Saturday, September 27, 2014

Memory from September 2013- the Brown Scarf



Last week, I found the flimsy brown scarf lying on my couch between my other scarfs and a black skirt. It was washed and ironed and folded, almost too neatly for such a rebellious scarf. I didn't even know that it had left my wardrobe where I kept it since Friday the 27th of September 2013.
Let me tell you the story of this small scarf, which is more like a neck tie than a scarf. It was a very hot Friday, my best friend, Sara, came over in the morning after hearing news that a large protest will take place in Omdurman that day, it was a long week, mass protests took place all over Sudan and were suppressed by live bullets. By Friday, over 200 were killed.
We agreed to go to the protest and live-tweet what was happening. I wore leggings and on top of it, a black dress belonging to my mother and orange shoes since I couldn't find my sneakers….. and most importantly, a beautiful teal cotton scarf. It had an exceptional color and although Sara told me not to wear it. I insisted on wearing it because its material will make me cool down. Before we left the house, I sprayed some vinegar mixed with water on the edge of my beautiful scarf, in anticipation of heavy teargas.

We left the house in a big group, my parents and my aunt, my two cousins who never protested before, my uncle and ..Sara. We walked to Al-Gala2 neighborhood before we saw masses walking towards us, they were chanting while holding big signs with anti-government slogans.
We stood there in shock before we found ourselves in the middle of the protest. Estimates by various groups and my father who I consider a good statistician said that the protest had up to 10,000 people.
We marched for a long time until we reached the Central Police Station next to Omdurman Locality.
There was a moment of silence before the crowds shouted "peaceful", dozens of police officers and plain-clothed security officers stood there in shock, at the massive numbers and the loud voice.

My best friend told me that when the crowds chanted "peaceful", one plain-clothed security officer signaled "NO" with his finger.
We should have seen it coming.
When we reached the middle of Street 40, I put more vinegar with water on tissue-paper and then put it inside my scarf before wrapping the scarf around my mouth. I wanted to breathe in as much vinegar as possible. I could see the tear-gas coming.
At some point, the crowds stopped and sat on the floor and began chanting the national anthem while I felt like I was going to faint from the heat and exhaustion, Sara and I crossed the street and knocked on one of the houses and asked for water.
I took a few sips from the water then turned around to make it back to the crowds when I saw them getting dispersed. They were trapped and army vehicles were coming from both sides, firing live bullets into the air. The crowds were running, both from the live bullets and from the tear-gas bombs that were being fired left and right.
I remember seeing people running at me , dozens were trying to force themselves into the house were I had asked for water. I crouched on the floor and put my hands on my head. I saw hands reaching out to me, my best friend and another friend were in tears, screaming at me to come inside the house.
I made myself into the house with dozens of young men and women. A young man was leaning on the wall, with his face stretched in pain, his arm was dislocated or broken or something…during the chaotic dispersal scene.
Another young man was asking for a cloth, a scarf…something to tie the poor guy's hand. I took off my beautiful teal scarf and wrapped his arm with it and then tied the scarf to his neck.
A young woman who lives in the house where we were staying gave me the brown scarf.
For a long time, I thought about my scarf, my friend told me it is now hung on the young man's wall. As a beautiful souvenir from the September protests.
I also thought about the brown scarf. One day, I got dressed and threw it inside my beige bag and walked to Street 40. As I came closer to the house, I decided not to take it back. I decided to keep it.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Open Letter to Safia Ishaq


Dear Safia,

We have never met, but I know you.

When you were gang-raped on the 13th of February 2011, I was in Tripoli, my father was stationed with the UN there at the time, and we arrived in Libya after we were evacuated from Egypt as the revolution there unfolded. 

We were escorted from our house as military barricades filled the streets of Cairo, taken to terminal four and put on a World Bank plane to Dubai. From Dubai, we came to Libya only for another revolution to unfold.

Five days after your life changed forever, the day you were arrested by the national security service as you were buying your art supplies and then subjected to a horrific gang-rape by three security men as they muffled your screams and beat you into forced submission…. the protests would start in Benghazi in Western Libya and we would again evacuate Libya just days before the airport was shut down.

The whole world was changing in February 2011, Safia, your world changed and my world changed as well.

Ten days later, I am in a cold country and my mother is hospitalized, I am scared and afraid of loss, I check my Facebook only to find a video circulated by a movement called Girifna. In the video, you are wearing a blue scarf and speaking about your rape.

You went through something unimaginable, but you were not broken, you spoke about rape in a conservative society where rape is a stigma and a rape victim is stigmatized. You spoke about it at great personal risk..... the video was filmed and you were in hiding. Your family refused to speak to you for days after February 13th, Safia, they just could not grasp what happened to you. 

Some of your friends were in detention from the protests and others were arrested by the police who wanted to blame them for your disappearance.

In the video, you are collected as you tell what happened to you in details, towards the end, you break down in tears as the emotional ordeal becomes too heavy on your heart then you explain why you did this video...so things don't remain this way, so it doesn't happen to any girl again.

 So things get better.

So things get better...such a small sentence, Safia, but it has become my motto. A loaded phrase ….that gives me inspiration to continue to fight for human rights. I became an activist after watching your video and seeing how people reacted to it.

Too many things need to get better, Safia.

You shouldn't have been arrested or raped, because no-one deserves to be subjected to this. You shouldn't have been shunned by your family and called a liar by the government's propaganda because rape is serious and is a dangerous weapon ..... legitimatized by the mentality that makes it acceptable to fight wars over women's bodies and accept violence against women because they are active and taking part in resistance and protests . Because they exist in the public sphere.

I think of you many times, every year I remember you in the days leading up to February the 13th, I watch the video and I am touched by your message of hope against all adversity. 

Thank you Safia for touching my heart with your words and courage.



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Can artist campaigns help reunite the centre and the periphery in Sudan?

In the 1990s, as the war continued to escalate in Southern Sudan, Northern Sudanese activists arrived in conflict-affected areas in what was called a ‘peace convoy’. Initially the activists felt they were “mistrusted and no-one wanted to speak” to them, but after some days, this changed and people began to open up. Much the same has happened since 2011, when war broke out in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan and activists began pitching the idea of visiting the conflict areas and the refugee camps to send a message of solidarity.
Sudan’s conflicts have often involved areas on the marginalised periphery revolting against the more powerful and wealthy centre, and there is a gulf between the people who live in these different areas too.
Hajooj Kuka, a Sudanese filmmaker, has spent significant time in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan to film the perspective of those affected by war as they navigate their lives through Antonov bombing raids, and reaffirm their cultural and physical existence through music, dance and story-telling. When Kuka arrived at the IDP and refugee camps, usually finding himself the only or one of a very few there from the centre, he was met with many questions: “Why are people from the capital not coming here? Why is the only doctor in the area an American and not a Sudanese? Where is the centre in all of this?”
Kuka is not the only Sudanese artist attempting to highlight the country’s devastating conflicts. Art VS war is a cultural campaign carried out by Nabta Art and Culture Center in collaboration with the National Group for Cultural Policies. From his office in Cairo, Ahmed Isam – a Sudanese artist – designs colourful posters detailing the amount spent on war as opposed to government expenditure on the arts and mixes images of war planes and soldiers in camouflage with art supplies and musical instruments. The campaign is slowly growing from social media to posters and t-shirts; and by the end of the month it will head to refugee camps for musical and cultural exchanges between the centre and the conflict areas.
The film and the campaign should not be taken lightly; they are both innovative ways to build a bridge between the centre and the periphery and show solidarity from the centre, the place that Kuka and Isam believe can really pressure the government to stop the war.
Yet so far in Sudan, activist groups have been largely unable to mobilize people around the problem of war.
The September Effect
In 2012, Girifna, an activist group, campaigned for a protest day named “Darfur Baladna Friday” or “Darfur our home Friday,” during the protests known as Sudan Revolts. However, “Darfur Baladna Friday” never quite materialized in Khartoum. Some argued that it failed because it was Ramadan, others say that people never really related to what the day was intended to represent. The day did have one positive output: a note circulated online, written by Omdurman youth to Darfuris describing how they are saddened by what is happening in Darfur.
A few days later, there were protests in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state, and more than a dozen youth were shot dead. There was a sense of embarrassment in the centre: when the capital’s residents protest they are tear-gassed and detained, in the periphery, the government goes straight to live bullets.
The September 2013 demonstrations, during which more than 200 people were killed, mainly in the capital, were a turning point. When the bodies of protesters began piling up it was a shock to the centre. The government that allegedly protected them from the evil people in the periphery had now begun killing them too. The events of September 2013 echoed loudly in the war areas too. Kuka says that it made people realize that Sudanese in the centre could also be killed.
The September incident opened a new space for dialogue between activists in the centre and the periphery, but this dialogue will not prove prosperous unless the activists can mobilize people against the war and not just about economic issues.
The War Next Door
A few months ago, as Rapid Support Forces (RSF) burned and pillaged villages in North Darfur, the conflict in Sudan’s western region surfaced in Khartoum in the form an Arabic hashtag #Darfur_Burns. As one Darfuri activist put it to me, “it gave people information they never knew about Darfur and its history.”
Activist groups like Girifna and Sudan Change Now have campaigned against the three wars raging in Sudan. But the campaigns, despite all their good intentions, were never strong enough to rally popular support.
First, the campaigns were not prioritized during times when other events in the centre were given more coverage; and the local was usually not tied to the bigger problems in Sudan. Right now, the conversation is about the floods, with a particular focus on the implications for Khartoum state residents. The floods could be made a national issue as they bring to the fore issues of governance, the mass displacement of IDPs from war-torn areas to Khartoum where they live in uninhabitable land, and officials embezzling money instead of using it to prepare for the rainy season.
In another example, when Univeristy of Khartoum student Ali Abakar was shot after he gave a speech about the deteriorating situation in Darfur, activist groups failed to make their campaign about the war. Instead it was presented as a local University of Khartoum event. Soon, the attention moved from Ali Abakar to the students who were arrested and to the dispersal of students from the dorms.
Second, the campaigns have been isolated from the civilians in the conflict areas. This is because activists lack access to the war zones and sometimes do not reach out effectively to civilians from those places. Moreover, there is a serious trust issue. Salih Ammar, a journalist, was beaten up when attempting to show solidarity with a Darfuri student activist who was allegedly tortured to death by the security services.
Finally, no sustained efforts are made by activist groups to explain to the average citizen how war is their biggest problem, as it affects everything from the country’s economy to healthcare and the educational system. Over 70% of the country’s revenues go to the military and security; in other words, war affects everyday life.
Art as a weapon against war
“War stops at the place it is coming from, where the arms are made and the planes are launched,” Isam says. Both Kuka and Isam explain that the centre needs to be part of the solution to stop the war.
To make his documentary, “Beats of the Antonov”, which tells the story of
the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan, Kuka spent months going to the refugee and IDP camps in which hundreds of thousands of people from both regions live. Previous films about the war in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan have not been made by Sudanese filmmakers and he wanted to make a film where Sudanese people are the audience. The people he filmed were at the heart of his documentary, and they saw the many cuts of the film as it was being edited and gave their comments and recommendations.
In the film, in one scene, the girls are giggling as they watch themselves on Kuka’s laptop. These girls were never going to be on national television, but now they are part of a film that will have a bigger audience than simply Sudan TV. The film is meant to arm its Sudanese audience, who after watching it will want to fight for cultural and ethnic diversity, to listen to this music and hear these stories told in the centre, in Khartoum.
Art Vs War is also important because like Kuka it will directly go to the people affected by the war and will be a bridge between the centre and the periphery. It is an attempt at peace-building, with no resources to build services, but merely to build social peace between people.
The only anti-war attempts that will work should start from the centre and engage with the conflict areas and should only be focused on war; the most critical issue in Sudan today.

Originally Published at
http://africanarguments.org/2014/08/12/can-artist-campaigns-help-reunite-the-centre-and-the-periphery-in-sudan-by-reem-abbas/
and a Version was published at:
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/18/art-film-activist-peace-sudan?CMP=twt_gu

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Freedom to Hassan Ishaq, the journalist and my friend

Dear Hassan,


It took me two days to really comprehend that you were really arrested. Minutes after your arrest, a friend posted the news on Facebook, he only wrote "Hassan Ishaq was arrested".I asked if it is Hassan the journalist. 

I did what any person not in their right mind would do, I called both of your numbers, it is a stupid move I reckon , but something many of us do when we hear that someone was arrested. It is almost our way of trying to confirm that the arrest didn't take place or that you managed to escape.
A few days later, by coincidence, I found a notebook while organizing my writing notebooks. I flipped the pages to see what I was writing in 2012 and found two pages full of notes about you. It was an attempt at documenting that you were summoned by the NISS in mid 2012 for your articles and the threats you received. To the bottom right, I had asked you for your family's numbers …just in case! 

I called your sister , telling her I am Hassan's friend and I just wanted to see how they are doing. She did not know about your arrest Hassan. She told me that you had a work mission in Al-Nuhud then vanished, your phone has been off for days. I just could not tell her , I told her yes you have been MIA and I would contact her if I find out something.
Someone must have told her and I am glad it didn't have to be me, she called me the next day and told me the news and asked if you will be released soon and if you will be tortured. I told her that you are okay, even though I knew about the torture and that you were taken to the hospital.



I met Hasan in 2012,  I worked at Al-Jareeda newspaper for a few months, supervising a weekly file in the English language and Hassan was collaborating with the newspaper at the time. Ishaq was very disciplined in his work, he was a real journalist and produced exceptional work with the little resources he had. The newspaper paid very low salaries, barely enough to cover transportation and breakfast money, but Hassan went out of his way to cover sensitive human rights cases. When no one was writing about the detention of the University of Khartoum students or the detention of Dr. Bushra Gamar or the crackdown on the media, Ishaq was contacting families, lawyers and activists and pushing very strong pieces to get published.
Hassan would write his article in his notebook then type them when a laptop or a computer becomes available at the newspaper as he did not have a personal laptop. 

He was born to be a journalist, always chasing news that mattered to him, talking to people and researching stories on the internet. 

Hassan resigned from Al-Jareeda newspaper after he was summoned by NISS in April 2012. He was asked by the editor to "water-down his daring writings" and he just couldn't get himself to do it. 

As a colleague working in the newspaper field, my advise was to keep working at the newspaper to keep a stable income and do freelance work for websites that respected his daring writings. He continued working as a journalist, sending his writings to Sudanese websites which published his work for no pay at all. To make ends meet, he worked all kinds of jobs, in an oven in the market in his neighborhood, brick-laying in construction sites…everything to continue writing.

In July 2012, during the trial of his friend, Rudwan Dawood, Hassan was arrested while covering the controversial trial. He was beaten, robbed of his phone and precious press card.

He returned to Al-Hasahisa to stay with his family. I once told him over the phone, just work as a farmer Hassan, if they don't publish your work, then they don't deserve to have you as a writer. In Al-Hasahisa, Hassan worked different jobs to make it day-to-day, his most precious possession was his notepads and pens, he would write op-ed and articles that he would email me, eventually, he was getting published in Sudanese websites, again, he was not getting paid. If only they knew how you struggled to write at the end of a long day after working in the hot sun to support your family. 
You were getting stressed and sad, once you told me, I am embrassed from my family, I can not defend my profession anymore. 

Hassan was arrested on Tuesday 10 June 2014 at Al-Nuhud while on assignment for Al-Jareeda newspaper, he was tortured and had to go to the hospital for medications as stated by a lawyer working on his case.

Hassan and others were arrested under the Emergency Laws of West Kordofan state which gives the authorities the right to keep someone for up to six months without charges. The lawyer said that he does not even have a copy of the emergency laws to understand what it entails.

I miss you Hassan. Freedom to Hassan and freedom to his daring writings. 


Sudan protest victims still seeking justice



At around 3 p.m. on the extraordinarily hot afternoon of May 28, Sara Abdel-Bagi's mother stood in front of the Bahri court complex in shock and in tears. In the middle of the street, with one hand in the air, she screamed, "There is no god but God, there is no justice for my daughter." The other hand clutched her thobe, the local Sudanese customary attire, as it kept collapsing on the road.
Women and men from Abdel-Bagi's family, together with activists who attended the court session, formed a straight line and closed the street, holding signs with pictures of martyrs who fell during the September 2013 protests in Sudan. Some read, "We will not forget, we will not forgive."
The September protests, also referred to as Sudan Revolts 2.0, began in Medani, the capital of Al-Jazeera state before it spread to Khartoum state and elsewhere. The protests came after President Omar Bashir announced the removal of fuel and gas subsidies. The protests quickly grew bloody, with Amnesty International estimating that 210 protesters had been killed by government forces.
Hundreds were arrested during the protests and dozens remain in prison with ongoing trials for their participation. In January 2014, Bashir called for a national dialogue with opposition parties. Some parties, such as Umma, the largest opposition party, and the Islamist Popular Congress Party,joined the call for dialogue, but Umma suspended the dialogue after its leader was arrested by the national security forces in May.
The judge adjudicating the trial of Sara's murder concluded that "there is confusion and contradictions in the testimonies of the witnesses," and ordered that Sami Mohamed Ahmed, a former soldier accused of shooting Sara Abdel-Bagi to death, be freed.
After the court adjourned, the scene was chaotic. Sara's sister Eiman, a journalist, was held back by family members as she kicked down a traffic triangle while her aunt chanted, "One million martyrs for a new dawn." Tearful activists holding signs were screamed at by armed riot police who waved their clubs at them, threatening to use force while plainclothes security officers grabbed the signs and shoved them into a plastic bag. One protester told Al-Monitor, "He put the posters with the martyr's pictures in a trash bag."
On Sept. 25, 2013, Sara Abdel-Bagi left her house in distress with her sister for her uncle's house, only a few meters away, to attend her 15-year-old cousin’s funeral. Her cousin, Suhaib Mohamed Musa, had been shot dead while participating in the fourth day​ of the mass protests
Abdel-Bagi never made it to her cousin's funeral; she was shot right in front of her house. When she reached the hospital, there was no specialist to treat her and she died, Eiman told Al-Monitor. Her family struggled to cope with the aftermath. Just reaching the court was a challenge on its own.
"We received everything from threats to total refusal to even open a complaint against [the soldier] Ahmed. Many discouraged us and said there will be no justice," said Abdel-Bagi's aunt Fatima al-Amin, also an activist.
It took 67 days for the police to arrest Ahmed, even after he was named by witnesses in court on Oct. 9, 2013. There were 12 witnesses in total, with five testifying that they saw him shoot her, according to the documentation submitted by the family's lawyer to the court and seen by Al-Monitor.
One witness. who is related to Ahmed, said that he was the only one dressed in civilian clothes who was armed in the area, and that he saw him shoot her.
"Even one of the defense witnesses reiterated the testimonies of our witnesses and put him in that location at that time," said Amin.
According to Amin, Ahmed also shot dead another young man in their neighborhood, Al-Doroshab North. His family, along with the family of Musa, waited for the results of Abdel-Bagi's case before they took action. 
For Mutasim al-Haj, Abdel-Bagi's lawyer, the fight is not over.
"We will take the case to the court of appeals, then to the high court and then to the constitutional court. If no justice prevails, we will take our case to the African court," Haj told Al-Monitor.
Following Ahmed's trial, Haj was interrogated by security personnel for 2 ½ hours.
"I was told that I instigated the people to hold signs and conduct the protest in front of the court and that I am not practicing law, I am doing political work," said Haj, adding that he, along with other lawyers, will write a memorandum detailing this violation to the Lawyers Syndicate.
Another mother of a protester who was killed during the protest, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor that so far she has been unable to file a complaint and take her son's case to court.
"I am a widow and when I went to the police station to file a complaint, I was told that as a woman, I need a blood kin to do this. Although I am his mother, I had to get his uncle's permission," she said, adding that even when she complied, they still refused to take her complaint. She is working with a lawyer to bring her son's case to court.
Sideeg Yousif, the head of the National Committee for Solidarity with the Families of Martyrs and Wounded, said that families who lost loved ones during the September protests face many problems. "The police will never open a complaint for them against the national security, which is the accused body. It will open a complaint against an unknown assailant," Yousif told Al-Monitor. He added that all families received a permit to bury the bodies, but no medical reports or autopsies.
"If you have no medical report and most importantly Form Eight (a police form documenting physical harm), it is difficult to file a complaint. Most families were denied Form Eight, but in usual cases, the police require it even before you get medical attention," Yousif said.
By the end of 2013, the Sudanese government estimated that 80 people lost their lives in the protests after insisting that only 34 had died until a month after the protests. 
The justice minister has formed a committee led by the chairman of the General Prosecution Office of Omdurman, Babiker Gashi, to investigate the events of September 2013, but the committee has yet to present any findings. In fact, in May an official at the Ministry of Justice denied that a committee had ever been formed in the first place.
Amin continues to advocate for her niece and other martyrs, but others have questions that remain unanswered.
One young activist who wished to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, "On Sept. 25, I joined a protest in Al-Fatehab in Omdurman. When we reached the Mohandiseen roundabout, there were no police, but then new forces that we never saw before appeared and shot live bullets."
The activist said that the scene was chaotic while they recovered fallen protesters. One body, that of a secondary-school student named Salem, was carried away by the protesters and that sparked another protest. The activist said, "The forces came again and when they opened live fire and tear gas, people ran for cover. When we were conscious again, the bed we were carrying was empty — Salem's body was taken."
Salem's story is one of many, and further proof that the crackdown on protesters in September 2013 needs independent investigation.

Published @http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/06/sudan-sara-bagi-protests-september-activists.html#

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mariam Yahia's Story



Mariam Yahia, a mother in her 20s is currently facing apostasy and adultery charges under Sudan's Criminal Law of 1991. Yahia is accused of leaving Islam and converting to Christianity in a complaint brought against her by a family claiming to be her direct family. Mariam's story unleashed a war in Sudan where one side views itself as guarding Islam from the other side, the infidels. Although the war could be viewed as a religious one, it is in fact political, Maryam by staying firm on her position to remain a Christian put the entire Islamist project in jeopardy, a young woman has stood against a patriarchal judiciary system that has its laws tailored specifically to punish women and a political system that doesn't accept religious diversity.
On Thursday 15th of May, I sat in a cramped court house at Al-Haj Yousif Court Complex in Khartoum North, the court house had more people standing than sitting and dozens were standing in front of the court house, knocking its wooden door every few seconds only to be told that they can not be allowed in. Mariam Yahia was locked inside the defendant's cage with a bearded sheikh who represented the Sudan Scholars Council.
We waited for at least half an hour only for the bearded sheikh to step outside the cage and sit next to the judge.
The judge asked Mariam what her decision is, in other words, if she decided to return to Islam. She said just one sentence, "I am Christian and I am not an apostate,"
The courthouse was silent then astonished. Some let out screams they tried to suppress with their palms, others cried, tears of worry for Mariam.
I was absolutely surprised, just days before, Mariam's lawyers and husband spoke about the pressure she is facing in jail, by the prison guards and the women imprisoned with her and by the state and the entire judiciary system. Just two days before the Sunday session where she was sentenced to execution and 100 lashes under Article 126, Apostasy, and Article 146, Adultery, Mariam received an unwelcome state visitor in prison telling her that she needs to recount her christian faith and return to Islam to escape execution. She was told that an appeal could take years and she could be stuck in jail for four years before she would be free.
In that context, as a mother of a boy under 2 years old and the future mother of a girl that she will give birth to in the coming weeks, it would have made a lot of sense for Mariam to recount her faith and choose the easy way out.
However, there is no easy way out for Mariam.
The Story

Mariam's story began with the judiciary system in September 2013. On the 14th of September 2013, a man who claims to be her brother filed a complaint that he saw his missing sister with a South Sudanese man. She was arrested along with her husband the next day , the police said that they were able to track her using her cellphone number after arresting her husband's cousin by mistake. Mariam was in and out of jail based on adultery charges as her family claimed that she is Muslim by birth and she can not have married this Christian man, Dr. David Wani, and because they have a child together, this is Zina or adultery as based on Article 146 of the Criminal Law. In mid-January 2014, Omdurman Women's Prison became Mariam's full-time home with her now 20 months old son, Martin. Around that time, her defense team said is when the apostasy charges were added as based on Article 146 of the Criminal Law.
Mariam said that her mother is Ethiopian and her father is a Sudanese Muslim and she was raised as a Christian following her mother's religion. She lived in Gedarif before moving to Khartoum sometime in 2005 , she married Dr.Wani in late 2011. At the time her family, which represents the complainer in this case, claimed that she disappeared after Ramadan 2012, Mariam was married and pregnant with her first child, Martin, at the time. Both Mariam's story and her alleged family's story have serious gaps, , but I will look beyond the personal, at a case that is more politically and socially complex , than a family problem.
Before Mariam's story, the Sudanese public have not heard of of a person sentenced for apostasy since 1985, when the Republican party's spiritual leader, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, was sentenced in public for apostasy, just a mere months before the March-April revolution. After the revolution, Taha's daughter who is a lawyer worked with a team of defense lawyers, and took this case to the constitutional court which deemed the case and his sentencing unconstitutional. This did not stop the judge from referring to the case of Taha on the Sunday where he sentenced Mariam to death by execution as a case of apostasy.
In April 2014, before Mariam, there was Faiza Abdullah. A simple mother of 8 who converted to Christianity to marry her husband who is Christian and works at the church. Abdullah found herself in a dilemma when she went to get a National ID number, the officer saw her name and asked her "what is your religion?". When she said she is Christian, he automatically wore the hat of a complainer and took her to court. During her trial, her father said that he is Muslim and she was Muslim growing up, but she converted to Christianity. The father had no objections to the fact that his daughter left Islam. Last week, a man in his 40s was arrested in a mosque in Southern Khartoum because he distributed pamphlets promoting Christianity. When I followed the news, I was told that his lawyer pleaded that he is mentally unstable and he was sentenced to a psychiatric ward. A lawyer friend told me that the lawyer could have used this approach to save his client from the ordeal of Mariam.
It seems very bizarre that a man who distributes pamphlets promoting Christianity in a mosque three weeks in a row is "mentally unstable", he seems very certain about what he wants to do.

The People Who Held Signs

Outside Mariam's court house, civil society activists began gathering and stood on the stairs leading to the court, some armed with posters that read slogans like "the death penalty is inhumane| and "the right of religion is a constitutional right" and others armed with their loud dissenting voices. What followed was an ideological battle between those activists who largely represent the moderate religious voices such as the Republicans and those who are affiliated with the Sudanese left and the bearded sheikhs and young men who are against everything those activists stand for. Because in reality, it is a greater gain for the the Sudan Scholars Council to pressure Maryam into Islam than to have her sentenced to death. It is a gain for Islam in Sudan and a gain against the Sudanese left which is viewed as a threat to the entire Islamist project.
The court was a battlefield between those two parties, it was a moral and political battle. Moral because the religious zealots view civil society activists as morally inferior and anti-religion and are in a constant struggle against religious values which they believe are inherently Sudanese. Political because what Amel Habbani, a Sudanese journalist, said in front of the court house, summarized the political debate between both sides. "You want to execute Maryam, but you don't want to even try those corrupt murderers in power," she argued, only to be told to cover her hair. She screamed, "no to women's oppression". In fact, Maryam's case is another testament that the political is always fought over women's bodies.
In the case of Maryam and Faiza, the state acted as the patriarch , showing complete contempt and lack of acceptance for his daughters' decisions. Faiza was divorced from her husband by the patriarch while Maryam is continuing to be painted as a girl who was "bewitched" by forces only known to the Sudan Scholars Council. If she continues to refuse to succumb to the decision imposed upon her by the state, she will be lashed 100 times and executed. If she recounts Christianity, she will still be lashed and will also be divorced from a husband.
The Gap Within

In the days before that hot Thursday afternoon, Sudanese activists began a social media campaign, in the form of a hashtag and a Facebook page, respectively. The purpose was to gather support for Maryam's case and invite people to attend her trial. The solidarity campaign caused serious issues to resurface, those issues are usually much easier to bury when we are discussing a social problem or a political issue such as the regime's use of excess force against civilians in war zones or even political detentions. But when you discuss religion, you automatically find yourself walking in a landmine, between the total seculars, the bearded seculars and those in between.
The debate ensued, between trying to tell Maryam's story to the people in her own words without the gaps, that she is Christian based on her mother's religion and by this, you gain a large number of followers who will support Mariam merely because they will blame her father who abandoned her as a child to be brought up by her Christian mother. It becomes tricky and you could attract the kind of followers, who stand against Maryam's apostasy sentence, but still believe that as a Muslim, you can not leave your faith. In other words, the solidarity campaign stops at supporting Maryam's right to practice Christianity, but does not uphold the constitutional right to "Freedom of religion".
Moreover, a main argument used by the solidarity campaign which includes journalists, activists and even scholars is to question the Huddud in Islam, with many arguing that death for apostasy is not even Islamic. Those who defend Mariam's right to life because Islam does not have the death penalty for apostasy are usually silent on her second sentence, Article 146.
Others who argue that death for apostasy is in Islam ignore that this sentence is against Sudan's Interim constitution which should, in practice, reflect an Islamic constitution since Sudan has been ruled by Islamists since 1989.
A few weeks ago, I posted a news piece on Twitter stating that " a university girl was lashed for getting pregnant by her fiancee". I asked where is the fiancee in this lashing and reiterated that I am against lashing. I then received many comments supporting that the fiancee also had to be lashed because this is Zina based on the Islamic law. The readers simply missed my point, I only asked where the fiancee is in the lashing because in most Zina cases in Sudan , the woman is the one getting lashed. If the fiancee was asked and he denied, orally, that this is his baby, he will not be lashed, but she will under all circumstances. This does not change my stance that both sides should not be lashed, however, my question was a jab at the judiciary system which is supported by a patriarchal socio-political system which incriminates women even in their private lives.
Finally, Mariam's case stands as a real challenge for civil society activists in her solidarity campaign, at the end of the day, if they want to challenge the Apostasy law in Sudan, international pressure and advocacy alone is not enough. National pressure and advocacy is much needed and by the high number of "likes" on the Facebook Page , many inside Sudan are interested in Maryam's case, but how to sell Mariam's case as a human rights issue, as a "Freedom of Religion" issue will be a dilemma. If we want to uphold Mariam's story in her own words, we still have to convince people that even though she says that she is Christian due to her mother's influence, she has the constitutional right to be part of any religion she wishes. However, if we uphold the other side's story, that she is their runaway daughter who left Islam, then the solidarity campaign will face the challenge of standing up to zealots who act as guardians to the Islamic state in Sudan.
Cross-posted at --- http://www.cmi.no/news/?1394-mariam-yahias-story

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sudanese press suffers under economic woes

Originally published @ http://www.dc4mf.org/en/node/4576

The year 2013 was a year of economic woes for everyone in the newspaper industry in Sudan. For the first time in years, inflation is rapidly heading towards the 50% mark, with the Sudanese pound (SDG) losing over half of its value.  As a result, newspapers initially had to change their price from 1 SDG to 1.5 SDG and then eventually to 2 SDG by November 2013.

This increase has turned newspapers into a luxury, like the expensive English butter biscuits gathering dust on the shelves of supermarkets. 

A few days ago, Al-Ayam newspaper, one of the few independent newspapers in Sudan, published figures indicating a 50% decrease in the circulation of newspapers in general in 2013 compared to the year before, while many newspapers were forced out of business.

Al-Ayam, one of Sudan's oldest newspapers, was established in the 1950’s and survived a number of dictatorships that censored it and even shut it down for years.  However, the outlet is desperately struggling at the moment, clinging onto a life jacket in a bid to survive the current economic wave.
"Nearly 80% of the issues printed are sold, which is good distribution.  However, we don't print the same issues every day - we print based on our financial situation," said Ahmed Al-Sheikh, an editor at Al-Ayam.

Al-Ayam receives practically no revenue from advertising, meaning that the newspaper has to survive on its distribution funds, and the instability this has produced has led to many journalists leaving its payroll.
Death of the rebel
Two months ago, Al-Qarar newspaper disappeared from the newsstands. Al-Qarar, known by journalists as "an act of rebellion," was launched by journalists who were frustrated at working in newspapers owned by businessmen. It was first printed in October 2012 with founders who decided that they wouldn’t take salaries until the newspaper was able to stand on its feet.  It never did.
"I was committed to the newspaper and what it represents so I stayed there, although I made less than what I made two years ago at another newspaper.  Sometimes, the pay came months late," said Ayman Senjrab, the news editor at Al-Qarar.

Like others at Al-Qarar, Senjrab was practically a volunteer, but he and his colleagues enjoyed working at a newspaper and the unique experience it entailed. The well-known journalist is currently waiting to hear whether "the rebel" will be back in business or not, but he is concerned for its future. The newspaper has to pay back debts it owes to the publishing house, but in reality, it needs to get back into business to recoup the money it owes.

"I expect to see more newspapers collapsing with this deteriorating economy, and the independent newspapers will lose the battle first," Senjrab told DCMF.

Along with Al-Qarar, many newspapers, covering sports, as well as political and social affairs, have had to stop printing, and they have done so making very little noise. Al-Akhbar, Noon, Al-Mawaj Al-Azraq, Sada-Al-Malaab, Al-Helal, Al-Mereikh, Al-Shabka, New Sport, Super and Fanon have all disappeared from the kiosks in Khartoum. 

Untenable expenses
The circulation of political newspapers went from 258,000 to between 130,000 and 140,000 in 2013 with sports newspapers’ numbers also dropping, and social affairs newspapers suffering a 40% loss in circulation.

At the beginning of 2013, many newspapers were complaining over the prices of paper, which had more than doubled following the austerity measures of 2012.  At the end of 2013, the government implemented another wave of austerity measures, this time removing fuel subsidies, which caused a rapid increase in all prices and led to a week of protests and violence, during which dozens of civilians were allegedly killed by security forces and members of the media were targeted.

In Jackson square, a public transportation station in Khartoum where thousands flock every day, at a corner next to a shop selling dates, a sole vendor sits showcasing different newspapers on a table. At least a dozen people stand around the table, with heads bowed in an attempt to read the headlines and some important news - but noone is buying. The seller doesn't bother anyone "reading" unless they decide to hold the newspaper to flip a page.

Hussein Mohamed Ali rents a kiosk next to the locality building in Omdurman. Officially he sells newspapers, but to make ends meet, he also sells phone credit, stationery and other items. He explained that "people stand in front of my kiosk and skim the newspapers, less people are buying newspapers now."

"The people who used to buy three newspapers now buy one newspaper, that’s why I return 60% of the newspapers at the end of the day because I am not able to sell them," he added.
The current price of 2 SDG only remains following a serious struggle by newspapers, after publishers circulated a statement last year saying that the price would increase to 2.5 SDG, arguing that they had already endured significant losses to avoid price increases.

Newspapers also blamed
Al-Nour Ahmed Al-Nour, who is a columnist for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper and also writes for Al-Taghyeer newspaper in Khartoum, said that in the midst of the current economic crisis, people are focusing on buying bread and other staples as opposed to newspapers.
"The newspapers are expensive, but also the lack of press freedoms is negatively affecting how newspapers tackle different issues, and this has created newspapers that are unfulfilling to readers." said Al-Nour.

Al-Sheikh agreed with Al-Nour adding that there is a serious problem of credibility.
"Security pressures made newspapers very far from their readers.  For example, if a citizen sees a protest in their neighbourhood and it is not reported tomorrow in the newspaper, they lose faith in the newspaper," said Al-Sheikh.

Before it stopped printing, daily political newspaper Al-Qarar had only 16 staff members; significantly fewer than the number generally required to run such an operation.

The economic situation is making it very difficult for newspapers to hire and retain qualified staff, leading to a double-edged sword, newspapers have to settle for less qualified staff or trainees, but this in turn leads to them losing the readership attracted to the well-known journalists they might previously have hired.

Outside the capital
Almost all newspapers are focused and printed in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. However, two cities outside Khartoum have newspapers, and Port Sudan in Eastern Sudan has three local newspapers. 
Abdelhady Al-Haj, the former managing editor of Port Sudan - My City, told DCMF that the price of newspapers in the city has increased by between 0.50 SDG and 1 SDG in comparison to those in Khartoum, meaning that papers now cost between 2.50 SDG and 3 SDG.

"The bigger problem is that the newspapers are printed in Khartoum and then transported by bus to Port Sudan.  They reach there in the late afternoon and the distribution period is in the evening until 3 pm the next day," explained Al-Haj, highlighting the fact that while they subsequently have to pay more, readers are provided with news much later than others.

Port Sudan - My City used to print between 6,000 and 7,000 copies a day when Al-Haj worked there.
"Now, the newspaper prints 2,000 or 3,000 copies, because the circulation has dropped and distributors started complaining," he said.


 The result is that journalists in Port Sudan, much like their colleagues based elsewhere across the country, are being forced to pursue other professional opportunities, in many cases leaving behind a profession that they love because it is no longer a viable option in the current economic climate.