Special report: Inside the June 3 massacre now etched into Sudan's collective memory
A year on, witnesses recall the dawn filled with terror and bloodshed as security forces cleared a sit-in protest and altered Sudan forever
One year ago, the streets of Khartoum were filled with mud and puddles but even the threat of more unseasonal rain couldn't keep the thousands of protesters away. Many wore black rubbish bags to keep dry.
If anything, the previous day's downpour had brought a welcome respite from the merciless June heat.
One day remained of Ramadan and cooler weather would go a long way towards making the dawn-to-dusk fast less taxing. June 4, 2019, was to be the first day of the Eid Al Fitr.
Outside the armed forces headquarters in central Khartoum, the protesters at the sit-in encampment ordered cookies, cakes and sweets, arranging a massive dinner to mark the end of the fast.
Shortly before dawn, they ate their last meal before the final day of fasting and then, soon after the adhan rang out from the city's mosques, gathered in groups to pray.
But as the sun rose, thoughts of the forthcoming festivities were overshadowed by fears.
The sit-in began on April 6, five days before the military removed Omar Al Bashir, Sudan's dictator of 29 years. Protesters remained in place to press demands for the generals to hand power to a civilian government. In a country that had witnessed coups and military rule, many feared the promises from the military of an orderly transition would not be fulfilled.
When members of the security forces moved in on June 3, the sit-in was 58 days old.
A year on, there is still dispute over the exact death toll from that night.
Opposition doctors say nearly 130 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the clearance operation of the sit-in. But scores remain unaccounted for. Protesters behind the months of street demonstrations against the former leader's regime say at least 40 bodies were dumped in the nearby Nile that runs through central Khartoum.
The health ministry initially put the death toll at 61, but findings published in a July inquiry ordered by the military heads raised the figure to 87.
A reputed trauma centre in Khartoum documented 16 cases of rape, a number that doctors said was likely to be low because of the social stigma of reporting sexual assault.
One of the 16, according to the centre, took her own life in September after her family forced her into an arranged marriage to a distant cousin.
The violence derailed already tense negotiations between protest leaders and the generals.
It also plunged Khartoum, and much of the rest of Sudan, into a state of grief and seething anger.
Negotiations only resumed a month later, thanks to foreign diplomatic efforts and mediation by the African Union and Ethiopia.
Protest leaders still maintain that the mass demonstrations in which thousands took to the streets of Khartoum and across Sudan convinced the generals they could not rule alone.
Two months after the June 3 operation, a power-sharing agreement was signed on August 17. It started a 39-month transitional period that should lead to democratic rule.
One of the key clauses of the deal was the agreement for an official independent investigation into the incidents of June 3 after nightfall.
Nabil Adib, a veteran Sudanese lawyer, is leading the charge and his report was expected earlier this year but has been delayed.
Speaking to The National in December, Mr Adib said he would resist pressure from the public, the military and the new government to deliver a true account.
"I have a position that is neither political nor sentimental," he said at the time. "This is a criminal investigation that's responsible, not just before the nation and the people, but before God and my conscience."
The National sought to reconstruct the events of June 3, when police, security agents and members of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces are believed to have moved in to break up the sit-in.
The account is based on interviews with over a dozen eyewitnesses. Those who spoke to The National include protesters pushed out of the sit-in by the operation, an army officer pensioned off in September and a navy sailor stationed at the military headquarters at the time. The National has also reviewed half a dozen videos that showed men in military uniforms doling out violence freely.
I was thinking if I must die, then I would prefer a quick death, but I also wanted to leave a message to my children before I died.
Sulaima Ishaq Sharif, mother of four
While The National could not independently verify the authenticity of each video, what they depict tallies with the accounts of other witnesses and some have appeared in major international news reports including those by the BBC.
The witnesses gave a graphic account of beatings, sexual abuse and degradation.
Female protesters said they were humiliated, called prostitutes or accused of being morally loose.
But eyewitnesses also spoke of heated arguments and even scuffles between police, security forces and militiamen over the extent of force being used and the treatment of women protesters. These splits point to the fractured, patchwork nature of Sudan's security apparatus under Al Bashir where rivalry and divided loyalties were common.
"There was not a part of my body left that they did not hit," Mehtab Abayazeed, an activist who suffered a gunshot wound and a broken arm during the violence, told The National from Khartoum.
"They acted like they were taking revenge on us. The violence was extreme," said Ms Abayazeed, who believes she was singled out for harsher treatment because she wore trousers, an attire viewed under Al Bashir as a serious breach of Islam's strict dress code and punishable by flogging, fines or jail time.
Men were hit in the groin and accused of being homosexual, according to three male eyewitnesses who spoke to The National. Their accounts match similar recollections by protesters in social media posts online at the time.
Protesters spoke of raids on field hospitals treating the wounded and of security forces blocking the removal of seriously injured protesters.
In a series of videos shot by protesters on mobile phones and streamed live on social-media networks that were corroborated by the witnesses who spoke to The National, protesters were asked for their preference – civilian or military rule.
The wrong answer – civilian – or silence invited blows from boots and truncheons.
In some instances, protesters said snipers appeared to deliberately target protesters and security forces fired live ammunition randomly into crowds, often in response to rock-throwing by protesters.
"Life or death was a matter of luck on that day," said an witness who wanted to be identified by his first name, Yasser. "You would be standing and suddenly the person on your right and left just fall, either wounded or killed," said Yasser, who was hit in the head by a ricocheting bullet and suffered a superficial wound.
But a factor that may become crucial in Mr Adib's report and the transition process is what branches of the security forces took part on the night of June 3.
Witnesses recounted times when soldiers were admonished for attempting to protect protesters or for trying to dissuade comrades from using excessive force.
They also spoke of the military, whose soldiers didn't appear to take part but stood by and watched the operation from behind the fence of the army headquarters. Although the soldiers did not take part, protesters say they also denied refuge inside the headquarters and there are no accounts or record of demonstrators taking refuge within the compound.
A navy sailor on duty on June 3 told The National that firearms and ammunition were collected from soldiers stationed at the headquarters a day before the crackdown.
"We saw everything, but we could not do anything about it," the sailor, who did not want to be identified, said. "We heard the loud screams and the gunfire and we saw the tents set ablaze."
Witnesses said other army personnel on sentry duty or staffing checkpoints around the sit-in site were pulled out on June 2.
'We regret some mistakes'
The military's chief spokesman, Maj Gen Al Taher Abu Hagah, declined an interview with The National, saying he was not authorised to comment.
"...We regret that some mistakes were made," Maj Gen Shamseldeen Kabbashi said when asked about the night of June 3. Maj Gen Kabbashi is now a member of the 11-member collective presidency body called the Sovereignty Council but was the spokesman for the Transitional Military Council when he spoke on June 14, last year.
Three witnesses who spoke to The National said members of the security forces separated some Arabized Sudanese from ethnic Africans, whom they referred to by the racist epithets zorq and abeid, meaning blue and slaves, respectively. These protesters were singled out for more severe abuse.
Natives of the western Darfur region, where rebels fought government troops for years in the 2000s, were on the receiving end of the worst verbal and physical abuse, witnesses said.
Some members of the forces that broke up the sit-in appeared to go to great lengths to disguise their affiliation, witnesses recalled. Protesters said many hid their ranks and some witnesses said they believed some officers were wearing uniforms of other branches of the security services and police. Many, protesters said, wore clearly new and often ill-fitting uniforms.
Protesters said others were identifiable as members of the police and Rapid Support Forces. Others taking part in the crackdown wore unfamiliar black and camouflaged green fatigues.
RSF leaders have said their men were on the ground that night but said that their involvement was limited to clearing one section of the sit-in they believed was responsible for lawlessness.
The killing was carried out by imposters wearing RSF uniforms
RSF spokesman Colonel Jamal Gomaa
The RSF has denied responsibility for the killings and its commander, Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, then the deputy chairman of the Transitional Military Council and now a member of the Sovereignty Council, has complained his force was infiltrated by "rogue elements" and "imposters". RSF uniforms, he said, were freely available on the market. Reached by The National, RSF spokesman Colonel Jamal Gomaa declined to be interviewed for this article, arguing it would be inappropriate to discuss the June 3 events when they are currently under investigation.
In an interview with the Khartoum daily Al Rai Al Aam published on December 17, Brig Gen Gomaa said his men only helped clear an area they called "Colombia" and reiterated that the killing was carried out by "imposters wearing RSF uniforms... We think this was planned in advance. What they did was a betrayal of the forces that cleared up Columbia."
The RSF is a paramilitary force formed in the 2000s as a tribal militia to fight rebels in Darfur. Since 2005, the International Criminal Court has been investigating allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur that include a range of government agencies and officials including the RSF and rebel groups.
The uncertainty over who carried out the killings during the clearance operation on June 3 has left many questions unanswered. Some protesters also suspect religious extremists working for the security agencies and loyalists to Mr Al Bashir were responsible.
The new government of Sudan is engaged in a purge of Al Bashir's cronies believed to still dominate some branches of the security services and have a reputation for exceptional brutality.
Salah Gosh, the head of the notorious National Intelligence and Security Service, an agency that was loyal to Mr Al Bashir, has been removed and a complete overhaul is under way.
On January 14, gunfights broke out in Khartoum when agents of the Niss, now called the General Intelligence Service, rebelled against the restructuring plan. The officers had opted against an offer to remain with the re-branded agency or move to the armed forces and had instead accepted a redundancy package. However, after a dispute over the pay-out, they opened fire before reinforcements of the RSF arrived and took control of the old Niss offices. The new head of GIS, Abu Bakr Mustafa, resigned as a result.
While some witnesses blamed the RSF for some of the worst excesses, several activists contend that Gen Dagalo, better known by his nickname Hemedti, would not have sanctioned the use of deadly force given his perceived political ambitions.
At the end of July, an official investigation by then ruling Transitional Military Council found that the RSF was involved but said the leadership had not given the orders.
Chief investigator Fatah Al Rahman Saeed identified a general and colonel from the force who had given the instructions but only gave their initials.
"It is clear to the committee that General ASA issued an order to Colonel AAM to deploy anti-riot forces of the RSF, even when they were not part of clearing [the sit-in]," Mr Saeed reported. He acknowledged that live ammunition was used in the operation. Some protesters were whipped, he said.
From festivities to fear
Choking back tears, witnesses spoke of finding the bodies of lifelong friends. They recalled men and women severely traumatised by their fear or over the loss of loved ones.
They recalled protesters being shot as they carried wounded comrades to safety and soldiers putting their gun barrels to protesters' heads, threatening to pull the trigger. They also recalled protesters being shot in response to stone-throwing. Female witnesses recounted beatings and verbal insults.
“I was bleeding from 6am until 11am when I first received medical care," said Ms Abayazeed, the female activist. She believes she was singled out for harsher treatment because she was wearing trousers, an attire banned under Mr Al Bashir's rule as a breach of modesty.
In the weeks before June 3, the sit-in attracted tens of thousands of protesters and the numbers swelled to hundreds of thousands on weekend nights.
What began as a hard-nosed move to force the generals to remove their longtime patron quickly took on a life of its own, often with the air of a country fair.
Drinking water was supplied along with food. Children and adults alike painted their faces, there was dancing and singing.
Speeches were made from makeshift podiums, and an ever-expanding market sold a diverse range of local snacks. Graffiti adorning the nearby walls spoke of the aspirations of a nation yearning for freedom.
Some of Khartoum's poor families, along with the street children, found a safe and free refuge there. They ate and drank free of charge and found medical care available, quickly delivered and, more importantly, at no cost. There were classes for children, too, and music concerts.
For members of ethnic African groups in Sudan's western and southern regions – the battleground of years of conflict – the site offered a rare opportunity to publicly air their grievances and speak freely of a regime that has killed, maimed and displaced millions of their relatives and loved ones.
To do so within a stone's throw of the seat of the military who carried out the attacks was unprecedented.
The generals who replaced Al Bashir had repeatedly vowed not to use force to break up the sit-in, but deadly clashes between security forces and protesters were growing in frequency, with the last one just three weeks before June 3.
To the movement borne out of months of street protests against Al Bashir's rule, the sit-in was their trump card against generals they feared would try to cling to power.
To the military, the sit-in was a gross inconvenience.
Military officials attempted to paint the protesters and their leaders in a negative light – alleging that alcohol and drugs were freely used at the site and that their leaders were attempting a power grab.
Members of the transitional military council accused protesters of attacking the military and security forces at the fringes of the sit-in site.
Law and order must prevail, one general repeatedly warned in the run-up to June 3.
The security forces have repeatedly said the June 3 operation was to clear "criminal elements" hiding in the sit-in, not to destroy the protest movement.
Dawn raid: from rumours to reality
Before dawn, messages circulating in WhatsApp groups of protesters warned of a possible attempt to break up the encampment by force. Dozens of vehicles full of police and paramilitary forces were seen moving towards the site.
Similar warnings earlier had turned out to be false alarms and not everyone took them seriously.
Some protesters urged friends and relatives to rush to the sit-in to swell the numbers to deter an attempt to clear the site.
Others went around the sprawling site asking protesters with families and the hundreds of street children present to leave.
"We expected tear gas and sticks because we were fasting and exhausted. We did not expect what happened," pharmacist Ameen Makki, who was at the sit-in that night, told The National. "It was not long after the dawn prayers that we could tell it was going to be a shoot-to-kill situation."
Mr Makki arrived at the site shortly before midnight. Minutes later, he started receiving messages that security forces might shortly start to break up the protest.
We heard the first burst of gunfire. Minutes later, the injured began to arrive
Ameen Makki, pharmacist and witness
"It happened at least four times before, but this time we felt that it might actually happen since the sit-in had significantly thinned because many left for their villages to spend the Eid Al Fitr," said Mr Makki, a lanky 30-year-old with a bald head and a beard.
Appeals went out for doctors and pharmacists to come to the site and for additional supplies to be sent to the six field hospitals and pharmacies at the sit-in, he explained.
"It was not until 5am that we heard the first burst of gunfire. Minutes later, the injured began to arrive at the main field hospital where I was. One of them sustained a gunshot that was only two centimetres above his heart. A half-hour later, the cases arriving at the hospital were in the dozens," he said. "The guys who carried the injured said they too were shot at."
Thirty minutes after the first shots, he said, the hospital located in a small vocational training building was overwhelmed with the wounded.
He recalled glimpsing row after row of dead bodies placed on the street just a few hours after the operation began.
The picture painted by Mr Makki of what transpired over the next 10 to 12 hours tallies with accounts from other witnesses, and describes bloodshed, humiliation and near-total lack of respect for the living, wounded or dead.
"At one point, a kid in uniform who could not be older than 15 or 16 kicked the hospital's door open, readied his automatic rifle and leaned against the wall ready to shoot," he recounted. "Ready to die, we said our prayers but an older man in uniform walked in and told the boy to stand down.
"I later asked that officer to allow ambulances to come and take the seriously wounded to hospital. He gave me a flat no," he said. "You are done [expletive] with us, now it is our turn to [expletive] with you," Mr Makki quoted the officer as saying.
Eventually, the wounded were stretchered to the teachers' hospital on the edge of the sit-in site. Female volunteers at the field hospital donned lab coats to pass as doctors in order to escape with the wounded, he said.
"On the way to hospital, about six to seven hundred metres away, we were beaten by sticks and insulted. They would put guns to your heads and ask us: 'Civilian or military?' They took our telephones. If you objected, they pushed the gun harder against your head," he said.
Mr Makki recalls seeing hundreds of wounded protesters at the teachers' hospital, many of them on the floor. "Some of them were my friends."
'I wanted to leave a message for my children before I died'
"I saw some of my friends dead at the morgue. They looked no different when they were dead," Sulaima Ishaq Sharif, a psychiatrist who runs a prominent trauma centre in Khartoum, told The National. "There was hysteria," she said of the atmosphere at the teachers' hospital.
"Initially, I did not have the energy to try to calm people down. I felt that we are going to be killed, all of us. I was thinking if I must die, then I would prefer a quick death, but I also wanted to leave a message to my children before I died," said the 43-year-old PhD candidate and mother of four. "But it looked like those who did the killing targeted young people, not those my age."
Mrs Sharif said she was stunned when she heard the gunfire soon after dawn prayers. She had made plans to celebrate Eid Al Fitr with her four children at the sit-in.
"It was going to be a special celebration," she said. Instead, Mrs Sharif spent the days and weeks after June 3 counselling victims of sexual violence at her centre that is affiliated with Al Ahfad, a private university in Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city.
"I personally treated more than 40 cases of trauma," related to sexual assault, she said. "We believe that victims of sexual assault and those threatened with rape as they walked away from the sit-in site are between 40 and 50. They had not come to me yet. Give them a year or two and they will come for support. For now, they are concealing their pain."
'A minute later, the water turned deep red'
"We were a group of 20 throwing rocks at security forces. They only had sticks. Moments later, they stepped aside and several men with automatic rifles replaced them about 20 meters away from us. In less than two minutes, only seven or eight of us remained on our feet. The rest were on the ground, wounded or dead," engineering student Tharwat Al Hady said.
"I dragged one of the wounded along the street until we reached the teachers' hospital," he told The National. "They told me at the hospital to go back and bring more of the wounded. In the end, I helped three injured men get to hospital."
When he tried to return to the wounded, he said, the gunfire was intense. Sheltering in a tent, he saw a member of the security forces randomly shooting towards protesters. For extra protection inside the canvas structure, Mr Al Hady rolled himself in a carpet, with his head barely visible from one end.
Next to the tent was another in which three or four people also took shelter. Both tents were near one of the open sewers common in Khartoum.
"I heard intense gunfire that was very, very close. I was breathing quietly lest they find me. A minute later, the water in the sewage turned deep red," the 22-year-old recalled.
He remained hidden for an hour before he saw a group of army soldiers walking by.
"I ran to join them for protection, but they walked away from us a few metres later and I was caught by the security forces along with others," he said.
He was later corralled alongside about 100 detainees forced to lay down on their stomachs with their faces in the mud.
"You Arabs, we will let you go later, but not the abeid," he recalled one of the men shouting, referring to the ethnic Africans detained separately from Mr Al Hady's group.
"The beating never stopped, but the other group was screaming louder than us," he recalled. At one point, when a member of the security forces wanted to stop the beatings, another intervened.
"'We took an oath to protect them'," he quoted one officer telling the other. "'But we did not take an oath not to beat them'," the other replied. The argument turned into a scuffle, he said.
With a gaping head wound, Mr Al Hady was taken to Khartoum's police hospital for treatment. He stayed there for two days but said he spent most of it hiding in operation theatres or the doctors' sleeping quarters to evade arrest by the security forces who frequently raided the medical centre.
When he finally went home, Mr Al Hady had other problems to grapple with.
"For weeks, I could only sleep for one or two hours a night," Mr Al Hady said. "I did not want to be alone. Whenever I am alone, visions of what happened at the sit-in rush into my head. A friend of mine who was there with me jumps out of bed and runs every time his family wakes him up."
Mr Al Hady says he now sleeps up to four hours a night and finds comfort in talking with other survivors in a WhatsApp group.
'Our revolution is more important than my personal safety'
"I could have left the sit-in when the shooting began, but our revolution is more important than my personal safety," said Hager Sayed, a 40-year-old business and administration specialist. "But we did not expect a complete break-up of the sit-in. We felt that the world was watching, and the army would not tarnish its reputation."
Panic erupted after the shooting began as people frantically sought a way out. "The intensity of the gunfire was increasing," she said. "One man was hysterically screaming: 'This is murder.'"
Ms Sayed said she ran to a mosque where families slept during the sit-in. She recalls waking people up, but every time someone tried to leave the mosque, they ran into security forces who hit them with sticks or whipped them.
"Some men took refuge on the roof of the mosque, but the soldiers went after them and threw them off," said Ms Sayed, who was also beaten as she emerged from the mosque.
"The screams were frightening. Women cried. Children screamed. They threatened us with sexual assault, telling us that we joined the sit-in to have sex."
One officer, she recounted, was ordering others to separate Arab women from their African compatriots. "Hit the negroes," she recalled him shouting.
"I am a Nubian, I did not know which group to join," said British-born Ms Sayed. "We were repeatedly hit as we made our way out of the site. That led to an argument between one officer and others over beating the women. At the end, the officer who wanted the others to stop hitting us escorted us to safety."
A year after the 'massacre of the headquarters'
A year on from the events of June 3, the second official and more comprehensive investigation is still being carried out but regardless of the findings, the night of violence has already been forever engraved on Sudan's collective memory.
The outcome of the investigation could greatly upset the political landscape in Sudan if it implicates senior members of the military and the security branches.
Indeed, some worry that a report critical of the security forces could lead to a breakdown of the power-sharing deal between the civilian and military leadership. That deal has been instrumental in avoiding further confrontation in the country.
Such turmoil would only deepen Sudan’s predicament as it struggles to survive an economic crisis of gigantic proportions, the coronavirus pandemic and failure to end conflicts in the western and eastern regions of the country despite months of tortuous peace negotiations.
Updated: June 6, 2020 05:32 PM