KHARTOUM — The dream of a new Sudan has turned into a nightmare of blood and smoke.
In the worst massacre of civilians since the ouster of dictator Omar al-Bashir nearly two months ago, more than 100 people, including children, were reportedly killed and hundreds more wounded on Monday when soldiers from the country’s ruling military junta opened fire on a sit-in camp in the heart of Khartoum.
Driving machine-gun-mounted pickups and armed with assault rifles, tear gas, whips and sticks, troops in uniform fired indiscriminately at unarmed protesters, beat men and women alike, and set fire to the sit-in's tents and stages. There are reports of people being burned alive, women raped, and bodies mutilated and dumped into the Nile.
Details of the violence, as well as the death count, were reported by the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which is part of the protest movement that pushed for Bashir’s removal.
The bloodshed prompted the African Union on Thursday to suspend Sudan from its membership until the country’s ruling military junta, which seized power in an April coup, hands power to a civilian-led authority.
“The revolution is still there, but people just don't know what to do”
Sudan's revolutionaries, meanwhile, maintain they will continue their struggle for a civilian-led government. Opposition leaders have called for a nationwide strike and civil disobedience next week. In pro-revolution neighborhoods, residents have set up dozens of makeshift roadblocks of bricks, burning tires, trash, and tree branches, making vehicle travel near impossible. Even the wounded say they won't back down.
"The revolution has just started," declared Mahmoud Abdulla, a 25-year-old student who survived the massacre. "What's passed the last two months is nothing."
But such calls of defiance bely the reality on Khartoum’s streets. The sit-in site — the nerve center of the revolution which had grown into a sprawling free-form commune of art, music, and hope that electrified Sudanese of all races and regions — is now a ghostly pile of ash and rubble patrolled by heavily armed troops. The colorful murals have been painted over, and the chants that expressed a generation’s hopes for a better future have been replaced by the silence of a cemetery.
Without the sit-in, Sudan's revolutionaries are struggling to find a way forward nearly six months after the historic protests started. Protest organizers have lost credibility among many of their former supporters; opposition leaders have been beaten and locked up; and public demonstrations are riskier than ever. For the first time since December, Khartoum’s streets are devoid of public protests.
"The revolution is still there, but people just don't know what to do," said Saha Omar, a 21-year-old student protester.
Breaking the sit-in
Meanwhile, the military junta, which seized power in April after months of calls for al-Bashir’s removal, is digging in. It has claimed 61 people died, and justified Monday's assault as an attempt to clear alleged criminals out of "Colombia," an area near the sit-in along the Nile where civilians have long gathered to drink alcohol and smoke weed, both of which are illegal in Sudan.
But accounts from survivors, and amateur footage of Monday's attack that was shared on social media, suggest it was not a drug raid at all, but a pre-planned assault to break up the sit-in and inflict maximum suffering on the protesters camped there.
"Even if there were drug users or drunk people at the sit-in, there are ways to deal with them, not with guns and violence," said Mohamed Ibrahim, who survived the massacre but suffered whippings on his back and a gash on his head. "They used it as an excuse to come into the sit-in."
“They were looking at us like we weren't human”
The violence has put the spotlight on the Rapid Support Forces, a feared militia whose leader is the second in command of the junta and which is implicated in atrocities including murder and rape in Darfur and elsewhere. Men in police uniforms also participated in the assault, but most protesters told VICE News that these men were also part of the RSF.
"They were all teenagers," said Merdat Khadir, who was receiving care for his wounds at a nearby hospital. "The way they were beating people and attacking people was not the way the police attack people. They were so violent. Their uniforms were new, very fresh. Their accents were from Darfur. They couldn't understand when we were speaking. They were looking at us like we weren't human."
Led by Lt Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the RSF is widely seen as the greatest threat to Sudan’s pro-democracy movement. With military strength rivaling Sudan’s regular army and a reputation for brutality, the RSF is now in de facto control of the capital. And with the backing of deep-pocketed regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it’s unlikely to relinquish power anytime soon. The junta has stood behind its actions, praising the militia for the operation, and vowing to crush any more "insurgents."
Surviving the massacre
For many protesters, the attack on the sit-in Monday was just a matter of time. In the lead up to the massacre, the junta issued increasingly bellicose statements against protesters, and after a sudden clampdown on media, protest leaders warned that large-scale violence against the sit-in was imminent.
The attack began at dawn on Monday. Ibrahim and his brother, Ahmed, were at the barricades at Nile Street, a major thoroughfare that separates Colombia from the sit-in, when hundreds of men in police uniforms with clubs and rifles advanced on them.
"We started to retreat and tried to make our roadblocks stronger," said Ahmed. "But they started increasing in numbers, and then there was a ridiculous amount of gunfire."
The brothers ran toward the middle of the sit-in to regroup. But as they approached, other protesters were fleeing back towards them. With RSF troops closing in from almost all sides, they headed toward the military headquarters, a series of imposing buildings behind castle-style walls and metal gates. They thought it would be safe there, because the army's rank-and-file had opened their gates to unarmed protesters seeking safety from regime attacks in April before Bashir's downfall.
But on Monday, there was no help. The RSF had deployed trucks and soldiers along the headquarters' walls before the attack began, trapping the protesters. Footage seen by VICE News showed soldiers inside the headquarters' compound beating people to stop them from entering despite heavy gunfire, suggesting that the regular army coordinated with the RSF in the operation.
Finding no shelter with the army, the brothers fled east, to the one road that wasn’t blocked. That's where Ahmed was shot.
"A tear gas canister landed next to me. I didn't throw it back to them, but I threw to the side so it wouldn't choke the people around us," he said from his hospital bed. "Then there was another tear gas canister fired, but as I turned to see it, my hand felt heavy. I looked at it and I couldn't move it and the blood was gushing out."
“No more protests”
Monday’s massacre has left an unmistakable scar on the city and the protest movement that once filled it with hope.
Displays of solidarity by civilians, once robust, have begun to falter. On Monday, employees at Khartoum International Airport refused to work, shutting down flights in protest. But by Tuesday, they were back at their posts, after reports emerged that security forces had shot and killed a striking employee. Now, with daily reports of killings in Khartoum's neighborhoods, many people are staying inside.
"Life has completely stopped," said one Sudanese citizen in southern Khartoum, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. "We don't have internet, and all the streets are blocked."
The frustration is not solely directed at the military. Protesters are also increasingly disappointed with the civilian leaders — a coalition of opposition political parties, professional associations, trade unions, and rebel groups — known as the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).
“Life has completely stopped”
The FFC entered into talks with the junta in April to form a new government, a decision now viewed by some coalition members as a mistake, and controversially disowned “Colombia” before the massacre, declaring it outside the revolution. That decision, critics argue, lent credence to the military's claims of criminality among protesters and provided a pretext to the violence. The FFC also ordered the removal of extra barricades that were built by protesters to protect the sit-in from attack and pressure the military to give up power.
"These people are out of touch. They're just over there negotiating, while we're doing the tough part at the sit-in," said Abdurahman Mohamed Awad, 29, an unemployed flight attendant, who was badly beaten by the RSF. "The barricades were the only way we could protect our brothers and sisters inside the sit-in. There are people who died for those barricades."
While more radical revolutionaries debate what’s best for the movement, many moderate supporters of the uprising seem to have resigned themselves to the military's rule. Omar, a doctor in Khartoum who treated some of the wounded, described the protest leaders as political "rookies," and said it was time to give up.
"They failed the Sudanese people," he said. "We don't need for our country to reach that situation in Syria and Libya. We should not escalate the situation. No more protests."
Jason Patinkin is a reporter who has covered East Africa since 2012.
Cover: Sudanese youth wave flags and chant revolutionary songs on the morning of June 2 the last peaceful morning in the Khartoum sit-in. Jason Patinkin for Vice News