Protesting takes mental toll on Sudan's young revolutionaries

Sudan AP - Marwan Ali
JUL 2, 2022 LISTEN
AP - Marwan Ali

Fadil Omar has seen it all in the wake of Sudan's latest coup d'etat: human rights violations carried out by security forces against protesters, parents having to bury their children and friends who have lost limbs.

“I witnessed death carried out directly by the security forces with my own eyes – it shocked me,” Omar says.

But it was his own multiple arrests as spokesperson for the Khartoum Youth Resistance coordinators that pushed him perhaps too far.

“I was arrested and beaten several times, even humiliated, inside the detention centre. I was tortured constantly. I have not been able to sleep for four months,” Omar tells the Africa Calling podcast.

He is one of the few Sudanese protesters who have gone to a psychiatrist, who advised him not to participate in the protests until his condition improves.

“I refuse. I'm still involved in restoring freedom and democracy,” he says.

Youth revolution unbowed, but suffering

Sudanese protesters, led by professionals, toppled the 30-year reign of strongman Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Demonstrators demanded a civilian government, but were forced to deal with a military-civilian hybrid.

Last October, the military overthrew the civilian government, and Sudanese youths took to the streets again.

In Khartoum and other cities throughout the country, youth protesters, many of whom have been subjected to serious human right violations, are now suffering from very complex psychological damage.

The ongoing economic and political crisis, coupled with a deteriorating security situation has plunged many young Sudanese into a living nightmare.

Undergoing psychiatric treatment remains extremely complicated because of lack of services as well as fear and stigmatisation by friends and family. Many hide their pain, throwing themselves into demonstrating and voluntary work that serves the revolution.

One year ago, Mariam El-Faki left her job and now helps organise demonstrations on the streets of Khartoum, but admits she's struggling.

“After going out on the street to participate in protests for the past three months, I'm nervous, and all I do is sleep. I feel like I'm under major psychological pressure,” she says.

El-Faki says she has problems communicating with her family, but while she respects the psychiatric profession, she feels that they cannot help her at this stage.

“I'm Sudanese, we have the revolution, and I must go ahead. I'm working on demonstrations, this can help me psychologically,” she says.

This resistance to getting help is quite common amongst young protesters, says Sara Abdulkadir, psychiatry resident at Abdelaal El-Idrisi Hospital.

“A continual struggle can create symptoms associated with psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, insomnia, lack of concentration, and others,” she says.

Some may experience vague symptoms like fatigue, backache, headaches, and have trouble doing daily tasks, or speaking with family members,” she adds.

Others don't know why they feel this way, so they don't know how to ask for help.

The mental health sector in Sudan remains one of the most neglected sectors due to lack of government support.

Students in freefall

Most public universities in Sudan have been affected by the political conditions, including protests and daily demonstrations. The University of Khartoum, one of the oldest public universities, has either halted classes or they have been extremely inconsistent, says Abdullah Hassan, a lecturer in literature.

“Students who are supposed to graduate within four years have been delayed for six or seven years. This delay gives students and parents anxiety because they don't have hope,” he says.

Others have looked for another way out, either by attending private universities, or even leaving the country to study abroad.

Psychology student Magdalene, not her real name, faces a difficult future as she hasn't been able to go to university since October.

“The professors and the administration weren't in a position to help us get back to our studies,” which she admits is affecting her psychologically. “It's complicated with my friends and family, who do not suffer like I do.”

And that's just at school. The general disarray of infrastructure in Khartoum since the coup is also taking a toll.

“There's no transport, and the deteriorating economic and political situation forced me to sit at home and do nothing; I couldn't find any support,” she says.

Searching for ways to study overseas

While Magdalane is trying to apply to study outside Sudan, Mikael Habibullah, 20, a student in a similar situation, is trying to find his way out, too. He's from the restive Darfur state in the west of the country and came to Khartoum to study computers.

He decided to switch to agricultural engineering, but now he can't complete his education due to protests and demonstrations. He was supposed to graduate in 2021, but feels trapped.

“My life has stopped completely and I can no longer do anything. Besides the pressures of the family and the street and the difficulty of transportation, I now just sit at home and do nothing and the internet is very bad since the coup,” he says.

He says studying outside the country could be his only solution.

“Now I am thinking of finding another alternative by leaving Sudan and enrolling in universities abroad through scholarships. I hope that happens,” he adds.

Despite mental and professional hardships, Sudanese youths are still out on the streets protesting, even though many believe being arrested and beaten is inevitable.

Protester Mustafa Saeed, who has been arrested numerous times, had his hand broken after being hit by a tear gas canister.

“I hope that the glorious revolution of December will achieve the Sudan that we wish for. I am a young man now and I have ambitions and dreams and hopes to be realised, but I cannot achieve my dreams in the situation we are living in now,” says Saeed.

“We will triumph over authoritarianism and selfishness to create a country that respects rights." 

This was originally heard on RFI's Africa Calling podcast.

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