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.