‘Khartoum Burns’: What’s the score?

Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

We had had plans for Friday 14th September. We (me and the four other international medical elective students, from Czech Republic, Norway and Poland) were going to spend the afternoon on Tutti Island, in the Nile, where you can sit in the leafy shade and drink tea.

But then at around 14:00 (Sudan time) we got a text from a Sudanese friend, “Don’t go anywhere alone today. Let me know if you’re going out”.

We had heard about the 14 minute Youtube video that had already sparked events in Libya and Egypt, and so assumed that perhaps today, the first day of the weekend, when everyone attends the mosque for Friday Prayers, there might be some kind of protest in Khartoum.

So we cancelled our plans, spent the afternoon out of sight in the Faculty of Medicine’s open-air cafe, and kept an eye on the news headlines. These did their utmost to out-do each other in the ‘shock-horror’ stakes. “Embassies burn in Khartoum”, “5,000 march on the US Embassy”, “Send for Lord Kitchener”, or whatever they were. Today (Sunday 16th and the first day of the working week here) there still seems to be significant confusion about the chronology of what happened, but from reading reports in the Khartoum and international press, and from speaking to different people here, it seems that this is what happened.

After Friday prayers, around 5,000 people (exactly and approximately) congregated outside the US Embassy. They arrived in buses, organised by ‘no-one-quite-knows-who’. The US embassy has been relocated in the last few years, so that it is no longer in central Khartoum, but about 20-30 mins drive outside it and well past the last houses on the outskirts (on the road to Soba Hospital where I am based). Hence the need for buses. The embassy itself is a long way back from the main road, and looks pretty formidable from a distance.

It was reported that ‘the mob’ gathered in ‘the square’ outside the embassy and started burning things. I drive past ‘the square’ every day at the moment on my way in and out of Khartoum. It would be more accurate to call it ‘a field’, as it has nothing in it except some dirt and some dust. It is lined on the main-road side by half-buried car tyres, presumably to discourage attempts at parking. Driving past this field on the morning after, I saw a boy poking some half-buried wires with a stick. So it would seem that these were the fuel for the fires of Friday afternoon.

It’s hard to say what exactly happened, as reports are rather thin and contradictory, but people here seem to agree that around 250 Sudanese security personnel were stationed there, that tear gas may have been used, and that three Sudanese men were killed in the course of the day.

So after some time at the US Embassy, this crowd got back on their buses, and shuttled into central Khartoum, where a number of other embassies reside. They alighted at the German Embassy – a move that neither the international media, nor our Sudanese friends could explain that afternoon. It seems that the Sudanese security services were also wrong-footed, as here the more reckless, violent elements enjoyed some success. They breached the compound walls, lowering the German flag and raising a black one in its place, smashing windows and starting a fire inside. Moving on to the UK embassy next door, a number of men again apparently scaled the wall, but did not enter the building itself (perhaps the security forces were present in greater numbers by this time?).

What seems clear is that these events were very different to those in Libya. In Khartoum, there was no well-armed, well-organised attempt to kill and destroy, or even apparently to send any kind of strong political message to the government (as some ‘conspiracy analysts’ have suggested was at the root of all of Friday’s protests across the region). It seems to have been more simply an expression of anger at the Youtube film – with the US selected as the focal point for discharging that anger.

It might indeed be argued that there is every right and reason for such emotion – given both the mucky, unhinged nature of the film, and the central, deeply-ingrained part that its subject plays here. The means for expressing such feeling however, is another point entirely.

And the reasons for targeting the German embassy? It was reported in a Khartoum paper that an offensive cartoon was published in a German newspaper in the past 2 weeks. Elsewhere, one international media group suggested it was because the German government had not banned a right-wing protest at which anti-Islamic banners were held. And the UK embassy? No-one really seems to know specifically, perhaps just because it was next door? Perhaps because everyone knows it’s an old devil?!

As I left the faculty cafe that evening, and walked to the bus-stop, past restaurants and street-stalls, parked cars and open lorry-cabs, everywhere the same radio station was blasting out some kind of feverish exhortation. What was it? Reaction to the demonstrations? Demands for more protests?

No, it was football commentary.

Al-Hilal, one of the two big Khartoumi clubs was hosting Interclube Luanda from Angola in the African continental Confederations Cup.  If they won, they would be just one victory away from the semi-finals. We had been hoping to go this match (I was even wearing my Al-Hilal shirt), but decided that perhaps today was not the best day to be part of a large excitable crowd.

Whilst walking past people on the street, and waiting at the bus stop, I must admit to feeling a little bit nervous after the furore earlier. But the only bared teeth were set in smiles, and the several shouts aimed at me were all directed in praise of my Al-Hilal shirt.

So what should I conclude after all of that?

Were the demonstrations in Khartoum trivial? No.

Were they exaggerated in the desire to create a story of arching Middle-Eastern chaos? Yes, I think so.

Photo: CAF Online

Khartoumi society (still less Sudanese or Islamic culture) is not some monolithic conformity; 5,000 people from a city of 10 million is not such a large proportion (1 in every 2000 actually), whilst I need to take my shoes and socks off to count the number of people from my small circle of acquaintance here who have quietly apologised to me for the offense of the violent excesses. Overall, passions may be strong here, but are they really so different to those you might find in London or Barcelona, Madrid, Munich or Milan? There are people who like to burn things everywhere, but the majority have rather healthier interests, like the beautiful game. My decision that morning to wear an Al-Hilal shirt may have been inadvertently fortunate, but I don’t for a second believe that it saved my life.


P.S. – From afternoon reports on Sunday 16th September

I’ve also seen reports in the international media that the Sudanese Foreign Ministry has refused to allow the US to deploy extra marines to protect its embassy – instead committing to use its own security forces. To my eyes, this story was put across with a negative, almost sinister spin, as if the buried question was “does the Sudanese government not want the US to be able to protect itself? Do they in fact want the US embassy to be imperiled?”

But isn’t it natural that a sovereign government should wish to trust its own security arrangements, and resent or refuse attempts to usurp its authority within its own capital city? Aren’t Sudanese forces likely to be more experienced and adept at handling Sudanese protesters than American marines? And couldn’t you argue that the government’s trust in its own forces was vindicated (at least as far as the US embassy goes)?