Protests have a mental impact on young Sudanese revolutionaries

Fadil Omar has seen it all in the aftermath of Sudan’s latest coup: human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces against protesters, parents forced to bury their children and friends who lost a limb.

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

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

“I was repeatedly arrested and beaten, even humiliated, inside the detention center. I was constantly tortured. I couldn’t sleep for four months,” Omar tells the The call of Africa podcast.

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

“I refuse. I am still involved in the restoration of freedom and democracy,” he says.

Revolution of rebellious but suffering youth

Sudanese protesters, led by professionals, overthrew strongman Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule in April 2019. The protesters demanded a civilian government, but were forced to face a military-civilian hybrid.

Last October, the army overthrew the civilian government and Sudanese youth once again took to the streets.

In Khartoum and other cities across the country, young protesters, many of whom were victims of serious human rights violations, are now suffering from very complex psychological scars.

The current 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 due to the lack of services as well as fear and stigmatization by friends and family. Many hide their pain, embark on demonstrations and voluntary actions in the service of the revolution.

A year ago, Mariam El-Faki quit her job and now helps organize protests in the streets of Khartoum, but admits she is struggling.

“After going out on the streets to take part in protests for the past three months, I am nervous and just sleeping. I feel like I’m under significant psychological pressure,” she says.

El-Faki says she has communication issues with her family, but while she respects the psychiatric profession, she feels they cannot help her at this point.

“I am Sudanese, we have the revolution and I must move forward. I work on demonstrations, it can help me psychologically,” she says.

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

“Continued struggle can create symptoms associated with psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, insomnia, lack of concentration and others,” she says.

Some may experience vague symptoms such as fatigue, backaches, headaches and have difficulty performing daily chores 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.

Free fall students

Most public universities in Sudan have been affected by political conditions, including daily protests and 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 were supposed to graduate within four years have been delayed for six or seven years. This delay worries students and parents because they have lost hope,” he says.

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

Psychology student Magdalene, alias, faces a difficult future as she hasn’t been able to attend university since October.

“The teachers and the administration were not able to help us resume our studies”, which, she admits, affects her psychologically. “It’s complicated with my friends and my family, who don’t suffer like me.”

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

“There is no transport, and the deteriorating economic and political situation has forced me to stay at home and do nothing; I found no support,” she says.

Look for ways to study abroad

While Magdalane is trying to apply to study outside Sudan, Mikael Habibullah, 20, a student in a similar situation, is also trying to get by. He is from the restive western state of Darfur and came to Khartoum to study computer science.

He decided to switch to agricultural engineering, but now he cannot complete his studies due to protests and demonstrations. He was due to graduate in 2021, but feels trapped.

“My life has completely stopped and I can’t do anything anymore. Besides the pressures from family and the street and the difficulty of transportation, I just sit at home and do nothing and the internet is very bad since the coup,” he says.

He says studying abroad might be his only solution.

“Now I think I will find another alternative by leaving Sudan and enrolling in universities abroad through scholarships. I hope that will happen,” he adds.

Despite the mental and professional difficulties, young Sudanese are still on the streets protesting, even though many believe that being arrested and beaten is inevitable.

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

“I hope the glorious December revolution will achieve the Sudan we want. I am a young man now and I have ambitions, dreams and hopes to achieve, but I cannot achieve my dreams in the situation we are currently living in,” 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.

Thelma J. Longworth