A Nostalgic Nightmare, A Democratic Dream on Hold
As I begin to contemplate the beginning of this story, I realize that there isn’t one, or maybe not one I can exactly define. I envision a string of hope that is formulated out of the abyss, constantly cut off and weaved again like an endless stream of stubborn willpower.
Since its independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, Sudan has experienced great tragedy, maintained by citizens hoping for a future unsoiled by failed democratic dreams.
The country has faced its greatest issue and source of instability from the ongoing political problems with what was the southern part of Sudan. The so-called "southern problem" was one that was born within the former nation of Sudan. With it came a blatant, incessant, and inherent separation between two peoples that no amount of peace treaties or progressive political leaders could fuse together. However, to say that the conflict between the two regions of Sudan was merely due to cultural and religious differences would criminally understate the abuse and racism that the predominantly Arabic-speaking Muslim north inflicted on their southern neighbors. For decades, leaders of the north strove to ascend to a position of superiority over the south, violating all peaceful efforts to convene two political, religious, cultural and regional bodies together and only causing further damage to the country’s well-being.
In 1989, a bloodless coup in Sudan ousted the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, placing Omar al-Bashir, a charming young leader with promises to resolve the "southern problem," in a place of power that he would hold on to with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
On a hot southern summer day, I ask Douha Abbasher, a 25-year-old Sudanese American graduate research associate at Texas Woman’s University, to take an obstacle-ridden walk with me through the tumultuous history of Sudan.
She wears her voice timidly, as if afraid of the next word to come. I try to comfort her as I watch the heaviness of this story begin to loom over her being, but I get the sense that words for her weigh an amount she didn’t want to hold. I pull back into a shell as she goes into hers and I think of all those nights reading about the cosmos and how every thought and word creates a ripple through space and time. I think about the melancholic melody that I ask of her to sing, and I too begin to fear the next word to come out of her mouth.
"Those thirty years of military, Islamist rule were full of corruption and repression of human rights,” said Abbasher. “There were a lot of devastating ethnic conflicts, and the leader’s oppression taught and enabled intolerance, emphasizing division within ethnic groups.”
al-Bashir’s presidency was one defined by bloodthirst, greed, and intolerance towards the south. His regime, one that embodies authoritarian Arab nationalism and Islamist activism, began efforts of the Islamization of Sudan in the early 90s and were successful in enacting Sharia in 1991, despite the majority of the south being a mixture of Christians, atheists or devotees of indigenous religions. The failure to embrace religious and the ethnic diversity within Sudan would lead to a civil war in the early 2000s, leading to South Sudan becoming a country of its own.
Economic and political discontent built up during al-Bashir’s presidency like a ticking bomb. Tensions finally exploded in December of 2018 when rising food prices and al-Bashir’s announcement of an unconstitutional third term presidency led to mass protests across the nation.
The protests urging for the restoration of a democratic government resulted in the ousting of al-Bashir in 2019, after nearly three decades of economic and political degeneration.
The period after what had been a great feat brought upon disappointing events for the entire nation. In August of 2019, a civilian-military transitional government formed. However, not long after in 2021, the military, led by General Abdel Fattah, seized control of the country, resulting in increased violence against civilians spreading throughout the country, especially in the historically marginalized area of Darfur.
“Whenever the military coup happened, it felt like a collective gut punch to people inside and outside of Sudan,” Abbasher says. “All I could think about were the martyrs who lost their lives in the name of revolution and change. One of them being my cousin, Mohamed Mattar, who left us with the words ‘It’d be a shame if we let the blood of a martyr go to waste.’”
Twenty-six year old Mohamed Hashim Mattar passed away from gunshot wounds as he attempted to shield two women during what began as a peaceful protest on the last day of Ramadan. This protest soon turned into a deadly nightmare in June of 2019. Thousands of people took to the streets and social media following his death, starting the blue wave known as Blue for Sudan in honor of Mattar’s favorite color.
A thousand blue skies away, it’s May 2023 in New York City. My eyes are split between the daily horrific news coming out of Sudan, and the college finals that are beginning to lose importance in my mind as I come across hundreds of "Keep Eyes on Sudan" hashtags. Deep within the hours of doom scrolling across multiple apps and sites I see a familiar face on the news. Dressed in a black leather jacket and a deep mauve hijab, Souad Hassan, a 21 year old Sudanese American student at New York University speaks into a bulky squared microphone, “we’re trying to tell them to not go out, it’s very very dangerous.” I wonder who they are, and this is where I leave my headspace for the night.
May begins to eclipse through a sour hour of final research papers and exams. A few days go by as I try to figure out how to fit an interview with Souad Hassan into my week. Her doe eyed spirit and dolly voice find their way into a weekend of mine. As I let out a stream of questions, I find that she isn’t able to catch a wave. I couldn’t blame her, for whichever one she chooses would rattle the both of us. I try to direct her so that we might find our way to a cohesive story, but as we go on, I let sense see itself out of the conversation as it has left the topic of this story decades before.
“[The military] used the efforts of the people who protested and actually put their life on the line to gain independence and freedom for their own efforts,” Souad Hassan, a 21-year-old Sudanese American student at New York University says. “They essentially tried to redo everything that Omar al-Bashir did, but in a masked way.”
In an attempt to justify their overthrow of the transitional government, the military coup claimed that they had come to the decision after increased levels of infighting and instability within the civilian sector.
For the many families that have lost loved ones during the 2019 revolution, the 2021 military coup was especially agonizing.
After the ousting of al-Bashir, Sudan found itself in such a deep economic crisis that they began applying for debt relief from the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Hope was beginning to arise for the nation as international parties began pledging economic assistance. However, all efforts failed after international creditors suspended the anticipated debt relief following the October 2021 military coup.
“Ever since they took power, no progress has been made,” said Hassan. “There were promises of a better education system, instead schools are shutting down and the youth of Sudan are left to fend for themselves.”
For decades under al-Basheer, Sudan’s education system had been built upon Islamist ideologies, lacking a diverse curriculum. All efforts to reform education initiated by the transitional government thus far have faced resistance from conservative Islamists, causing them to fail.
Omar al-Garrai, the former director of Sudan’s National Centre for Curriculum and Educational Research was put in charge of secularizing the country’s education system and widening the scope of school curriculums to cover various cultures, perspectives and schools of thought. With immediate backlash from conservative Muslims and hundreds of death threats later, Garrai was forced to resign, feeling a stinging lack of support from the nation and his government.
“I remember hearing about the new progressive minister of education being forced to resign and it felt like a major step backwards.” Abbasher said. “When he was in office, I felt hope.”
Garrai’s resignation left Sudan’s education system in a state of limbo, with no minister of education or consensus on school curriculums. All efforts towards lifting bans off of curriculums that don’t align with religious ideologies have been put on pause or tossed aside.
“I used to teach at an elementary school in Texas for a couple of years so I understand the magnitude of curriculum censorship and banned books in the classroom.” Abbasher said. “The blurred lines between religion and state have effects that are felt in homes and across the nation.”
Leading up to the current crisis, Sudan had been on a downward spiral economically and socially, one that was reminiscent of the nation’s status during al-Bashir’s rule. Other than the disruption to the international debt relief pledge that was caused by the military coup, infighting and tensions began igniting between the main military led by Abdel Fattah and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti, that was used by the al-Bashir regime to defuse rebellions in Darfur.
The two leaders, Hemedti and Fattah, were previously allies who put their heads together to initiate the military coup of 2021. However, as plans to integrate the paramilitary into the main military force arose, so did disagreement of which party would assume the highest level of the hierarchy, leading to the current ongoing fight for dominance.
Since the fighting began in April, hundreds of people have been killed, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced. According to the U.N., millions of people cannot access essential services, and medical stockpiles are running dangerously low. Reports also show that the prices of staple goods have significantly risen, heightening the risk of food insecurity.
“I know that a lot of people in Sudan can’t afford basic necessities due to the skyrocketing prices,” Abbasher said. “The majority of hospitals have been occupied and raided by the rapid support forces and doctors have been intentionally targeted and murdered.”
The intensity of fighting throughout the nation and within the previously afflicted region of Darfur has damaged hospital structures and equipment. It was previously reported that the only pediatric hospital in North Darfur has been looted and damaged, forcing them to shut down all operations.
“At this time it feels like nobody is safe,” Abbasher shared. “My family has been displaced, they have left their homes and gone back to our homes in the villages and Port Sudan which has now become the functioning capital instead of Khartoum.”
Hospitals, homes, and civilian infrastructures throughout Khartoum are being destroyed or damaged, some of which housed basic needs such as food, water and electricity. Many residents of the capitol have been forced to flee to surrounding cities in Sudan or to Egypt, while others have not had the chance or privilege to do so.
“Even to catch a bus, to abandon the homes that your family has built for generations is very painful and not a possibility if you’re not economically able to do that,” Abbasher said. “To flee is a luxury.”
The passage north to Egypt is exceedingly expensive, and only available to people with the means to afford spending hundreds of dollars on the trip. Sadly, the expenses don’t end once the border is crossed. According to travelers, tickets from their arrival destination to their family homes, hotels or other locations have inflated nine times the price they originally cost.
“Neighboring countries like Egypt and Ethiopia have taken in people, but we can’t even call them refugees because they’re not getting emergency aid,” Abbasher said.
According to reporters, Egypt is not approaching the issue as a refugee crisis, with heavy restrictions of border access, the lack of camp set ups, and support forces. As with previous crises, Sudanese civilians familiarize themselves with the bitter taste of abandonment in their most vulnerable state.
Across the globe where the Sudanese diaspora spreads thin, voices of ‘KeepEyesOnSudan’ come together and form a self-nurturing internet community in which thousands of updates, vital information, requests for aid, fundraisers, political organization efforts, and sources for safe transportation are found. For months now, the collaborative and collective efforts of everyday people fall under the web of a single hashtag, willfully striding its way through Twitter.
“For years now the resistance committees have been in place as the unofficial spokespeople for civilians,” said Abbasher. “I just think about how our people are being denied civilian rule when we’ve been doing it unofficially for years now.”
Since their independence, the people of Sudan have been fighting for decades to keep a sense of hope alive, along with their dreams of a democratic nation. The current crisis is one that is reminiscent of the past historical events in Sudan. The perpetual cycle of corruption and revolution, of hope and heart wrenching disappointment continues to swirl on today, putting the nation through a nostalgic nightmare.
“I like to believe that resilience and revolution runs in our blood. I do have hope for a new and brighter Sudan, but to be honest, I think a lot of us are just feeling unsure if we will live to witness that in fruition,” said Abbasher. “I hope that our country will rise from the ashes with more than just our people’s support, but if it has to just be us, I believe that we can do it ourselves.”
To support Sudan and all people that have been displaced, check out Keep Eyes on Sudan, a coalition of verified grassroots organizations across the globe providing aid and support to Sudan.
Edited by: Ava Emilione
Find Yumna (she/her) on Instagram at @manaatees
Find Ava (they/them) on Instagram at @ordinaryavaa
Find Douha (she/her) on Instagram at @douhahaha
Find Souad (she/her) on Instagram at @souadd_hh