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'They came for blood': A month of Sudan protests in face of crackdown

Anger over living costs has morphed into a month-long movement calling for the fall of Sudan's government
Scarcely a day has passed without spontaneous demonstrations around the country (Reuters)

Its facade charred by a fire still burning, the torched remains of Sudan's ruling party's headquarters, in a city known for its rebellious streak, was the image that prompted almost daily anti-government protests that have now lasted a month.

Bread shortages that forced long queues for the daily supply, and then a tripling in its cost, fuelled anger against a struggling economy and President Omar al-Bashir’s austerity measures, but what has followed since has been direct opposition to his rule.

"Fall, fall, that is all" is the slogan that has spread since the tension first bubbled over in the northeastern city of Atbara on 19 December, then manifested in all but three of the country's 18 states, including the capital, Khartoum.

Scarcely a day has passed without spontaneous demonstrations around the country, while Sudan's main independent unions have organised regular strikes and marches on the presidential palace and parliament to demand Bashir's resignation. Each time, they have been met with tear gas and live fire that has killed at least 40 people, according to doctors.

Those protests accelerated on Friday, following a day when three protesters, including a child, died after being shot by security forces.

Thousands gathered through the night for a sit-in outside the Royal Care Hospital in Khartoum's Burri neighbourhood, where security forces had allegedly blocked ambulances carrying the injured for treatment.

Protesters chanting "revolution" at a sit-in outside the Royal Care hospital

"Everyone was saying they didn't come to crack down on the protests, they came to kill, they came for blood," Hamid Khalfallah, who has been documenting the protests, told Middle East Eye.

"Burri is a very resilient neighbourhood, and the people of Burri have been taking part in protests for the past few weeks, and the security forces and the government were having difficulties in controlling the neighbourhood."

He said the sit-in outside Royal Care Hospital lasted until 4am, when the security forces returned and dispersed the crowd with "excessive use of tear gas" and by intimidating the protesters.

Later, those forces fired on the around 5,000 mourners who had gathered outside the home of Moawiya Othman, a 60-year-old man who died on Friday morning after being shot while sheltering protesters in his home, according to the Sudanese Doctors' Committee.

A fiery beginning

From early December, there had been reports from around Sudan of spontaneous protests, often led by school students, as Sudanese became increasingly frustrated by the long waits for bread supplies in a country that has struggled with a draining economic crisis and another round of austerity measures.

Sudanese security forces were deployed around the country to stifle any nascent protest movement, but the mood shifted not long after the government announced prices increases on bread and fuel.

On 19 December, after a day of clashes with security forces, protesters torched the local offices of Bashir's National Congress Party in Atbara, a city that had once been the heart of Sudanese trade unionism because of its location at the centre of the country's railway network, until it was crushed in the 1980s during the military rule of Gafaar Nimeiri.

State of emergencies did not stop the protests quickly spreading to other towns in northern Sudan, and eventually, after a call for unified protests by the Sudanese Professionals Association union, to Khartoum.

The government immediately promised not to cut bread subsidies, but the protests have continued, including during tours of the country by Bashir.

Some of those trips and speeches have had to be cancelled, including from the central Al-Gezira state on 25 December, where videos showed locals jeering and taunting his motorcade as it sped out of Rufa'a city.

Translation: scared Omar al-Bashir runs

Bashir's government has sought to place the blame for the unrest on rebels from Darfur, where he faces genocide charges for the killing of 300,000 people, by arresting Darfuri students around the country.

The response from protesters elsewhere in Sudan was to reject those accusations, with chants calling Bashir a racist and declaring: "We are all Darfur."

By last week, the protests had spread to Darfur itself for the first time, where thousands, including those living in camps for the internally displaced, demanded an end to the "racist regime" despite a very heavy presence of pro-government militias who swiftly cracked down on the rallies.

"The people of Darfur have had bad experiences with protesting or making any public opposition to the government, as Darfur is now run by the army intelligence units and RSF [Rapid Security Forces]," Sudanese security analyst Mohamed Badawi told Middle East Eye.

"The mobilisation of government militias brings back bad memories of the mass killings that happened during the September 2013 protests," he said, referring to a wave of rallies that were organised against a government decision to end fuel and other subsidies at the time.

'Unbridled killing spree'

Human rights groups have repeatedly accused Sudan's security forces of using excessive force on protesters with live fire, beatings, arrests and by interrupting medical teams.

"It is an outrage that Sudanese security forces continue to use lethal force on protestors and key service providers like doctors, killing people in an unbridled spree that is even affecting children," Amnesty International's regional deputy director said on Thursday.

Amnesty has highlighted repeated instances of security forces using tear gas inside hospitals and arresting and interrogating medical staff.

'It's more than bread': Why are protests in Sudan happening?
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They have also reportedly raided homes around protest sites, looking for people who have sheltered fleeing protesters.

"They were in the house with guns. They broke the door," Khaled Albaih, a Sudani living abroad, said after speaking with his family on 9 January. "[They] went in the house, where the guys were hiding, hit whoever they found and took some of them."

"My mom said when the riot police had one kid in their car and were beating him, older women pulled him out. They even hit older women. They're not taking any protesters to jail anymore, because the jails are full."

Blocked internet, censored media

The Sudanese government has censored information about the protests from the very beginning, starting with demands that Sudanese newspapers submit their content for review before going to print.

From 20 December, internet rights group NetBlockers reported that Sudanese internet providers were throttling access to social media networks used to share information and images of the protests, including WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook.

There is no turning back point anymore

- Hamid Khalfallah

On several occasions, Sudanese journalists have reported security forces targeting people filming the protests on phones while a number of reporters have themselves been arrested.

"The policy of systematically confiscating newspapers and arbitrarily arresting reporters is reaching alarming levels. This persecution of journalists and clampdown on news coverage must stop," said Arnaud Froger, the head of Reporters Without Borders' Africa desk after 28 journalists were detained for several hours on Tuesday when protesting against the confiscation of the Al-Jareeda newspaper.

'People are resilient'

Bashir has himself remained defiant throughout the protests, claiming that they were the product of meddling by Darfuri rebels or Israel.

"Sudan has been targeted since its independence and the current economic situation is part of this targeting, but we still have some friends, including China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar," he said at his own rally on 9 January.

But many in Sudan believe that the longevity of the protests, which do not appear to have lost momentum even a month after they began, will increase the pressure on Bashir's position.

"More people are joining, and it’s definitely growing and getting larger," said Khalfallah.

"There are so many scenarios that are possible, but what I can confirm is that there is no turning back point anymore. People are resilient."

"We have lived our whole life being governed by the same president ... this president has given nothing for the people other than just stealing from them," he said. "This government has killed its own people repeatedly over the past decades."

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