Atbara: The first days of the Sudanese revolution
 
 
Protesters continue to gather in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan Friday April 12, 2019 - Courtesy: Ala Kheir
 

It was Friday, December 21, when 30-year-old Al-Nazir Osman first joined the massive anti-government demonstrations gripping his hometown of Atbara in northern Sudan. After finally talking his family into letting him go, he headed to the city center, where thousands of protesters had gathered, to meet his close friend Tareq al-Saqr.

The two young men, and their wider circle of friends, had been waiting for this historic moment for years, working with neighborhood councils, human rights groups and what remained of the local labor movement to lay an organized groundwork of opposition in their city.

Sudan had been ruled by President Omar al-Bashir for 30 years, and his government — characterized by corruption, fierce repression and policies of impoverishment — was the only one many of them had ever known.

The spark came on December 18, when secondary school students in Atbara rose up in protest to the government’s decision to raise the price of bread fivefold, from 1 Sudanese pound to 5 Sudanese pounds. Loud chants broke out: “You have starved the people, dancer,” a reference to Bashir, who was known for performing a trademark dance in his public appearances while patriotic music played in the background.

The next day, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Atbara in a mass uprising. Angry demonstrators torched the local headquarters of the ruling National Congress Party, hurling molotov cocktails from the roof of an adjacent building, and reducing it to ashes. Police forces tried unsuccessfully to disperse the protesters, firing wave after wave of tear gas until they ran out of canisters.

The protests quickly spread to cities, towns and villages across the country. Dozens were killed at the hands of security forces and hundreds arrested. The demonstrations culminated in April in a massive sit-in outside the military headquarters in the capital, Khartoum. On April 11, after nearly four months of protest, the military announced that Bashir had been removed from office.

Atbara had become the cradle of a revolution.

When Osman met Saqr in the city square two days after the uprising began in December, they had no idea their local uprising would eventually ignite a wave of protests that would succeed in ousting a 30-year autocrat from power.

That day, the square was full of protesters chanting anti-government slogans, including ones like, “The people choose freedom, peace, justice and revolution.” Between each chant, a young man would be hoisted on people’s shoulders to lead the crowd in singing the Sudanese national anthem. Outside of the main square, demonstrators took to the streets in other working-class neighborhoods across Atbara, as calls for residents to join the protests blared from city mosques.

There were reports that a heavily armed convoy of security forces was preparing to make its way to the smoldering ruling party headquarters. According to one of the participants in the protest, Osman’s phone rang and he was notified that police forces had attacked a group of demonstrators near the burned-down building with live ammunition. Tareq Mohammed Ali, an engineering student at Nile Valley University, had been shot in the head and was rushed to hospital.

Suddenly, a unit of seven police vehicles attacked the demonstration in the main square. It was the first time Osman had seen these particular police forces deployed in the city. They wore black masks and uniforms that didn’t identify what branch they belonged to. They launched tear gas canisters into the crowd before firing into the air with live ammunition.

Osman joined a group of protesters heading toward the main city hospital, where a large number of wounded protesters had been taken.

“Al-Horreya Bridge, the only bridge leading to the hospital, was full of protesters. We were heading from east to west, while police were blocking us at the western end of the bridge and opening fire,” Osman says. “I saw protesters jump off of the top of the bridge. It was a chaotic scene, with loud gunfire and thick smoke from the tear gas that they were firing at us indiscriminately.”

“I tried to escape and took the stairs to get off the bridge, but on the final flight my right leg went numb and completely stopped moving. I noticed blood was flowing from the top of my thigh, just an instant before I was unable to walk and fell on the ground underneath the bridge,” he says.

Osman had been shot in his right thigh. The bullet struck him in the back of the leg and exited through the front, leaving a deep wound.  

“A number of demonstrators gathered around me, carried me to a nearby house and gave me first aid before taking me to the hospital in a taxi,” he says. “It was a very difficult and chaotic scene, filled with the smell of blood, the wailing of the injured and the cries of the families of those killed.”

He stayed in the hospital for several days before returning to his house under police supervision.

Osman says he took to the streets that day convinced that the ruling regime had left the Sudanese people with no other choice. “Bashir ruled for nearly 30 years, for my entire life. We’d seen nothing other than the continuing deterioration of every facet of life in Atbara, as is the case across the countryside and urban centers of Sudan,” he says.

Atbara has long been a hotbed of anti-government protest. Located in the Nile River State, some 310 km north of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, the city is home to Sudan’s railway hub and has a rich history of railway and trade unionizing. Most of the city’s 120,000 residents work for the national Sudanese Railway Corporation. Both Bashir’s government, and that of his predecessor, Gaafar Nimeiry, worked to dismantle the trade union movement, which is linked to the Sudanese Communist Party. Over the years, the railway has been largely destroyed.

“The city of Atbara is a workers’ city that knows how to take to the streets against injustice and tyranny,” Osman says. “It has a new generation of unionized railway workers that lead this uprising in Sudan.”

Abdullah al-Awad, a trade unionist and the leader of the Communist Party, believes that the uprising in Atbara in mid-December grew out of widespread economic discontent, especially within the working class, which suffered successive waves of layoffs at the Railway Corporation, eventually leading to its collapse.

“What distinguishes the popular uprising in Atbara, which spread across Sudan, is the participation of the youth,” Awad tells Mada Masr, speaking from his home in a working class neighborhood in north Atbara. “We told our children about Atbara’s ‘golden age,’ about the standard of living and the services provided by hospitals and other institutions established during the city’s modern renaissance after the Sudanese Railway Corporation was established here. Our youth witnessed these massive institutions being destroyed and shattered by the cowardly policies of the current government.”

“I witnessed the courage of young people who organized the demonstrations that lasted for three consecutive days, although they didn’t sabotage or harm government institutions,” he adds. “Only the National Congress Party, a symbol of corruption and authoritarianism, was burned to the ground. It was the fanciest government building in this impoverished city.”

More than 30 were injured during the December demonstrations across Sudan, the majority by live ammunition, medical sources told Mada Masr at the time. According to one source, “The bodies of two young men were brought to the hospital after being shot in the head, while another died later after a bullet punctured her lungs. In most of these cases, members of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) stationed in hospitals tried to force doctors to report that the injuries were due to blunt force trauma instead of the bullets that were clearly shown in CT scans. Nevertheless, demonstrations continued in the northern city, as in other cities, demanding the fall of the regime.”

Hussein Saleh, a political activist in the city, says, “At one of the huge demonstrations, I witnessed an artillery corps commander asking demonstrators not to resort to violence and to keep protesting peacefully. But a mere 20 minutes after he left the area, unidentified security forces entered and fired tear gas, then live bullets, at the protesters. They would fire five or six canisters of tear gas at once and, when people could no longer see, they fired live ammunition. The gunmen were treating the situation as a military battlefield, rather than a peaceful demonstration.”

Saqr parted ways with Osman at sunset, and only later learned of his friend’s injury. He was unable to visit him in hospital as he was under police guard.

“I took a risk and went out into the streets to call for the fall of the regime and I will keep at it until the government leaves the city,” Saqr says. “We die in our homes anyway, but in the streets, at least we die with honor.”

Four months later, following the historic ouster of Bashir on April 11, Sudanese protesters have continued a massive sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, demanding a transition to civilian government after decades of military rule.

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