Help for Sudan! Help for Widad and Mai and Rudwan and 2,000 detained student protesters!

Jul 24, 2012

A few days ago, that was my Facebook headline; today, it is this:  Good News!  woman in prisonThis morning, following the briefest of ‘trials’ that had raised fears of execution for the detainees, most of the detainees were released – but not Rudwan Daoud.  [Update: Rudwan is being held on charges of working to bring down the government by force.]

On 16 June, blossoming student protest movements came to full flower with a series of well-planned demonstrations, none of them more than a few thousand, staged in state capitals across the country. Drawing their inspiration from the Arab Spring, Occupy and their own Girfina (Arabic for Enough! We’re fed up!!), the students planned their actions in a way that would spread more thinly the deployment of security personnel across many locations, compromising the government’s capacity to concentrate their crackdown on a single group or location.

‘Lick Your Elbow!’
The young people sang, called out mantras resonant with what seems like an international cadence of protest: to listen to them, even if one has little or no understanding of Arabic, the words seem to emerge.  I know those words!

photo of young man licking his elbow with arabic text "Lick Your Elbow"But there are words peculiar to this Sudanese uprising:  ‘Lick your elbow!‘ ‘Kiss your elbow!’ Signs and chants designated the marches as such, urging others to join in:  Do it! we’ll show him:  We CAN lick our elbows! Just watch us!

In recent months, since uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, President Omar al-Bashir and his inner circle have repeatedly bragged that the movement will not touch Sudan; régime-change here is as likely as people suddenly being able to lick their elbows.  Impossible! The students have cheekily turned the president’s boast into a non-violent piece of street theatre protest. ‘Yes we can! Just watch us!’ What does elbow-licking look like? THIS is what elbow-licking looks like! 

Austerity Measures
Map of Sudan and South SudanIn the last three weeks, the Sudanese government, following announcements of austerity measures designed to address a massive deficit the result of (a) the loss of 75% of their oil revenues following the secession of the South and (b) a diversion of more than  80% of the national budget to security forces, initiated a targeted series of arrests.  A people already impoverished by decades of war, poverty and unemployment, was now expected to cope with an end to fuel subsidies, high costs for staple items, a rise in school tuition and transit costs, adding new fuel to the protests and greatly expanding the demographic of those on the streets beyond youth.  Arrests began in earnest 22 June, a key focus being the leadership of Girifna. Two of its founders, Rudwan Daoud and Widad Derwish were amongst those arrested, along with 2,000 others.  The women were sent to the women’s prison in Ombdurman, with the men dispersed, some of them to ‘ghost houses’, prisons known for torture and disappearance – located in unmarked buildings inaccessible to families in search of loved ones.

Widad’s Story
Widad DerwishIn 2007, Widad Derwish was amongst the 20 participants in the third of many such trainings in third-party non-violent intervention in Sudan and, more recently, South Sudan. The long-term project, sponsored by the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation and dubbed ‘Holy Ground’ in its early years of Muslim-Christian trainings of trainers, brings together women and men, Christians and Muslims from across the, now, Sudans.  Over the course of a month, participants come to a deep knowledge of the other, dismantling multiple falsely-promoted ’causes’ of their daily violence, in particular, religion and tribe; the economic roots of violence are surfaced as participants come to recognise themselves as both part of a global story of economic domination/subjugation and as agents of change. Non-violence training in South SudanA safe space is created for them to interrogate the landscape of a warrior culture and a violence-stained history, to celebrate historical outbreakings of non-violent resistance, leaving unexamined no aspect of civics, history, culture, religion, politics, economics, gender.  What aspects of these drive violence? what aspects of these make for peace? At what point do I resist, withdraw my consent, break the rules? (See Sudan 2007 in the Photo Gallery.)

Widad at trainingSocial media have provided useful ways to keep track of many of the graduates of the ToT, including Widad, Luka and Ilham, Flora, Suzan and Mai, Rafaat, Fatima and Tawani – and scores of others.  In an exponential growth in trained-trainers training more trainers, more than twenty-seven thousand people in almost 70 tribes have been drawn into this school of peacemaking – and dissent from the way things are.

How to Mobilise a Million
Rudwan DaoudSeveral months ago, while I was having dinner in a restaurant in South Sudan, the TV screen caught my eye:  there was Widad, 2007 graduate featured in a half-hour long al-Jazeera documentary called ‘How to Mobilise a Million‘. The film follows the activities of Widad and Girifna co-founder, Rudwan, as they leafletted in the streets, encountered hostile security forces and invited young people to come to ‘parties’ – like an Occupy General Assembly (the political speeches leavened by specially-written rap songs that expressed the focus of their protesting energies). It documented their journey to South Sudan where, in the new nation’s capital, they held a press conference, offering their apologies on behalf of the North, for 2.5 million dead and many more millions displaced in the course of decades of civil war.

Widad and Rudwan were at the centre of the organising that has issued in now six weeks of protests. They were amongst the first to be arrested.  In the weeks since the arrests began, governments, including my own, have registered their strong condemnation of Khartoum’s violent response to the peaceful demonstrations. Social media have channelled both the anxieties and fears and the determination of the protesters.  Pressure, it would seem, both domestic and international, seems to have had an impact as all political detainees were released today (23 July) – with the exception of Rudwan Daoud. Rudwan is key in a movement of concertedly devolved leadership, mobilising outward rather than downward.  In May of last year, he announced Girifna’s Reconciliation Convoy to South Sudan, which included delivery of emergency food aid to the disputed border region of Abiyei and building a school in Turalei.  Though the government attempted to block the Reconciliation Convoy, seventy young people volunteered for a risky mission through a war zone to deliver an apology, aid and their hands in labour.

Workshop participants form a "Human Knot"Of such is peace and reconciliation constructed – a willingness to risk, determination, perseverance in spite of everything, love, above all, love. With awe, I salute the courage of the graduates of Holy Ground.  I continue to work and pray for the release of Rudwan – a formidable agent of peaceful change – and for the kind of change in Sudan that will transform the energies of conflict into the energies of peace.  The international community, for its part, has a role to play, using isolation of members of the Sudanese élites, economics, moral suasion and diplomacy in place of the all-too-frequent resort to violent intervention, war and invasion.  What might be the non-violent armaments needed to support Girifna and the Youth Movement for Peace as they mobilise yet more millions?  Let’s find those tools and put them to work.  The violent response of the government continues, with news of more arrests.  With Sudan, perhaps we can find another way.

With thanks for good work and encouragement to SweFOR, Sara, Åsa, Martin and Patrick, as well as our Sudanese partner in peacemaking, which will remain nameless.


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention