Bakhit Arbab had only one wish on Thursday 11 April as he watched images of his jubilant countrymen celebrating the fall of the three-decades long dictatorship in Khartoum, Sudan. He wanted to hear the news that his father Abdulhammed had been released from the Omdurman prison.
Arbab, like many other Sudanese in South Africa, was closely following developments in his mother country. Early in the day, there had been reports that political prisoners would be released.
“I just wish, I just wish that he will be released today,” said Arbab, who lives in Delft in the Western Cape.
Many in the South African Sudanese community welcomed the news that President Omar al-Bashir, the man who had held on to power for 30 years, had been overthrown. But for many it wasn’t time to celebrate just yet.
No sooner had it been announced that Bashir’s government had been toppled, and that the dictator was under arrest in a “special place”, than the country’s defence minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf announced on state television that a military transition council would be in place for two years.
He also declared a three-month state of emergency, a nationwide ceasefire and the suspension of the constitution. Sudan’s air space, the minister said, would be shut down for 24 hours and border crossings closed until further notice.
The UN Special Rapporteur, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, has called on Sudanese authorities to lift the state of emergency and allow protesters to assemble.
Rumours and uncertainty
“I am very happy, but I am not quite sure what is going on, at the moment,” said Safa Musa in Cape Town. “There are a lot of rumours at the moment.”
Some of the speculation has it that Bashir is not under arrest, but has instead slipped out of the country.
Musa had been watching video clips that her mother and sister were sending her; they are both in Khartoum, taking part in the protests. These clips and others were being shared on social media by the Sudanese expatriate community.
“I am still very concerned, we just don’t know who is going to take over. There is still a lot of negotiations happening,” Musa said.
The shadow of Darfur
Musa’s family are from Darfur, a region of Sudan that has experienced a conflict that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. The Sudanese government has even been accused of using chemical weapons against the Darfuri.
In July 2009, the International Crime Court (ICC) in the Hague issued an indictment against Bashir for crimes against humanity. The charge related to his facilitating and ordering the genocide in Darfur. It is not yet known whether the interim Sudanese government has plans to hand the former president over to face trial at the ICC.
“In Darfur, you didn’t know when life was going to end,” said Musa. In 2013 Musa followed her husband to South Africa.
The beginning of the end for Bashir began last December when his government tripled the price of bread, sparking protests throughout the country. Demonstrations against the price hike continued into the new year and led to the Sudanese government clamping down on the protesters and killing dozens of people.
On 22 February, Bashir declared a state of emergency and dissolved the government. By April thousands of protesters had set up camp outside the army headquarters in Khartoum, where they demanded that the military support the removal of Bashir.
One woman came to symbolise the protest movement: Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old architecture student, whose image was captured as she stood on a car clad in traditional Sudanese white robes, encouraged protesters to join her in singing a time-honoured protest song.
Sudanese expats in South Africa
The economic hard times in recent months, said MA student Mohammed Hassan, have put pressure on the Sudanese expatriate community in South Africa.
“It is such a nightmare, we all have to send money back,” he said.
The Sudanese community in South Africa have added their voice to the dissent back home, staging a number of protests at the Sudanese Embassy in Pretoria.
Late on Thursday, Arbab was still awaiting news of the possible release of his father. Like many Sudanese prisoners, Arbab said, his father Abdulhammed had been thrown in jail without charge or trial. He has been there for four years.
In the next couple of hours he planned to try and phone his father to find out if he has any news.
Arbab, like Musa, is from Darfur. He was six when Bashir took power. “I have never seen democracy,” he said.
Eleven years ago Arbab, fearing prosecution, fled Sudan. He travelled first to South Sudan, then into Kenya and finally, after 10 days, ended up in South Africa.
While in exile his mother died and his family told him his father was unwell. Now, though, his father’s health has improved.
Once he knows more about what is happening in his home country Arbab plans to return, hoping to see his father. But like the rest of the Sudanese community, he remains concerned as to who will replace the Butcher of Darfur.
As his fellow Sudanese expat, Hassan, says: “We are happy for the moment, but we don’t want anyone to steal our revolution.”