Thousands of mockingbirds
On surviving the Khartoum massacre and trying to make sense of what remains from Sudan’s revolution.
In the lobby of Al-Moa’lm Hospital in Khartoum, I looked at the corpses and injured bodies around me. Outside the heavy glass doors that we locked, I saw the four-wheel drive vehicles of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) carrying heavily armed soldiers and heard the sound of bullets. Clouds of smoke rose above the burning tents, casting a shadow over our weeks of dreaming of commune and carnival, in the hopes of achieving a nonviolent revolution.
I realized how tenuous life can be, and what it took for me to remain alive; to be able to write these lines: the death of other comrades and protesters who prevented the attackers from storming the hospital and killing dozens, if not hundreds, more. On the morning of Monday, June 3, 2019, when the Transitional Military Council (TMC) ruling Sudan carried out the Khartoum massacre, dozens including myself narrowly found shelter inside the hospital. Outside, more than 150 people were killed, dozens were thrown into the Nile, and both men and women were raped. Many are still missing today.
The sit-in had begun on April 6 at the army headquarters, about 16 weeks after the start of the popular revolution against the Islamic regime led by Lieutenant General Omar al-Bashir. On April 11, under pressure from the sit-in and the intervention of senior officers, Bashir stepped down. After Al-Bashir stepped down, the so-called Transitional Military Council was formed from a group of senior officers of the former regime, headed by the former deputy minister and defense minister. But he resigned after one day due to the continuing protests that saw in him a continuation of the old regime, and demanded a full civilian government to govern the country until democratic elections could be held.
On the night of June 2nd, I entered the encampment at 10 pm accompanied by friends. We headed to our usual spot near the University of Khartoum Clinic. Despite forewarning signs that the TMC was getting ready to disperse the sit-in, the carnival atmosphere of freedom and comradeship joy prevented me, like many others from anticipating the horror to follow. Near dawn, I headed to the last barricade on Nile Street, where I found the youths huddling around a fire and singing, with dozens of military vehicles just meters away. Returning to the camp, I reassured my friends that an attack was impossible. Less than an hour later we heard gunfire and witnessed the chaos of people trying to escape. A mixed armed force poured from the north toward the sit-in. Although witnesses confirmed that the first to reach the sit-in were wearing the blue police uniform, official investigations are still ongoing regarding the identity of the groups that carried out the attack. The police deny their involvement.
While the forceful dispersal was taking place, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), one of the main groups involved in organizing the sit-in, appealed to the Sudanese army to “fulfill their duty and defend the citizens from the TMC’s militia.” But the soldiers guarding the military headquarters refused to let fleeing people take shelter in the compound. My friend and I attempted to reach his car, but we could only get as far as the public hospital where the injured were arriving. As we sheltered in the hospital, what we witnessed from its windows for the next ten hours became a nightmare.
Outside, army vehicles rolled around, threatening to shell the building. Inside, rescue operations proceeded. The corpses were isolated in one room, urgent cases triaged in another space, while the reception was filled with the wounded whom the hospital staff tried to treat assisted by the revolutionaries—among whom were doctors and nurses. The television hanging on the wall was broadcasting the massacre of our comrades. My phone rang; it was my sister asking in panic about my whereabouts. I informed her of our situation and asked after the safety of others. I sent a message to my wife in Cairo to reassure her, and switched off my phone to preserve the remaining charge. Then I lay on the floor and slept.
By the day’s end, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad political and trade union umbrella, would declare a general strike and civil disobedience, as well as terminate negotiations with the regime. In the coalition’s view, the massacre was planned in advance and executed by the regime, which it now labeled the “Coup Council.” It designated “combined forces within the Sudanese military, the Janjaweed militias (also known as the RSF), the national security forces and other militias” as responsible for the massacre, as well as for interventions in other cities including En Nahud, Atbara, and Port Sudan. Meanwhile the head of the TMC issued his own statement, also cutting off talks. He announced a nine-month timeline, to end with elections under “regional and international supervision.”
I don’t know how long I slept, but I headed down to the ground floor after I awoke. The place was still crowded with the wounded; some of the injured were outside in the hospital yard. The sound of bullets had somewhat subsided, but the smoke was still rising. Aggressors had destroyed the campsite. Shortly after, when we dared venture outside the hospital, we stood in the street looking toward our wasted land. The scene was reminiscent of images of villages burnt down in Darfur years earlier. There had been a revolutionary slogan: “Oh, you arrogant racist, we are all Darfur!” Now the slogan was actualized.
While standing outside, I saw a 10-year-old boy, and asked about his friends. He told me that they were safe, then and added, “They have betrayed us.” His statement stuck in my head. The politicians and military had never intended to protect us or the political community flourishing in the sit-in. The revolutionaries did not lack political foresight: attempts to disperse the congregation had occurred since the beginning of the sit-in. Yet this was a betrayal of our faith, of the euphoria the camp represented. We didn’t think anyone could kill a mockingbird.
In September 2019, the Prime Minister of the transitional government, Abdalla Hamdok, ordered an investigation into the massacre, establishing a committee with a three-month deadline, renewable once, to publish its findings. Yet today, some 17 months later, no findings have been issued. Varying reports have estimated the death toll between 100 and 150, while medical reports indicate 70 documented cases of rape of both men and women. But in November 2020, another government committee announced the discovery of a mass grave in Khartoum, which forensic sources linked to the massacre. It contained some 800 bodies.
What did we lose in the massacre? Not only hundreds of lives, but also an idea of Sudan as a commons. Since the revolution began in December 2018, questions of territory and boundaries had followed, including around the sit-in in the weeks prior to the massacre. Where did the sit-in territory start? Where did the protection of protesters end? Did a limit denote restricting revolutionary activities within it? Were all activities outside these boundaries therefore illegal and vulnerable to attacks by law enforcement?
Within its boundaries, the sit-in redrew the mental map of Sudan. It expressed an idea of Sudan that until then had only existed in ideology and hopeful fantasy. All of Sudan was present, and not just in territorial terms, despite the tents bearing signs of ethnic and geographic groups, but also in a fluid and carnival sense that challenged the underlying cartographic fiction, like a map of Sudan drawn by a child.
It was this childish revolutionary map—with its representations, expressions, and potential—that triggered fear and anxiety in the old regime and made clear the impotence of the traditional parties that were supposed to lead change. The negotiations over boundaries of the sit-in area, drawn by a joint security committee including both the military regime and the FFC coalition, had represented, symbolically, negotiations over the destiny of the country itself.
When revolutionaries extended the area of their barricades for security reasons, after a first dispersal attempt on May 13, only to be forced to retreat back to the original lines following an internal conflict within the SPA, it signaled a surrender of entire areas from the recognized “occupied” geography. And when one of these areas to the immediate north of the encampment, a poor neighborhood known as Colombia burdened with negative racial and class stereotypes, including tales of alcohol and drug-use prevalence, became the excuse for military intervention, it amounted to a sacrifice of the neighborhood by the moderate protestors on the altar of bourgeois morality. Indeed, the different parties—the TMC, the moderates in the FFC, and the radicals in the FFC—had different maps in mind that translated into different visions of Sudanese society. So far, it is the progressive current that has lost out.
On the morning after the violent dispersal of the sit-in, while I was still at the hospital, I heard about bloody events that had spread to many cities, and the occupation by the RSF of the streets of the capital. Their humiliation of Khartoum residents would continue for more than a week.
Movement had resumed in front of the hospital gate, with a number of people gathering outside. Army personnel, accompanied by a few civilians, had parked in front of the entrance. Their presence, we learned later, was to negotiate safe exit for civilians trapped in the hospital. My friend’s car had been completely destroyed, peppered with bullet holes and the interior vandalized. The soldiers negotiating our safe passage stopped me from joining the evacuating group on account of my dreadlocks, which might provoke the RSF because of an assumed resemblance to Darfuri militants, so I was ordered to go back inside the hospital. I later heard stories of people targeted for this exact reason.
Exhaustion lodged in my body and soul. It is an exhaustion that continues today: we have different reactions to dealing with the trauma of a near-death experience, of knowing dead bodies are held in a closed room next to us, of the fear your body will be mutilated or harmed. Many of those who were there that day are receiving therapy for PTSD. My sister-in-law, who witnessed the massacre first hand, wrote this to me recently:
The Khartoum massacre was one of the most difficult moments in my life, to be surrounded by all this death, destruction, and harm is more than anyone could possibly bear. A moment that I do not like to remember but cannot forget. After the massacre, I returned to Egypt to begin a treatment journey of psychotherapy. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her opinion was that I should be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks to be monitored and treated for the visual and auditory hallucinations accompanied with hysterical breakdowns, anxiety, and constant insomnia. I turned down the admission but I am still taking medication.
The sit-in was the necessary distance to be traveled between the revolution and the state. It was a euphoric space where the old ended, and the new could be built. Its dispersal represented a break in this process, or perhaps fed it with new ideas. It certainly clarified contradictions in the political alliance for change that carry lessons not only for understanding history, but also in planning the future.
The wounds on our bodies represent another kind of map: they tell a story of who was there, and who survived.