It’s Been a Long Time Coming

October 8, 2019

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.”

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