The Women Arrive
Under al-Bashir’s rule, many women say that they couldn’t venture onto the street for fear of facing hostility, sexual harassment, or punishment for violating religious law. But women quickly began joining the protests, as word got out that it was safe. The first reaction of some male protesters to the women joining them was: “They are coming to cheer us on,” said Elbagir. But the men quickly realized, she said, “They are not your cheerleaders, mate, they are coming to fight the fight.
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Nuha El- Zein Mohamed, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which helped to organize the protests, said in an e-mail interview that it was disappointing that women were not represented at the negotiating table. She said in the last 30 years the country had gotten used to a situation in which “women were invisible and silent in the political field.”
While it was relatively easy for women to join protests in the streets, she said, in institutions and organizations, change will be harder to achieve. The association will conduct seminars with neighborhood committees and street leaders to help women into the political arena and to encourage all organizations to include women.
During the protests, debates focused not just on politics, the Sudanese journalists at the Frontline Club said, but about the features of Sudanese society that may have contributed to autocratic rule. “It was amazing after 30 years,” said Othaylat Suliman, a television journalist and chairperson of the Sudanese Journalists Forum, to see the Sudanese having such intense cultural and political discussions.
Elbagir said social divisions have contributed to the country’s problems. “There’s a lot of racism in Sudan,” she said. “There’s a lot of Arab supremacy. We were colonized, so there’s a lot of white supremacy.”
Residents of Khartoum may not always hear about the government’s actions in putting down rebellions elsewhere in the sprawling country, where it is a three-hour flight from Khartoum to Darfur. Many in the country’s outskirts are both geographically and economically marginalized. Around 1,500 protesters arrived from Darfur to join those in the protest zone outside military headquarters. That was a momentous occasion, protesters said, with chants of “We are all Darfur.”
Protesters were concerned about the presence on the transitional ruling military council of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known by the nickname “Hemeti.” Hemeti is the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which guards Sudan’s borders and puts down rebellions. He is regarded as complicit in the government’s brutality in Darfur and other rebellious territories where the RSF has been synonymous with the hated Janjaweed militia. Although Hemeti was the vice chair of the ruling military council, those familiar with Sudanese politics say he has been in charge. “He’s the man with the money, he’s the man with the troops, he’s the man with the regional usefulness,” said Elbagir. “Everyone has taken his lead.”
The Rapid Support Forces are independent from the Sudanese army. European Union funds for efforts to end northwards migration are rumored to have trickled down into Hemeti’s hands and the Rapid Support Forces have been enriched by supplying troops to fight for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen. Hemeti did not rise to leadership by some of the traditional educational routes—the University of Khartoum or a military staff college. “Hemeti is a war criminal,” said Elbagir. “He is the regime’s rebellion crusher and attack dog.”
June 3: The Darkest Day
Hemeti and his loyalists lived up to their fearsome reputation at dawn on June 3, in the final hours of Ramadan. The Rapid Support Forces attacked the protesters with no warning. No safe corridors existed that the protesters could escape through. As army soldiers watched, RSF troops shot, whipped, beat, and raped protestors and burned their tents. An early estimate by Sudanese doctors found that 70 women went to Khartoum hospitals to be treated for rape—with the actual number of rapes expected to be far higher than that. The RSF troops only made crude efforts to cover their tracks, such as throwing bodies into the Nile. “What they did was so unbelievably, profoundly cruel,” said Elbagir.
Human rights groups are still struggling to piece together a full picture of the June 3 atrocities. The immediate shutdown of the Internet in Sudan after the protest—a move condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Council—has made assembling evidence more difficult.
But blocking the Internet did not stop protests. Activists have been organizing by meeting in mosques, football stadiums, buses, and at wakes for those who have been killed in protests, said Mohanad Hashim, the BBC journalist. Said Elbagir: “The revolution has gone analog.”
Now the international diplomats who pushed Sudanese negotiators to work with Ethiopia and the African Union to come to a power-sharing agreement are applying pressure for compliance with its terms. “We look forward to immediate resumption of access to the Internet, establishment of the new legislature, accountability for the violent suppression of peaceful protests, and progress toward free and fair elections,” said a U.S. government statement.
For their part, the protesters, said Elbagir, “may have gotten “addicted to the feeling of liberation and equality.”
That addiction to freedom may well expand but whether the Sudanese women and youth craving freedom and wanting to build on it are represented in government, future negotiations, and elections remains to be seen.