Alaa Salah, leader of the Su­danese re­bel­lion

Thanks to a wave of women-led protests, Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule over Su­dan has ended – and Alaa Salah has be­come the face of the re­bel­lion


GREAT mo­ments in his­tory are of­ten char­ac­terised by one per­son who sums up the sen­ti­ment of the peo­ple in a sin­gle ac­tion. For Su­dan that per­son is a young wo­man who, draped in white, her gold ear­rings glint­ing in the sun, stood on the roof of a car and ad­dressed hun­dreds of women.

“Thawra [Revolution]!” they chanted as they cap­tured her stand of brav­ery and de­fi­ance on their cell­phones – and it didn’t take long for the im­age to spread across the globe.

Dubbed the “Wo­man in White”, Alaa Salah has be­come the face of the mostly fe­male-led protest move­ment as Su­dan emerges from the despotic 30-year rule of Omar al-Bashir.

Alaa (22), an engineerin­g and ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent in the Su­danese cap­i­tal of Khar­toum, is pleased the im­age – taken shortly be­fore Al-Bashir was ousted in a mil­i­tary coup – has had such an im­pact.

“My photo has helped peo­ple around the world know about the revolution in Su­dan,” she told The Guardian. “Since

the be­gin­ning of the upris­ing I have been go­ing out ev­ery day and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the demon­stra­tions be­cause my par­ents raised me to love our home.”

Alaa – whose fa­ther owns a con­struc­tion com­pany and whose mother is a fash­ion de­signer – joined the protests that had been rag­ing since De­cem­ber to fight for a bet­ter Su­dan.

“The day they took the photo I went to 10 dif­fer­ent gath­er­ings and read a rev­o­lu­tion­ary poem,” she said. “It makes peo­ple very en­thu­si­as­tic. In the be­gin­ning I found a group of about six women and I started singing, and they started singing with me and then the gath­er­ing be­came re­ally big.”

One line in the poem, “the bul­let doesn’t kill – what kills is the si­lence of the peo­ple”, has be­come a pop­u­lar chant in Su­danese protests over the years.

And this time it is the women who’ve been chant­ing it the loud­est and in grow­ing num­bers.

Men had been in the mi­nor­ity in the protests lead­ing to the coup – and mak­ing this all the more re­mark­able is that women were sys­tem­i­cally re­pressed by Al-Bashir’s regime.

Many were de­tained, tor­tured, flogged and stoned for “moral­ity crimes”. Dra­co­nian mea­sures saw women ar­rested for wear­ing trousers, ex­pos­ing their hair or driv­ing cars with­out a male com­pan­ion. Some 15 000 women were sen­tenced to flog­ging in 2016 alone.

“Con­sid­er­ing all this,” one po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor said, “the show of force by Su­danese women since De­cem­ber was a re­mark­able show of brav­ery.”

SU­DAN continues to hover on the precipice of un­cer­tainty. On the one hand there is a sense of relief that Al-Bashir is gone – but on the other is the fear that he may not be held ac­count­able for the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted un­der his watch.

Af­ter seiz­ing power him­self dur­ing a coup in 1989, Su­dan pro­ceeded to be­come a pariah state. Al-Bashir has been ac­cused of in­cit­ing geno­cide in Dar­fur, an area plagued by con­flict bet

‘We believed we could make a dif­fer­ence, we did’

ween Su­dan’s Arab and African com­mu­ni­ties since the early 2000s.

Backed by Al-Bashir, Su­danese Arab mili­tias known as the Jan­jaweed stormed Dar­fur on horse­back, shoot­ing men, rap­ing women and forc­ing sur­vivors into hid­ing and famine.

In 2009 and 2010 the In­ter­na­tional Criminal Court (ICC) is­sued two warrants of ar­rest for Al-Bashir, who faces the most charges ever con­firmed by the ICC. For years he has man­aged to elude jus­tice.

Al-Bashir also brought fi­nan­cial ruin to Su­dan due to years of US sanc­tions and loss of oil rev­enue.

Protests have flared reg­u­larly from an in­creas­ingly des­per­ate pub­lic but mat­ters reached a head in De­cem­ber when the prices of sta­ples such as bread and petrol spiked and ATMs ran out of cash.

More and more peo­ple took to the streets and the gov­ern­ment re­sponded with a fierce crack­down in which at least 60 peo­ple were killed, ac­cord­ing to Physi­cians for Hu­man Rights, a New York­based hu­man rights group.

On 11 April the mil­i­tary, un­der the com­mand of then-de­fence min­is­ter Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, seized power and promised that free and fair elec­tions would take place.

His lead­er­ship didn’t go down well with the peo­ple. “He’s cut from the same cloth as Al-Bashir,” one de­mon­stra­tor said. “They re­moved a thief and brought in a thief.”

Two days later he was re­placed by Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ab­del Fat­tah al-Burhan, who heads up the cur­rent tran­si­tional author­ity.

He’s pledged to re­struc­ture state in­sti­tu­tions and “up­root the AlBashir regime and its sym­bols” – but he’s also said the tran­si­tion to civil­ian rule could take two years.

AL-BASHIR has re­port­edly been moved to Khar­toum’s Kober max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison af­ter be­ing kept in what au­thor­i­ties called a “safe place” af­ter the coup. “Dur­ing his rule he of­ten sent his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents to this prison,” said Will Ross, the BBC’s Africa ed­i­tor. “The con­di­tions there are shock­ingly dif­fer­ent to the pres­i­den­tial res­i­dence he is used to.”

There are sev­eral sce­nar­ios now, in­clud­ing asy­lum in an­other coun­try – Uganda has hinted it might grant it – a truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mis­sion for the Su­danese peo­ple and, some­time in the fu­ture, a gen­eral elec­tion.

Yet it seems un­likely that Su­dan will ex­tra­dite him so he can face charges at the ICC.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has called for mean­ing­ful change for the rav­aged re­gion.

“Su­dan’s brave peo­ple have called for change but it must be real change,” the UK’s for­eign sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt said. “We need to see a swift move to an in­clu­sive, rep­re­sen­ta­tive civil­ian lead­er­ship. And we need to en­sure there is no more violence.”

A re­port from the In­sti­tute for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies puts it more mov­ingly.

“The past 30 years have left more vic

tims than vic­tors across Su­dan. Vic­tims whose dig­nity need restor­ing, vic­tims in need of repa­ra­tions and vic­tims long­ing for defini­tive jus­tice.

“For the peo­ple of Su­dan, the jus­tice pro­cesses must not for­get that. They must not for­get them.”

FOR Alaa and her fel­low pro­tes­tors the fight is far from over. Unity go­ing for­ward is key – which is where her flow­ing white gar­ment comes in. Her mother helped de­sign her tra­di­tional Su­danese toub, the dress Alaa wears in the vi­ral pic­ture.

The out­fit has be­come a sym­bol of the fe­male pro­test­ers and Alaa was al­most ar­rested when she wore one to a demon­stra­tion be­fore the coup.

“The toub has a kind of power,” she said. “It re­minds us of the kan­dakas.”

The kan­dakas were queens of the Nu­bian king­dom of Kush that ruled Su­dan over 3 000 years ago.

Alaa is pre­pared to do what it takes to see peace and pros­per­ity come to her coun­try – some­thing she has never ex­pe­ri­enced.

And she continues to make ral­ly­ing cries to women to join her.

“Two-thirds of the pro­test­ers in Su­dan are women,” she wrote on Twit­ter. “Women are half the so­ci­ety. You can­not have a revolution with­out women. You can­not have democ­racy with­out women. We believed we could make a dif­fer­ence, so we did.

“I never ex­pected my pic­ture would spread so much but I am glad the world got to see there is a revolution in Su­dan.”

Af­ter the coup Alaa an­nounced she was tak­ing a short break. “My throat has be­come sore from all the chant­ing,” she said. “But I will be back.”

A mu­ral of Alaa on a wall in the Syrian town of Kafran­bel. She’s led pow­er­ful protests against Su­dan’s former leader.

FAR LEFT: The im­age of Alaa Salah that went vi­ral. MID­DLE: Su­dan’s former de­fence min­is­ter, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, seized power from ousted pres­i­dent, Omar al-Bashir (RIGHT). LEFT: Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ab­del Fat­tah al-Burhan re­placed Ahmed ear­lier this month.

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