Outside an unmarked building in a residential area of Khartoum, Um Mohammed crouched down with her head between her knees unable to stand any longer. She and a few family members were waiting for news of her eldest son detained by security forces after being bundled into a pick-up truck earlier that day. She feared that he was being beaten and tortured for allegedly burning a rubber tyre while participating in the street demonstrations calling for the downfall of the Sudanese regime.
Her story is typical of the mothers and families in Sudan whose loved ones have joined the protests over the past four months. Unofficial estimates are that more than 2,000 people have been arrested, although the government claims that the figure is actually a lot smaller than that. In any case, a large majority of those detained have now been released as a gesture of goodwill by the government and at the insistence of opposition groups. On Saturday, for example, women prisoners, some of whom were on hunger strike, were set free.
For 46-year-old Um Mohammed, her five-hour wait ended when her son, visibly traumatised, emerged after sunset from an unmarked security building in the Bahri residential area of the capital. His hair was patchy having been partly shaved with a razor; he carried his belt in one hand; he was barefooted and his trousers sagged well below his waist. Mohammed is one of the lucky ones, having been threatened with torture by electricity. Bruised and in pain, he was released after signing an affidavit not to join the protests ever again.
Calmly recounting his experience, a startling reason emerged for the curtailment of his torture: "During the interrogation and beating they tried to trap me into making false statements or into contradicting myself," he explained. "Suddenly, they asked me if I had memorised any of the Qur'an. I told them I had. They gave me verses and asked me to complete the recitation and only stopped beating me when I recited the different parts of the Qur'an at length correctly."
Mohammed is a first-year student at a state university, and memorised the Qur'an at an early age. At 19, like so many young people, his future is bleak and uncertain. With the complete closure of the universities nationwide since protests started on 19 December, like many others he has no means to continue his studies and no idea when they are likely to resume.
He was captured and tortured by ten security officers armed with reinforced rubber hose-pipes who chased him through the streets. Mohammed only stopped running when he heard gunshots. "I thought I was going to die," he said. "I expected to be shot in the back. I was so scared."
The ordeal left him unable to sleep for three days while the bruises and open wounds on his back started to heal. "I was told not to look up or around or take note of my surroundings. They kept saying 'Keep your head down' and would beat me if I didn't." His torturers covered their faces so he could not see them properly. "They accused me of being a member of one the opposition parties and played a blurry video of me at one of the protests and kept beating me to get the names and numbers of the people around me."
Prior to his capture, Mohammed had learned that sticking to the same story regardless of whether it was true or not was the safest way to minimise the torture and avoid imprisonment. He feared ending up in a dark, underground torture chamber as described for years by those who had claimed to have undergone such cruel treatment.
The Sudanese government, meanwhile, continues to do all it can to stop the street protests spiralling further out of control. On 22 February, it declared a state of emergency and the government itself was dissolved.
Although most of the nationwide protests have died down, there are continuing calls on social media for general strikes and more protests. Claims that the protests are sizable on the streets of Khartoum are not borne out by the observable low-intensity and limited-duration of the demonstrations.
Mohammed now hopes that he can leave Sudan to pursue his education elsewhere. Over the years, the country has suffered from a brain drain resulting in talented young people moving abroad and never returning to the country. Employment in Sudan is difficult to come by, even though the official unemployment rate among the young only stands at around 20 per cent.
However, as Mohammed pointed out, there appears to be an open-door recruitment policy for those prepared to work with and pass information to the intelligence services. "Whilst I was being beaten, one of the masked interrogators asked me whether I would be prepared to work for [the security services] and provide information about those opposed to the government. When I refused, the beatings intensified."
An official working with Sudan's National Intelligence Security Services was unable to confirm or deny Mohammed's story. However, he admitted to being aware of the student's detention and confirmed that he was released without charge.
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