The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Newly united, Sudanese Americans push for civilian rule in Sudan

Dimah Mahmoud and Mohamed Abubakr participate in a rally for Sudan on the Mall last Saturday. (Jay Westcott/For The Washington Post)
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When Sudan’s ruling military council shut down Internet service in June in an effort to quell pro-democracy protests, Sudanese Americans sprang into action, calling loved ones back home to glean information and share it with the world.

Sudanese expatriates in the United States have smuggled SIM cards into the country to help advocates counter a harsh government crackdown, sent money for tear-gas masks and helped activists in danger to escape.

Through WhatsApp groups and social media, Sudanese immigrants from the capital, Khartoum, have mobilized alongside those from Darfur, a western region home to several ethnic groups that were targeted by Khartoum-backed militias 15 years ago for ethnic cleansing in which more than 300,000 people were killed.

They have lobbied Congress to advocate for a new political era in Sudan and planned or participated in frequent demonstrations, including a vigil Friday morning outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, a country that has provided financial support to Sudanese military leaders.

Immigrants from Khartoum and Darfur have not worked together in the past, their leaders say. But with the security forces responsible for the Darfur genocide now turning on ­pro-democracy demonstrators in the capital, the two communities increasingly feel bound by a common purpose.

The situation has “united Sudanese across all political, geographic and social boundaries,” said Niemat Ahmadi, founder of the D.C.-based Darfur Women Action Group, who arrived in the United States as a refu­gee in 2007.

The Sudanese Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

In Sudan, deep uncertainty and turmoil swirl amid protesters’ jubilation

Although many of the estimated 44,000 Sudanese in this country share the experience of arriving as refugees, distinct subpopulations did so under different circumstances. Some — like Sumayia Abdel Hadi, a former political prisoner in Khartoum who now lives in North Carolina — received political asylum when the government of military dictator Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir made life in Sudan too difficult for them.

Others fled Darfur amid threats to their lives, beginning in 2003.

The Save Darfur movement captured the attention of American politicians, and the world, in the years that followed. The International Criminal Court issued warrants for Bashir’s arrest for crimes against humanity and genocide. In the District, Darfuri immigrants and allies coalesced to hold monthly vigils in front of the Sudanese Embassy on Massachusetts Ave NW.

But Darfur — and Sudan broadly — faded from American consciousness with the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 and the Arab Spring in 2011, activists say. The former ushered in an administration that sought to normalize relations with Bashir’s regime. The latter diverted global attention elsewhere on the continent.

“The movement started kind of disintegrating,” Ahmadi recalled.

Bahar Arabie, 62, who arrived in the D.C. area as a refugee from Darfur in 2006, said residents of Sudan’s northern cities — and their relatives in the United States — have often ignored atrocities in the country’s periphery.

“When this genocide happened in Darfur, there was not much sympathy from these people in the north,” Arabie said.

That began to change in recent months.

Bashir was swept from power in a military coup in April, but protests have continued, as pro-democracy crowds demand civilian rule. In June, security forces opened fire on the protesters’ encampment. Advocates say the government-backed militias killed at least 128 people, raped women and threw bodies into the Nile.

The paramilitary unit behind the crackdown was the same one that carried out atrocities in Darfur, led by the same commander: Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. As his forces attacked the pro-democracy demonstrators, urban Sudanese from the north came to sympathize with those from Darfur.

“Now we know what happened in Darfur. We feel the pain,” said Sulaf Lutfi, a Sudanese immigrant from Khartoum who organized a rally on the Mall last week that included video calls to women in Sudan whose children were killed in the recent violence.

Before the uprising, Mohamed Abubakr — a human rights activist who leads the D.C.-based African Middle Eastern Leadership Project — said he and a handful of others made up the extent of the Sudan lobby in Washington.

Since then, Abubakr has trained dozens of young Sudanese Americans eager to get involved. He has armed them with talking points and sent them to Capitol Hill, where he says they have visited every lawmaker’s office.

They try to appeal to core American interests: preventing a regional power vacuum, countering the influence in the region of Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, and holding military leaders accountable for human rights violations.

Their advocacy sometimes comes with risks. Abubakr said a member of the Sudanese security forces called him and threatened to release incriminating video footage if he didn’t dial down his activism. His response: Go ahead.

“No matter how long you’re away, you’re still connected there,” said Sakina Eltom, a Vanderbilt medical school professor from a rural area in northern Sudan who came to Washington for last week’s protest.

At Friday’s vigil, Sudanese immigrants and human rights activists wielded signs with crossed-out photos of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and chanted “Stand up to Saudi!” as security officers looked on. The gulf country provided financial support to Bashir, who sent Sudanese fighters to help wage Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and has continued to back Sudan’s military leaders since Bashir’s ouster.

“Saudi government: Stop the killing, stop the fight, protect the human rights,” Ahmadi, the Darfuri women’s rights activist, chanted through a megaphone.

Several dozen demonstrators then marched to the State Department to call on the U.S. government to pressure Saudi Arabia to back down.

The diaspora’s efforts have borne some fruit: Both chambers of Congress passed resolutions this month calling for a transition to civilian government in Sudan.

But negotiations over a tentative power-sharing deal have stalled. The proposed deal charts a path to elections in three years — and it would leave the military council in power for the next 21 months.

Ahmadi said negotiations have marginalized Darfur again, which could have “dangerous implications.”

As talks and protests continue, those in the diaspora say they will keep up the pressure.

“Sudanese people are not going to rest — in Sudan and out of Sudan,” said Khalid Taha, a Sudanese engineer living in Richmond. “The time of dictatorship in Sudan is over.”

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