Since Sudan’s president of 30 years was toppled in April, the ruling military council that then took power has been in conflict with protesters demanding civilian rule.
Scores of protesters have been killed in a crackdown, sparking a nationwide civil disobedience campaign. The BBC’s Africa editor, Fergal Keane, reports from a government propaganda trip which went awry, exposing the country’s political schisms.
It must have seemed like a good idea to somebody, although I cannot imagine why. The plan was to show us how terribly the protesters had behaved. If the world could see what they were really like they would understand that the regime had no choice but to send in the militia.
Except from the moment we arrived at the first medical facility things started to go wrong.
Groups of Rapid Support Force militia (RSF) were lounging in the shade on both sides of the road. They had a small checkpoint outside the Institute for the Blind and were clearly surprised to meet us. “No cameras, no cameras,” shouted one militiaman.
Several were wielding the long sticks they have used to batter opposition supporters in the last few days. They are known in Khartoum now as “Janjawid Two” – a reference to the fact that many served in that ruthless force that was used to terrorise civilians in Darfur.
Surrounded by militia we moved inside the building. Any attempt to point a camera in their direction was met with angry warnings. We were guided by health ministry minders who showed us a series of ransacked offices. Files were strewn on the floor. There were broken pieces of electronic equipment. A militiaman followed us inside. The minders were looking nervous. “You need authorisation to film in here,” one of the stick bearers announced. There were phone calls.
Suddenly that rarest of things in Khartoum – a smiling militia commander – strode through the gates. He phoned his boss. His boss probably phoned another boss. Permission was granted. We were allowed to film. “But nobody in a uniform,” said the commander.
The health ministry minder told us to follow him so that we could see the ransacked laboratory: smashed sample tubes and more scattered files. The spokesman for the ministry, Hassan Abudulla, said this had all been the work of the protesters. They had broken in and destroyed equipment. He seemed to me to be speaking from a pre-prepared script. So I asked a question.
Q: Do you honestly believe that the violence and destruction was caused by protesters and not by men with guns?
A: I can’t be certain. The attack happened. I can’t be certain who has done it. I don’t know exactly who has done it… Everything here has been destroyed.
I wandered outside. As it happened there were some witnesses in the area. For their safety I am concealing their identities. The picture they painted was very different to the official narrative. One man who had been there when the attack happened said that between 100 and 150 militia had descended on the building at around 05:00 on 3 June. This was as the assault was being launched on the protesters in front of military headquarters nearby. His account was confirmed by a second eyewitness.
“They swore at us and beat us… They broke into the safe and took all the money. They left nothing at all. Then they smashed everything up. They left nothing unbroken,” he told me. The witness had his watch and wallet stolen by the militia.
Our tour moved on to a medical warehouse where rows of medicines were stacked, many marked with the word “Release”. This was to show us that contrary to opposition claims the militia was not preventing the distribution of badly needed medicines.
Next stop was Omdurman, across the Nile and past yet more jeeploads of militia bristling with guns and rocket propelled grenades. The RSF looks more like an army of occupation than an internal security force.
As far as we could gather, the purpose of the visit to the Omdurman Hospital was to show us that this medical facility was returning to normal service after being closed for the past two days… normal service in a country paralysed by a civil disobedience campaign and where hospitals have been relentlessly starved of the resources they need. This was a significant factor in pushing doctors to become leaders of the protest movement.
In a crowded emergency ward we met the family of Ali Omar Hilal, 45, who had just died while waiting for treatment. His mother, Hawa Farj Amer, said he had died because of a diabetic condition. The family had taken him to a clinic nearer his home in the village of Khosti outside Khartoum but there was no doctor present. When they reached Khartoum on Sunday, they found the Omdurman hospital was also closed. The dead man lay beneath a sheet on a hospital trolley. His younger brother lay on a separate trolley, distraught and being consoled by his sisters and mother.
Outside the hospital a man driving past with a group of children crowded into his pickup truck suddenly stopped in the middle of the road. “The international community has to intervene,” he said, “There is no peace here in Sudan. People are suffering a lot… I am frightened for my country.”
This is a common view. What is striking is how many people are still willing to speak their minds in public. The terror inflicted by the militia has not silenced dissent. But the signs of a deepening repression are ominous. As I write the internet is severely restricted and there are fears of a complete shutdown. Social media was an essential tool of mass mobilisation for the protest movement. The government has also deported three opposition leaders to South Sudan – a clear sign they have little interest in resuming talks in good faith to allow a transition to civilian rule. The signs were evident when they began arresting opposition figures who took part in last week’s mediation effort by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. The arrests took place just after the talks.
Mr Abiy is due to return later this week. It is hard to see how he will bridge the gap between a military regime that is imposing ever greater control and an opposition movement that is now scattered and being driven underground. There was a brief surge of hope when the African Union suspended Sudan last week and Mr Abiy set out on his mediation mission.
But the generals have held their nerve. In particular, the commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – known as “Hemeti” – is thought to be pushing a hard line, confident that he has the support of key regional players in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“Hemeti” is a favourite of the Saudis, trusted because of his support for their war in Yemen – his troops are fighting there – and because he represents the kind of ruthless figure who can preserve the autocratic status quo they are comfortable with.
In recent days, US National Security Adviser John Bolton has tweeted: “The path forward couldn’t be more clear – the TMC (Transitional Military Council) must end the violence against peaceful protesters, expedite transferring power to a civilian-led government. The world is watching.”
But is it really watching? And if so how closely and what will it do to end rule by fear? Because the other scenario is bleak: some of the world warns and condemns but other events intervene. The little diplomatic focus that exists eventually moves away. The media switches its attention to other crises. The world has no shortage of tragedies and dramas. Repression becomes the norm in Sudan and hopes of a peaceful transition fade away. To anybody who has experienced the generosity and open-mindedness of the Sudanese people that would be a tragedy.