other doctors at the scene. Eyewitnesses said security forces riddled the door with bullets, forcing their way into the doctors’ ad-hoc emergency room, threw tear gas canisters inside and mercilessly beat anyone who attempted to leave the small, 3×4-metre room.
“After the tear gas was thrown in I shed tears profusely and my breathing tightened,” one doctor said. “The scene I saw before losing consciousness I will never forget: Dr Babiker was trying to tell the security men outside that we were doctors and paramedics and wanted to take the wounded protesters to hospital.”
According to this source, the security forces simply told Dr Babiker that they were looking for doctors and shot him dead. “When I regained consciousness I was on the back of a police vehicle with a group of detainees surrounded by security men. I lost my medical glasses, my shirt was torn and could not find my headscarf.”
Another doctor, Muawia Khalil, was shot dead inside his home by security forces the same week Babiker was killed, according to news reports.
In a bid to target medical personnel treating protesters, security forces have also raided hospitals and medical facilities, in some cases hurling tear gas and firing guns indiscriminately. On January 9, authorities hurled tear gas and fired into Omdurman Hospital, according to an eyewitness employed there. Medical staff attempted to move oxygen tanks, fearing explosions across the ward.
PHR has recorded seven separate incidents of security forces raiding hospitals since the protests commenced, although there are likely more unrecorded cases, Haar said.
Repeated calls to government spokesman Hassan Ismail to comment on these attacks were left unanswered.
Despite all of these challenges, Dr Nafisa Mohamed manages to smile brightly while carting plasters and pills to a small dusty room, where she is setting up a new ward for the protesting patients. Medical personnel in Sudan are accustomed to protest and sacrifice. Less than three percent of the national budget is given to health, in comparison to an estimated 70% to the military. Doctors accuse officials of cutting services and stealing state health funds while promoting a lucrative private healthcare industry.
Last year in April, doctors launched a nationwide protest against the deteriorating health service. The year before, Sudanese doctors were outspoken critics of the government for refusing to confirm widespread cases of cholera despite doctors’ claims of around 700 cholera-related deaths in a three-month period. The current protests, the largest ever witnessed in the country, is the cumulative effect of decades of struggle, Abdelgalil said.
But the end, according to Dr Mohamed, is in sight. “No one could believe what we started in December could lead to thousands of people sitting here. One day this will be written down in history and I will tell my children about this moment.”
Tom Rhodes is a freelance journalist and project consultant working with the independent Sudanese news site Ayin.
* Name has been changed for security reasons.