By Nadra Widatalla
The Sudan I know is filled with oppression and martial law. It’s filled with mobs surrounding ATMs, queues for petrol so long that getting fuel takes half a day, and a wealth disparity so large it’s shameful. The Sudan I know is on the verge of crumbling, held together only by the bits of history and culture spoken from the lips of those who lived there over 30 years ago, when people were given the freedom of opportunity, education, and hope.
My parents came to the U.S. from Sudan in the late ‘80s to create their version of the American dream. As a first-generation child, my memories of Sudan consisted of privileged trips every four or five years that were still too short to build a connection of any substance. Day trips to Wad al-Bana and Al-Thawra to visit my grandparents. Hot and dry days chewing sugarcane, and trying to eat tasali the way all the other kids could. It wasn’t until my late-teens that those trips started to mean more.
Today, I cling to the Sudan I’ve only heard about in stories. They say zaman, which means “back then” in Arabic. When I hear those words, I know it means before Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
In the summer of 1989, al-Bashir, along with the National Islamic Front, organized a coup; he declared himself President, commencing a dictatorship that would last over 30 years. It was a regime that would be defined by its devotion to depriving the Sudanese people of the advancements afforded to neighboring countries. It was during this time period that many young adults chose to leave Sudan in hopes of better opportunities abroad.
“As Sudanese diaspora youth, we weren’t allowed to experience something that was innately ours, because it was taken away, and a lot of the riches of the culture disappeared with corruption,” Wafa May Elamin, a Sudanese-American activist who left Sudan in 1998 and now lives in Virginia, tells me. “The reason this diaspora even exists, is because of this regime.”
Sudan has withstood decades of negligence and oppression inflicted by those in power. Once Africa’s largest nation, and a country with so much potential and resources, Sudan’s future now rests in the hands of the people to pick up and piece it together. Al-Bashir created a new type of government, one with him at the forefront, center, and back. He created a culture fueled by intimidation and fear. A country whose history is as deep and as long as the river Nile that runs through it has grown more and more unfamiliar to those who lived there — zaman, 30 years ago.
Zaman, when people began escaping the regime, only hoping to return once Sudan gained the real freedom it deserves. Zaman, when return seemed like the logical endpoint, when we didn’t know what we know now.
Today, Sudan is in the middle of a revolution. Since the weekend of April 6, young people have been participating in a mass sit-in, and have managed to overthrow not one, but two leaders: al-Bashir, and the defense minister who replaced him, Awad Mohammed Ibn Ouf, who was in power for less than a day. Though a long-overdue victory, the fight is far from over, as the people will not rest until they are handed civilian control and can rebuild the country.
“Currently, we are a united and strong front,” says Nuha Zein Mohamed, spokesperson for the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), the group that has been leading the revolution. “The Sudanese people were able to remove the rule of a totalitarian regime. They managed to remove a military coup on April 11, 30 hours after its formation since it was a recycling of the previous regime. Now, they will remove anyone who tries to steal this revolution and their rights to a life of dignity, freedom, and justice.”
The wounds inflicted by al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, will take generations to heal. They will manifest themselves in ways I can only imagine, ways my kids will have to deal with, because they will also be robbed of the Sudan they could have known. The Sudan their grandparents should not have felt like they had to leave.
Witnessing this revolution from the United States is surreal. It consists of updates via WhatsApp, voice memos from home, and soundbites of people crying, cheering, and chanting. Being a part of this moment in history in the digital age is a combination of feeling helpless, while also feeling empowered to uplift those who are on the ground fighting. Sudanese across the globe are grappling at the thought of what this revolution means for their families.
“Selfishly, I see myself going back because I want to experience the Sudan I never got to experience. I want the nostalgia that I feel when my mother tells me about Sudan to make sense,” says Wafa May.
For a long time, I feared that the only Sudan I would ever know is one that tried to escape — and failed. Though heartbroken by all the time we’ve lost and will never get back, I’m now hopeful.
“The youth are leading this revolution, last night I joined them,” my father, who is currently in Sudan, texted me. “There are close to one million people that have taken over the military compound and they will not leave.”
He tells me he feels optimistic. This is his revolution, but it’s for me.