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Sudanese artists speak out: 'It's not our war'

Stefan Dege
May 7, 2023

Sudan has become a battleground. But it is not the war of the people who live there, say exiled Sudanese writers Stella Gitano and Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin.

The artist Amna Elhassan work recently exhibited in Germany
The artist Amna Elhassan is also one of the driving forces for change in Sudan. Her works were recently exhibited in GermanyImage: Norbert Miguletz/Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Stella Gitano is viewed as an important voice in contemporary Sudan. Her short stories, novels and journalistic articles — written in Arabic — have traced the consequences of war and displacement for more than 20 years.

Denouncing injustice, she has exposed in no small measure the greed and power-mongering of military leaders. "It is my fate," she says, "to have to relive all this now."

Fighting between troops loyal to rival generals in Sudan erupted on April 15. Hundreds of lives have since been lost. Many countries, including Germany, have evacuated their own people from the danger zone.

Sudan: Smoke rises from burning aircraft inside Khartoum Airport during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum
Smoke rises from Khartoum Airport during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the militaryImage: Stringer/REUTERS

"I still have my family there. I am still in touch with my friends," says Stella Gitano, who currently lives in the small German town of Kamen as a scholarship holder of the PEN "Writers in Exile" program. She feels safe there.

Gitano's first short story collection "Withered Flowers", published in 2002, described the fate of people forced to flee the murderous conflicts in the south of Sudan — in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains — before ending up in refugee camps near Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

"Displacement is truly a very hard experience. You simply have to save yourself, flee somewhere safe," says the 44-year-old. "But there is more to life — even if that's just water, food and medicine."

Exiled Sudanese writer Stella Gitano
Exiled Sudanese writer Stella GitanoImage: privat

In 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan. Stella Gitano became a target for nationalist and tribalist circles because of her activism. She faced hate speech and threats on social media. After being physically attacked, she left her home country in 2021. Gitano has been living in Germany since July last year.

'Not our war!'

"It's not our war," says Gitano.

Writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin agrees: "This is not the Sudanese people's war. It's a couple of generals fighting for wealth and power!"

Sakin is one of Sudan's leading contemporary authors. By the time his book "The Messiah of Darfur" (2012) was published about the Dafur genocide and the dictatorship of former ruler Omar al-Bashir, Sakin was well on the way to achieving international recognition. He has been living in exile in Austria since 2012 and was awarded the "Stadtschreiber von Graz" literary prize for 2022/23.

Sakin does not believe the guns will fall silent any time soon, although he hopes he is wrong. What he fears most is outsiders — Russia, the United States, European or Arab states or neighboring countries — meddling in the conflict, complicating and prolonging it.

None of the Sudanese parties to the conflict are strong enough to wage war on their own, he said. "With a lack of outside support, the war would peter out in no time," Sakin says.

"When I was writing my book, many people didn't want to believe me. The war in Darfur and South Sudan seemed so far away." Many people thought his descriptions were fiction, except the Sudanese government, which banished him. "Today, everyone knows I was right."

Exiled Sudanese writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin
Exiled Sudanese writer Abdelaziz Baraka SakinImage: Wolfgang Tanne

Sakin believes in the power of words, art and hope: "That is the only thing the people have left now"

In Sakin's work, he skillfully blends fact with fiction, presenting a broad panorama of the conflict region on the edge of the Sahara, yet always with the focus on the victims' suffering.

Artists like Sakin, who are committed to democratic change, justice and an effective legal system, inevitably get caught between the fronts in Sudan.

Another artist pushing for social change in Sudan is artist Amna Elhassan, whose works were on display at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle at the beginning of 2023.

"Characteristic of her work are the layers. Layer by layer, she applies her motifs to canvas and paper," explained exhibition curator Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann. "Through this complexity, she exposes the complex reality in Sudan and the struggle for emancipation and liberation." Elhassan has also included graffiti as a reference to the street protests.

'Washday': A painting by Sudanese artist Amna Elhassan
'Washday': A painting by Sudanese artist Amna ElhassanImage: Amna Elhassan

While the latest fighting was initially concentrated around army headquarters, the presidential palace and the international airport in Khartoum, it now appears that museums are also being targeted by the militants.

A recent article in Art Newspaper, an international art publication, quotes a Khartoum-based artist as saying that the Sudanese National Museum, founded in 1971 and housing treasures of Nubian archaeology, has been shelled. The extent of the damage is still unclear.

"Museums are now without guard to protect them from looting and vandalism," the article cited Sara Saeed, director of the Sudan Museum of Natural History, as saying.

Sudan conflict fuels growing humanitarian crisis

Setback on the road to democracy

The director of the Goethe-Institut in Sudan, Maximilian Roettger, recalls the mood of optimism after the revolution in 2019, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum. Before the latest outbreak of violence, Sudan was transitioning from military rule to democratic governance. Because of the recent fighting, Roettger was airlifted out of Khartoum a few days ago on a Bundeswehr plane, together with about 200 other Germans.

Art and culture, he said in interview, were playing an important role in Sudan's transition phase. Artists such as Amna Elhassan contributed texts, films and works of art. The Goethe-Institut accompanied this dialogue by networking the cultural scene and providing necessary spaces.

"Our work is and was right and good," Roettger emphasizes. "But of course the recent developments are a major setback in the process of transformation."

As for writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, he says that if he were the president of Sudan, the first thing he would do would be to stage a weapons amnesty. There are too many militias, he said. "No one's life is safe."

In his view, the economy also needs to be restructuring: "Sudan is actually a rich country. We have enough gold, oil, land and other resources. But our leaders exploit everything for their own benefit."

Sakin believes in the power of words, art and hope: "That is the only thing the people have left now."

Thousands of refugees flee Sudan for Egypt

This article was originally written in German.