Bullets, Tear Gas and Love: Romance Blooms in the Midst of Sudan Protests
After decades of rule under a dictator, a wave of exuberance has rippled across Sudan’s capital, the young are reveling in newfound freedoms — to speak, party and find love.
The minivan sped along the Nile, weaving through the evening traffic. The bride sat up front in a pink dress, a sparkling purse on her lap and her feet swaddled in bandages.
The bride, Samar Alnour, was shot twice last month during the tumultuous uprising that toppled Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Now she was on her way back to the protest site, to marry the man who saved her.
Muntassir Altigani, 30, a construction worker, had rushed to Ms. Alnour’s aid as she lay bleeding in the street. Bullets whizzed around them. Like her, he had joined the revolt as a howl against the misrule of Mr. al-Bashir. In the weeks that followed, they fell in love.
“I thought she was very courageous,” he said.
But the revolution is not over.
The minivan halted on the edge of the protest site where thousands are still camped out at the gates of Sudan’s military headquarters, demanding a transition to full civilian rule. Ms. Alnour, an unemployed 28-year-old college graduate, hitched up her dress as she sat into a wheelchair and joined them.
An uncle pushed her deep into the heaving crowd — past the pop-up cafes with lounging soldiers and flirting couples; past the street poets and speakers, declaiming their dreams for Sudan; and past the dreadlocked musician playing Bob Marley covers.
Trailed by a cheering crowd, she stopped at the spot where she had been shot.
All her life, she said, she had known only Mr. al-Bashir’s Sudan: a cheerless place where corruption thwarted her effort to get a government job. Now a new country — or at least the promise of one — beckoned.
“Before we did not celebrate,” she said. “You couldn’t express yourself, or speak out. Now we feel free.”Socializing at one of the many cafes that line the alleyways near the site of the sit-in.CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times
Revolutionary Sudan has become the site of extraordinary scenes. After decades of airless, joyless rule under Mr. al-Bashir, a wave of exuberance has rippled across the capital, Khartoum, where young Sudanese are reveling in newfound freedoms — to talk politics, to party and even to find love.
The epicenter of these changes is the protest area at the gates of the military headquarters. Women in jeans move about without fear of harassment from the hated public order police, whose patrols have vanished from the streets. Couples mingle easily, some holding hands.
Day and night, teenage boys beat stones against the sides of a railway bridge, in a steady rhythm that has become a kind of heartbeat of the revolution.
Down by the Nile, young people relax on plastic chairs on the grass, sucking on water pipes that were banned by Mr. al-Bashir.
Closer to the water, men swig openly from bottles of araqi — date wine whose consumption is punishable by 40 lashes under Sudan’s Shariah law.
A sweet odor of hashish hangs in the air. Uniformed soldiers, who have vowed to protect the revolutionaries, are among the revelers.
Mr. al-Bashir’s Islamist rule had made Sudan, already a conservative society, unaccustomed to such scenes. A backlash is possible. Yet change is reverberating far beyond the protest area.
One night a young woman in tight jeans rode on the back of a motorbike in southern Khartoum, her hair flowing — a once unthinkable sight, likely to invite arrest.
Now, men in a passing car tooted their horn and made thumbs-up signs. The woman smiled and flashed a victory sign.
“The changes were shocking at first,” said Zuhayra Mohamed, 28, a project manager who defied her parents to participate in the protests. “It’s as if the regime had its arms around our necks for so long, and now there’s something so beautiful.”
But while the old Sudan may be out of sight, it has not gone away.
On a recent morning, dozens of uniformed public order police sat drinking tea under a cluster of trees outside their brightly painted Khartoum headquarters, near the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile. They were awaiting orders, a commander said.
And as the protesters celebrated last week, Amer Yousif was being lashed.
The 35-year-old driver had been caught with a bottle of araqi in his pocket on a trip out to buy cigarettes. The next morning a judge sentenced him to 50 lashes, including an extra 10 for aggravated circumstances.
The judge “seemed angered by the revolution,” said Mr. Yousif, lifting his shirt to show a welt on his back.
Another young couple, Mohamed Hamed and Nahed Elgizouli, also met during the protests, but it wasn’t bullets that brought them together but a cloud of tear gas.
Mr. Hamed, a 31-year-old engineer, collapsed onto his knees in downtown Khartoum, his lungs filled with the gas. Ms. Elgizouli ran up to him and rinsed his face with Coca-Cola.
They got to know each other over the following months — congregating at protest sites, sprinting away from armed regime thugs and protesting the death of a mutual friend in detention.
“They beat him to death,” said Ms. Elgizouli, 26, who works for an organization that promotes reproductive health.
Both had fallen afoul of the dreaded public order police before the revolution. Ms. Elgizouli was detained last year as she returned with male friends from a camping trip in the desert. Mr. Hamed was punished with 40 lashes in 2016 for being drunk.
It wasn’t so bad, he said. He bribed the flogger to go easy on him.
Economic collapse didn’t hurt them as badly as it did poorer Sudanese, but they hated the way the Bashir government robbed them of opportunity, and provided regular reminders of their country’s humiliating isolation.
In Sudan, American sanctions mean that Netflix, Spotify and many other internet services are blocked, credit cards don’t work and international franchises are absent. One popular coffee shop in Khartoum is called Starbox, with a version of the Starbucks black-and-green logo.
They watched friends move abroad to make a better life.
“Sudan was like a hell,” Ms. Elgizouli said. “No hope, no freedom, no jokes.”
The couple’s friendship turned to romance during the final push against Mr. al-Bashir in early April. They lay on the ground together as gunfire erupted outside the military compound, and rejoiced when the dictator fell.
Now they hold hands freely as they pass through the crowd. “This is the new Sudan, the one we dreamed of,” Ms. Elgizouli said.
The differences of religion and ethnicity that Mr. al-Bashir exploited to cement his authority are being blurred or erased. A train packed with jubilant revolutionaries arrived from Atbara, 175 miles to the north, last week. On Tuesday a cavalcade arrived from distant Darfur.
“People feel more at peace with each other,” said Ms. Mohamed, the engineer. “There’s a sense of unity.”
Sudan’s new freedoms are fragile, and whether they can endure is unclear. Power-sharing talks between protest leaders and the military, now in their fourth week, have become tense in recent days. Outside the protest bubble, supporters of the old government are waiting and watching.
Some say the struggle has just begun. “It’s like you’re in a dark place and you can see a small light,” Ms. Elgizouli said. “We have a long road to freedom.”
Declan Walsh is the Cairo bureau chief, covering Egypt and the Middle East. He joined The Times in 2011 as Pakistan bureau chief, and previously worked at The Guardian. @declanwalsh
A version of this article appears New York edition with the headline: Romance Blooms in Midst of Bloody Revolution.