For years I have felt great apprehension and uneasiness whenever I visited Sudan, my home country. Not this time.
As I touched down at Khartoum airport 10 days after the deposition of Omar al-Bashir, I felt a connection to the land that I had forgotten. Instead of fear for my family, I felt a newfound appreciation for the Nile snaking its way slowly through the country, for dusty Khartoum, and for the generous souls of my people.
My three exhilarating days in Khartoum passed like a dream. I visited numerous uncles, aunts and cousins in different parts of the city. We laughed, cried and joked about the changing fortunes of life in Sudan. Small talk was limited because every conversation quickly turned to the political situation.
The Sudanese seemed surprised about how strong they are. Four months of street protests had defeated the seemingly untouchable Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP).
During almost three decades in power he had unleashed untold suffering in all corners of the country and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on multiple counts of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
It had been four years since my last visit, and I found Khartoum completely changed. Children had become revolutionaries, grandmothers were political analysts and taxi drivers were experts in international affairs. Being part of these conversations filled me with pride and hope. The new sense of freedom was almost palpable. People smiled more. They had shed the paranoia brought about by Bashir’s long reign. They walked with dignity and determination. When people spoke about how they felt, words such as “dreaming”, “shocked”, and “unbelievable” kept coming up.
Khartoum was beautifully depicted by the beloved Sudanese poet Mahjoub Sharif, who died five years ago. Known as the people’s poet, he wrote about the struggle for freedom and democracy and was repeatedly jailed for his work. I am sorry that he never got to see this new Khartoum, but as I walked the city’s streets, some of his poems awakened in my spirit: “Sing Khartoum sing/ the mother of loved ones, we are your fruits/ in the paths of nights, we are your days/before your waiting prolonged/ we have arrived …/ we arrived as you embraced us.”
I hope that one day soon Khartoum will be known as a place of poetry and beauty, not bloodshed and oppression.
Getting to this moment has been a long and painful journey. Since December, the Sudanese have protested in streets and squares, calling for Bashir to step down. Their rallying cry was “Freedom, Peace, Justice”, and for months they stood strong against the security forces’ violent, sometimes lethal, response.
Between April 6 and 11, 26 people were killed at the sit-in opposite the military headquarters in Khartoum. What started as a peaceful protest quickly deteriorated into bloodshed as security officers tried to disperse the people.
The pressure bore down on the NCP and it started to fall apart. On April 11, the army yielded to popular pressure and deposed Bashir and his close allies and cronies. It was a historic moment for the Sudanese, whose bravery has ushered in a new era of hope.
When I visited the sit-in location the energy of the protests flared on, with people singing, dancing and talking passionately about the issues Sudan now faces. The generosity of the Sudanese was on public display. Food and water was freely distributed and young men holding donation boxes called out: “If you have money, give; if you don’t have, take.”
In my last hours in the city, two women literally dragged me into the heart of the crowd. Thousands remain camped out there, demanding that the military authorities peacefully hand over power to a civilian ruler. After so many years of suffering, the Sudanese need a government that respects their rights and listens when they speak.
These are exciting yet dangerous times for Sudan. The country’s new leaders have a chance to break with decades of human rights abuses and honour the courage and resilience of the Sudanese. This means holding Bashir and others to account for the human rights abuses they committed and investigating the role of the security forces in the recent killing of protesters.
Tears and blood have been shed, and lives and limbs have been lost, but the Sudanese spirit of determination is unbroken. As one man said: “We will never be the same again.”
Ahmed Elzobier is an Amnesty International researcher for Sudan