Sudan’s Woman in White / Times Magazine
I’m not afraid of dying,” says the slight, immaculately dressed young woman sitting beside me. “We all have to die at some point, so it’s better to die defending the cause. Other people have died for the cause.”
From most 22-year-olds such a statement might sound pretentious, ridiculous even. But not from Alaa Salah. The Sudanese student with flashing brown eyes, radiant smile and indomitable spirit has already proved her courage – her willingness to become a martyr for freedom.
On April 8 Salah was one of hundreds of thousands of her fellow countrymen who converged on a vast square in front of the army headquarters in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to demand the end of President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship. That evening she clambered on top of a white car. There, dressed in a traditional white robe, she began to recite a revolutionary poem.
A local photographer, Lana Haroun, caught the moment on her smartphone. The picture showed Salah boldly, defiantly declaiming to the enraptured crowd, one hand held aloft with the index finger pointing skywards, the other on her waist, the last of the evening light glinting on her gold earring.
Haroun posted the image on Twitter. It went viral, ricocheting around the world. It fired the imagination of millions of people who had been almost entirely oblivious to the popular uprising in Sudan.
Salah instantly became the human face of that revolution, the embodiment of a people’s brave struggle against tyranny. She was dubbed the “Woman in White”. She became Sudan’s equivalent of the young man who blocked a line of tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, or of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman shot dead by Iranian security forces during that country’s abortive Green Revolution in 2009, or of Malala Yousafzai, the 21-year-old Pakistani human rights campaigner.
Three days later Bashir fell, toppled by his own army, although the people’s struggle to remove the rest of the brutal military regime that he created was far from finished.
Salah became a target for its wrath, but she has no regrets. “I’m very, very happy and proud,” she says in her first big interview. “What makes me feel good is that the picture attracted the attention of the international community. The world realised there was a revolution going on, and that people were going on to the streets to demand their rights.
“Before that the world was not paying us much attention. The regime was trying to keep it quiet, but now they no longer could, because journalists and camera crews came from everywhere.”
I meet Salah in the somewhat incongruous setting of an affluent country club on the edge of Marrakesh in Morocco. It is a far cry from the turbulent streets of Khartoum, 3,000 miles to the east. The view from the shaded terrace where we sit is of a tranquil walled garden with olive trees, cypresses and bougainvillea. The only sound is that of birdsong and a tinkling watercourse.
Salah at a demonstration outside the military headquarters in Khartoum on April 10GETTY IMAGES
Salah is here because, two days earlier, she was the surprise, last-minute star turn at the annual summit of the Women in Africa Initiative – the organisers were unsure whether she would be able to leave Sudan. She received a hero’s welcome from the 600 delegates, and a rapturous standing ovation after she spoke of the importance of women standing up for their beliefs. She spent an hour hugging and posing for photographs with them afterwards.
She has once again dressed in a white robe and gold earrings for our interview, and comes across as a curious mixture of the modern and traditional. She is remarkably self-assured for one so young. She speaks gently, but with feeling and conviction. She clutches her mobile phone and a fashionable handbag, wears sunglasses, high heels and discreet make-up, but says prayers five times a day. She giggles when I ask if she has boyfriends. In Sudan, she explains through an interpreter, a boy must ask for a girl’s hand before he can consort with her. She refused several men, she adds, saying she wants to finish her studies and start a career before marrying.
She tells me she was the middle of seven siblings. Her father runs the family construction business. Her mother designs modern versions of traditional Sudanese clothes. Salah helps model some of those clothes, which may explain her composure in front of cameras. She even suggests poses and backdrops to the Times photographer, although as a devout Muslim she declines to remove her headscarf.
Before Bashir’s fall his autocratic rule was all she had ever known. Before this trip she had scarcely left Sudan. But her well-off parents were strong believers in education, sent their children to private schools, and regularly discussed the regime’s many iniquities in the privacy of their home.
Bashir was an A-list dictator. He seized power in Africa’s eighth most populous country in a military coup in 1989. During the following decade he harboured foreign jihadists including Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who later masterminded the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC. The US labelled Sudan as a sponsor of terrorism and imposed sanctions.
In the 2000s Bashir unleashed the fearsome horsemen of the Janjaweed militia on the rebellious Darfur region of Sudan. They slashed, burned and raped their way through remote villages, causing an estimated 300,000 deaths and earning Bashir the title “Butcher of Darfur”. He became the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide.
For two decades Bashir also prosecuted a bloody war against insurgents in South Sudan, until that region won its independence in 2011.
His regime was sustained by the discovery of oil in the late Nineties. Living standards rose as oil prices soared in the 2000s. The ranks of the urban middle classes swelled – as did Bashir’s repressive security apparatus, which he designed with competing power centres to render himself coup-proof.
Salah and her family watched excitedly on the BBC and Al Jazeera as the “Arab Spring” revolutions of 2011 toppled dictators in three other North African countries – Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – but Sudan remained quiescent. “The conditions were not ripe, but I knew that one day they would be,” she says.
Sure enough, South Sudan seceded in July that year, depriving Bashir of most of his oil. The economy began to deteriorate. There were protests in 2013, but his security services crushed them. “It was like losing a battle, but not the war,” says Salah. “It was not a defeat. It was an opportunity to organise.” The economic implosion gathered pace, and last December the people once again took to the streets of Sudan’s cities, enraged by crippling inflation, endemic corruption and chronic shortages of bread, fuel and cash
The protests were led by the urban professional classes – doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers, by students and by women, who have been seen as a powerful force in Sudanese society since the days of the Nubian “warrior queens” in ancient times. After Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, they helped topple successive military regimes.
“Women have always been in the front, contributing to change,” says Salah, who was by that time in the fourth year of an architecture and engineering course at Sudan International University. She chose that course, she explains, because visiting building sites with her father as a girl had imbued her with a desire to build things. Now she was possessed by a still greater ambition – a desire to build a new Sudan.
The first big demonstration in Khartoum was on December 19. “My friends said, ‘We have to join,’ and we joined the next day,” Salah says. “I was really excited. I thought, ‘We’re going to bring about change. We’re going to get back the country they stole from us.’”
The nonviolent demonstrations continued for months. The regime declared a state of national emergency, and responded with a fresh wave of oppression – killings, beatings, arrests, secret detentions, tear gas and censorship – but to no avail.
Salah and her fellow students organised sit-ins. They donned gloves and masks to participate in opposition-organised clean-ups of the streets. She communicated with thousands of other women on a women-only Facebook group called Minbar Chat, which they used to swap intelligence, organise protests and identify regime spies and infiltrators.
The women began wearing traditional white robes called toubs to show solidarity with the uprising. They became known as the kandakas – the title of the ancient Nubian queens.
Salah lost five young friends – four of them shot and one beaten to death. She pauses, reluctant to talk about them, and tears well up in her eyes. “For every one that dies, ten more come,” she insists. She and her fellow students refused to attend classes because, she says, “We were not going to climb the education ladder at the expense of their martyrs’ blood.”
Salah’s parents and siblings feared for her safety, but they joined the demonstrations too. She was not afraid, she says. “I was part of millions of people. We knew we would face the regime’s forces and bullets but it was a cause dear to our hearts … We felt we represented light and the regime darkness. We were sure light would overcome because it was the will of the people.”
Elsewhere in North Africa, another popular rebellion had erupted, and on April 2 Algeria’s aged autocrat, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was forced to resign as president following huge demonstrations. The Sudanese protesters waved Algerian flags alongside their own. “It was very encouraging. The success of the Algerian people’s efforts brought our dream closer,” says Salah. Then, six days later, came the moment that changed her life.
On April 8 hundreds of thousands of demonstrators converged on the great open square in front of the army’s headquarters. Bashir’s elaborate security apparatus had by that time begun to fracture. When the police started using tear gas and firing into the air to disperse the crowds, elements of the army intervened to protect them.
Salah went to the demonstration wearing her white toub and gold moon earrings of the sort that Sudanese women wear on special occasions. She had the old, pre-Bashir version of the Sudanese flag painted on one cheek. Inspired by the vast turnout – the biggest to date – she asked a group of girls with tablas (drums) whether she could recite her revolutionary poem while they played.
“It was very spontaneous,” she says. “I thought everyone should contribute what they could.” So she started performing, about ten times in the course of the evening – on a barrel, the pedestal of a statue, patches of raised ground, wherever she could gain elevation.
Sitting on the terrace in Marrakesh, she recites that lengthy poem once more, this time for my benefit. I cannot understand it, but I can sense the passion, the emotion, in her lovely lilting Arabic and in the constant play of her expressive hands. The gist, our interpreter explains, is that citizens must demand their rights, and that those who sacrifice their lives for freedom do not do so in vain. “It’s not the bullet that kills,” runs the poem’s refrain, “but the silence of humiliated people.”
For her sixth performance that April evening Salah had climbed on top of a white car shortly after the vast multitude had prayed at sunset. That is where Lana Haroun spotted her, bathed in dusk’s soft light, with countless onlookers recording her mesmeric performance on their illuminated phones. “She was trying to give everyone positive energy and she did it,” Haroun told CNN. “She was representing all Sudanese women and girls … She was perfect.”
Haroun’s photo had an instant and universal appeal. To the Sudanese people it evoked the strength of their women over several millennia. To many westerners her pose was reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. For almost any audience the sight of a petite, vulnerable young woman (Salah is 5ft 2in) so boldly and brazenly defying the might of a violent dictatorship could only inspire admiration.
“It was chosen by God, that moment,” Salah tells me. “People thought Sudanese women were conservative and afraid to speak out, but when they saw it was a girl not a boy, a woman not a man, addressing the crowd it changed the stereotype.”
Haroun posted the photograph on Twitter. Within hours it went viral. The revolution had acquired a compelling human face, and the attention of a world weary of abortive uprisings in the Middle East and Africa.
Three days later, Bashir was deposed by his own military and imprisoned in Khartoum’s Kobar jail, where he had previously incarcerated thousands of political opponents. One day after that, the demonstrators successfully rejected a replacement nominated by the newly formed Transitional Military Council (TMC) – the defence minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf – because he was one of Bashir’s henchmen. “We wanted people without blood on their hands,” says Salah.
She was astonished and delighted that the photograph had such resonance. She has since spoken to Haroun by phone and thanked her profusely. “I was very satisfied because the regime had lasted 30 years and we, as young people, had contributed to its fall,” she says.
Sadly the people’s euphoria proved short-lived. The TMC appeared to have little interest in a restoration of civilian rule that threatened not just the military’s power, but its vast economic interests. It also appeared that the divisions within the security establishment were widening. The ostensible head of the TMC was the regular army’s Lt Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, but the real power lay with his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo. A former camel trader known as Hemedti, he leads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a heavily armed paramilitary group of 40,000 men drawn from the Janjaweed of which he was once a notoriously ruthless commander.
In the small hours of June 3, the penultimate day of Ramadan, the RSF curtailed a tortuous negotiation process with the opposition Forces for Freedom and Change coalition by attacking the rebels’ encampment outside the army headquarters. Alerted by social media, Salah and her friends attempted to reach the square. They could hear gunfire, but were turned back by fleeing protesters who told them, “Don’t go there to die. We need you for the revolution.”
More than 100 peaceful, unarmed demonstrators, several of them children, died in the ensuing massacre. Some were tied up and dumped in the Nile to drown. Others were dragged from clinics where they were being treated for injuries. Women were raped. The encampment – the protesters’ “field of dreams” – was reduced to ashes.
The opposition responded by calling for an open-ended general strike, but the RSF ran amok. Its thugs marauded through Khartoum’s dusty streets in gun trucks, seized opposition leaders, looted shops, terrorised residents and cut off the internet to prevent them organising.
Salah has not escaped their attention. She has received menacing calls from unknown men warning her to “Be careful”, and no longer takes calls if she does not recognise the caller’s number. She says she has been followed by cars with no registration plates after leaving her home. She feared she might be stopped at the airport en route to Morocco. “Maybe they weren’t paying attention,” she laughs. But she takes no measures to protect herself because, she says, “I believe in God.”
To me, the situation looks gloomy. The West has condemned the crackdown, but imposed no sanctions. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have discreetly supported the military lest Sudan’s unrest destabilise their own unsavoury regimes, and because the RSF has sent men to help the Saudis prosecute their nasty war in Yemen. Analysts have warned that Sudan could descend into a Syrian-style civil war between the regime and its people, or a Libyan-style conflict between rival military factions.
But Salah remains hopeful. “The feeling is different now, but we have not lost hope,” she says, and she reminds me of what happened in Khartoum the day before our interview.
Despite the RSF’s terror tactics, tens of thousands of Sudanese had once again taken to the streets. She shows me pictures on her phone of a dense and seemingly endless column of protesters crossing one of Khartoum’s bridges over the Nile.
Stranded in Marrakesh, Salah spent the day following the demonstrations on news bulletins, calling friends in Sudan, and crying copiously because she was not there marching with her fellow rebels. At least 7 people died and nearly 200 were wounded, but the protesters were not cowed. “They thought they could deter the people by shooting and killing, but they didn’t deter us,” she declares. “The way to freedom is always full of hurdles, but you have to persevere. Inshallah, we will overcome.”
Then, four days after our interview, comes a dramatic announcement. Under intense pressure, Sudan’s military have agreed to share power during a three-year transition to civilian rule. The violence of recent months is to be investigated. Crowds take to the streets in frenzied celebration that will hopefully not prove premature. The Woman in White is back with them, her bravery rewarded, her optimism seemingly vindicated.