Living in the midst of revolution: A homage to Khartoum

Deception: A family at the shallow waters where the Blue and White Nile meet in Khartoum. But across the way is the Shendi detention centre where people are tortured and others disappear. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

Deception: A family at the shallow waters where the Blue and White Nile meet in Khartoum. But across the way is the Shendi detention centre where people are tortured and others disappear. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

In 2019, the residents of Sudan’s capital have witnessed a revolution, a counter-revolution, joyous celebrations, brutal massacres and the fall of a dictator – and now they are fighting to prevent the rise of another


Khartoum — I moved to Khartoum in September. After a midnight arrival, the taxi from the airport swerving like a drunk to avoid potholes, I rose early to look around my neighbourhood in Sudan’s capital. A hot wind blew dust in my face and plastic bags around my ankles.
The temperature was in the high 30s. Above, in a pale sky, kites wheeled lethargically, searching the streets and yards for scraps.

I took shelter from the blazing sun under a tree, where a brightly-robed woman sitting behind a brazier served me sugary black tea with a sprig of mint. On all sides was dereliction. The crumbling pavements, piles of garbage, and old cars abandoned to sink into the street amid drifts of dust from the desert spoke of a country that had been left to decay.

Here there was no regeneration, only desiccation. Dead dogs and cats on the roadside took months to disappear. The sewers leaked, leaving stinking pools of black filth. The sewage system dates from when Khartoum had a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Now its population has grown to five million. Fixing the system would cost millions of dollars, and even if the government had the will, it no longer had the means.

Sudan’s oil boom was over, extinguished when South Sudan gained independence in 2011, taking three-quarters of the oil reserves with it. With oil for a while offering easy pickings, agriculture, once prolific along the Blue and White Nile and in the fertile eastern and southern states, had been left to wither. Economic sanctions, imposed by the United States in response to the government’s support for the likes of al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and Venezuelan extremist Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), who both lived in Khartoum in the 1990s, continued to bite. There was no international ATM in the whole country. Cash was so scarce that strict withdrawal limits were imposed, and Sudanese had to queue for hours to get the equivalent of a few dollars from their bank accounts.

But the government didn’t have the will to fix things. Seventy percent of its budget was spent on the security forces. Even after the decades-long conflict with South Sudan ended it continued to wage genocidal wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State, and the president, Omar al-Bashir, had created a sprawling intelligence network designed to quash dissent and preserve his 30-year reign. Education and health-care received less than 5% of the budget between them. Public hospitals are regarded as death traps.

Although a rumoured one in four people worked as informers for the feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the people of Khartoum were vociferous in their criticism of their leaders. Corruption, they said, was rampant. Bashir was rumoured to have $9-billion stashed away in Malaysian banks and, in a country where a third of children were malnourished and half the population lived in extreme poverty, the riverside mansions and imported four-wheel drives of government ministers and their cronies were a brazen affront to those who were excluded from the ruling clique.

Petrol queues grew and the price of bread soared.

A taxi driver told me: “I have a PhD in microbiology, I have two books about HIV on Amazon. I have been to Germany twice, and to Kenya and South Africa. For 30 years I worked in a hospital. I earned 1 300 Sudanese pounds a month. A year ago it was 18 pounds to the dollar. Now it’s 54. But my salary was still 1 300. I have four children. I couldn’t afford to stay in my job. Now I drive this car, seven days a week for 15 hours a day. Life here is very difficult.”

But I was still surprised when protests broke out. The NISS’s torture chambers, known as ghost houses, had a fearsome reputation. Student marches in Khartoum in 2013 had ended with 200 people being gunned down in two days. A former vice-president publicly warned the protesters that Islamic “shadow militias” would give their lives to protect the regime.

The first demonstrations took place in December last year in Atbara, a railway town with a militant history. They quickly spread to Khartoum and the rest of Sudan, with hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and classes taking to the streets to demand the regime’s fall.

Never-ending: A citizen flees a protest. (Ozan Kose)

I had been in Tanzania when news of the unrest came through. Returning to Khartoum at the beginning of January, I wondered what a revolution would look like. Most of the time it looked no different to usual life. Shops were open, the traffic as cumbersome as ever. Tea sellers still sat under their trees.

I saw a couple of small marches, one in Omdurman on the other side of the White Nile, another in downtown Khartoum. But the death toll across the country had reached double figures — unarmed marchers shot or beaten to death by security agents. The demonstrations I saw were peaceful, perhaps not considered large enough to be a threat.

In a Syrian-run café I met my friend Yusra, a 29-year-old who worked for an accountancy firm. She had joined the protest movement because of the injustice of Sharia law, which meant a woman could be locked up and whipped for not wearing a headscarf, and because the economic situation meant that “every day my salary is worth less, and if I go to the bank they don’t give me my money”. She had been on a few smaller marches before she was arrested by the NISS during a large demonstration in the al-Burri district in Khartoum in late January.

“We started marching and shouting for the overthrow of the regime,” she says. “We reached a square and NISS agents started to fire tear gas at us. We couldn’t breathe. Your eyes go red and you can’t open them. We ran into one of the houses — people in Burri were opening their doors for us. Then the NISS started firing tear gas into the houses. We washed our faces with cola, which works very well. When we went back out into the square they started firing live bullets, first at the protesters and then at the ground. Some people were injured. They fired tear gas and drove their jeeps at us to try to run us over.”

Yusra had gone to the protest with a friend from work. It was a weekday and her boss had given staff a written warning not to join the protesters. “We went out anyway. All the staff were going out.”

When the live fire began, they escaped into another house. “The owner of the house gathered about 20 of us and locked us in a room. We started to hear soldiers breaking into houses. Finally five of them broke into our room and started beating us with sticks. I was wearing a long skirt and a puffy blouse. It was the girls who were wearing jeans that were hit. They were shouting at us, calling us whores, saying we had no shame. Later, after my release, three of the soldiers tried to hit on me on Whatsapp.”

All 20 were arrested. They were bundled into the back of pick-up trucks. They waited while other protesters were rounded up from neighbouring houses.

Yusra sips at her glass of lemon juice. She looks over her shoulder before continuing. There is nobody near us in the café.

“When the girls got into the truck they touched them in a very bad way,” she says, her eyes downcast. “I was with my work colleague. An 18-year-old girl was sitting next to us and a soldier touched the inside of her thigh and asked her how she could wear jeans. She was crying and she asked us to help, but we couldn’t do anything. You cannot do anything. In the other trucks they were beating the boys very hard. One had his arm broken.”

The trucks were driven off. First they were taken to a nearby NISS office where they were told to give their names and addresses. Then the women were put on a bus. “I thought we would be released somewhere outside town, but then I heard the NISS guy who was with us telling the driver to take us to Bahri. Bahri is where Shendi is. I hadn’t been afraid until then, but now I really freaked out. Shendi is where they torture people.”

Across the Blue Nile in north Khartoum, the NISS’s Shendi detention centre is notorious. Many of those who enter it are never seen again. Others are tortured to the point of insanity. One wing, known as The Refrigerator, is kept permanently chilled and prisoners are left to freeze, sometimes for days.

“When we arrived at Shendi,” Yusra continues, “they told us to walk in lines and said we should chant Bashir’s name. We went into a room and knelt on the ground facing the wall. There were women agents. They were very violent with the girls. I didn’t get beaten up but a girl I had become friendly with was hit with sticks by three or four women.”

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo commands the notorious RSF militia and is deputy head of the Transitional Military Council. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP)

She shows me a photo on her phone of the girl’s bruised back and arms.

“There were 60 of us in the room. The women told us we would be raped and then killed. I was looking at their faces and thinking, ‘Why are you doing this? I’m a girl like you.’ They shouted at us for two hours, then took us to another room.”

The NISS already knew that Yusra had been working as a volunteer with an opposition political party. “They give you a feeling that they know everything about you and that you’re never going to be released. They accused me of things I’ve never done and said they had evidence. They said I was stoning one of the security agents in the square.”

The first night the women slept on the floor in a corridor between offices. Each of them was told a formal investigation had been opened against them. Questioned why she had been in Burri, Yusra said she had been looking for an ATM but got caught up in the protests. “They didn’t believe me, but if you tell the truth that is evidence for them.”

On the second day she began to despair of being released. Down in a yard she saw men sitting on the ground in the cold January weather. Many bore scars and bruises. “They were beating the hell out of the boys. Then the security agents filled the yard with cold water so they would get even colder. They had to sit there in this cold water without moving.”

On the third day the investigation was concluded and Yusra and the other women were released. “We were made to sign a paper saying we will never participate in any political activity or go out on protests. I couldn’t sleep for two weeks. I was afraid they would come and arrest me again. You have this fear that you are being watched. I waited two weeks before I went out to protest again.”

Through February and March there were demonstrations every week in different parts of the city and across the country. A rattled Bashir declared a state of emergency and the next morning a convoy of a 100 pick-up trucks full of shouting security agents cruised round the streets of Khartoum hooting, sticks banged intimidatingly on metal, celebrating like an occupying army.

Then at the beginning of April came the protesters’ pièce de résistance. In the space of a couple of hours, tens of thousands of the people descended on land outside the army headquarters in downtown Khartoum and occupied it. They banished traffic and put up makeshift barricades to keep security forces out. By the evening, there were hundreds of thousands thronging the surrounding streets. Many would stay there for weeks.

I went to the sit-in on its third night with a filmmaker friend named Ahmed. Outside the barricades, army personnel directed the clogged traffic. Junior officers were defying orders and protecting protesters against the NISS and the former vice-president’s Islamic militias. The crowds were so big that it was inevitable officers would have friends and family among them. They were disgruntled, too, by Bashir’s favouring of other armed groups and his deliberate weakening of the army to reduce the risk of a coup.

We parked the car and followed a group of protesters down an unlit street. They were arriving at the sit-in for the “night shift” and would relieve their brethren who had been camped out in the heat all day. As they jogged along they chanted revolutionary songs, the leader keeping time by banging a water bottle with a stick. We passed through a barricade, where we were frisked and welcomed with a smile. Tens of thousands of people stretched in all directions. There were old men wearing white jellabiya robes, young women in burkas or veils, others in shirts and jeans, children holding their parents’ hands. I had noticed that the area where I lived had emptied of street children in recent days, and I saw some of them now.

“They come here because people give them food here,” Ahmed said. “They are looked after.”

Later that night security agents would break through the cordon and kill four protesters and two soldiers before the army drove them back. But for now the atmosphere was exuberant — groups of protesters danced around drummers, others arriving for the night shift ran in showing off choreographed dance moves, young men looked on from the tops of billboards waving flags. Phones were brandished as torches.

“I never thought I’d see anything like this,” said Ahmed, whose adult life spanned the full 30 years of Bashir’s brutality. His usual taciturnity had given way to exhilaration at the sight before us. As a plane took off from the nearby airport, the crowd sang as one, “He’s gone, he’s gone, and he’s used the back door.”

Two days later Bashir really was gone, placed under house arrest by a group of army generals and replaced by his defence minister, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, who immediately announced a 10pm curfew. The protesters ignored it, the sit-in swelling to huge numbers that night. The next day Auf, implicated in many of Bashir’s crimes, was gone too.

Yusra, who had gone to the site that night despite widespread fears of a massacre, was cautiously optimistic.

“I had to go. I thought it was worth the risk because of the people that died and because of what I went through when I was arrested,” she told me a few days later. “I celebrated a bit when Auf went because we had been able to remove two presidents in two days. But now we’re asking why the council isn’t doing what we want.”

Still the revolution’s work was not complete. In the wake of the two coups, a self-styled Transitional Military Council had assumed power, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a veteran general who was less tainted than many of his peers by Bashir’s atrocities. Of more concern to protesters was Burhan’s much younger deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Known as Hemedti, this former camel rustler from Darfur had risen to lead the most powerful of the militias created by Bashir, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The militia largely consisted of the Janjaweed fighters who, for years, had terrorised Darfur, burning villages, raping women and girls, and murdering and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in what observers described as a genocide against the region’s non-Arab populations.

Early in the protests, Bashir had summoned more than 10 000 RSF fighters to Khartoum. Hemedti was living in a house near my flat. The house stood behind high walls and was heavily guarded — armoured personnel carriers lined the street, baskets full of rocket-propelled grenades hanging from their sides. The Janjaweed, lean young men recruited from western Sudan, Chad and West Africa, lounged on the vehicles.

Their leader, who nursed presidential ambitions of his own, defied Bashir by ordering his troops not to attack protesters. A rickshaw driver told me that, but for the RSF, Bashir would have had thousands killed at the sit-in. Some mornings I would have coffee under a tree near Hemedti’s headquarters. Pairs of Janjaweed in beige fatigues sat near me in the shade, Kalashnikovs propped against their thighs as they sipped at their dainty glasses.

The sit-in would continue for almost two months after Bashir’s demise, the protesters refusing to stand down until the military council had handed power to a civilian government.

Early one morning I watched a group of boisterous young men running into the site, shouting “Wake up, revolutionary” to rouse their sleeping night shift colleagues. Under trees nearby, protesters who had risen early drank tea with soldiers. Others swept the streets or picked up rubbish. A car arrived bringing boxes full of water bottles — people unable to attend the sit-in would help by donating water, hibiscus juice or huge vats of ful (stewed fava beans) to show their solidarity for the protests. Covertly, some of Sudan’s largest businesses also chipped in.

One afternoon I saw a troupe of dancers who had come to Khartoum from the Nuba Mountains in the south. They wore grass skirts and feather armlets, and danced a shuffling but urgent dance to the sound of whistles, a drum and a whip cracked loudly on the road. Since 2011, the Nuba region had been subjected to an aerial bombardment campaign by Bashir’s forces, which killed hundreds of civilians and displaced tens of thousands.

Later that day I joined peoplelooking at banners on a wall showing the atrocities committed by Bashir’s army and by the Janjaweed in Darfur. Burned huts, scalped heads, charred corpses, children’s bodies cut in half — this was the first time people in the capital had been exposed to such images, and they discussed them in hushed voices. In a tent to one side, young women who had travelled about 1 000km to be here from Darfur sat on the ground singing gentle songs that asked for Bashir to be taken to the International Criminal Court.

In a visit to the site one evening I watched breakdancers surrounded by a huge crowd of teenagers, unused to such open displays of fun and self-expression after 35 years of Sharia law.

Up on the railway bridge that overlooked the site, teenage boys kept up a constant drumbeat of rock on metal, a rhythm only ever interrupted for a daily rendition of the national anthem. It had the feel of a music festival, but with a deadly serious goal. Watching the euphoric crowds who had got rid of two military rulers and were determined to overthrow another, one had the tantalising feeling that perhaps for once the doom-mongers might be wrong, that freedom and justice were attainable even in the unlikeliest corners, that the idealists had a chance against the cynics — that a revolution that hadn’t once resorted to violence might defeat a regime that had never resorted to anything but.

Then talks between the protest leaders and the junta became bogged down, the junta bolstered in its determination not to give up power by financial and military support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Hemedti had sent RSF mercenaries to fight Saudi Arabia’s war in the Yemen, and none of Sudan’s autocratic Arab neighbours wanted an outbreak of democracy on their doorstep.

The instrument chosen to break-up the sit-in was Hemedti’s RSF militia. Early in the morning of June 3 hundreds of his men broke through the barricades. Working from the playbook they had used for so long in Darfur, they burned down tents with people trapped inside, raped women and shot, hacked or clubbed to death more than 100 defenceless protesters. They threw bodies into the Nile, some of them still alive and screaming, and gang-raped doctors who had been volunteering at the sit-in’s clinics. Among the dead were children. Darfuris were targeted for especially vicious treatment.

The junta at first denied responsibility, then admitted it, claiming the massacre was a “mistake”. In the days following the killings, Hemedti’s troops took control of Khartoum. They combed the streets in their pick-up trucks, executing anyone still brave enough to put up a barricade, arresting opposition politicians, and beating up and robbing civilians who crossed their path. Also arrested were dozens of low-level soldiers who had refused orders to shoot protesters. All traces of the sit-in were removed, the artwork that had adorned the walls at the site painted over.

Sudan’s revolution is in the balance. Half-hearted attempts at mediation between the junta and protest leaders by the African Union and the US have not borne fruit. No Western leader has even made a statement about the massacre. Saudi Arabia and its allies are backing the junta. Nobody has a solution for the problem posed by thousands of Janjaweed troops occupying Khartoum.

The names of people interviewed have been changed. Mark Weston is the author of African Beauty and The Ringtone and the Drum

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