CAIRO—Three years ago, El-Hadi Abdullah traveled from the Darfur region in western Sudan to Khartoum to complete his university studies at Sudan University of Science and Technology. He left his family behind him, scattered in three camps set up by the United Nations on the periphery of Darfur for those who have fled war.
Abdullah’s status as a displaced person without substantial family support makes his student life difficult. He was unable to attend most of his lectures this year because he had to do construction work in order to support himself and pay his academic expenses.
“I need to work for two weeks a month,” he said. “This will have a negative impact on my academic achievement, but there is nothing else I can do.”
Since the beginning of 2003, Sudanese government forces and an ethnic militia known as the Janjaweed have been engaged in armed conflict against two rebel groups in Darfur: The Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement. Despite attempts at reaching peace agreements, the fighting in Darfur between the government and the rebel groups has not stopped. The rebels decline to negotiate with the Sudanese government, which in turn continues to burn and destroy villages and displace their residents. The conflict has left more than 300,000 dead and has displaced about 3 million people, according to UNHCR.
Young people from Darfur who aspire to higher education are often hidden victims of the crisis. There are an estimated 70,000 aspiring students from Darfur, of whom 35,000 are students in Khartoum’s universities alone, according to the Associations of Darfurians in Sudanese Universities. Peace agreements from 2006 and 2011 state that students from Darfur should be exempted from paying tuition fees at Sudan’s universities. But the Sudanese ministry of higher education canceled those provisions late last year and reimposed tuition fees on students from the region, with the rationale that more recent agreements voided the earlier ones.
“The exemption from the fees ends by the termination of the agreement, which was linked to the formation of the transitional authority for Darfur and holding the referendum which was decided in favor of dividing the region into states, and that has already happened,” said Mohammed Ali al-Dhau, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Bakhtalruda, south of Khartoum.
Darfur’s students struggle to make ends meet. Abdullah earns 60 Sudanese Pounds (about $9) a day from his work in construction. He needs at least 700 Sudanese Pounds ($100) per month to cover his living expenses and housing, along with 2,100 Sudanese Pounds ($315) per year for tuition.
“I share housing with six other young men,” he said. “I try to make do with two meals a day to reduce expenses, but sometimes I have to ask for some money from my parents.”
Students from Darfur who protest the Sudanese government’s treatment of them and others in Darfur can have an even tougher time.
Bosh Umdah Ali Bosh, a 23-year-old student from Darfur, says he was dismissed from Bahri University’s faculty of civil engineering in Khartoum after protesting the decision to force students from Darfur to pay tuition. After his dismissal, Bosh returned to Darfur and got a new high school diploma to join the sociology department at Al-Neelain University’s economic and social studies faculty. He works as a security guard at a private company for a wage of 300 Sudanese Pounds ($45) per month to pay his expenses.
“I am working hard to complete my undergraduate studies,” he said. “But it does not seem possible.”
Bosh needs to pay 4,000 Sudanese Pounds ($600) for tuition fees, of which he has paid only 500 pounds so far. This has blocked him from getting his exam results for the first semester, and he is also being threatened with expulsion.
“My father works as a farmer in the fall besides other seasonal jobs over the year,” he said. “His income does not exceed 800 Sudanese Pounds ($120) and my family has 16 members. I have no chance at all to ask for his help.”
The students from Darfur also say they face discrimination in the classroom. Abdullah says he has no problems with fellow Sudanese students, but that his relations with professors are often strained.
“The professors are not sympathetic with our situation,” he said. “Some try to remain neutral, while others are cooperating with the regime and file complaints against us.”
There are four universities in the Darfur region: Al-Fashir, Zalingei, Nyala, and Geneina universities, along with two branches of Omdurman Islamic University in Nyala and Al-Fasher. But the lack of many academic departments, the poor infrastructure and the lack of international recognition of these universities pushes many students to study in Khartoum despite the difficulties, particularly in finding housing. “My fellow students secretly host me in the university’s dorm,” said Bosh. “My formal residence in the university housing would expose me to heavy security scrutiny as the authority keeps watch on our political activity.”
A female Darfur student told Amnesty International that she was beaten, tortured, and raped after two arrests for campaigning against the eviction of female Darfuri students from university housing. In October, she says she was drugged and raped by four intelligence officers at their offices in Khartoum. “I woke up and found myself laying on the bed naked. All four security officers were there looking at me, and then one of them showed me a video clip of them raping me,” she told Amnesty International interviewers.
That account is included in a report released earlier this year, in which Amnesty International documented a series of attacks on students from Darfur studying at Sudanese universities. The organization has called on the Sudanese government to put an end to the politically motivated, and sometimes fatal, attacks on Darfurian students at universities across the country.
“Scores of students have been killed, wounded and expelled from universities since 2014 because of the demonstrations and their protest against human rights violations in Darfur,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director for east Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
In January of last year, another student was arrested when security agents and pro-government students carrying knives, iron bars and machine guns broke up a peaceful demonstration of Darfurian students at Geneina University. “They beat me mercilessly with a black plastic hose all over my body, on my naked back and my feet,” said the student in an interview with the report team.
Bosh, too, was arrested three times, and spent 70 days in prison because of his political positions and his defense of the demands of Darfur’s people. On one occasion, his hand was seriously wounded, but he could not afford treatment.
“The future is bleak in Darfur,” he said. “I wish I could get a scholarship to study abroad. Even if I graduated from university, it would be very difficult to find a job in Sudan because I am from Darfur.”