For years I have felt great apprehension and uneasiness whenever I visited Sudan, my home country. Not this time. As I touched down in Khartoum airport ten 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.
Exhilarating three days
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, joked about the changing fortunes of life in Sudan. Small talk was very limited as every conversation quickly turned to the political situation.
The Sudanese people seemed surprised at the realisation of how strong they really are. Four months of street protests had defeated the seemingly untouchable Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP). During almost three decades in power Bashir 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; taxi drivers experts in international affairs. Being part of these conversations filled me with pride and hope. The new sense of freedom and hope 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 like “dreaming”, “shocked”, and “unbelievable” kept coming up.
Khartoum was beautifully depicted by the beloved Sudanese poet Mahjoub Sharief who died five years ago. Known as “the people’s poet”, Sharief 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 2018 the Sudanese people have been protesting in streets and squares calling for Bashir to step down. Their rallying cry has been “Freedom, Peace, Justice”, and for months they stood strong against the security forces’ violent, sometimes lethal, response.
Between 6 and 11 April, 26 people were killed at the sit-in opposite the military headquarters in Khartoum. What started as a peaceful sit-in quickly deteriorated into bloodshed as security officers tried to disperse the protestors. However, the pressure bore on the NCP and it started to fall apart. On 11 April 2019, the army yielded to popular pressure and deposed Bashir and his close allies and cronies. It was a historic moment for the Sudanese people, 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 people was on public display; food and water freely distributed; young men holding donation boxes calling 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 of people remained camped out there, demanding that the military authorities peacefully hand over power to a civilian ruler. After so many years of suffering, the Sudanese people need a government which 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 people. 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.” I agree totally.
This blog post was first published by the Mail & Guardian on 17 May 2019.