KHARTOUM, Sudan —Talks over the formation of a new government fell to the wayside this week after Khartoum was engulfed in the worst outbreak of violence since protesters ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir over a month ago.
Now, with tension in the streets and negotiations deadlocked, the next few days could decide whether Sudan transitions peacefully to democracy, or backslides into military rule and open armed conflict.
“I don’t think many people realize how combustible the situation is,” said Rashid Abdi, a researcher specializing in the Horn of Africa. “This push by the military to get the protesters off the streets is not going to work.”
At the heart of the impasse is an intense power struggle between members of the military junta, called the Transitional Military Council, as to how to move forward in negotiations with the protestors.
“If it gets much more serious I think it becomes the worst case scenario of a fracture of the security services and armed conflict,” Abdi added.
Already tensions are running dangerously high. Violence broke out Monday, shortly after a partial agreement between the junta and protest leaders. Armed security forces attacked the democracy movement’s sit-in, leaving four civilians and one army officer dead. At least 200 more were wounded, 77 by gunshot.
The TMC blamed Monday's violence on "unknown elements," but observers say all armed groups in Khartoum have some links back to the junta. Violence broke out again Wednesday, with armed soldiers opening fire on protesters once more. Shortly after, TMC chairman Abdel Fattah Burhan called off negotiations.
The TMC later claimed the protesters’ barricades, which stretch just short of the Presidential Palace, were the real problem, but protest leaders said they were willing to remove newly set-up barricade if it meant keeping talks on track.
Sudan’s revolution began in December, but picked up pace on April 6, when thousands of protesters started occupying streets outside Khartoum’s military headquarters, calling for Bashir’s removal. Days later, under mounting pressure, Bashir's top generals launched a coup against the notorious dictator and declared themselves rulers. Protesters weren't swayed, and have remained at the sit-in since, building a robust pro-democracy movement and pressuring those generals to hand over power to civilians.
“We always fear that any second we will be shot at, indiscriminately.”
“At the start of negotiations, we used to be able to chant for the revolution and feel that there's safety, but at the moment you don't feel that there's any safety,” said Zahi Abdin, a protester who has stood guard at barricades at the sit-in since April 6. “We always fear that any second we will be shot at, indiscriminately.
Around dusk on Monday, shots rang out around the junction of Nile Street, a main road that leads to the Presidential Palace and the Blue Nile Bridge, an iconic metal span connecting central Khartoum to its northern suburbs. Soldiers have tried to keep the area free of traffic, but demonstrators continued to block the roads with barricades of wood, metal, and brick.
"They're shooting people all over!" shouted a doctor, running ahead of stretcher teams carrying wounded protesters to clinics inside the sit-in. VICE News witnessed two victims, one shot in the leg, the other in the head, a red stain on the white bandage around his temples.
Near Baladiya Street on the sit-in's western edge, the acrid stink of tear gas coated the air. A couple blocks over, on Jamaa Street, protesters clapped their hands in unison and shouted "Huriya!" ("Freedom!") at soldiers who fired guns skyward and attacked protesters with wooden poles and whips.
Abdul Abdurahman was near the barricades on Jamhuriya street — a main conduit cutting through the sit-in — when 10 soldiers attacked him with whips.
"They were just hitting me," he said, removing his shirt to reveal long, raised wounds on his shoulder blades. "You cannot imagine. Just going on and on and on. And I just took it all on my back."
Shooting continued until at least midnight, generating a constant stream of wounded. At one clinic, volunteers brought dozens of injured people, some on stretchers, others hauled by their armpits and legs, including a young man with a bullet in his abdomen, a middle-aged man convulsing from tear gas inhalation, and an unconscious teenage girl wrapped in a blue shawl.
“We feel that the military council is wasting time in handing over to a civilian government.”
"It's even more intense right now [than early April]," said Dr Iman El Tijani. "The first days, the shooting would usually happen in the early hours of the morning, where people would be less in number," she added, as gunshots rattled beyond the clinic walls. "But now they're happening when there are masses of people [outside]."
Another reason for the high casualty count this week: army soldiers did not decisively intervene to stop the fighting like they did in early April. The US Embassy in Khartoum, meanwhile, directly accused the military rulers for causing the violence by stoking tensions before Monday's blow-up.
"The army isn't doing its job," said Salah Jelani, a 19-year-old factory worker who has been manning barricades at the sit-in. "When we ask them to protect us, they say they need orders. What are they here to do then?"
Negotiations are meant to restart Saturday, but the main sticking point remains: Will Bashir’s generals heed the protesters calls for a civilian government or revert to the military style of rule that’s long-dominated Sudan?
For Abdin, who continues to guard the sit-in’s barricade, the talks elicit a mix of cautious optimism and fear that more bloodshed awaits.
“We feel that the military council is wasting time in handing over to a civilian government,” he said. “Based on experience, attacks usually happen on dates such as tomorrow.”.
But like other protesters, he said he will stay at the sit-in as long as it takes until the military forfeits power.
"We do our duty," Abdin said. "We can't leave our posts. We have no option."
Jason Patinkin is a reporter who has covered East Africa since 2012.
Cover: Protesters walk in front of a burning tire at the barricades on Nile Street in Khartoum where security forces attacked them on May 13 2019. (Jason Patinkin for VICE News).