Detained in Sudan: One Blogger's Story
Editor’s note: Maha El-Sanosi is a Sudanese blogger-journalist selected as a recipient of a 2012 International Activist BlogHer Scholarship. She was to have come to BlogHer '12 in New York this August to share her work. Read below to learn why an exit visa is not an option for her this summer, and why we look forward to honoring her in 2013. -– Polly
In my dream, I was inside a tunnel. The tunnel was jammed with cars, and I was in one of them. I was alone in the taxi, and the driver was frustrated with the heavy traffic. The tunnel seemed endless, and I asked the driver to roll down the windows because I could slowly feel myself running out of breath. My claustrophobia started to kick in, and the long queue of cars both ahead and behind me gave me a strong sense of uneasiness. The windows were now open, but I couldn't feel any air gushing in. I poked my head out of the window in an attempt to find where the tunnel ended… to figure out if freedom was near. The tunnel was a long, endless spiral. I was trapped and there was no way out. Stepping out of the car was not an option; there was no sidewalk inside the tunnel. Death was near; I began preparing myself for it.
Much like what I went through with my multiple detentions a week or so ago, the trauma I suffered during this dream felt real. While I was waiting for death, my mind took a stroll down memory lane and imagery of friends and loved ones began popping in my head. Soon enough I woke up… and I thanked god for the gift of freedom which I have been blessed with to an extent. Sudan isn't free yet, but at least I am sleeping in my own bed, I thought to myself. I felt tears streaming down my cheeks at the thought of friends and loved ones being held in detention for days now, some even weeks.
During the distressing times that I faced over the past few weeks, I developed my own method of dealing with things. As cheesy as it sounds, I got to know myself better. In fact, for the longest time I thought I was the nervous, panicky type. This was proven last year when my sister was pregnant. My niece decided to arrive in this world two weeks ahead of schedule, so we rushed to the nearest hospital. My sister gave birth while she was in a wheelchair ... the baby refused to wait. I saw it happen and I completely flipped. I was pacing around in circles, yelling at the staff, asking them to do something. I cried and I screamed and my own sister had to calm me down. I was only okay after I held my niece in my arms. I knew since that day that I was unfit to deal with stress -- until I was proven otherwise.
Salma Elwardany, an Egyptian journalist for Bloomberg, is not only a friend. She is also family. Whenever she's sick, she calls me and I take her to the hospital. Whenever I'm stressed, I call her and we meet over tea. She offers me valuable advice. We talk about boys, makeup and politics. One day, we went to a protest together at the University of Khartoum. Security officers in civilian clothes intercepted my car while we were in it. They confiscated our phones and her laptop, but I managed a final tweet giving a heads up that we'd been stopped. We were kidnapped and taken to the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) offices in Khartoum North. They separated us upon arrival. They held me for four hours, and Salma for five hours. When they told me I was free to go, I was ordered to cut all ties with Salma. They wouldn’t even let me wait for her. A few days later she was deported. At the airport, they wouldn't let me say goodbye.
During my first detention, I faced four hours of emotional abuse. One interrogator said to me: "Take a good look at the window; this will be the last time you ever see the sun." Another told me that I was going to be transferred to women's prison without anyone so much as looking at my file. That's how dangerous they deemed me to be.
When Salma got deported, I was having one of the worst days of my life. It was a very hot day and I was tense and frazzled. I slept unusually early that night, until my dad woke me up at midnight. He said to me, very calmly: "NISS is here to search the house." I woke up and got dressed quickly. I had anticipated something of this sort; Girifna members are always targeted. There were about 15 men in my living room; at least two of them were armed. They jumped the wall to my house after knocking heavily for a few minutes and waking up the neighbors. They searched my room and turned it upside down. They confiscated my phone, my sister's phone, my laptop and my sister's laptop, among other irrelevant items such as CDs, an electronic diary and a video tape.
"Get ready," one guy told me, "you're coming with us." My dad was very cool and collected. In my mom's eyes, I could see worry and heartache. My sisters were terrorized; the youngest had tears in her eyes. My aunt was there as well, she was strong. I was instructed to pack a change of clothes because I was going to spend the night in prison. My sisters helped me find my toothbrush and my things. I told my family not to worry, that I was going to be fine. My dad insisted on coming along, he told them I have no brothers. They let him. I hugged my mom, my aunt and my sisters. I told them that I am strong, and they should be too. We made it to the NISS building in Khartoum North. For three hours they interrogated me. My dad looked tired. They told me that they spared me for the night and summoned me again the next morning. I got home and my family breathed a temporary sigh of relief.
The next morning, my dad and I headed to the NISS offices again. We spent 11 hours there. I boycotted their food and water after one officer referred to me as a "communist who does not deserve to be served any food or water." I asked them to bring my dad some food because he is diabetic. They offered him some yoghurt. By the time I got home, I had low blood pressure. Still, I couldn't eat because they had summoned me again the next day after 11 hours of ruthless investigation; I was threatened, blackmailed, insulted, emotionally abused, and psychologically tortured. They had my laptop and they told me they had access to all my photos; and that they would use them if they sensed I was causing any trouble. I was also told that they could easily make me lose my job. "You have nice pictures on your phone," one guy said to me. "You have a lot of fans," he added. The same guy was browsing through the photos on my laptop. He saw a picture of me and my best friend hugging. He then asked me if I was a lesbian.
The third day was the last of it. I was interrogated again for two hours this time. They made me sign a statement pledging that I will not take part in any Girifna activities, citing that if I do, I will be subjected to trial under the security law. They made my dad sign the same statement. They gave me back my phone and other items, but said that they will keep the two laptops for "further investigation." I claimed them back a short while ago.
Ever since the spark of the Sudanese revolution three weeks ago, the NISS has gone on a wild campaign illegally arresting and kidnapping protesters, activists, journalists, lawyers and even law-abiding citizens. To date, thousands have been reported detained by the NISS while only a few, like myself, have been released. Their families have not heard from them and they are being denied access to lawyers. No one knows what they are going through. In this article by Yousif Elmahdi, the disturbing circumstances of NISS detention are described in frustrating detail.
Among those still detained for weeks are Boshi, who was also arrested earlier this year, Usamah Ali, a prominent citizen journalist and a Twitter microcelebrity, Girifna members Mohamed Izzelden and Rashida Shamseldin, and many, many others. They are all at risk of torture. They have sacrificed their freedoms for the sake of a free Sudan.