Monday, October 29, 2012

Escaping military service and kidnap, one Eritrean woman’s Ordeal in Sudan

Cross-posted @ -

When Fatima (not real name) escaped Sawa, a military camp in Eritrea, she had already been there for two long years doing the compulsory military training that is supposed to end after 18 months.
For many young Eritreans, the service never quite ends. 

The months become years and many youth, men and women, find themselves stuck in the military service for over a decade.

Fatima and five of her friends escaped one night from the camp without any sense of direction. They walked for three days until they reached the border with Sudan, digging up mud to drink water and having nothing to eat.

There, they found themselves face-to-face with Sudanese soldiers who detained them for two days. The rest escaped except Fatima. She was left behind and remains in Sudan, ten years later.

Fatima was then taken to a military outpost and not long after, late at night, she was rapped by one of the soldiers.

I met Fatima through a friend who found out about her story through another Eritrean in Khartoum.

 I didn’t even hesitate for a minute when I read my friend’s email and agreed to meet her the next day. 

My friend thought her story was worth telling, I felt humbled by the opportunity to tell her story.
I opened the door to find an Eritrean man David (not real name) who is probably in his 50s. And inside there was Fatima.

 Although I’ve read a guideline to interviewing victims of violence online at the Dart Center’s website, all of a sudden, I didn’t feel like I could do this. How could I remain composed through all of this? This was a huge challenge, but I felt a responsibility to tell this story and look for other women who have suffered a similar ordeal.

First, I chatted with Fatima and David about Sudan. In fact we talked about if they liked tea sugary or not too sweet. The conversation flowed smoothly and Fatima began telling her story and answering my questions without hesitation.

As Fatima spoke, her thin body drowned in her Sudanese toub (a cloth worn by Sudanese women) and her face testified to years of suffering endured.

 At 24, Fatima entered Sudan in 2000 and until now, in her 34th year she’s still stuck in Sudan.

At the military outpost, after her brutal rape, the soldier took Fatima to live with him in his tent.

“I later became very sick and I found out that I was pregnant,” said Fatima. She said she tried to escape at least three times, but was always caught and returned to the soldier, a man she had two children with.
After she had her first child, she says she halfheartedly accepted her reality and realized it is very difficult to escape. She stayed there, raising her two children with a man who verbally abused her and sometimes, beat her.

Their house was a tent inside the military camp with no access to electricity or the basics. She cooked with coal or wood and never left the tent.

“He worried that I would get to know people if I left the tent, so I never left, I never went to the market, I know I was in Kassala, but never saw it,” said Fatima.

For 10 years, Fatima was forcibly living with a Sudanese soldier. As time passed by, she learned Arabic, a language she did not speak a word of when she came from her homeland.

“When I was alone, I cried until my eyesight was almost gone,” said Fatima who was holding her glasses.

Two years ago, the father of her children stopped coming to see them for a long time. He didn’t come home everyday but this time he didn’t come for over a year and a half.

Three months ago, one of soldier’s friends told Fatima that the soldier fell sick and was now in Khartoum. A few days later, she was told he passed away.

“After all what he did to me, I was sad, he was the father of my children after all,” said Fatima. She could no longer stay captive but Fatima had known nothing much about Khartoum in the ten years.

She was told by the soldier’s friend to pack up and move. In the morning, Fatima was brought to Khartoum with her two sons. She was abandoned in Al-Daim, a neighborhood in Khartoum South that is known for its large communities of Eritreans and Ethiopians. She had no money, no contacts and for someone who has not interacted with people outside the military camp for years, it was an utter shock.
Fatima asked people in the street about the nearest house of an Eritrean and she was led to the house of Zeinab (not real name), who came to Sudan two years ago.

Fatima now cleans houses to make ends meet and her children attend school; she still lives with Zeinab who is now a close friend.

Her children don’t know what really happened to their mother. She protects them from all this hoping their lives will be better than what she has seen so far. But her life in Sudan remains uncertain as none of them have documents to prove their Sudanese nationality.
Fatima still keeps her Eritrean ID but an Eritrean activist in Khartoum told me that the children can only get an Eritrean ID when they turn 18.

Besides Fatima is not keen on returning with her children to Eritrea. Among others she fears her family would never accept her and her children. She also worries her boys could one day be forced into the obligatory military service yet her life in Sudan has only been of unspeakable brutality.
“I want to go somewhere else and raise my children there,” she said then asked me, with tears in her eyes, whether I think she has a chance to be resettled to a third country.

No one knows the exact number of Eritreans in Sudan, but there are thousands in the refugee camp in Al-Shagrab refugee camp in East Sudan. Since 2010, I’ve heard horror stories about how refugees are kidnapped and their kidneys are forcibly taken from them. In Khartoum, their suffering continues, they are subjected to ill-treatment and humiliation at the hands of the police who extort them after threats of deportation Eritrea, another brutal dictatorship.

Fatima’s story is one of many untold stories.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sudanese women become their own bosses despite downturn

KHARTOUM - With few career options, Sudanese women are increasingly building up their own businesses from scratch -- earning themselves financial benefits and freedom.

published @

Mahasin Ali and her sister run an outdoor cafe in the Sudanese city of Omdurman in Khartoum state. It is a makeshift affair, a few plastic chairs circling Ali who sits on a low stool, preparing tea, coffee and pastries for her customers.

Locally, the two sisters are called “tea ladies” and they have become a familiar sight on local streets over the last few years, catering for businessmen to young people to students.

Ali mixes tea with spices such as ginger and cinnamon and sells it for two pounds (US$0.40), a better deal than in other cafes where plain tea is sold for at least eight pounds (US$1.60).
Before opening for business in the morning, Ali works as a cleaner at the University of Khartoum where she makes roughly US$100 after benefits and the recent increase. Her husband died years ago, leaving her with four daughters.

“My salary isn’t enough, I give the money I make by selling tea and coffee to my daughters who go to university and use it for our daily expenses,” says Mahasin who works from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.

And Ali’s story is not an unusual one: There are no exact figures available, but the streets of Khartoum buzz with new businesses run by women, from cupcake stores to nail spas to women selling home-made ice-cream on street corners.

Sudanese women have come a long way since the rise of the women’s movement in the 40s and 50s. In 1964, the year Sudan revolted against a military dictatorship, women gained the right to vote and, a few years later, the right to equal pay.

The trend gained momentum in recent decades. In the 1990s, official statistics show women’s employment rose although the economy was not creating new jobs. But the women’s journey into the workplace has been far from easy. As late as 2000, the Sudan’s constitutional court ruled against a decree banning women from working in public spaces such as gas stations and restaurants.

This move sent a message about women’s central role in the Sudanese economy and the 2000s witnessed an increase in women’s profile in both the formal and informal workforce.

However, in the traditional workforce, women remain hindered by low wages and the struggle to find a job reflecting their interests and qualifications. A population council research paper estimates that Sudanese women represent 47 percent of the workforce in the public sector, but they mostly work in lower and middle-level managerial jobs.

Instead, many women are trying out their chances in the informal economy, which offers them flexible working hours as well as an opportunity to try out their creative new business ideas. Often their customers are women, especially educated or working women.
For example, Rimaz Hashim, a civil engineering student at Sudan University, began an online wedding planning business with a friend in 2009. “I started my business on Facebook because its free and I can reach many people,” said Hashim whose Facebook page, Wedding Planners Sudan, attracted thousands of members and is full of pictures from weddings she organised.

3,000 exit visas are issued on a daily basis for youth leaving Sudan for jobs.

The role of Sudanese women is getting more important as men emigrate. As of 2010, tens of thousands of young men left Sudan looking for better opportunities abroad, boosting the chances of women in business. Last month, the head of the Sudanese expatriates service revealed to the media that 3,000 exit visas are issued on a daily basis for youth leaving Sudan for jobs: The overwhelming majority are young men.

Middle-class men, in particular, have suffered during Sudan’s economic decline which began before South Sudan’s referendum in early 2011.

“I have no responsibilities as I am unmarried, I have a car , a good job , but I still consider leaving the country, it is a dead-end here,” says a young telecommunications professional who did not want to be identified.

Fatima Salah, who owns a furniture and art gallery in Khartoum, notes this demographic shift. “There is a change in society: middle-class people, especially men, cannot move forward in their career, they are not making good money, so they leave Sudan.”
“I have always wanted to do interior design. In Sudan, people watch television and see how homes abroad look. They want this quality,” explains Salah who owns a gallery where she sells furniture, home accessories and also showcases the work of famous and up-and-coming Sudanese artists.

Salah said women do not face more prejudices in work than men -- but she has the universal issue of juggling her work with caring for her little boy. However, she added that Sudanese society frowns upon independent women, who men view as too intimidating to marry.

This prevalent opinion weighs on career-minded women. This view sometimes restricts women from going forward with their careers. For example, when Shaima Essam Al-Deen, a 25 year-old event organiser who is interested in getting an MBA and starting her own business, told her close friend she wanted to complete a master’s programme, her friend retorted that “master’s degrees are for spinsters”.

Amel Habbani, a women’s rights activist and journalist told The Niles that when women progress academically, financially and professionally, it becomes hard to find a compatible marriage.

“Many successful women get proposals from men who are not at the same level and are instead looking to improve their personal situation,” Habbani notes.

In South Khartoum, Yasmeen Mohamed opened Flawless Spa, a newly established beauty centre in Khartoum. In an interview with the Niles, Yasmeen explains that “I target all kinds of women especially working women who want the same spa experience they would get outside Sudan”.

Mohamed added that she is encouraging women to start their own businesses by advising young women who come to her asking her to train them. She has also trained a friend who started her own beauty business in another Sudanese city.

“The economic problems are affecting my business, but I’m giving a lot of discounts to continue attracting customers,” says Mohamed.

Secret reading in Khartoum

My first column published @

In Sudan, the state security apparatus has adopted a new habit: confiscating and banning books. Authors and rights activists are rightly outraged, but this is helping the growth of a new reading culture in Khartoum.

When Fathi Al-Daw, a Sudanese journalist and writer published a book about the state security apparatus and how it has operated over the past few years, the security apparatus quickly confiscated copies of the book from bookstores in Khartoum, turning it into a much-sought after book, with a badly photocopied version selling at $10.  

After Al-Daw's book, travelers who arrived in Khartoum with books found themselves put through a much more rigorous airport security. Many reported confiscations of books, especially travellers coming from Cairo, where a large number of Sudanese authors are published. 

A few weeks ago, a doctor returning from Cairo was stopped at the airport and a very early work of politics by Al-Daw was confiscated from the luggage of a university professor who refused to leave the airport until the confiscated books were returned to him. He organized a sit-in and encouraged his students to join him, which they did. The security apparatus feared that the students would turn the sit-in into a highly organised protest.  

Abd Al-Aziz Baraka Sakin, a well-known Sudanese novelist, caused ructions last week when his books were three days late arriving at Khartoum's book fair. Sakin threatened to begin a hunger strike before the books were brought over from Cairo to the book fair.

His books only lasted a few hours at the book fair before the security officers confiscated all copies saying that they had to read them before they could go into circulation. Then, they said, they would return them. 

In total 15 books were confiscated from the book fair, causing many young readers and intellectuals to boycott visiting the book fair.

In a matter of minutes, the social media broke the news of these latest confiscations and a whole crowd of youngsters started asking where they could get their hands on the confiscated books as an act of defiance against a surveillance state where freedoms and civil liberties and now creativity are shackled.  
Trading secret books is somewhat similar to organizing a protest in Sudan. Code words are used, the planning takes places only through trusted sources, and personal security becomes important. 

A young woman keeps Sakin's books, which are now officially banned, in boxes in the back of her car. She tells me that the "marijuana", is selling fast. 

In Sudan, they used to say that Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Khartoum reads, but in recent years, the reading circle has shrunk to politicians and the creative community. Now with the growth of a politically-aware younger generation, the ongoing censorship campaign is endowing books with their long-lost status all over again. 

On social media, the blogs of writers were tweeted, retweeted and shared and novels written by Sakin and other banned authors have been circulated as pdf files by one of the largest Sudanese online lists.  
Meanwhile, its not too bad that security officers will get the chance to read the banned books. Who knows – they might find their personal stories between those covers which Sakin dedicates to "a class with slaughtered hopes and dreams". 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How Hundreds of Journalists Became Unemployed

Exactly a week ago, 100 employees who used to work for Al-Tayar newspaper became unemployed.

Al-Tayar, one of the best-selling newspapers in Sudan, was suspended by the security apparatus in June.

"Until now, we were told the decision came from top officials ," said Mahjoub Osman, the head of the news department of al-Tayar to me.

For four months, the newspaper paid the salaries of its employees hoping that it will resume publication again since Al-Tayar was confiscated and suspended from one day to a few weeks in the past year alone. Last month, the newspaper stated that the closure has cost the newspaper over $100,000 and it was no longer able to sustain the expenses.

In July, Al-Ahdath, another independent daily was forced to shut down because of Sudan’s bleak economic situation, forcing dozens of reporters out of work.

Hamza Baloul who worked for Al-Ahdath said that at least 40 journalists and staff are now unemployed and less than five have found jobs.

The Sudanese Journalist's network estimates that at least 200 journalists are now out of work and after taking into account the recent closures, a founding member tells me that the number could go up to 400.

This year, the security apparatus has confiscated a number of issues from independent newspapers such as Al-Jareeda and Al-Sahafa causing great financial losses. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

نمشي وين بالظبت؟: موقف مع ناس النظام العام

في عام ٢٠١٠، لمن انتقلت اسرتي الى السودان نهائى  ، عودة طوعية يعني ، حصلت لي حاجة في اول اسبوع لي في السودان  اثرت علي شخصياً و خلتني متطرفة ضد النظام العام بشدة  لحدي ما بعد سنتين ….. فتحوا فيني  بلاغ ظريف كدا علي خلفية مقال كتبته عن  الشهيدة عوضية عجبنا.....
الموضوع و ما فيه انو مشيت حديقة مع صديق  و بنات خالاتيالفكرة كانت انو نفسح اولاد بت خالتي. قبلي ما نطلع…. اتصلته بي صحبي عشان يجي و نتونس هناك. 
اتجهنا على واحدة من الالعاب و انا و صديقي قعدنا في كنبة خشب كدا نتونس على بال ما يخلصوا اللعبة. 
بنتونس و مبسوطين و الجو جميل و كل شيء……فجاة ظهر لينا واحد كدا من ناس النظام العام او امن المجتمع و قال: ممنوع ولد و بنت يقعدوا براهم هنا. 
قلنا ليهو: نحنا منتظرين ناس  و ما جينا برانا….
الاخ طبعاً ما اتفاهم و رفض انو يسمعنا.
الموضوع بقى جادي و قال لينا قوموا يلا معاي
قبلي ما نقوم، في راجل كبير قاعد مع اطفال في الكنبة الجمبنا قال لي الزول دا : الاتنين ديل قاعدين بتونسوا ساي ما عملوا شيء.
وانا في راسي بفكر انو مفروض الناس ديل، النظام العام او غيرهم، يشجعوا الناس يقعدوا في حتة عامة! و لا كيف؟!؟
صحبي طبعاً كان داير ينفعل معاهم و كدا لكن انا كنته ليسه جديدة في البلد و ما دايرة ادخل في حاجة ما مستعدة ليها     و رضيت  بالطلب بتاعوا: انو نطلع برا
فعلاً ،  طلعنا برة  و مشينا محل شربنا شاي و انتظرته بنات خالاتي و رجعنا البيت سوا…
بعد داك و لفترة طويلة اتعقدته من المرقه مع صديق او زميل….