Up until now I have not published anything about the recent protests in Sudan, which occurred at the end of September 2013, a few weeks after I had arrived. I am no longer as worried about the tracking of information, which is why I have finally chosen to post something about my experience.
The day after a spurt of violent anti-government protests brought on by an unwarranted increase of fuel prices, the city was eerily quiet. I sensed that the people of Khartoum had been defeated by the state’s extreme retaliation.
As in previous years, the protests had originally been motivated by smaller demonstrations at the University of Khartoum, where I was currently teaching. I knew something was wrong when my boss, the dean of the Geography Department, arrived to our meeting with his eyes bloodshot and streaming from the teargas. Soon after, the general population joined in, which is when things went a lot further than teargas. The government brought down its iron fist and killed many innocent civilians, peacefully exercising their right to speak their mind. The state national security or secret police had been given orders to shoot to kill, and were aiming at protestors’ hearts. I was amazed at the civilians’ willingness to risk their lives out of fear and desperation, and such a strong urge to bring an oppressive regime to its knees. Later on a friend shed some light on this. According to her, although bringing down the regime would cause deaths, keeping the same government in power would do the same.
During this frightening time it was hard to any acquire information, due to both my lack of Arabic skills and the extreme media censorship. Once the government had clocked that the protests were being coordinated through social media they blocked the internet connection, thus Facebook and Youtube were inaccessible. I relied on random updates from Sudanese friends and the British Embassy, who disclosed information on which areas of the city were unsafe. The media failed to report on what was actually happening. Sudanese newspapers were only permitted to publish information approved by the police, and the government generally try to prevent international journalists from entering the country. The opposition party reported 300 people dead, whereas the NCP denied these claims, stating that a mere 30 people had been killed. Furthermore, they maintained that the photos shared on social media were in fact of the recent protests in Cairo. The same clip was played over and over on Al Jazeera, while there was nothing at all reported on international news channels. Several Sudanese acquaintances had lost friends and family members, which was more than enough evidence of how many people had been affected by the crisis. “We kill people like chickens here”, explained a friend matter-of-factly. Tragically, several schoolchildren were amongst those killed, and schools were closed until the end of October as a precaution.
Although as foreigners, we were in considerably less danger, we had been told to remain indoors and refrain from observing any of the protests close up. We would have been putting ourselves in danger as the state is ever wary of foreign spies. Of course had things escalated, our respective embassies would have stepped up and escorted us to safety. Still, for many of us it was out first experience of violent political unrest, and we ended up barricading ourselves indoors, more as a precaution than a necessity. We spent a few tense days up on the roof terrace, scanning the skyline for signs of activity. Smoke billowed from various districts, where petrol stations had been set alight or piles of tires were being burned as a sign to fellow demonstrators. We had been warned that a revolution or Sudanese Arab Spring was predicted to take place after Friday’s 2 O’clock prayers. We sat in wait with our hearts in our mouths though sadly for the Sudanese, this revolution was never realized. That night, evidently with violent images on his mind, one of us had a nightmare and began punching a friend in his sleep. I awoke to bloodcurdling screams and felt that Armageddon had come.
Not having witnessed any of the violence first-hand made mine a very surreal, skin-deep experience. We watched from the sidelines with mere illusions of danger, and of course we were never really in jeopardy. The people whose lives were at risk were our friends, colleagues and neighbours, fearlessly standing up to the powerful and unrelenting monster of the state. A week later, I marvelled at how things had gone back to normal as if nothing had happened. Yet we were still on edge, and there were a lot more rifles around; another novelty for me. Police and guards cracked the safety latches threateningly and the hairs stood up on my neck.