The military junta led by Omar Hassan al-Bashir shut down The Sudan Times, the newspaper my father co-edited, and forced us into exile.
By Jamal Mahjoub
Mr. Mahjoub is the author of “A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory.”
Thirty years feels like a lifetime. On Thursday, months of peaceful, popular protests finally forced Sudan’s military to oust President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. It feels as if a century has passed since I was in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, just after Mr. al-Bashir ousted Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless coup supported by the Islamists and the army in December 1989.
Six months after the coup the mood was already shifting from shock to gloomy resignation. Nobody in his wildest dreams thought the new leadership would last three decades.
I had no idea then that the Khartoum I knew would disappear: the evening lights, the cinemas and ice cream parlors. Khartoum was the location of an otherwise happy childhood, albeit one that was punctuated from time to time by the uncertainty of waking up to the sound of artillery shells and distant gunfire.
A coup meant days off from school. Loud, excited voices on the radio announcing some garbled plan to restore order. The first big coup came just two years after independence in 1958. The second coup brought Gaafar al-Nimery, an army colonel, to power in 1969; he ruled till 1985. Both of those episodes were terminated by popular uprisings. Nothing, however, prepared us for the al-Bashir regime.
In 1989 political Islam was in the ascendant. Across the Middle East, aging dictators clung to power with the blessing and support of the West. Ten years after the Iranian revolution, the Cold War between East and West was coming to a close. In Afghanistan the Mujahedeen, with backing from the United States and Pakistan and funding from Saudi Arabia, had defeated the Soviet Union.
To many in the Middle East, Islam appeared as the only viable opposition to moral and economic corruption. A new conservative interpretation of Islam was being imported to Sudan from across the Red Sea that brought with it Saudi codes of dress and intolerance, a new version of the faith unlike the syncretic and Sufi-inspired Islam Sudanese had practiced for centuries.
The embodiment of this new spirit was Hassan al-Turabi, a mediocre political actor with a charismatic smile and a doctorate from the Sorbonne, who was the ideologue behind Mr. al-Bashir’s coup. In Mr. al-Turabi’s twisted vision we were to be the vanguard of an Islamic renaissance. Religion would sweep away differences of class, ethnicity and wealth.
The educated middle classes — politicians, writers and artists, academics and professionals — were targeted by the security forces. The lucky ones went to prison; others vanished into the notorious “ghost houses” where they were tortured and disappeared without trace. It was a purge tinged with the purification of an inquisition.
It is hard to overstate the brutality of Mr. al-Bashir’s first decade, from 1989 to 1999. The war in the south was rebranded as jihad. Military service was compulsory. Children went to school in camouflage print uniforms. Those who fell in the war were labeled martyrs. Khartoum was flooded with Iranian military advisers, along with all manner of militant groups and radicals, including one Osama bin Laden.
My parents were caught in the middle. My father ran an English-language daily newspaper along with two veteran journalists. The Sudan Times was closed in the press crackdown in 1990, and my father was advised to leave if he wanted to avoid prison.
My family found sanctuary of a kind in Cairo, along with around a million other Sudanese who had also fled. Daily life was dominated by rumor and the horror stories brought by new arrivals: the professor made to recite the alphabet by former students who had become his torturers; an old newspaperman’s son who was hung from a ceiling fan and beaten until his back was broken.
Every story offered and then withdrew the possibility of return. I remember the look on my father’s face when a trusted friend from Khartoum explained that after nearly five years away it was still unsafe for him to go back.
By the end of that first decade the fog began to lift. Disillusionment with Islam as the great leveler began to set in. Insurgency spread in places like Darfur, the Red Sea area and Kordofan. Ethnic division continued to grow. For a time, a degree of pragmatism entered proceedings when Chinese and Malaysian interests were invited in.
The next 10 years witnessed an oil boom. Land prices rose. New buildings sprang up. Shiny new cars appeared on the streets.
Despite all the oil money, nothing of substance was achieved. Refineries and dams were built, but there was no long-term agricultural or economic strategy. Public services were left to decay. Doctors and teachers found their livelihoods whittled away. Seventy percent of the budget went to the military. Those close to Mr. al-Bashir managed to enrich themselves. Everyone else suffered.
When I departed in early 1990 I had no idea that it would be more than 16 years before I returned. By then my parents had passed away without seeing an end to the regime that had derailed their lives. My father stubbornly refused to return while “they” were still in power. We buried him in a cemetery in North London, where he had gone for medical treatment, choosing perpetual exile over compromise.
Mr. al-Bashir’s fall is a moment that seems charged with infinite possibility, the chance to redeem and restore. There is no easy way forward, but it begins with the truth, the freedom required to burn off the illusion under which Sudan has toiled for so long.
The enduring image that has emerged in the past few days is a hopeful one: a young woman dressed not in the conservative garb of the last decades, the long skirts and tightly wound hijabs, but in a traditional white tobe, elegantly symbolic of the powerful, politically active women of the 1960s and 1970s.
I am encouraged by images from the overnight vigil. People standing peacefully in the dark outside the army headquarters, singing old songs while a lone figure plays the saxophone. It takes me back to another age, when there was a belief in the country, in ourselves. It speaks of a perseverance of spirit.
If this revolution is to succeed it must sweep away not just this regime but also the stagnation that has dominated politics for decades and turned indifference into an ideology.
A transformation of the political spectrum, one that allows a new generation of young men and women to flourish, representing not only the diversity of the country but also its true potential. One can only hope.
Jamal Mahjoub is the author of “A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory.” He writes novels using the pseudonym Parker Bilal.
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