TOPSHOT - Sudanese forces are deployed around Khartoum's army headquarters on June 3, 2019 as they try to disperse Khartoum's sit-in. - At least two people were killed Monday as Sudan's military council tried to break up a sit-in outside Khartoum's army headquarters, a doctors' committee said as gunfire was heard from the protest site. (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
Sudanese forces in Khartoum on June 3. At least 100 peaceful protesters were killed when soldiers opened fire on them © AFP

This was the week that Darfur came to Khartoum. For the moment at least, Sudan’s dream of a peaceful revolution is over. 

In the early hours of Monday, troops belonging to a paramilitary group notorious for atrocities in Darfur in the west of Sudan broke up a two-month sit-in led by students and professionals. Dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. At the very least, 100 people have been killed, according to the association of Sudanese doctors. The real death toll is likely to be higher. 

The so-called Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that absorbed members of the notorious Janjaweed horseback militia, went on the sort of rampage that in Darfur brought charges of genocide from the International Criminal Court. Video taken by mobile phone showed soldiers shooting indiscriminately and beating protesters with truncheons as they fled for their lives. 

According to eye witnesses, soldiers raped women and threw the bodies of some of those killed into the Nile. An image showing militia parading a pole hung with the underwear of presumed rape victims circulated on social media, though its authenticity could not be verified. Khartoum is in lockdown with military trucks on every corner and people terrified to leave their homes. The internet — the digital umbilical chord of the civilian uprising — has been cut. 

What is happening in Khartoum should be of intense interest to the world. It appears mostly indifferent. Not only has a massacre taken place in a capital of 5m people, but the repression of peaceful protesters also raises a fundamental question. What should people do when confronted by tyranny? In an age when democracy has few champions, can a pacific uprising ever topple a regime with guns? 

Only a few weeks ago, the streets of Khartoum felt like a dream conjured up by the poet William Wordsworth, who wrote of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!” 

Sudan’s youth had indeed been in heaven. After 30 years of joyless repression under the dictator Omar al-Bashir, they had taken to the streets in their tens of thousands. Led by professionals, including doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers, their actions had persuaded the military that the continued rule of Mr Bashir was untenable. On April 11, after months of nationwide protests and five days after a sit-in began in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum, the soldiers who had propped up the dictator for three decades moved against him. Mr Bashir was removed in a bloodless coup and dispatched to jail. 

The people of Khartoum poured out, night after night, to celebrate the toppling of a dictator and to press for an orderly transition to civilian rule. But though Mr Bashir was gone, the regime of terror he created was not. The most powerful man in the country is now Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, usually known as Hemeti, the head of the Rapid Support Forces and nominally the number two in the Transitional Military Council. 

Lt-Gen Hamdan had sought to portray himself as on the side of the revolution. It was he, he said, who disobeyed Mr Bashir’s orders to mow down protesters. Partly thanks to his seeming conversion, many in the opposition convinced themselves that the military council was genuine in its stated desire to restore democracy.

It was not. Though it held talks ostensibly aimed at establishing a joint military-civilian council, it negotiated in bad faith. The military council this week scrapped talks. It will, it says, press on with an election in nine months. If it does, it will be a Bashir-style poll, rigged to ensure its own continued supremacy.

Protesters have vowed to continue their struggle. The odds are stacked against them. The youth of Sudan, and much of Africa, has a faith in liberal democracy and peaceful protest that has all but evaporated in much of the world. This is a bad era in which to be a democrat without a gun.

The US has lost moral authority as a democratic champion. Besides, it has long been a bit player in Sudan. The real power brokers are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, regimes that have snuffed out democratic movements in their own countries and with no appetite to see them flourish in neighbouring states. A UN resolution to condemn Sudan’s military violence was blocked by China and Russia. 

Thirty years after Chinese troops killed hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square and six years after Egyptian troops shot 800 in Tahrir Square, Sudanese soldiers have done the same in their own square in their own capital. The military is already denying that anything of the sort took place. The war for amnesia has already begun.

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