‘They’re targeting us’: Sudan’s army cracks down on democracy activists

In the midst of war, Sudan’s army is retaliating against activists for their role in bringing down the former regime.

epa09580354 A Sudanese protester flashes the victory sign during a protest against the military coup in Khartoum, Sudan, 13 November 2021. According to medics, three anti-coup protesters were killed during protests in which security forces reportedly used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators gathering two days after the formation of a new Sovereign Council to rule the country. Sudan's military seized power on 25 October and arrested the Prime Minister and other senior ministers and civilian members of the Transitional Sovereignty Council during early morning raids. EPA-EFE/STRINGER
A Sudanese protester flashes the victory sign during a demonstration against the military coup in Khartoum, Sudan, on November 13, 2021 [EPA-EFE/Stringer]

When the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces captured Sudan’s second-largest city, Wad Madani, tens of thousands of people fled and sought safety in regions still under the army’s control.

Mohamad Osman* was among them, but military intelligence arrested him as he was trying to flee on December 27.

He was taken to a secret detention centre – commonly referred to as a “ghost house” in Sudan – where the army quickly found out that he was a member of the Kalakla resistance committee, one of many neighbourhood groups that spearheaded the pro-democracy movement before the war.

For five days, Osman was electrocuted and forced to look at seven corpses rotting on the cold concrete floor. He was going to be number eight.

Luckily, a friend in the military bailed him out.

Osman is one of dozens of Sudanese activists who have been arrested and tortured in ghost houses by military intelligence in recent weeks, even as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) threatens to defeat the army and capture all of Sudan.

“The first thing they asked him was if he was a member of the resistance committees,” said Fatma Noon*, a spokesperson for the Kalakla resistance committee. “We know they’re targeting us.”

Many of those being detained are members of the resistance committees, which played an instrumental role in organising mass protests to bring down Sudan’s autocratic former President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019.

People displaced by the conflict in Sudan get on top of the back of a truck moving along a road in Wad Madani, the capital of al-Jazirah state, on December 16, 2023. [Photo by AFP]
People displaced by the conflict get on top of a truck in Wad Madani on December 16, 2023 [AFP]

Four years later, the RSF and army  – former bedfellows and relics of al-Bashir’s regime – ignited a devastating civil war by turning on each other. The former has been accused of grave crimes including ethnically motivated killings and sexual violence against women and girls.

The army, which is suspected of harbouring Bashir-era loyalists tied to Sudan’s Islamist movement, is also accused of failing to protect civilians and settling scores against pro-democracy activists, according to several resistance committee members.

“What is happening is the political revenge by cadres of the former regime who are in the security forces,” said Hassan al-Tayb*, a resistance committee member in Port Sudan, the army’s stronghold and Sudan’s de facto administrative capital since the war.

‘Sleeper cells’

The army frequently accuses resistance committee members of being RSF sleeper cells, but activists believe this is a pretext to punish them for their role in bringing down al-Bashir.

“There are some people in the army that say volunteers and activists cooperate with the RSF. But this is not correct,” said Yousif Omer*, a resistance committee member in the city.

“I believe these are political arrests. Many of the activists being taken were active during the revolution [that brought down al-Bashir]. Now, they are facing baseless accusations,” Omer told Al Jazeera.

Sudan's Army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan speaks
Sudanese Armed Forces General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks in Khartoum, Sudan [File: Marwan Ali/AP Photo]

Al Jazeera sent messages to army spokesman Nabil Abdallah asking him for comment about the arrests of activists, but received no response by the time of publication.

Meanwhile, Sudanese activists accuse the army of devoting more efforts to crack down on them than to fight the RSF. Many pointed to the army’s rapid withdrawal from Wad Madani in mid-December, which allowed the paramilitary to capture the city.

Wad Madani was a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of people displaced from the capital Khartoum and surrounding cities earlier in the war, many of whom just had to flee again when the RSF attacked.

Some activists went to nearby Sennar state, where they were arrested by military intelligence.

“Many friends were detained … there isn’t just one case but quite a few. We just hope they will be released soon,” Omer told Al Jazeera.

Threat to legitimacy?

Since the war erupted in April 2023, resistance committees have mobilised to evacuate civilians from neighbourhoods caught in the crossfire, power hospitals and distribute food and medicine to those in need. But activists are now pausing their initiatives for fear of arrest.

“Right now, I stopped all my work,” Omer said. “To be honest, we’re scared of military intelligence. We just don’t feel like we can move freely to do our work.”

Other activists said the army has imposed heavy security measures and set up checkpoints that restrict the movement of civilians and hampered the delivery of aid.

In River Nile state, the governor even issued an order to disband resistance committees and reform them according to strict guidelines set by the governor, who also barred members of old committees from joining the new ones.

Hamid Khalafallah, a Sudanese expert and an active member of the resistance committees before he fled the country in May, told Al Jazeera that the army is restricting and impeding international aid.

“There is a bit of a shift by international aid agencies, who now wish to work with local groups because they have seen that [working through the army] has resulted in very little aid reaching people,” Khalafallah told Al Jazeera from Manchester, United Kingdom.

He added that because the army feels that resistance committees threaten its legitimacy and tries to disrupt them, vulnerable communities will face more hardship if local relief is stamped out or scaled back.

“I imagine the military is not very happy about possibly losing an opportunity to exploit or divert aid,” he added.

Crushing civil space

Resistance committees have also drawn ire for calling for an end to the war, for the RSF to dissolve and for the army to surrender to a civilian government, according to al-Tayb from Port Sudan.

“The [army] is against any activist that does not support the war or the return of the former regime,” al-Tayb told Al Jazeera.

He added that many activists have urged civilians not to pick up arms and fight with the army, effectively challenging calls from top army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

On January 6, al-Burhan reiterated that the army will supply weapons to all civilians who want one. Photos also surfaced across social media of what appeared to be troops teaching children how to use rifles and machine guns.

Sources in Sudan have previously told Al Jazeera that the army is recruiting and training children as young as 15.

“We will not hesitate to train and arm everyone capable of carrying weapons, and every citizen has the right to defend himself, his home, his money and his honour against the mercenaries,” al-Burhan told a crowd of supporters in Red Sea State.

Days earlier, Al Jazeera learned, several army convoys drove into Gedaref state in east Sudan to hand out hundreds of weapons to civilians. Resistance committee members were arrested that same week. Khalafallah believes there is a link between the two campaigns.

“There is a big pushback from resistance committees against arming civilians. They have been saying it is a bad move [from the army],” he told Al Jazeera.

“I think the military and Islamists would certainly be keen to silence such voices.”

* Names were changed to protect the individuals from possible reprisals.

Source: Al Jazeera