How Sudanese protesters tapped into their country's rich history of revolt to overthrow a dictator.
"The dawn has come, Atbara has arrived"
This was the chant bellowed by hundreds of people in Khartoum on Tuesday, April 23, as they tearfully welcomed in the train from Atbara, a city 300 kilometers away from the capital. The train was not only filled to capacity, it was overflowing with citizens both inside and on top of the train waving victory signs, posters, banners and Sudanese flags. The videos and stills from that day recorded a historic moment—and a full circle one, harkening back to the first major protest five months earlier on December 19, 2018.
On the other side of the world, I sat in front of my computer screen watching the train roll in and cried, for what felt like the millionth time that week.
Since April 6, the international community has been trying to understand what's happening in Sudan—its scope and significance.
First, it was called a bread protest. Then, a "woman's revolution" after the photo of a young female protester went viral. During the best of times, the revolution has been likened to the uprising taking place in Algeria; during worst of times, it has been dubbed a belated Arab Spring. In the absence of knowledge on the history of Sudan—and an unwillingness to find out (to paraphrase the old Kanye: nobody cares about black people)—it is easy to make these reductive mistakes.
But Sudanese people, both on the ground and in the diaspora, know that this moment in our history is not only significant because it brought an end to an entrenched (and oppressive) military regime—it is significant because this is our third time doing so.
Almost every part of this revolution has a been a mirror reflection of Sudan's rich history of resistance; one can almost say that it is following tradition. Allow me to demonstrate.
December 19, 2018: Major protests erupt in the city of Atbara, sparking demonstrations across the country
Although the real start of this uprising began in the southeastern city of Damazin on December 13, it comes as no surprise that the Atbara protest is what is considered the starting point of the revolution. The City of Fire and Steel was once home to the Railway Workers Union, the first and strongest trade union in the country. These workers groups were integral to resistance movements throughout history, and the Railway Workers Union was a driving force behind the 1964 and 1985 revolutions, a fact of which the Inqaz regime was very aware when it took power in 1989, and as such expended considerable effort and succeeded in dismantling these organizations. Not only that, the regime erased the existence and contribution of these organizations from history books, thus growing a generation completely unaware of the power it holds.
The emergence of the Sudanese Professionals Association in 2018 as the leading force behind this new resistance movement harkens back to that history. Over the next 4 months, the SPA—a collective of professional organizations operating as unofficial unions—expended colossal efforts of its own to organize a disjointed people. From the creation of neighborhood resistance committees, to protest schedules publicized via social media, to civil disobedience and strike campaigns, the SPA taught us, through practical and modern application, what it meant to have power in numbers, and be unified behind a cause.
Four months later, its efforts bore the fruit of the single largest sit-in in Sudanese history.
April 6, 2019: Mass sit-in begins at General Command HQ in Khartoum, and across the country
Perhaps the only deliberate historical shoutout of this revolution, April 6 marked the 34th anniversary of our last popular uprising—the day the Sudanese people took to the streets in mass civil disobedience and protest against Gaafar Nimeiry, another military dictator. That moment marked the end of Nimeiry's 16 year reign, as this moment was the nail in the coffin of Bashir's 30 year rule.
Watching this moment unfold from afar inflicted a pain I cannot describe. It created a panic—a frenzied, desperate need for information. I obsessively refreshed my social media feed, messaged my friends and family in Khartoum; I knew that in that moment, no one would be free or have the connectivity to answer, but was upset at their unavailability all the same. So I found solace and commiseration with my other friends trapped in the diaspora, and on my Twitter feed, where I lived vicariously through the tweets of those on the ground.
Days later, my friend Ahmed Salah told me over a WhatsApp voice note, "The [Khartoum] sit-in is called The Liberated Land of Sudan." Like me, Ahmed is part of the Sudanese diaspora, but was able to fly into Khartoum from Saudi Arabia specially to participate.
These sit-ins have been taking place in major cities across the country, including Port Sudan, Medani, Gedarif and El-Obeid, and have continued uninterrupted (though not for lack of trying by the regime) to this day. This is an incredible organizational feat considering its massive scale, with round the clock participation and daily attendance estimated in the millions, according to surveys conducted by telecom companies.
"I think the most impressive part of this is that in no time, we managed to implement a fully-functioning micro society within the parameters of [General Command HQ]", says Khider Adi, another friend. Volunteer security teams man the perimeters, making sure that those inside the sit-in remain safe, and regime agents still threatening protesters stay out. Daily provisions of food and drink are donated and prepared at the sit-ins by the citizens themselves. "Everything is organized," says 19-year old Layan, who has been volunteering with the kitchen crew since April 12. "When you come in, you sanitize your hands and put on gloves before you begin working; everyone has a specific job to do. I'm proud to say that I contributed in feeding everyone, from the security teams at the blockades, to protesters at the sit-in, even the military."
In adherence to this "revolution of consciousness," as many have called it, there are a multitude of awareness sessions and debates that take place daily across all the sit-ins. These sessions are a way to finally actively and publicly combat the 30 years of darkness in which the Sudanese people have been steeped. The Khartoum sit-in is the place where the SPA and the Coalition for Freedom and Change—the main opposition body that represents the people—provides updates on the revolution and negotiations with the transitional military council, thus including the people in the political process for the first time in three decades.
From awareness sessions to cultural activities like traditional dances, to documentaries played on a jumbo-screen for all to see, these sit-ins have succeeded not only in educating the masses that attend them, but also in bringing together a people who have been divided and pitted against each other, so that they may share their experiences with each other and make their voices heard. These sit-ins have not only contributed to a political awakening in the people, but also a social one. "That sense of distance between people is gone", says Layan. "It doesn't matter who you are, a doctor or a pauper, there's a strong feeling of solidarity everywhere."
This is perhaps the one part of the revolution that, as a Sudanese in the diaspora, I have experienced. The bond that has been created between myself and other Sudanese as a result of this uprising is awe-inspiring. In the last 5 months, I have forged relationships with people inside and outside Sudan that would have never been possible if not for this movement. We are bonded by our shared love for our homeland, and our shared responsibility in securing freedom for ourselves and our people.
This newfound closeness online is heartwarming; but as an introvert, I worry whether this will translate the same when (if?) I find myself on the ground, at the sit-in. Layan—a complete stranger to me before this moment of contact—unwittingly put my mind at ease in her voice note. "I have social anxiety, so I don't really connect with people easily. But within a half hour of being at the sit-in, I had already started feeling close to people. I can't tell you just how many amazing people I've met, and friendships I've made."
April 10, 2019: Alaa Salah Goes Viral
Photo by Lana H. Haroun
One day before Omar al-Bashir was deposed, this photo went viral across Sudanese online spaces, and the world.
The world, faced with the image of—as they perceived her—an "Arab", "Muslim" woman so fiercely expressing herself, all but lost its mind. They dubbed her "icon," "Lady Liberty," and "the leader of the Sudanese revolution"—in the process whittling an entire people's revolt down to a singular character and issue.
The photo is, indeed, iconic—but not for the reasons touted by mainstream media. Rather, it is a direct link back to another iconic photo—from April 1985, when the women of the Republican Brotherhood Movement, also dressed in white, marched in protest against the Nimeiry regime.
The viral photo of 2019 reflects, to quote Sudanese activist Sara Suliman, the "untold legacy of women's movements in Sudan," which spans all the way back to Alaazza Mohammed Abdallah, the first Sudanese woman to lead a major protest in 1924.
"The Sudanese woman has always been front and center and a leader in many fields", says Suliman. "[But] We have a problem that the Sudanese women's movement isn't as widely promoted or talked about as in other countries in the region."
The women at the sit-in are building on an established history that has been purposefully buried by a government hell-bent on shackling women's power and stripping them of their voice, and a world that expects very little of them because of it.
But with the social awakening taking place, that seems to be changing. "I remember one day I was leading one of the chants and one guy recognized it so he started saying it with me, but some of the other guys beside him told him to let me say it alone so as to not belittle my voice," says Yumna, a 17 year old protester. "It was a small gesture and he didn't need to do it but it made me feel more powerful and appreciated. Women going out and speaking out in these protests are important because it's a symbol of change which is exactly what we need in our country, in our society - shit, in our homes." Yumna says women loudly and boldly demanding change is important, "not just because we're mothers, or sisters or daughters, but because we are Sudanese, period."
April 23, 2019: The Freedom Train Arrives, Again
All of which brings us back to that full circle moment last Tuesday, when I cried as the freedom train from Atbara was swallowed up by the crowds of citizens-turned-protesters in Khartoum. The image carries me back 55 years, into a time I only know through the stories my parents told, to October 1964, when citizens from Kassala boarded their own freedom train to Khartoum to help oust General Abboud from power.
Sudan may have learned from the Arab Spring and the experiences of its neighbors in North Africa when carrying out its own revolt, but it was not inspired by them. Rather, it has tapped into the 90 years of experience in resistance—both against foreign invaders and its own—coursing through its veins. And with nations like Chad now modeling their own revolt after it, it is clear that Sudan does not need to be inspired, because it is inspiration itself.
On the day the train from Atbara arrived, I tweeted: "Every day, I try to imagine what it would be like to be at the sit-in. How will I feel? Will I cry? Will I chant? Will I yell? Will I be afraid?"
My friend Haneen was the first to respond. "You'll just feel like you finally belong."
Even now, reading her response three days later, I am moved to tears, filled with a lifetime of longing to taste that particular freedom.
Sara Elhassan is a Sudanese-American freelance writer and editor. You can find her on social media @BSonblast.