'This is the price of freedom': Behind the deadly scenes of Sudan's protest movement

6 min read
21 January, 2022

Sudan entered the new year shrouded in a cloak of chaos after a tumultuous end to 2021. The country's volatile state has led to a heightened sense of unpredictability as both a political and economic crisis tower over civilians. 

The disarray appears far from over following former Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok's resignation from his post, after 2022 made its entrance, on 2 January. Hamdok’s move left the military in power just over two months after their coup and a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, where security forces killed at least 63 civilians and injured hundreds more.

Despite Hamdok’s resignation – which he announced while explaining he had tried his “best to stop the country from sliding towards disaster” – the fighting spirit of the Sudanese has persisted, as they demand the cessation of military rule and the return of civilian governance in demonstrations across the country.

The civilians' burning fire within, craving change and fostering hope, has been nurtured and channelled through local associations and committees calling for and organising demonstrations, including the Sudanese Professionals Association and the Local Sudanese Resistance Committees.

"We think about the risks and we know the size of the sacrifices and the violence of the police, and the militias and their willingness to kill, but this is the price of the freedom and civility that we demand"

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) is an umbrella of independent professional unions including doctors, lawyers and teachers. Local resistant committees (LCRs) – the other spearheads, known by locals as the real change-makers across the country - exist in every city across Sudan, working in coordination with each other as a major network. Both groups were instrumental in the months-long protests that helped oust former dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

“There are coordination groups that bring together district committees and field committees and they set the days and paths for the processions,” Naglaa Sayed Ahmad, the Secretary-General of the Sudanese resistant committees told The New Arab. Despite stating that the organisation of protests over the past months has been “very successful”, Sayed Ahmad also says it was “full of challenges”.

“We think about the risks and we know the size of the sacrifices and the violence of the police, and the militias… and their willingness to kill, but this is the price of the freedom and civility that we demand,” Sayed Ahmad said.

Sudan protests
Sudanese anti-coup protesters that have taken to the streets in ongoing protests against October's widely condemned military takeover demonstrate in the capital Khartoum on 17 November 2021. [Getty]

When asked about her confidence in protests as an effective method for political change, the secretary-general said demonstrations are tried and tested solutions, with confidence the current movement towards democracy will be successful too; “we had successful experiences [of protests] that brought down the rule of Abboud, Nimeiry and Bashir, and now we will bring down Burhan”.

The associations and resistant groups aren’t the only key players in Sudan’s fight for democracy. Medics across the country have taken on a vital role in protests since the 25 October military coup, putting their lives on the line with money, time and soul to protect the civilians and wounded protesters for free.

The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors (CCSD), a professional medical body covering doctors in the country, is “part of the national movement for freedom, justice, peace and democracy” as they work in collaboration with community bodies to provide medical care to demonstrators.

“Our role is to organise mobile clinics, provide sufficient medical staff and emergency kits at nearby hospitals and provide continuously updated data [on casualties and injuries],” Dr Bashair Abdelrahman, a representative from the committee, told The New Arab

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The committee has witnessed and responded to gross violations committed by Sudanese security forces, with a particular aim to ensure the “safety and integrity of demonstrators". Dr Abdelrahman also says hundreds of peaceful demonstrators have been wounded by security forces’ “live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades”.

She also says many have been killed by direct gunshots to the head and neck, and have been severely beaten by security forces’ batons, causing some to die from brain haemorrhages. In addition, the forces raided hospitals and intimidated and arrested wounded patients and staff on duty, "depriving demonstrators of their right to receive treatment", according to Abdelrahman.

However, the CCSD have struggled with a lack of medical personnel in the country and have made public calls asking medics across Sudan to join the team in their operations. The body emphasised that they stand for human rights and that “it is our obligation to maintain and uphold human rights and safeguard health at all times”.

Public trust is a key component to the success of a demonstration, which LCRs appear rich in particularly due to their grassroots and youthful nature. “I personally fully trust them because they’re the youth and the majority of them want what’s best for the country,” Tasneem, a Sudanese medical student, told The New Arab as she explained that she doesn’t trust many other bodies as usually “everyone wants their own benefit and to be the ones in power”.

"Despite looming fears for the future of Sudan, the Sudanese spirit remains characterised by unity and hope as the country's people fight for their freedom and for the lives lost during the fight so far"

Unlike Tasneem, Amr – a Sudanese PhD student currently residing in the UK – trusts both the SPA and LRC’s, highlighting the committees “are the people that do represent the true voice of the street”.

“The number one thing is, we don’t want militants anymore… at the moment we just need people… with no political affiliations… that represent the people to lead the country to a level of stability and a level where we’re then able to conduct a good fair election,” Amr told The New Arab.

Both Tasneem and Amr described a "stressful" and "anxiety-inducing" past few months - respectively - however, they also both explained they were not surprised with the military’s violations during the protests. “I was upset but not surprised when I heard about [the violations] because in my opinion, once a killer always a killer”, Tasneem told The New Arab, referencing the massacre committed by the Sudanese forces in 2019.

Despite the uncertainty and instability surrounding politics in the region, Middle East Institute Scholar Guled Ahmed doesn’t think that protesters will be easily shaken and predicts that their fight will continue into the foreseeable future.

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“Protesters will continue [protesting] at least until mid 2022, until the government addresses the economic situation and political crisis... [however], if the military crackdown of the protesters and the economic crisis continues... it will be hard to see any progress," Guled told The New Arab. The scholar suggested a political solution may only be reached if the region deteriorates enough to warrant international intervention.

Despite looming fears for the future of Sudan, the Sudanese spirit remains characterised by unity and hope as the country's people fight for their freedom and for the lives lost during the fight so far.

As protests continue to fill the streets with a population full of unfulfilled democratic aspirations, only time will tell whether 2022 will have a clearer path for the country's transition to democracy. 

Aisha Aldris is a journalist and podcast host, accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council. She specialises in social and humanitarian issues, alongside cultural identity and the arts. Follow her on Twitter: @aishaaldris