Sudan’s heart-broken diaspora

People who left Sudan decades ago still believe in the future of their broken country, and want to return, even after a whole generation.

Ola Ahmed Mohamed Diab, 28, a journalist who has been living in Qatar in the Middle East for 25 years, left her birthplace in Sudan when she was a small child.  

Diab travelled with her father, who is now a retired diplomat, and her mother, who is a doctor, but the family’s other daughter, Diab’s elder sister, Assil, 30, remained in Sudan. Assil is today a well-known graffiti artist.

Ola sits in the country she now calls home, with her dog Sushi at her feet, and wonders about her sister. 

“As a Sudanese citizen living abroad in the diaspora, with family in Sudan, it is quite nerve- wracking and stressful. Most of the Sudanese diaspora were glued to their TV and mobile screens throughout the seven months of the revolution. On the days of brutal attacks on peaceful protesters, especially the massacre of 3 June 2019, we called our family and friends to make sure they are well, and safe and sound,” she says. 

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“My cousins were there on the day of the massacre when paramilitary forces raided the peaceful sit-in. Thankfully they got out safely after seeking refuge in a home for about six hours until the coast was clear,” she remembers. 

But her sister was in Sudan at the time. Diab explains how on 4 June, paramilitary forces broke into the house where her sister was staying and attempted to attack and arrest her. They told her to stay indoors, and threatened to kill her. 

Feeling a sense of helplessness coupled with being away from their families, Sudanese expats and refugees have endured years of political unrest, economic instabilities and civil war forcing them out of their homes. 

More instability after al-Bashir

In the most recent June upheaval, the military leadership seized power after the removal of its dictator Omar al-Bashir. Sudanese expats are straddling a fine line of providing comfort to their families back home while reconciling with yet another wave of instability in their homeland.

For Mohamed Abbas Elsiddig Sirelkhatim, 25, a communications executive born and raised outside Sudan, the situation is no different. He spent his childhood in Oman before settling in Qatar. He visits Sudan every two to three years for between one and four months. Sirelkhatim is an avid gamer, and is well known in the gaming community in Qatar. At the Fire Station, a former civil defence building turned art gallery in Qatar, he explains how complicated his life is. His family do not live in Sudan, but have always yearned to return. After the revolution, their plans have changed.  

“My father always planned to be an expat for a short while, but to return home once he had fulfilled his obligations to his family. He has been building property in Sudan to use as a retirement plan, since we were in Oman. There are very few options for expats to retire in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states,’’ he says. 

“My family has been affected by the crisis in Sudan from the moment Omar al-Bashir came to power; the corruption and nepotism in the government cost my parents their businesses in Sudan [and eventually] … they could not afford to live in their own country,” says Sarah Fayyad Mohamed, 27, who has lived in the GCC for 20 years after her parents moved for better job prospects. Next month, she leaves for Canada, where she will study for a masters degree.

27 July 2019: Avid gamer Mohamed Abbas Elsiddig Sirelkhatim, at the repurposed Fire Station in Doha, Qatar. He was raised in Oman, but Sudan is still ‘home’ to him.

Women led the revolution

The constant yo-yo effect of unrest in Khartoum the capital city, as well as other cities in Sudan, has caused several Sudanese living abroad to feel disconcerted. In six months, Sudan has faced a series of demonstrations against the rising cost of living, economic decline, a state of emergency, dissolving of national and regional governments, and a declaration by former president al-Bashir that women who had been jailed for protesting would be released. 

“Women were leading the revolution, their strength inspired everyone else to participate and support them,” says Mohamed. “Women were the ones who had it the worst under the old regime, yet they did not allow the regime to break their spirit. They defied it, rose up against it, and showed such strength and courage that literally moved millions. The zaghroota (the sound of Sudanese women ululating) signalled the beginning of the march. The uttered words and the spirit of the Kanadakas (a Sudanese derivative meaning “women of strength”) ignited and emboldened everyone to march and keep marching,” Mohamed adds. 

The protests attributed to the Kanadakas led to the state of emergency declared by the president at the time as soldiers were seen shielding protesters from security forces. Eventually, on 11 April 2019, the military removed al-Bashir from power in a coup d’état.

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“Women have always been at the forefront of protests from the first revolution in 1964 to today’s third revolution,” says Diab. “It’s nothing new. The country had one of the first and most active women’s movements in the Middle East and North Africa region during the 1960s and 1970s. Women such as Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, Khalida Zahir and Haja Kashif Bardi have all played a role in important protests in Sudanese history and the progress of women’s rights in Sudan.”

The cries of these women leading the revolution in Sudan eventually saw the end of al-Bashir but also the start of something a lot more sinister in the form of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), leading to violence against civilians, government shut-downs and internet blackouts. 

27 July 2019: Sarah Fayyad Mohammed, has been living in the GCC for 20 years. She’s leaving this month to study in Canada.

Military regime continues

“Many celebrated the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, but I was not one of them,” says Diab, explaining that it was not “the rainbow that came after the storm” that she feared, “but the storm [that] was about to come – that was the ruling TMC and its leaders Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti). 

“Al-Bashir’s end did not bring the end to his military regime,” she continues. “I questioned and still question the events [that broke out] after al-Bashir’s overthrow and the silence that came after the news of his overthrow and arrest. We need to see him go on trial and it should be aired or broadcast live on TV just as the trials of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the late Mohamed Morsi were,” she adds.

The latest update from Sudan sees the the country’s military and opposition coalition sign a constitutional declaration which will allow for a transition of civilian rule. This still leaves young Sudanese living out of the country in a dichotomy. For many, the power-sharing agreement is simply a means to an end.

“I am extremely sceptical of the power-sharing agreement,” says Mohamed. “The TMC has proved itself as a body that is not reliable, brutal and vicious. In my opinion, it should not have been legitimised by the oppositional power through this agreement. I do not believe, like many other young Sudanese people, that the TMC will uphold any sort of agreement. 

She said that she feels that the older generation — she reflects on her parents — cannot protest forever. “It is important for an agreement to be reached as the country needs to start building itself, opening up schools, universities and hospitals … I can’t help but feel perhaps it is not my place to tell my sisters and brothers in Sudan to keep protesting while I am living abroad,” she adds, noting that living in Qatar for her family feels temporary. 

Her family has been in Qatar for 20 years, but she says that people her age feel that there are options about where to live and where to work, and “see if we like it and apply to live …  permanently. Qatar is definitely accepting of who we are but it never feels like home.”

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