Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sudan: Murder & Heartache and a forgotten hashtag

I wrote this in April 2014, after the murder of Ali Abaker Musa but it was never published. The recent death of Sumaya Bushra and other victims of the authorities brought this to mind - and I inserted some updates in asterisked parenthesis. The sadness is still relevant even if the news is old. His last Facebook post is dated a year ago tomorrow. May God have mercy on his soul.

#DarfurIsBurning. The ominous hashtag began to appear in my twitter feed in March 2014. English and Arabic posts that grew increasingly alarming.
Observers believe that the source of the conflict comes down to a dispute over resource allocation, in gold rich Darfur. Reports of skirmishes between government forces and pro-government militias surfaced in 2013 and the ongoing conflict is considered an extension of last year’s violence, with no clear end in sight (*The conflict is still raging in 2015 - with still no end in sight).
According to Human Rights Watch and Darfur observers, the “Rapid Support Forces”, the new and improved “Janjaweed” government-backed militia had renewed attacks with warring factions resulting in burnt villages and destruction of infrastructure. This tactic insures that residents will have nothing to return to, leading to the displacement of over 270,000 people since the beginning of 2014 (source OCHA Sudan). Many of them have taken shelter outside the UN Camp in Saraf Omra.

Every day, I was bombarded with news and images of the forgotten conflict. With every word I read and photograph I saw, my heartache would grow. 

During this time our household battled various infections, including measles and mumps – and the sadness around me grew. Every visit to the hospital was a reminder of no healthcare for hundreds of thousands of my countrymen. Every meal on the table reminded me of outstretched hands crowding for “aid”. “Aid” and “relief” are words that imply something supplemental. The people of Darfur had fled with what they could carry. They were not lined up for “relief”; they were lined up for sustenance that could see them through another day.

One photograph composed exclusively of women moved me deeply. The look in their eyes spoke to me of a silent desperation. I doubted these women would even partake of what they were to receive; they would probably rush with their pickings to feed their families. I chided myself that I could not independently verify the date or location of the picture but this image is seared into my brain.

Western media generally refers to Darfur in the past tense. The premise that if George Clooney wasn’t talking about it, it wasn’t really happening. Alas, similar to the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner, the death and destruction that the world heard of in 2003 continues, and the numbers of displaced increases .
The resignation of UNAMID spokesperson, Aicha El Basri, in protest of the UN silence on Darfur confirmed what activists have been saying for years. The UN has failed the people of Darfur.

Dr. Asaad Ali Hassan, political activist, Facebook page portraying Bashir destroying Darfur after tearing South Sudan away.

On March 11th, 2014, University of Khartoum students organized a seminar to raise awareness of the situation of Darfur. In an all too familiar scenario repeated when political rhetoric did not meet the approval of the powers that be, University gates were opened to receive riot police and armed pro-government militia. Ali Abaker Musa, a Third Year Economics student was fatally shot in the process.

Photo from Ali Abakar Facebook page

His death sent out shockwaves, the epicenter his friends and family, outwards towards his fellow colleagues, on to the heart of every parent that sends a child to university not knowing if they will come back alive.

His death reaffirmed the harsh reality that human life was expendable and voices of dissent would be silenced. Last September, we saw images of school students lying in their own blood, reportedly shot dead by pro-government forces, in their school uniforms. Less than a year later, here we are again.

I read of his death late at night and was filled with despair. I grieved as I looked at the graphic images Sudanese social media do not shy away from posting.
On the morning of March 12th 2014, I found my friend crying in the morning. I did not have to ask why. It was clear that we had to go to Ali’s funeral procession. We were carrying too much pain to put on a brave face and carry on living. We wanted to be amongst people who could share the burden so we headed to the Al Sahafa Cemetery.

A plainclothesman approached us as we waited for the funeral procession to arrive. I waved him away as if I had mistaken him for a vendor or beggar. He understood the ruse, as any Sudanese citizen can smell a pro-government henchman a mile away, but he chose to walk away and observe us silently.

We learned that the burial was delayed, as authorities had cordoned off the morgue and reportedly instructed the victim’s family to move the burial site to El Sahafa Cemetery. A location not easy to reach but quite easy for them to monitor.

Another cause of delay was a confrontation between his family and friends and the authorities. The former insisting that Ali would not be hastily sent off in an ambulance, as per official instruction, without the masses that had gathered to accompany him to his final resting place. 

When the envoy carrying Ali Abakar’s body arrived, the funeral procession was heartwarming as tears flowed as freely as prayers mixed with defiant chants (“The death of a student is the death of a nation!” “Freedom, peace and justice; Revolution is the people’s choice!”).

Fellow students spoke lovingly of their fallen comrade, assuring the crowds that Ali knew that he might die so that his people should live. They told us of his dreams of a peaceful and prosperous, united Sudan – that would never be achieved without sacrifice.

In an unprecedented gesture, University professors had come to the funeral, in a clear statement that this time, they would not stand idly by as their students were killed.

Ali Abaker Musa was in his early twenties and had his whole life ahead of him. His death was not the first political discussion gone deadly. This time, what is different is that University of Khartoum students and staff organized protests demanding an investigation into his death and bringing the perpetrator to justice. They also called for a campus free of weapons and armed militia. These demonstrations and demand gave us hope, however unlikely, that the death of Ali Abaker will be the last (*It wasn't).

We share pain in suffering – but we also draw strength from each other. No one is na├»ve enough to believe that the on again off again protests in Sudan will bring about radical change in government policy. This is glaringly obvious as Government rhetoric of political freedoms seems to be synchronized with arbitrary arrests. However, as one by one, people rise to demand their rights, one by one the bricks of the citadel will fall and the dream for a better Sudan, with freedom, peace and justice will become a reality.

On April 21st, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Khartoum decreed that the University’s “Jihadi Units” be disbanded. One small step on the road to a better Sudan and perhaps, one life – or more – saved. (*This never happened and they still exist, in one form or another, in all public universities to this day. Feb. 2015)

Meet the pro-government student militias. They call themselves "Jihadi Units" although they only attack fellow students and anyone that gets in their way. No jihad about it.

This photo from Dr. Ismat Mahmoud Ahmed Facebook page – portrays armed students – not necessarily from these latest incidents – but representative of the norm.

Dr. Asaad Ali Hassan Facebook page captioning this photograph as portraying Pro-Government students.