The return of the barricade, a trusted tool in Sudan anti-coup protests
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Barricades are once again cutting off streets across Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, which is still reeling from an October 25 coup d'état. Barricades were also a key tool used in 2019 during the wave of protests that led to the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir. The barricades, known in local dialect as “mataris”, are often made out of bricks or cobblestones, and helped protesters deter security forces. Ahead of last weekend’s protests, Sudanese trade unions once again called on the population to erect barricades to block agents of the military junta.
People across Sudan have been out in the streets since October 25, when Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, military chief and de facto leader, put civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest and arrested a number of ministers.
Security forces launched a crackdown on protesters, leading to at least 11 deaths and 170 injuries, according to the Committee of Sudanese Doctors. Protesters set up barricades in some of Khartoum’s main roads in an attempt to shut down economic activity.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, a collective of unions that were instrumental in Omar al-Bashir’s fall, called for massive protests on November 13, demanding an end to the military junta and a return to civilian government.
Even though the military authorities shut down the internet, activists have still managed to launch a hashtag called "barricade nights" over the past few days.
“People often put up barricades in the middle of the night, usually between 2 and 4am, because it isn’t likely that the security forces would intervene at that time of night,” says Mustapha Hussein, a Sudanese activist who now lives in Germany. Hussein, a researcher in sociology, also runs an online platform coordinating the efforts of the Sudanese opposition from afar:
Barricades provide protection for protesters. When the security forces start chasing people down in pick-ups, they are stopped in their tracks by the barricades. Because they have to actually stop the car, get out and tear down the barricades, the protesters then have precious time to flee, reorganise and set up another barricade in another place. They are constantly playing a game of cat and mouse with the authorities.
There are also 'internal barricades' that protesters have set up in their own neighbourhoods. When the security forces try to follow protesters back to their homes, they get slowed down by the barricades and the protesters have time to flee.
During general strikes, protesters set up barricades in the middle of the main streets thus stopping traffic to and from the main markets. That means the markets have to shut down and people can’t get to work. When a general strike was held on October 27, protestors used a giant billboard to block off Al-Sajana Street, which is a very busy road. Lots of people participated in the general strike.
During the most intense period in the 2019 protests, protesters started using a tactic where they would erect a new barricade every time they manage to advance about five kilometres. They slowly gained ground until they reached the army’s headquarters, where they began a sit-in on April 6, 2019. They held this ground for several months, thanks to the barricades that they had set up around their camp. Finally, the army and the Rapid Support Forces [Editor’s note: former Janjaweed militias, which have been accused of carrying out atrocities during the conflict in Darfur] resorted to using excessive force to push the protesters out on June 3, 2019.
'There is a person assigned to protect each barricade'
Sudanese people have a long tradition of using barricades during protests. They first appeared during the 1964 protests that ended the military regime led by Ibrahim Aboud. Protesters also used them in 2013 during demonstrations against Bashir.
During the 2019 protests, the barricade system became more advanced. The barriers were no longer just piles of rocks and other objects, but fairly sophisticated tools used to protect protesters from counterattacks, says Khaled Masa, a Khartoum-based activist who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers:
There is a person assigned to protect each barricade. If the barricade is hit by a projectile or damaged by a vehicle, they have to quickly repair it. We call this person 'al-tars sahi', which means the 'barricade guard' in the Sudanese dialect. Some of these guardians died trying to protect their barricade. We call these people 'barricade martyrs'.
Each barricade also has someone who we call a 'jerdel man'. His job is to grab the tear gas canisters launched by the security forces and trap them in a bucket so that the gas doesn’t choke the protesters. Then, he will sometimes try to throw the canister back at the security forces.
The barricades have also slowly become a sort of meeting place where activists can gather to talk, read poetry, listen to music, play football, give speeches and organise. This has been happening at barricades all across Khartoum’s suburbs since October 25.
The international community has almost unanimously condemned the army's power grab. Meanwhile, there seems to be no end in sight for the crisis rocking Sudan, as the Sudanese Professionals Association has refused to negotiate with the military council, demanding a return to civilian rule.