Weeks of rolling, youth-led demonstrations on the streets of Khartoum are said by some to be the Sudanese echo of the Arab Spring or Occupy. Or it could be Otpor, the non-violent movement that overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. It is also, more importantly, an echo of its own remarkable and largely forgotten past of nonviolent insurrection.
It is just past noon, the 29th of June; the moist southwesterlies occasionally provide some respite from the heat, but not today. Keeping to a plan designed not to provoke large contingents of military forces with smaller, localized protests in many neighborhoods of the capital, a group of fewer than 200 students is shouting in the cadences familiar to those attuned to street protest. Signs and banners disperse any doubt about their demands:
“We are fed up!” “No more!”
“We are here; we are not going away!”
“An end to violence! An end to brutal price rises!”
“An end to militarization! An end to dictatorship!”
Though the spark for the protests was provided by the government’s imposition of austerity measures, including the elimination of fuel subsidies and increases in taxes and the price of staple items, the message of the protestors has been distilled to a single demand: the end to the régime of Omar al-Bashir. A group of students has gathered in Hijra Square, not far from the headquarters of the opposition National Umma Party. The day before, protestors were dispersed with rubber bullets and tear gas; stragglers were beaten, scores were arrested, bringing the total of those arrested over the 2,000 mark. Family members of the detainees have joined the protesters on the street, preparing for a weekend escalation that will mark the 23rd anniversary of Bashir’s rise to power through a military coup.
Among those arrested are Widad Derwish and Rudwan Daoud, founders of the youth movement known as “Girifna” (meaning “Enough! We are fed up!”) as well as a number of those trained in non-violence and third-party nonviolent intervention. Widad and the others are part of an eight-year-long project co-sponsored by the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and a local Sudanese NGO.
The square is a vacant expanse of red sand, the students on one side and heavily armed riot police on the other. The police are ranged behind several cement-filled pylons, mostly unmoving, watching. The students are talking, restless, but calm. The banners still wave, while the pickets have been stuck into the hard soil forming a phalanx of silent opposition.
A song begins somewhere in the middle of the throng, picked up quickly by the others. Its words are an Arabic African echo of something like, “We shall overcome…” Among the lyrics are words about water, a precious commodity of profound symbolic value in the lands dominated by the Sahara: Life, well-being, wealth, hospitality.
Four students, three men and one woman, then begin to slowly roll one of the large, ubiquitous public water jugs that punctuate the streets of desert towns. They roll it across the square toward the row of cement pylons. The riot police, whose position in the square has put them out of reach, shuffle their feet, shift their guns, wary. Within a few metres of the pylons, the students come to a halt, setting the jug in place. Reaching into it, they pull out a couple of gourd cups, serving one another refreshing draughts. They then bow to the uniformed police, gesturing towards the jug, inviting them to assuage their thirst. The woman’s brilliant yellow hijab is caught in the early afternoon breeze as the four return to join the students, who have gone silent.
My role in war zones is to train people in nonviolent direct action, conflict transformation and the tricky work of third-party nonviolent intervention—and sometimes to do it, alongside them. The methods are popular, experiential, elicitive. We are training for disobedience, weaponless waging of peace. And, in the playing out of it, I am rarely, if ever, among those who pay a price.
Over the course of a month, participants come to a deep knowledge of the other, dismantling multiple falsely promoted “causes” of their daily violence, in particular, religion and tribe. The economic roots of violence are brought to the surface as participants come to recognize themselves as both part of a global story of economic domination and subjugation, and as agents of change.
A safe space is created for them to interrogate the landscape of a warrior culture and a violence-stained history, to celebrate historical out-breakings of nonviolent resistance, leaving unexamined no aspect of civics, history, gender, culture, religion, politics or economics, asking: What drives violence? What makes for peace? At what point and by what means do I resist, withdraw my consent, or break the rules?
We spend a lot of time talking about Paulo Freire, a Brazilian priest whose work fundamentally altered notions of education and power. He noticed, in his work with poor people, their reluctance to learn, to probe, to ask questions. He diagnosed oppression as the heart of this reluctance and began to map out the mechanisms of oppressive power that creates a population acquiescent in its own oppression. He began to map out the contours of oppression: What forms does it take? By what mechanisms does it function? Poverty, illiteracy, repression, terror, discrimination, violence, cultural rules.
Freire then looked for those means and methods of normalization that convert the oppressive into the normal: those ways by which we become inured to instruments of our own oppression—walls that we no longer see, rules that we no longer challenge, ideals that we have come to regard as reserved for others, violences so pervasive, sounds so constant, scars upon scars—they blend into the landscape of domination, made invisible, no worse than bad wallpaper, making no cry, no challenge from the bought and sold; only resignation, compliance. Too much work is required to re-imagine ourselves as maîtres chez nous —when “facts on the ground,” “new normals” obliterate the past, suppress dissent, and kill the vision of the possible.
Over the weeks together, having worked through Freire’s cyclical stages into “problematization” and “conscientization” to the “breakout” that is “action for change”—we begin to walk out our fears. Men walk out their fear of loss and chaos as they prepare to go home to put into practice their experientially changed understanding of women: What will people think? Women walk out their fear of taking their place in the commons: What will be the price? Nuer and Murle, Acholi and Dinka, Misseriya and Rizeigat walk out their fear of dissenting from history’s mandate for revenge. Today, we will take our fear for a walk in the streets of Ombdurman.
We are working through the design of an action meant to protest police brutality and an impenetrable wall of impunity. Over our days together, we have listened to one another’s stories: Abdul a Abdulrahman’s imprisonment and torture, Fathiya’s exile, Abdul’s son’s killing, Rhaman Adam a Adam Ishaq’s wife’s rape and murder by the Janjawiid. We have come up with what we want to say and how we want to say it. The closer we get to our imagined destination, the quieter the room becomes. People are gathered in little knots painting slogans on cardboard nailed to roof slats. A group of women are concentrating their efforts on a banner, modest in size, not so modest in sentiment. If this were Latin America, it would say, ¡Basta ya! But it’s Arabic, flowing like streams of water across the white canvas: قبالة!كفاية We’ve had enough!
Gradually, the signs and banner are completed and we begin to choreograph the march; we practise some refrains and mantras. Though the route past the police station is short and the fragile safety of the compound not far, it will be provocative, to say the least.
Beneath all of the activity, there is an unspoken question: Are we actually going to do this? Or is this just another role play? The pulse of fear in the room thrums, yet it is contained within a web of trust and mutual confidence; the participation of the Sudanese translator/ co-trainers in the preparations sends powerful signals to both trainers and trainees. We have spent many days together, imagining and then practicing risky things; the distance and difference that marked them on their arrival is more opaque now as they move as one, working out what they want to say, how they want to say it, in what colors on what materials. The rules that divide women from men, Christians from Muslims, Southerners from Northerners, the narratives of strangers, have dissolved into that of friends and companions in a common cause.
The marchers begin to form in rows of three, moving out into the red, sandy grounds of the compound. As they approach the gate to the street, the trainers relieve them of their banners and signs, some emitting audible groans of relief. The twenty women and men, Christians and Muslims, mostly young, walk through the gate and out into the busy thoroughfare. People turn and stare as they walk, carrying high their unseen signs of protest, stretching out a virtual banner of dissent, walking to the rhythm of provocative, if unspoken, chants. The careful ranks of threes slip and adjust to the market-day crowds, weaving their way along the planned route.
On the approach to the police detachment, there is a stiffening in limbs and faces as their courage falters ever so slightly. But the march continues; they turn to acknowledge the police, whose attention is caught by the suspicious-looking parade. Some in uniforms of blue, some khaki, some lolling in the mid-day heat, they shift their machine guns like peacocks with their feathers. The marchers, signs and banner pass, their wordless chorus parting the market-day throngs.
As the marchers return to the compound, some stumble to the safety of the ground; some gather in pairs and groups to embrace, heads on shoulders. The coils of fear on their faces ebb, replaced by exhilaration.
“I didn“t know I could do that!” says one.
“I thought I was going to throw up!” says another.
“It was like living a nightmare—and surviving!”
“We did it!”
The group gathers to talk, all at once, the translators struggling to keep up—about how they are feeling, retracing their steps in their walk of fear, how the fear shifted and changed and moved within them as they walked; its eventual defeat.
“So what does it mean? So what?”
“I took my fear for a walk—and I lived! It changes everything. I will never forget this. It will be with me, this story, right here”—gesturing with her fist under her breast—“something to hold onto as I do this for real.”
It’s the sixth of July. Tensions are high with the announcement two days ago that the mainstream opposition parties, led by the Umma, have joined ranks in a nonviolent campaign to overthrow the Bashir government. In recent months, since uprisings in neighboring Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, the President and his inner circle have repeatedly bragged that the movement will not touch Sudan: Régime-change here is as likely as people suddenly being able to lick their elbows. Impossible! The students have cheekily turned the president’s boast into a nonviolent piece of street theatre: “Yes we can! Just watch us!” What does elbow-licking look like? This is what elbow-licking looks like!
But there is a price to pay. Many have been arrested following severe batterings by security forces, the women sent to the women’s prison in Ombdurman, with the men dispersed, some of them to “ghost houses,” prisons known for torture and disappearance located in unmarked buildings inaccessible to families in search of loved ones. Among them are Widad and Rudwan, and a dozen other “graduates,” part of an exponential growth in trained-trainers training more trainers. More than 27,000 people in almost 70 tribes having been drawn into this school of peace-making and dissent from the way things are. They are at the forefront of nonviolent change, offering hope for a country at war with itself for much of the last 60 years.
And what do we have to say about all of this? What is the response of the community of nations? Will Sudan take its place on the list of countries slated for régime change from without, to become yet one more vortex of violence, armed rebel factions, civilian bloodshed and political mayhem? Or will we find ways to honor and strengthen the spirit of nonviolence that animates those in the street who are risking their lives for a new Sudan?
At the time of writing, most of the young people have now been released; some have fled the country—with plans to return. People from around the world have responded, writing letters, mounting their own protests in solidarity, calling on the international community to implement sanctions that target repressive leadership and élites, circumscribing their movements and their capacity to fund repression, that contain, isolate and divest, while mitigating the impact on civilians. Violence only begets more violence; violent solutions are the resort of those without imagination and of those intent on replacing one yoke for another.
Though we like to think we care about everyone equally, that seems to be impossible. I have been drawn into the narrative of the last two months because I know so many of those on the streets, in prison or in exile. I trained them, urged them into trouble-making. Mixed emotions have driven my own activism from afar: a lot of pride, moments of regret. And then I get a note on Facebook, the message defying the medium: “Lee, I don’t want to be raped; I don’t want to be imprisoned, I don’t want to be tortured. I am not ready to die. Please help me.”
I write back: “I am doing everything I can from here—but I feel so powerless!” Ping! The response comes: “You have already done so much. You have given us the tools of nonviolence.”
Yes; that is so. But it is they who have responded, disproportionately, contrary to all the laws of probability, nurturing a pregnancy of hope into birth.
Lee McKenna is a nonviolence trainer based in Toronto.