Doctors supporting a peaceful uprising

Sudanese doctors in the UK had a significant role to play in the revolution, writes Ahmed Hashim

Location: International
Published: Wednesday 11 December 2019

The Sudanese revolution, a peaceful civil movement beginning in December 2018 that led to the termination of Sudan dictator Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, has gained enormous global attention over the past few months.

Although the active revolutionary movement took place predominantly in Sudan through nationwide protests and strikes followed by a mass sit-in, there were large pro-revolution activities and solidarity campaigns organised by the Sudanese diaspora abroad (including in London, pictured above).

Sudanese doctors in the UK were among the most active participants in this popular uprising and have contributed in all aspects of it through the provision of technical advice and financial support, as well as in advocacy campaigns and policy-making.

In the initial phase of the revolution, various groups of UK-based Sudanese doctors worked closely with professional unions and local resistance committees in Sudan to ensure technical support, medical aid and rehabilitation for injured protesters. Clinical expertise was also shared with the rescue teams, and donations were collected from the Sudanese diaspora in order to provide logistics and emergency medical supplies.

Through its executive committee members, the SDU-UK (Sudanese Doctors Union in the UK) met with many UK-based institutes and international organisations, and threw light on the serious violations committed by the previous regime’s security forces, the use of excessive brutal force and killing of peaceful protesters.

It also condemned the unprecedented and outrageous direct attack made by those infamous forces on hospitals.

The union organised advocacy events jointly with the royal colleges in the UK. In February, a press conference titled ‘a drive towards freedom and change in Sudan’ was held at the Royal College of Pathologists.

The conference highlighted the marked deterioration of the healthcare system due to the reckless policies of the previous regime and reflected on the resilience and commitment of Sudanese doctors in delivering medical care during the protests, as well as the atrocious treatment and abuse they received from the security forces.

Moreover, Sudanese doctors in the UK collaborated with a research team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine by sharing reports on casualties during the demonstrations. This facilitated the publication of a study using capture-recapture analysis to estimate the number of deaths from the beginning of the revolution up to the early days of the sit-in in April that eventually led to al-Bashir being overthrown.

More recently, the SDU-UK introduced the ‘Silence in Blue’ campaign, targeting the victims of sexual violence and rape during the violent, catastrophic sit-in evacuation on 3 June. The massacre, believed to be perpetrated by the Rapid Support Forces operating under the ruling TMC (Transitional Military Council) at the time, saw more than 120 dead and over 600 injured.

There were also multiple rape and sexual abuse cases, while many protesters are still reported as missing. The Silence in Blue project came as a continuation of the well-received ‘Blue for Sudan’ campaign which was launched to honour the memory of those who were killed during the massacre. The Silence in Blue initiative called for men and women to come forward and speak out about their experiences, enabling them to overcome the social stigma, cultural shame and fear surrounding the issue of sexual violence. There were 43 reported cases of sexual violence with at least 15 victims confirmed by the SDU-UK, four of which were men.

The SDU-UK directly engaged and liaised with the teams on the ground and facilitated access to post-exposure prophylaxis for 11 of the victims, as well as emergency contraceptive and gynaecological care for the assaulted women. Recorded psycho-educational counselling messages were also made available despite the great communication challenges faced at the time due to the internet being totally shut down by the TMC immediately after the massacre.

Along the same lines, the SDU-UK – together with volunteers from the Sudanese diaspora and local organisations in the UK – initiated SRA (Sudan Revolution Art) in an attempt to help the Sudanese people mentally defeat the disappointing atmosphere and disparity that accompanied the sit-in evacuation massacre, as well as to promote healing from the resultant psychological trauma.

Serving as a memorial campaign for those who were brutally attacked, killed and raped during the sit-in massacre, SRA aims to highlight the non-violent drive of the Sudanese civilians towards democratic change by exposing the unique role of arts in peaceful civil movements. At least eight exhibitions were organised by the SRA team, including an event at the British Parliament.

In August, a power-sharing deal was signed by the TMC and the opposing political forces, together with the civil society organisations representing the protesters. Although many are still sceptical about this move, it is still regarded as a significant step towards a true democratic, civilian-led rule.

With the country entering a hopeful phase of social and political transformation, rehabilitation of the healthcare system remains the main focus of the medical community in Sudan, and the Sudanese diaspora, having acquired a great wealth of expertise, are expected to contribute vastly in this reformation process.

The SDU-UK introduced the Sudan Alternative Health Policy during its annual meeting in April and deliberated the mechanisms for executing the new proposed strategies. But considerable effort is required to address the major hurdles and barriers such as maintaining peace, political stability and economic recovery before tangible improvements are to be experienced in healthcare provision.

Further, to enhance the managerial dimensions, the SDU-UK published a document listing the job descriptions, person specifications and eligibility criteria for the leading positions in the health sector to be used by the interim government.

Ultimately, Sudanese doctors in the UK and abroad should work collaboratively and utilise their links and connections to develop robust advisory networks and mentorship programmes between the healthcare sector in Sudan and its counterparts in developed countries, aiming to exchange developmental ideas, promote capacity building, and enhance knowledge transfer. Establishing research collaborations and undertaking short visits to Sudan represent strong additional means for diasporic contribution.

These strategies if followed can achieve sustainable improvements in the organisation and delivery of healthcare in Sudan.

Ahmed Hashim is a sub-specialty trainee in hepatology in London and a member of the Sudanese Doctors Union in the UK