Sudanese women bear scars from the fight for freedom

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After six years abroad, Khadija Saleh returned to Sudan in March to join street protesters demanding change.

She was part of a sit-in near the Defence Ministry in Khartoum on June 3 when security forces stormed in. The area was a centre for anti-government protests.

Saleh was beaten with sticks and still wears bandages on her wounds.

“I came back from a safer place because I want a better future for this country,” the 41-year-old said.

Women were a driving force during months of protests against President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, before he was replaced by a military council in April.

The protests didn’t stop as demonstrators demanded the military swiftly hand power to civilians, leading to a stand-off and then a crackdown.

Nahid Gabralla, a 53-year-old activist, was beaten and threatened with rape during the June 3 raid.

“Sudan can be better,” she said. “My daughter deserves to live in a nice country. We will fight for a democratic Sudan, real change and for our rights.”

RAPES REPORTED

Physicians for Human Rights, a US-based group investigating rights violations, cited local medics as saying women had  clothes torn off and were raped, though the sexual violence was hard to quantify.

Local women’s activists, citing multiple eyewitness testimonies, said soldiers put women’s underwear on poles to symbolise women they sexually assaulted.

“They know if they humiliate women, they will humiliate all the people,” said 42-year-old activist Hadia Hasaballah. “No Sudanese women will officially say they were raped because of the stigma.”

It was not possible for Reuters to independently verify the rape reports. A spokesman for the military council could not be reached for comment. The council previously denied rape incidents.

The head of Sudan’s Human Rights Commission, appointed by the presidency, launched an investigation into violations committed during and after the dispersal of the sit-in, which it condemned, without giving details.

Under Bashir’s rule, women’s lives were tightly controlled by men. Morality laws meant women could be arrested for wearing trousers.

For that reason, 35-year-old Mahi Aba-Yazid wore trousers while campaigning for change at the sit-in. She believes she was beaten more because of her choice of clothes.

“There was already a bullet in my arm. I was bleeding but they continued to beat me,” she said.

Duha Mohmed, a 23-year-old student who escaped the sit-in raid before returning to help the injured, said she wanted a life in which she could make her own choices.

“I don’t want to wear a headscarf, it is not my choice. I want my right to wear what I want.”

Amel Tajeldin, a 41-year-old mother of four, said she and her husband took turns watching their children.

“While it was his turn to look after the children, I took part in the demonstrations,” she said.

She was teaching songs to street children in a makeshift tent at the sit-in. During the June 3 raid, members of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) shouted at her and other protesters and told them to flee. “We ran. We were surrounded by soldiers and policemen,” she said.

Both her arms are now bandaged. “While we were running, they beat us. To protect my head, I used my hands. This is why my arms are broken,” she said. “Ones like us beaten by police were lucky, the ones beaten by RSF members were brutally injured.”

BEING INVESTIGATED

The military council said excesses were committed as the sit-in was cleared. These are being investigated and those responsible will be held accountable.

Despite the violence, Sudan’s military rulers and a coalition of opposition and protest groups agreed to share power for three years ahead of elections.

Nagda Mansour, a 39-year-old translator imprisoned for 75 days after a demonstration in December, said it was difficult to accept the idea of negotiating with the military because of its leadership’s involvement in the war in Darfur.

The RSF, headed by the deputy leader of the council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, are accused of committing atrocities in Darfur. Officials deny those accusations.

The power sharing agreement with the military council marks “the beginning, not the end,” said Mansour. “We as human rights defenders want a guarantee for transitional justice in Sudan.”

Manal Farah (49) lost her son, a 22-year-old university student, in the violence. She said he insisted on protesting even though she asked him to stay home.

“The aim of government is to convince mothers of revolutionaries to prevent their sons from joining the revolution. No matter what we say they will never stop before achieving their objectives,” Farah said.

“When he started in university he asked why there is corruption in Sudan. He said there must be a change, a new Sudan. I pray for my son’s dreams to come true.”