Can artist campaigns help reunite the centre and the periphery in Sudan? – By Reem Abbas
In the 1990s, as the war continued to escalate in Southern Sudan, Northern Sudanese activists arrived in conflict-affected areas in what was called a “˜peace convoy’. Initially the activists felt they were “mistrusted and no-one wanted to speak” to them, but after some days, this changed and people began to open up. Much the same has happened since 2011, when war broke out in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan and activists began pitching the idea of visiting the conflict areas and the refugee camps to send a message of solidarity.
Sudan’s conflicts have often involved areas on the marginalised periphery revolting against the more powerful and wealthy centre, and there is a gulf between the people who live in these different areas too.
Hajooj Kuka, a Sudanese filmmaker, has spent significant time in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan to film the perspective of those affected by war as they navigate their lives through Antonov bombing raids, and reaffirm their cultural and physical existence through music, dance and story-telling. When Kuka arrived at the IDP and refugee camps, usually finding himself the only or one of a very few there from the centre, he was met with many questions: “Why are people from the capital not coming here? Why is the only doctor in the area an American and not a Sudanese? Where is the centre in all of this?”
Kuka is not the only Sudanese artist attempting to highlight the country’s devastating conflicts. Art VS war is a cultural campaign carried out by Nabta Art and Culture Center in collaboration with the National Group for Cultural Policies. From his office in Cairo, Ahmed Isam – a Sudanese artist – designs colourful posters detailing the amount spent on war as opposed to government expenditure on the arts and mixes images of war planes and soldiers in camouflage with art supplies and musical instruments. The campaign is slowly growing from social media to posters and t-shirts; and by the end of the month it will head to refugee camps for musical and cultural exchanges between the centre and the conflict areas.
The film and the campaign should not be taken lightly; they are both innovative ways to build a bridge between the centre and the periphery and show solidarity from the centre, the place that Kuka and Isam believe can really pressure the government to stop the war.
Yet so far in Sudan, activist groups have been largely unable to mobilize people around the problem of war.
The September Effect
In 2012, Girifna, an activist group, campaigned for a protest day named “Darfur Baladna Friday” or “Darfur our home Friday,” during the protests known as Sudan Revolts. However, “Darfur Baladna Friday” never quite materialized in Khartoum. Some argued that it failed because it was Ramadan, others say that people never really related to what the day was intended to represent. The day did have one positive output: a note circulated online, written by Omdurman youth to Darfuris describing how they are saddened by what is happening in Darfur.
A few days later, there were protests in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state, and more than a dozen youth were shot dead. There was a sense of embarrassment in the centre: when the capital’s residents protest they are tear-gassed and detained, in the periphery, the government goes straight to live bullets.
The September 2013 demonstrations, during which more than 200 people were killed, mainly in the capital, were a turning point. When the bodies of protesters began piling up it was a shock to the centre. The government that allegedly protected them from the evil people in the periphery had now begun killing them too. The events of September 2013 echoed loudly in the war areas too. Kuka says that it made people realize that Sudanese in the centre could also be killed.
The September incident opened a new space for dialogue between activists in the centre and the periphery, but this dialogue will not prove prosperous unless the activists can mobilize people against the war and not just about economic issues.
The War Next Door
A few months ago, as Rapid Support Forces (RSF) burned and pillaged villages in North Darfur, the conflict in Sudan’s western region surfaced in Khartoum in the form an Arabic hashtag #Darfur_Burns. As one Darfuri activist put it to me, “it gave people information they never knew about Darfur and its history.”
Activist groups like Girifna and Sudan Change Now have campaigned against the three wars raging in Sudan. But the campaigns, despite all their good intentions, were never strong enough to rally popular support.
First, the campaigns were not prioritized during times when other events in the centre were given more coverage; and the local was usually not tied to the bigger problems in Sudan. Right now, the conversation is about the floods, with a particular focus on the implications for Khartoum state residents. The floods could be made a national issue as they bring to the fore issues of governance, the mass displacement of IDPs from war-torn areas to Khartoum where they live in uninhabitable land, and officials embezzling money instead of using it to prepare for the rainy season.
In another example, when Univeristy of Khartoum student Ali Abakar was shot after he gave a speech about the deteriorating situation in Darfur, activist groups failed to make their campaign about the war. Instead it was presented as a local University of Khartoum event. Soon, the attention moved from Ali Abakar to the students who were arrested and to the dispersal of students from the dorms.
Second, the campaigns have been isolated from the civilians in the conflict areas. This is because activists lack access to the war zones and sometimes do not reach out effectively to civilians from those places. Moreover, there is a serious trust issue. Salih Ammar, a journalist, was beaten up when attempting to show solidarity with a Darfuri student activist who was allegedly tortured to death by the security services.
Finally, no sustained efforts are made by activist groups to explain to the average citizen how war is their biggest problem, as it affects everything from the country’s economy to healthcare and the educational system. Over 70% of the country’s revenues go to the military and security; in other words, war affects everyday life.
Art as a weapon against war
“War stops at the place it is coming from, where the arms are made and the planes are launched,” Isam says. Both Kuka and Isam explain that the centre needs to be part of the solution to stop the war.
To make his documentary, “Beats of the Antonov”, which tells the story of the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan, Kuka spent months going to the refugee and IDP camps in which hundreds of thousands of people from both regions live. Previous films about the war in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan have not been made by Sudanese filmmakers and he wanted to make a film where Sudanese people are the audience. The people he filmed were at the heart of his documentary, and they saw the many cuts of the film as it was being edited and gave their comments and recommendations.
In the film, in one scene, the girls are giggling as they watch themselves on Kuka’s laptop. These girls were never going to be on national television, but now they are part of a film that will have a bigger audience than simply Sudan TV. The film is meant to arm its Sudanese audience, who after watching it will want to fight for cultural and ethnic diversity, to listen to this music and hear these stories told in the centre, in Khartoum.
Art Vs War is also important because like Kuka it will directly go to the people affected by the war and will be a bridge between the centre and the periphery. It is an attempt at peace-building, with no resources to build services, but merely to build social peace between people.
The only anti-war attempts that will work should start from the centre and engage with the conflict areas and should only be focused on war; the most critical issue in Sudan today.
Reem Abbas is a freelance journalist and award-winning blogger. She contributed a chapter to “Voices in Refuge: Stories from Sudanese Refugees in Cairo” published by AUC Press. She is currently writing her master’s thesis on the migration of activists in Sudan.