Bittersweet euphoria of Sudan’s exiles

Abdulaziz Mukhtar (36) and his wife, Safa Musa (27), sit beside each other in the lounge of their immaculate apartment in the Cape Town suburb of Bellville, as they scroll through endless streams of WhatsApp messages and videos from friends and family in Sudan.

“At the moment I’m getting at least 200 messages a day,” says Mukhtar, a PhD student in mathematics at the University of the Western Cape, who fled Sudan’s conflict-stricken Darfur region in 2009.

The constant updates help Mukhtar and Musa feel a certain proximity to the unprecedented nationwide protests that have gripped Sudan since December last year, culminating in the military-led ouster of President Omar al-Bashir on April 11, after 30 years of iron-fisted and bloody rule.

Thousands of emboldened protesters have continued to camp out on the streets of Khartoum as they push for a peaceful transition to civilian rule and the wholesale reform of a rotten political system.

Many of the videos and images on Mukhtar and Musa’s phones depict a carnival-like atmosphere in the Sudanese capital. In one picture, Musa’s 21-year-old sister, Hajer, a law student who still lives in Khartoum, flashes a peace sign as she celebrates her recent engagement to be married amid the masses of protesters.

“I wish that I was there to add my voice,” says Musa, a communications graduate and former teacher who now works in the public relations department of a local travel agency.“It feels like the first time that all of us Sudanese people are united against this regime.”

Despite her resurgent pangs of homesickness, Musa believes she has a valuable role to play in South Africa. She has sought to raise awareness about what is happening in Sudan through her near-incessant Facebook activity. She has also set up a number of WhatsApp groups to share news and co-ordinate solidarity protests at Parliament in Cape Town, and has actively connected with South African journalists and given radio interviews.

Mukhtar and Musa were both involved in student activism in Sudan before moving to South Africa (Musa joined her husband here in 2012). At the age of 17, Mukhtar was detained and tortured for speaking out at his high school about the nascent conflict in Darfur, which would go on to claim an estimated 400 000 lives, most of them at the hands of state-sanctioned militias, and draw celebrity interest from the likes of United States actor George Clooney.

Musa’s activism took a more discreet form: through her teaching, she endeavoured to “secretively” empower Darfuri women, who are routinely marginalised in Sudanese society, with information about their rights. Then as now, Musa saw it as her responsibility to “let everyone know about anything that we know”.

A similar clarion call has been taken up by Sudanese exiles and expatriates in cities all over South Africa, mirroring wider trends across the Sudanese diaspora. As many as five million Sudanese live abroad, where they have capitalised on their freedom from the rolling internet blackouts and heavy media censorship in Sudan to draw attention to their country’s plight. There have been large solidarity protests in major cities, including New York, London and Paris.

In Pretoria, the Sudan Solidarity Group in South Africa has staged intermittent protests and marches outside both the Sudanese embassy and the Union Buildings since it was formed in the wake of a previous wave of violently suppressed anti-government protests in 2013.

Smartphone convergence: Tens of thousands of Sudanese protesters gather for a ‘million-strong’march outside the army headquarters in the capital Khartoum, to demand the ruling military council cede power, last week. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

The group has also published feisty op-ed articles in local media and raised money for activists injured or detained during the course of this year’s protests, which were initially met by typically brutal state crackdowns. About 20 protesters have been killed and dozens wounded since December.

According to 28-year-old Saeed Abdalla, a spokesperson for the group: “The Sudanese community in South Africa used to be quite divided, but after this new protest movement started, we became more united. Together, we started to find solutions for the problems that people are facing that side.”

Abdalla, who studied Mandarin in China before moving to South Africa in 2017 to be a correspondent for a Chinese news channel, says it has been hard not to be on the ground in Sudan at a time of such seismic change.

“Sometimes I have been crying about not being there,” he says. “It’s a very difficult feeling to be seeing the people make changes that side, making such an effort for our country, and you cannot participate directly. That’s why we have to do everything we can to help from here.”

Abdalla adds that he knows a number of Sudanese activists in exile, primarily in the US and Europe, who are now returning to Sudan to help the transition. He hopes that soon he will be able to do the same.

“If next year I can see that things are still getting better, I’ll definitely go back,” he says.

After 12 years living in Johannes-burg, Amal Awad Mohamed Elhassan, 59, has been having similar thoughts. “I want to participate in the rebuilding of our country. I think every expatriate should play a role. The country needs all those people to go back home and help. I’m personally thinking about going back soon,” she says.

Elhassan was formerly head of the rural development communication department at the Bahri University in Khartoum, but was sacked for not supporting the ruling party, which prompted her move to South Africa. Nevertheless, she continues to visit family in Khartoum every December, and joined the protests at the end of last year before she returned to Johannesburg in January.

“At the time, I couldn’t have imagined we would be here now, because the response of the government was so fierce and so violent,” she says. “I saw that people were very determined to go on and that they would never turn back, but I didn’t expect Bashir to fall so soon.”

Like Musa and Mukhtar, Elhassan now spends hours every night glued to her phone trying to keep abreast of what’s happening on the ground in Sudan.

“It makes you very emotional. You always want to be there, you want to be with the people, you want to participate. You also worry that someone from your family might get shot or go to jail,” she says.

Such fears are not unfounded, even after Bashir’s departure. The strongman’s tyrannical legacy has left the country with a firmly entrenched deep state and weak institutions.

With Sudan’s economy also in tatters, approximately 14% of its population at crisis levels of hunger, and conflicts simmering in the peripheral Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Abyei regions, the overall situation remains extremely precarious.

As the protests drag on indefinitely, history does not offer encouraging precedents: past uprisings in the 1960s and the 1980s quickly led to a reversion to military control after fleeting stints of civilian rule.

Many commentators have drawn cautionary parallels with Libya, Egypt and Zimbabwe, where the ousting of presidents-for-life ushered in new crises and, in Libya’s case, full-blown civil war.

Mohammed Sanucy (35), who is doing a PhD in language and policy development at the University of the Western Cape, flatly rejects such comparisons: “The difference in Sudan is that we are united. The government has repeatedly tried to divide people along ethnic lines, but now it’s not working. People have stayed together, and they’ve stayed peaceful. Even if they have to carry on protesting for many more months, years even, they will never give up until the regime is clean.”

Like Mukhtar, who is a close friend, Sanucy was blacklisted by the Sudanese government for his vocal role in student activism on school and university campuses through the early 2000s. He eventually fled Sudan in 2005 and hasn’t been home or seen his family since. His parents were displaced from the village where he grew up in Darfur and now live in a desolate camp for internally displaced people; Sanucy lost manyother relatives during the early years of the conflict between 2003 and 2005.

But Sanucy says that he has never given up hope of returning home. Sitting in his small, spartan bedroom in a bland postgrad residence, surrounded by books, he adds that he has always seen his extended stay in South Africa as an opportunity to prepare himself to make a meaningful contribution to Sudanese society when that day comes.

“With everything that is happening now, I’m thinking about it more and more,” he says. “Honestly, I really can’t wait.”

Christopher Clark is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Cape Town

Christopher Clark
Christopher Clark
Freelance journalist & filmmaker in South Africa.

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