Feda Elbadri '21's parents at their wedding. A few years later, they would flee their home country of Sudan after persecution from the Sudanese government. (Photo courtesy of Feda Elbadri)
Feda Elbadri '21's parents at their wedding. A few years later, they would flee their home country of Sudan after persecution from the Sudanese government.

Photo courtesy of Feda Elbadri

Close to Home: The Story of Sudan

The repercussions of the Sudanese political crisis are felt by Sudanese and Sudanese-Americans in Iowa City

October 10, 2019

Warning: This story contains sensitive content, including mentions of violence and sexual assault.

Introduction

Sudanese native and resident of Khartoum Fatma Mohamed, eighteen, remembers when she first heard that protests had broken out in her home country against reigning president Omar al-Bashir’s regime.

“I had just come home from my last day of school before winter break and my mom told me there were protests happening in this city called Atbara and that they were due to start in Khartoum at any time,” said Mohamed.

She recalls that by that time, political conditions were quite poor. The banks were out of money and new bills were being printed at extremely high rates. There were long lines of people waiting to get bread. The people of Sudan were ready for change.

“The protests gave everyone a bit of hope that things could change,” Mohamed said. “Everyone was participating. My initial thoughts were, ‘Finally,’ because it seemed like the country was just about to stop moving and working before the protests started. People had been more desperate than ever for food and money and living conditions were just really hard, but these protests seemed to bring everyone together.”

When the demonstrations finally began taking place in Khartoum, Mohamed and her friends were active participants. 

Around that same time, 7,116 miles away, Feda Elbadri ‘21 walked downstairs in her home in Iowa City to find news of protests breaking out in her parents’ hometown: Khartoum, Sudan. Elbadri remembers feeling shock, excitement, and hope, back in those early moments, when she first began seeing media coverage of the events in Sudan. 

“I feel excited that Sudanese people are now on the world stage,” Elbadri said. “Now, it’s become this constant in the background, but when it first happened…I was like, ‘Oh! I’ve never seen this before.’ Scholars and people who are Sudanese get to be on these talk shows and they get to be interviewed by these news sources. They get to go to all these countries and talk about what’s going on and their opinion. I haven’t seen that in my whole life.”

The New Normal

In 1993, when Omar al-Bashir dissolved the Revolutionary Command Council and became the president of Sudan, Elbadri’s aunt was a professor at the University of Khartoum. Elbadri’s mother was a journalist. Her father, also a journalist, practiced law.

“There were a lot of people speaking out against [al-Bashir], especially people like my father–journalists, politically minded individuals,” Elbadri said. “Political dissenters very often did this thing where they would write…opinion articles…but they wouldn’t use their personal names. [They would use] their group titles…so that was what my father was doing. He wasn’t writing under his real name, he was writing under his group. There’s an expected secrecy with that. When you’re writing against this regime that’s coming to power, that many people aren’t happy with…you’re not trying to expose anyone.”

At that point, it had been four years since al-Bashir had overthrown the previous Sudanese government. In those four years, he had begun what would become a pattern of violence, quelling of opposition, and military control.

“When [al-Bashir] rose to power after the coup, what he first did was silence the political dissent. Anyone who had an opinion, like political figures, journalists, he shut them down. He either killed them or put them in jail,” Elbadri said.

After someone informed the government about his writing and political dissent, Elbadri’s father was held in Kober prison, where many other political dissenters were incarcerated, and where Omar al-Bashir’s own forces would imprison him more than 25 years later. At the time, though, there was no end to al-Bashir’s regime in sight. His military government was in firm control at Kober and, Elbadri said, used that control to get information from those held there.

“They would torture [political prisoners] for the whereabouts of the local dissenters. My father was lucky,” she said. “He eventually escaped. He went to [my mother] and told her the situation; she was already pregnant with my sister and brother at the time.”

Elbadri’s father fled to Egypt, where he had to keep his identity a secret. He went back and forth between the two countries, hiding in apartment complexes.

“He was a wanted man, in hiding. He wasn’t eating enough. He was very sick; a lot of health problems emerged that he still has,” said Elbadri.

While Elbadri’s parents managed to leave the country, she stressed that there were many others who continued to live under al-Bashir’s regime and its effects for a longer period of time and who tried to fight back, even within her own family.

“People [in the United States] are shocked and they’re [asking], ‘He was in power for 30 years, and no one was doing anything?’ But when he rose to power people were doing things, and there were punishments for people,” Elbadri said. “My aunt…refused to rat out students who were writing against the government; she refused to fail them and get them kicked out of university and possibly thrown into jail. She lost her job for that.”

Eventually, though, she said, many Sudanese people gave up on fighting back and accepted the new normal, even when it seemed incredible to outsiders.

“While he’s been committing war crimes against the people of Sudan, Sudan has also held elections; sometimes he’s been the one candidate you’ve been able to choose. I’ve seen the Sudanese elections before on TV and it has ballot boxes and people are walking up and they’re putting in their ballots. The thing is, we all know it’s not a true election. At the end of the day, he’s going to be president,” Elbadri said.

Elbadri said that there were reasons for the seeming compliance of the Sudanese people with the regime, despite the theater of the one-party elections.

“People know what the military can do, what can happen. Their families were thrown in jail or their families were thrown out of jobs or their families were killed. People know what’s going to happen if you speak up against him,” Elbadri said. “All these years…pretending like everything’s normal, that was the normal. For so long…it was fear. When the protests started, it was like, ‘What changed?’ and that’s what I was wondering about the most. What was it that finally started everything?”

It’s Been a Long Time Coming

Although al-Bashir’s reign began three decades ago, Sudan’s story–and conflict in the region–did not start there. 

“Sudan is a collection of all kinds of different people who speak different languages [and have] different ethnic and religious backgrounds, who are basically stitched together in what is now ‘Sudan,’” University of Iowa Ambassador in Residence Ronald McMullen said.

McMullen has lived in over 112 countries during his lifetime, with most of his travels taking place during his 30 years as a United States diplomat in the Foreign Service. His diplomatic career first began when he interned for the U.S. State Department in Khartoum, Sudan. 

He added that the history of Sudan has been strongly shaped by the legacy of colonialism. Even though the British and Egyptians, who had possessed a great deal of authority in Sudan for centuries, ceded control to the Sudanese people in the 1950s, they laid the groundwork for what McMullen called “authoritarian extractive” governance in Sudan–groundwork that would carry through to al-Bashir’s regime.

“The government is there to extract resources from the country and to make sure that the people don’t get out of hand and that was the model that we’ve seen for Sudan for much of its history,” McMullen said.

When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, the region’s petroleum went with it, and Sudan’s economy began to spiral downward.

“The authoritarian government of [al-]Bashir…was increasingly authoritarian and harsh with the people in Sudan, because…with the independence of the south, Bashir’s ability to stay in power without the resources was greatly diminished,” McMullen said. “As he became harsher and harsher on the people and the economy began to deteriorate, last December, protests against food [price] increases started.”

While the protests initially started against a specific cause–increased prices–they soon broadened their scope.

“Eventually, these protests against the rising cost of food and other basic needs in Sudan changed to a demonstration–protest against the dictator himself–so it’s been kind of a transition from purely economic protest and demonstrations that started six months ago,” McMullen said. “President [el-Bashir] was ousted from power and the current problem is the military and the civilians trying to come to some kind of agreement about who should be in power and what should the transition forward be.”

For Mohamed, the protests in Khartoum changed her daily life, restricting where she could go and when. 

“Protests were held regularly so the armed forces regularly used tear gas and things like that to detain the protestors as well. This happened on a lot of main roads, so school would be cancelled a lot,” Mohamed said. “We couldn’t go out late because we never knew when protests would happen and we couldn’t go to certain places because armed forces were concentrated more on the areas where protests were more common.”

However, Mohamed said that after a while, a sit-in across Sudan brought a hopeful energy to communities across the country.

“There were millions of people there, so there was barely any violence or tear gas attacks. People really came together as a real union. School wasn’t cancelled as regularly. Most people’s movements were directed towards the sit-in. People bought tons and tons of food and water to feed the protestors. There was really cheap or free transport so people could get to the sit-in easier,” Mohamed said. “Everyone was in really high spirits and regardless of what happened afterwards the fact that the Sudanese people came together so cohesively was a victory of its own.”

Many Sudanese youth were involved in the demonstrations. Among the protesters were students, like Mohamed and her friends.

“Our Thursday nights weren’t movie nights or dinners anymore; they were chanting patriotic lines in the sit-in with the rest of the protestors. My Friday nights with the family involved going to the grocery store to get supplies for the people at the sit-in,” Mohamed said. “It was actually amazing.”

But, Mohamed said, everything changed on June 3, when the military massacred more than 100 protesters at the sit-in in Khartoum.

“When that happened, there was just fear everywhere. I think that’s what impacted me the most because I was genuinely scared to leave the house,” Mohamed said. “There were RSF soldiers with snipers positioned on top of buildings next to my home and more of them in trucks driving around the street in front of my car.”

Soha Elfadil ‘20 of West High, a Sudanese-American much like Elbadri, was motivated by the events in Sudan. Despite being born and raised in the United States, she very much considers herself Sudanese. 

“I say ‘us’ and ‘we’ because I feel like I’m in this with [Sudanese nationals] and it’s also affecting my family as well,” said Elfadil.

Elfadil has two uncles who were injured in early protests and an elderly grandfather who is desperately in need of medicine. Despite this, at the height of the violence against protesters, she was thinking about how things could have been worse. 

“My family is not the worst of what’s going on. A lot of people are getting killed. A lot of people are getting shot in the streets. Women and men are getting raped,” said Elfadil. 

Elfadil was one of many who took to social media to spread awareness of the conditions within Sudan. As strong governmental and military backlash against journalists made it extremely difficult to cover the developing political turmoil, the role of citizen journalism grew exponentially. 

Lujayn Hamad ‘18, a West High graduate who was in Sudan this past summer was one of shared what she could, including video footage of her running away from the sound of gunfire on Eid day.

Later, as conditions continued to spiral, al-Bashir’s regime would cut off Sudanese residents’ access to the internet, making it difficult to share news and communicate with loved ones on the outside. 

As her frustrations with what she perceived to be a lack of western media coverage on the crisis in Sudan grew, Elfadil was spurred into action within her own community. Her outlet? Social media. 

“I don’t have a big network,” Elfadil said. “I don’t have a lot of followers or anything but I’ve spread awareness.”

In addition to exercising her influence on social media and changing her profile pictures to a shade of blue similar to teal (part of a viral show of solidarity with Sudan), Elfadil also became involved in demonstrations of solidarity in her hometown. 

“My family that are in Sudan are out protesting, but it’s just kind of difficult, considering the fact that they’re risking their lives,” Elfadil said. “If they do go out to protest on a wrong day, then they could get shot. I don’t want them to get hurt, but for me, I can go out because I am safe. I’m in America and protesting here is a right. I feel like it’s okay for me to protest here on their behalf.”

Sudan’s Time is Coming

In July, after months of protests, the Sudanese military transitional government and civilian protesters finally reached an agreement. 

“I think Sudanese [people]–both in Sudan and Sudanese living in America–have to be proud of the people of Sudan [for]…standing up for a better future, for a more equitable, more just, democratic future,” McMullen said.

An evolution of the agreement made in early August set forth a series of steps to transition Sudan to democracy. The New York Times wrote that the head of Sudan’s governing military council said that this deal was “‘what the Sudanese people have been waiting for since the independence’ from Britain in 1956.”

The Times also reported that some provisions of the August resolution included a new 20-member transitional government.

Elbadri said that she wished that the United States would provide more support for revolutions and protests for democracy in countries like Sudan.

“While the rest of the world is looking to the future, the United States continues to look to the past and right now I feel like that’s doing more harm than good. The rest of the world is changing,” Elbadri said. “If the international community would like to help countries like Sudan, the international community needs to have a consistent, continuing discussion about international issues. A lot of these problems are happening right now.” 

Mohamed, now a student at the University of Toronto, has many hopes for the future of her country. 

“[The resolution] is definitely a step in the right direction and the fact that there are women involved in the cabinet as well really reflects the social change they hope to see to as well so I’m very, very excited,” Mohamed said. “Socially, I hope women are more politically represented, and I think we’re getting there.”

She said that she has learned a great deal from being involved in the protests.

“This whole situation made me realize how important it is to be aware of your country’s political situation. It’s so easy to be blinded by things that are said in the media or actions that are done in public, so we don’t see the groups that are marginalized or oppressed and we ignore the injustices happening because it doesn’t affect us, but it does. We need to learn to hold governments accountable, because when there’s no one watching and no one listening to what they’re doing because they aren’t directly affected, they can do whatever they want and you can be the next family or social demographic that’s affected by it,” Mohamed said. “Political changes and actions happen so subtly and slowly, we don’t even notice it so we have to stay mindful and pay attention. Before this whole situation happened, I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in Darfur or South Sudan because it wasn’t affecting me, but then I started seeing the stories I’ve been ignoring on the street in front of my house.”

Mohamed also expressed a hope that the conflict that has in the past been caused by Sudan’s diversity is eradicated in the face of this newfound national unity.

“I hope there is better treatment of the South Sudanese people now, because the problems we’ve started facing six months ago are issues they’ve been combatting for decades, before Bashir’s regime even came into power,” Mohamed said. “I really hope there’s no more tribal or regional segregation/conflict. These protests taught us the importance of coming together as a whole country. People drove in from all corners to participate and that was the only reason we could succeed, so I hope injustices committed in places like Darfur or Nuba Mountains are never allowed, overlooked, or promoted again. We’re one country and we proved that we shouldn’t forget what these protests taught us.”

Despite all the social strides that she anticipates for Sudan in the aftermath of the resolution, Mohamed believes that there is still work to be done.

“I hope people don’t forget the reason they started protesting in the first place. There were some very real social and economic factors that drove people to protest. This change can be very exciting but I hope people see efforts towards the change they want…before they settle for a cabinet just because it isn’t the military rule we’ve always recognized,” said Mohamed.

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