“The trouble began last week, when four student protesters were found dead”
The trouble began at Gezira University [in the city of Gezira, south of Khartoum] last Sunday, when students from Darfur started protesting over tuition – they believed that a peace agreement [signed between the government and rebels from their region in 2011] exempts them from fees. They protested for several days, through Wednesday, when the authorities really clamped down. On Friday, we heard that three students who had participated in the protests had been found dead [a fourth body was reportedly found Saturday], so I travelled there to see what was going on.When I arrived, hundreds of students were protesting outside the local hospital, to which the students’ bodies had been taken. They were demanding autopsies to establish the cause of death, but the authorities were telling them there was no specialised doctor on hand to perform one. There was so much security that I did not dare use my camera to film the protest. However, I managed to go into the hospital’s bathroom with some students who knew the deceased, and film interviews with them in the bathroom stalls.“The students I talked to found it difficult to believe they could have drowned in such shallow water”It turns out that the bodies were found in a canal on the university grounds, which is used by agricultural students. The students told me that “rabata” – hired thugs working for the authorities – had beaten up protesters with iron bars. Many students had fled through this canal, which is only about a metre deep at its deepest point. Protesters ran off in every direction; only later did anyone realise these students were missing. The students I talked to found it difficult to believe that they could have drowned in such shallow water; it seems much more likely that the “rabata” took them off somewhere and tortured them to death, before dumping their bodies in the canal. [During this summer’s protests, intelligence services were also accused of taking protesters to “ghost houses” to torture them]. In any case, that’s what most students at Gezira University believe. [The authorities said there was no sign of violence on the bodies; the justice ministry said it will set up a committee to investigate the incident.]“The government has learned from June and July’s protests”On Sunday, students from Khartoum University decided to hold their own ceremony to honour the four dead. This took place on campus; there were several thousand people present. After the ceremony, we wanted to go out into the city and protest; however, the government had learned from June and July’s protests, and had blocked every entrance to the campus. Only one small door was open, through which about 500 people managed to get out before the police started throwing tear gas. I was in that group. Quite a few of us managed to get to the nearby market, at which point it became very difficult for the police to chase us. There were several groups of protesters moving from one street to the next. Later in the afternoon, we met at the main bus stop, where many civilians joined us; the police started hitting us really hard. Protesters set two city buses on fire. Dozens of people were arrested before the police managed to disperse everyone.Protesters throw objects at security vehicles on Sunday in Khartoum. Video courtesy of Tilal Altaib.“I was saddened to see that there were no follow-up protests”This was the first big demonstration since this summer’s protest movement. And it lasted all day, which is surprising – police here are usually quite swift in clamping down on protests. Perhaps they didn’t expect this, or perhaps they were just flustered because they also had to deal with another protest across town, against the expulsion of a popular football player from his team!I was quite encouraged to see people rising up again, chanting the same slogans – “down with the government”, “freedom”, etc – but saddened to see that there was no follow-up on Monday. I was waiting to hear details about the next protest, but no one took the initiative to announce a time and place. There were only a few scattered protests. Like last summer, the movement suffers from a lack of leadership. Many of those that could be considered leaders in the June and July protests had to leave the country after being harassed by the police. People are scared to stand out. And I think that last summer, protesters just got tired in the face of such violence, seeing their friends get beaten and arrested, seeing people go missing week after week, and nothing changing. I want to keep hope, but I’m not sure why it would be any different this time.