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Activist group Girifna aims to educate voters in Sudan

By Rebecca Hamilton
Saturday, August 14, 2010; A07

KHARTOUM, SUDAN -- Like any aspiring pro-democracy movement, the young Sudanese activists needed a name. They picked Girifna, Arabic for "We are fed up." They chose orange for their color and the V-for-victory sign as a logo, then began distributing their first pamphlet.

Challenging the ruling party was risky in a country where political dissent is rarely tolerated, the activists said. But they saw a small opening before elections in April, as the United States and the European Union pressed the government to ensure a free and fair vote.

Girifna now has more than 7,000 members on its Facebook page, a YouTube channel and an online radio station. But members have been tear-gassed, beaten and tortured, the group's leaders say. "We know they can put us in jail at any time," said co-founder Nagi Musa, 23.

Faced with these challenges, Girifna's success at conducting voter education and election monitoring campaigns before the vote was a hopeful sign, suggesting that a lively civil society could emerge in one of Africa's most repressive dictatorships, the group and its supporters say.

"The government's harsh crackdown on Girifna's peaceful organizing activities is a testament to the potential power of youth activism," said Olivia Bueno, associate director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, an organization that supports human rights advocates across Africa.

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Girifna was established two days before the voter registration process was to begin for the country's first multiparty vote in nearly a quarter-century.

"We were looking forward to the election as an opportunity for peaceful change," Musa said.

Part of Girifna's mission is to encourage Sudanese to learn about their rights and start demanding them through nonviolent protest. The group is tapping into a history of peaceful dissent: Twenty-five years ago, a dictator was forced to step down after a popular uprising. But Girifna is the first effort of its kind under President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

About 5,000 Sudanese have helped spread the group's message throughout the country, the founders said. Musa closely monitors volunteers' safety, raising the alarm by text message or Skype whenever someone is arrested or abducted.

Ghazi Mohammed Abuzied, 22, joined Girifna on Facebook before the elections and offered to volunteer his time. Like most members, he had never before engaged in any political activity. "I thought: We are in the same fight, we are looking for the same thing," said Abuzied, a chemical engineering student.

Today, he coordinates the movement's activities in Khartoum, arranging when volunteers go to markets and bus stations to speak and hand out leaflets. His father told him he was "wasting his time," but Abuzied said he believes he can help shape the future. "Change will be slow, but we believe it will happen one day."

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The activists say Sudanese living outside the country have played a big role in facilitating their efforts. Many have made donations, sometimes financial but more commonly in the form of expertise. Hisham Haj Omar, a Sudanese man living in New York, helped build Girifna's multimedia Web site. Girifna members carry cellphone-size video cameras to their activities so they can post images of the excited crowds, and often of the police interrupting their activities.

U.S. activists have also offered their support. Musa said that Girifna appreciates the solidarity, in particular from American students, but that Sudan's transformation from dictatorship to democracy must come from the Sudanese people themselves.

The elections, which the International Crisis Group reported were rigged even before voting began, extended Bashir's rule. The U.S. State Department said that the vote "did not, broadly speaking, meet international standards" but that the United States would work with the Sudanese government on the "difficult timetable" ahead -- a reference to a January referendum in which southern Sudanese will vote on whether to become an independent nation. The United States has long supported that vote, a key part of a peace accord that ended Sudan's long-running civil war.

Musa and Abuzied say they want the international community "to stand with the Sudanese people." They said the U.S. government sidelined the Sudanese people's democratic concerns in the interest of ensuring that the 2011 referendum proceeds on time. They are also frustrated that Sudan's opposition parties failed to provide a unified challenge to Bashir, who is wanted on genocide and war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court.

"Bashir is responsible for killing all around Sudan," Musa said. "Even if the election had been free and fair, he should not even have been a candidate."

Three weeks before the elections, a crowd gathered around a Girifna volunteer speaking at a market in Khartoum. The police arrived to stop her from talking, but in a rare display of public defiance, the crowd began chanting for the police to let her continue. She was able to finish, and the event continued for more than 40 minutes. The same would not happen today, Musa said. "After the elections, the atmosphere is very down."

It is a sentiment repeated by other activists in Khartoum. Opponents of the government say the international community's acceptance of the election results has emboldened the government. Press censorship, suspended in the run-up to the elections, has resumed. Human Rights Watch reported that repression of activists and journalists has increased since the elections.

Yet, for the moment at least, Girifna continues to operate.

On July 5, three Girifna activists were arrested while they were distributing the group's first "magazine" in Khartoum North, a suburb of the capital. The two-page, double-sided pamphlet, printed on bright orange paper, contained a statement of the movement's nonviolent aims and photos of students it says have been murdered by Sudan's internal security apparatus.

The activists were charged with calling for a violent opposition to the state and breaching public safety.

What followed was a 48-hour ordeal in which the activists were twice removed from the jail by security agents and taken to other locations, where they were beaten and coerced into agreeing to spy on Girifna for the government, Musa said. The activists are meeting with a lawyer to discuss what to do next.

But as a matter of policy, Girifna speaks out publicly about the government's actions against its members. "We all know if we don't say anything, it will just keep on happening," Musa said.

Hamilton is a special correspondent in Sudan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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