Burri, Sudan – It’s been a month since a wave of anti-government protests began in Sudan.
I’ll admit, at first, I didn’t expect it to last this long. Similar protests happened in January 2018 but security forces were able to frighten people using tear gas and live ammunition to stop the demonstrations. Just like they did in 2012, 2013 and early 2018.
But this time it was different. Despite the killings, the tear gas, the arrests and beatings, people still came out. And they made their demands clear: They want the country’s President Omar al-Bashir to step down and end his rule.
The protests started in Atabara on December 19 over rising bread prices, but quickly morphed into anti-government demonstrations spreading to many cities across the country.
I was in Burri trying to cover the demonstrations on January 17. Young men and women were out chanting “Peaceful, peaceful” to let the security forces on the streets know that they were unarmed.
Standing a few metres behind a police van, I saw two officers in uniform with their faces covered jump out, crouch on the ground and fire tear gas at them – at unarmed protesters who were not even moving towards them.
Then, they drove away to clear the way for two pick-up trucks. Both carried men in civilian clothing with scarves covering their faces.
I knew what was coming next. These men would jump out of the pick-ups and grab anyone they could and arrest them. They’ll break down doors of people’s homes for suspecting that there might be protesters hiding there. And they’ll brutally beat anyone they get their hands on.
I’ve seen the videos of what they have done over the past month. And apparently so did the protesters, who were ready for the men in the pick-ups. They threw stones at them to prevent them from coming near and starting their rampage.
Taking advantage of that, I got in between the protesters to try and film but found myself unable to breathe from the tear gas that was fired minutes earlier.
A lady saw me and handed me a mask.
“We have more in case you have anyone else who needs them”, she told me. It was our first time seeing each other, but it wasn’t the first time Burri was out protesting and they knew what was needed to minimise the effects of the tear gas.
As I tried to make my way through to find a perfect spot to film, more tear gas was fired and, together with many other protesters, I ran to the nearest home.
The doors were open and those inside welcomed us as if they knew us. Nearly everyone who sought shelter in that home was struggling to breathe because of the tear gas.
There was an elderly woman who moved us to her living room to give us more space. There, along with more than a dozen other women, I heard their stories.
How they came out from different parts of the capital and tried to join the wave of protests in downtown Khartoum, but couldn’t because security forces had blocked roads; of how they have been protesting for weeks and how they will continue to do so because they want to see change.
Of how they just wanted better living conditions, to be able to find jobs without having to make compromises on their beliefs and without being part of the ruling party.
Of how they feel that corruption has seeped through every layer of society and how they wish things were like they were before al-Bashir came to power. And of how brutal the response has been by the security forces and “the militias”.
“We can’t see their faces, they’re not wearing uniforms and they know they can get away with it,” one of the women sitting across me said. She had poured vinegar into our face masks just moments earlier, saying it would lessen the effect of the gas.
“We’re coming out unarmed and keep chanting ‘peaceful’, why can’t they just stop using live ammunition?” another asked.
I raised an eyebrow because there was no live ammunition used at that point. Not that I knew of, anyway.
We would open the door every few minutes or so and go out. The air outside was still suffocating and tear gas was still being fired.
They were coming from both sides of the street the protesters were standing on. I realised that security forces were trying to force them into a corner so that they can be picked up and arrested.
One canister landed close to where I stood and, together with some of the protesters, we started running away from it. A protester and I fell in the attempt to escape the gas.
Boys stopped to help us back up and I found myself back in the same room I left minutes earlier. Then, we heard the canister land outside the door of the room we were in.
One of the women locked the door. I told them I wanted to film the canister inside the house, but they refused to open the door. I understood. Safety first.
“You keep insisting that you want to film, are you a journalist?” one of the young girls asked. I nodded. Then, they all started showing me the videos they took of the protests.
They seemed very proud that they went out to demonstrate. That’s what made this round of protests different.
People were not afraid like the previous times. They wanted to be heard, they wanted to make sure that their message of wanting al-Bashir to resign is known. Having covered the protest in early 2018, that difference was palpable.
After about 10 minutes, we heard it … the sound of live ammunition being fired. Then, a few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. One of the women opened it and a young boy in his teens came in.
“Someone has been shot and is injured,” he said. I told him to lead to where that happened and he shook his head. “He’s being moved. We won’t leave any man behind.”
The sounds of bullets being fired filled the air for a few minutes, stopped, then came back again. Then, a creepy silence.
I decided that then was the perfect time to get out. I knew that the protesters will gather again at a different point and continue.
That has been the drill for the past four weeks. Thanking the old lady and the women, I told them to stay safe and that I hoped to meet them again in better times.
Indeed, there were more protesters in other parts of Burri. For the first time since the protests started, rallies went on for more than 12 hours, with Burri’s protests continuing in front of one of the hospitals called Royal Care.
It was where dozens were receiving treatment, and where two dead bodies of protesters were lying.
I went back to the house the next day and met one of the young women. The times were not better times as I had hoped.
Three people lost their lives in the protests that I witnessed. The purpose of the visit was to thank the residents of the home for giving me shelter the day before and pay my condolences.
I knew that to the residents of Burri, just like to residents of any neighbourhood and city in Sudan, those who died were like their own brothers or sons or fathers. I gave my condolences and thanked the woman.
“Don’t mention it”, she said as her eyes teared up a bit. “We’re doing this for Sudan. It’s our duty.”