A revolution in pain

A conversation with members of Sudan’s resistance committees and Magdi elGizouli.

Equalizer by Hazim Alhussein (2019). Courtesy of the Arak Collection.

On the first Saturday of 2023, a concert brought hundreds of young activists in dancing crowds to a park in the northern tip of Khartoum, dangerously close to ministry buildings. Many arrived masked, fearing that civilian-clad police paparazzi, who would need no excuse to detain them, were spying in the corners. “The whole revolution is here tonight,” my friend Adam exclaimed; “If the army wants to break us, they should just attend this party.” The risks of gathering were laid aside for the moment by the euphoria of seeing comrades they had been marching with for five years straight, since the outbreak of the revolution in December 2018, but with whom they had rarely been able to stop in their tracks and embrace, chat, and catch up.

News was exchanged over the music about the many who were not present with them; who had been martyred, who had gone missing, and who were still detained without trial since they last spoke. Creative face-coverings, complemented by dark-shade sunglasses, hats, and hoodies, could not cover the crutches and scars that revealed years of resisting a brutal authoritarian rule. Youth crippled in their 20s for demanding an end to military rule danced that night under a sky free from teargas, in the company of Aswat Almedina (Voices of the City), a band that had emerged with the revolution. I had supported my friends’ struggle from Beirut, where I was living through a different uprising and crisis, and this was my first return to Khartoum since the military had taken power in October 2021.

The musicians were as reluctant to unplug their guitars as we were to leave the party. There was a sense that the revolution needed this night of release and everyone held on to it. Long after the music stopped, people hung around, dancing, smoking, and drinking in corners of the park. Eventually, a group of us hailed a cab and more friends jumped in, fitting ourselves tetris-like into the humble interior of the car. Tarek, a friend, convinced the patient young driver, who might have been among the marching crowd on a different night, to turn up the stereo. We drove through the unlit and empty streets of downtown Khartoum singing along to Wd Alzain’s protest songs. Nothing could stop us; or so it seemed, until the cab made an abrupt halt at an improvised checkpoint that a couple of armed men from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had set up to block all roads leading out of the city center. The young men might as well have been neighborhood sons playing tricks on us, yet they operated with the confidence of an army. Who is in charge? Where is the state? Can anyone set up a checkpoint and charge bribes for passing? The blurring of authority seemed, in retrospect, to forecast what would only three months later blow up to the scale of a transnational war, with the RSF fighting the Sudanese Armed Forces for control of the country. The people who were with me in the car that night are now dispersed across Sudan and its neighboring countries.

But in January, people were still protesting. The Monday morning following the concert, people were back on the same streets, this time masked in order to march, and running not toward each other in jubilant recognition, but from the tear gas that the army kept shooting relentlessly at the civilian crowds. When the protests were at their height, before the RSF-led massacre at the Ramadan sit-in in 2019, and again in response to the military coup in October 2021, living in a state of emergency became the new normal. Protesters learned how to navigate the city in new ways. They learned which streets offered an escape from the teargas, which corners to avoid getting caught by the army running in their tracks, which shops to hide inside, and which to avoid. They learned who to trust and who not to, and in the process expanded the city’s social infrastructure of support and solidarity. The neighborhood resistance committees, a unique case of localized, non-violent, political mobilization, became the pulse of the revolution.

No one in the protests have been spared the violence of the regime and its paramilitary sons. One friend broke his leg after being thrown off a military jeep driving full-speed. Another friend recounted how one night in 2019, he and a group of fellow protesters had gasoline poured over them by soldiers, who placed them in a narrow cell and taunted them by striking matches all night long. “It was the longest night of my life,” the friend told me; and the quietest, as they held their breaths, waiting for what appeared to be their death sentence. He laughs as he recounts this story; still, he does not know how they got out alive. Other protesters were less fortunate and ended up in Bashir’s torture chambers; isolation cells so narrow that prisoners were forced to stand up squeezed between walls, sometimes for days. These ghost houses have reportedly resurfaced now under RSF’s authority.

After years of protesting while living in an internationally sanctioned, crumbling state economy, most of my friends had lost their jobs and were surviving from the mutual aid of families and the committees. On evenings when they were not protesting, their exhaustion found company at safe houses run by committee members, where they would drink, smoke, rest, cook, and care for one another. In order to preserve the safety of the houses “You don’t call in advance, you just show up,” my friend Adam explained. The trauma built up from years of being in and out of detention, torture, and emergencies caught up with my friends during these moments of rest. Their sense of collective exhaustion recalled for me what the Egyptian political activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah had warned his comrades at Tahrir Square; not to judge those who despair in times of prolonged revolt. Mistrust, not despair, is what breaks a movement. Despair is a “natural feeling” and not a betrayal of the cause any more than hope is, Abd el-Fattah cautioned from his prison cell in Egypt. But he also encouraged activists worldwide not to isolate themselves in suffering; make “your pain a revolution, your suffering is resistance.”

The consistency of protest can be a salvage against depression, but if everyone is out of fuel, how does a movement go on? In January, as protests continued, my friends in the resistance committees still insisted on the revolution’s three no’s to military rule—no negotiation, no partnership, and no legitimacy—even if, as some told me at quiet moments, they did not any longer believe that their demands would not be met. “An ethos of steadfastness, heroism, and sacrifice became a characteristic feature of the committees and their outlook,” Sudanese Marxist scholar Magdi el Gizouli has observed; he did not join the committees, but has been in conversation and solidarity with them throughout the revolution. “The movement is heroic, but its members cannot be heroes,” Elgizouli told me over the phone when we spoke in June 2023. And yet, that is often what is asked of them.

Since the outbreak of war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the RSF on April 15 this year, the committees have become a key organ of survival for civilians, who are relying on their distribution of food, water, medical aid, and safe passage. The war has left the core of Khartoum empty, but their work is still needed to aid the civilians who do not have any other place to go. Residents are living under the terror of the army’s airstrikes and the RSF, who have raped, killed and maimed their way through the city, looting people’s homes to the degree that they now control 90% of the capital, and have destroyed most of it. In a war that has displaced more than three million people in the span of four months, many committee members have stayed to help out.

“My work is here, why would I leave?” says Babiker, a friend, over the phone from an apartment in Khartoum, where he and other volunteers are organizing medical aid to distribute in the neighborhoods, with funding from the Sudanese diaspora. They are the last remaining members of the committees in the city these days. The neighborhood committees took on medical and emergency tasks since hospitals had been held hostage by the fighting parties, and much of the international humanitarian aid had been diverted before it reached the people who needed it.

“The revolution taught us how to organize,” Babiker said as he packaged aid in his living room. Distributing aid continues the revolutionary work; it is not a reduction of the political to humanitarian concerns. While protesting has been paused, other needs are met. In Wad Medani, down the river Nile, other friends of mine who have been displaced from Khartoum are caring for children who have been orphaned by the war. Through this multidimensional care work, the committees are building on traditional social mobilization practices, such as sanduk mutual aid collectives and nafeer—locally based forms of organizing that, in lieu of state welfare, have been vital for people in response to sudden deaths, illness, floods and crises, both on the village level and in the diaspora.

“We are the crisis!” an activist exclaims in Omar Robert Hamilton’s semi-autobiographical account of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, in challenge to demands within the movement to formalize a political program, which became an obstacle for continuous organizing. His account of the political significance of care work and friendship in movement-building offers in that way a reference point for the resistance committees in Sudan. In April 2022, exactly a year before the war broke out, elGizouli, in conversation with activist-scholar Muzan Alneel, warned against “fetishizing” and idealizing the committees as a singular form of political organizing. “Committee” is in some ways a misleading term, elGizouli pointed out when we spoke this year, because it leads people to expect formalized solutions and grand political programs from a political formation that is by nature spontaneous, organic, and diverse. The committees have published three charters, collectively written and debated, but asking them to deliver a party program is detrimental to their work, elGizouli observes. If we measure politics on the scale of a party, we easily lose sight of how people organize organically to aid one another through crisis.

Although the committees’ work can be traced to a longer history of mutual aid organizing in Sudan, the umbilical cord of political inheritance has been cut between the generation protesting now and the generation who came to power when the National Islamic Front couped the state in 1989. The committees emerged with the 2018 December revolution, but they were enabled by a decade of nonviolent committee organizing by student groups, such as Girifna, who challenged Bashir’s brutal regime and were severely punished for it. Coming to the fore with the 2019 revolution, this generation proved that a different Sudan is possible, and they organized toward it in ways that inspired other protesters, from Algeria and Lebanon to Black justice organizers in the US.

Khartoum’s university campuses, which were vocal sites for mobilizing both then and in Sudan’s past student-led revolutions, have now been reduced to rubble in RSF’s systematic destruction of Sudan’s cultural heritage. “There is no precedent in Sudan for a group of paramilitary mercenaries acting as the overseers of a political transition,” as Willow Berridge, Raga Makawi and colleagues observed before the war broke out. The RSF’s fighters seem to upset familiar codes of political belonging and power in Sudan. In media reports and scholarly discourse, they appear as if they really were devils on horseback and not sons of the country deserving of historical analysis.

The RSF is the formation of different Arabized tribes, who fought as the Janjaweed (devils on horseback) in Omar Bashir’s brutal war in Darfur. They killed and died on behalf of the army, but they do not share privilege with the elite that has been the backbone of the regime. The RSF have weaponized their socioeconomic marginalization to defend looting as a revenge on the urban rich, in reference to a class-geographical division between the riverain cities and the regions out west, Darfur and Kordofan, which have historically and continuously been exploited for cheap extraction of labor and agrarian production. While their leader, Hemedti, has a fallback option in his gold reserves, many of his young soldiers would be unemployed and poor were it not for a war that brings their labor in demand, albeit as fodder for the cause. The RSF appears in this context as the lumpenproletariat who can be purchased for any political goal, and who have become nouveau riche from looting.

“He’s not from here,” Tarek commented the night when our car was pulled over by a gang of RSF soldiers, in reference to the soldier’s regional dialect that marked him as ethnically different. In fact, many of the young men whom RSF has recruited to kill the revolution come from the same generation as the resistance committee members, but the two are fighting for starkly different worlds; RSF’s young men seek capital accumulation at any cost, while the revolution calls for economic justice and accountability. “They are stupid,” Adam said as we drove away, “But they are also part of us.”

Names of resistance committee members have been altered to ensure their safety.

About the Author

Anna Simone Reumert is a postdoctoral fellow at the New School's Zolberg Institute, and a graduate of Columbia's Anthropology PhD program. She is currently writing a book about labor migration between Sudan and Lebanon, based on years of research in both countries.

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