Khartoum sit-in: 'I have never been more proud to be Sudanese'

Hundreds of thousands surround military headquarters in jubilation and hope after fall of Omar Al Bashir

The dreaded sound of gunfire has been replaced by the piercing noise of brightly coloured vuvuzelas, the zealous chants of "freedom" to the beat of drums and renditions of old Sudanese patriotic songs.

Also gone is the whiff of suffocating tear gas. In its place are the smells of omelette sandwiches, chargrilled corn and the sweating bodies of thousands of youths dancing to local rap songs blaring from giant speakers.

Sudan's three-week sit-in protest outside the headquarters of the armed forces in central Khartoum has gone from the risky finale of four months of deadly street protests against authoritarian president Omar Al Bashir to a carnival-like celebration of a new era of freedom, fraught with hope and uncertainty.

A former general, Mr Al Bashir, 75, was removed by the military on April 11, five days after the sit-in began, and is now detained at the same Khartoum prison where he jailed critics during his 29 years in power.

But the protest continues, attracting hundreds of thousands every day to force the generals who have replaced Mr Al Bashir to swiftly hand over power to a civilian administration.

The joyous and celebratory atmosphere at the sit-in, however, belies its political and social significance.

In many ways, it shows how Sudanese are venting the anger and frustration from decades of strife, economic hardship and the intrusive and corrupt rule of a clique.

Perhaps more importantly, the sit-in offers a glimpse of a better Sudan and the problems the next government must tackle, from armed rebellions and an ailing economy to rampant corruption and social injustice.

Protesters perched on a billboard frame at the sit-in outside the headquarters of Sudan's armed forces in Khartoum. Hamza Hendawi for The National

The protesters applaud and ululate when speakers from Darfur, a western region where a rebellion was brutally crushed in the past decade, take to the stage to speak of racial harmony and how Mr Al Bashir's regime tirelessly stoked ethnic divisions.

Hoisted over the stand is a banner declaring that the deposed leader must be handed over to the International Criminal Court to stand trial over his 2010 indictment for genocide in Darfur.

"Darfur, like the rest of Sudan, is home for all of us," one speaker says.

Similarly, protesters gather around the stand erected by natives of the Nuba Mountains, home to a continuing anti-government rebellion, as speaker after speaker recounts the injustices of Mr Al Bashir's regime in the remote region in south-western Sudan.

There are also other grievances aired at the sit-in, such as the government employees who claim to have been unjustly sacked, schoolteachers demanding better pay and judges seeking independence from the government.

"I have never been more proud of being Sudanese than now," says Nada Hussein, 18, who will graduate from high school this year.

"We want our rights and the rights of those who sacrificed their lives for the revolution. Most of the people you see here have lived for 30 years just worrying about finding money to feed themselves and their families."

Some of what goes on is directly related to the four months of deadly protests, pointing to the urgent need to bring to account the Bashir regime officials responsible for killing and injuring protesters and torturing thousands detained during the unrest.

"Blood for blood. No blood money will be accepted," is a slogan often chanted by protesters, alluding to demands for retribution over the dozens killed by security forces.

In the same vein, protesters from areas with no history of anti-government rebellion threaten to take up arms against the current leaders if operatives of the security agencies are not brought to justice for crimes against civilians.

"If the security agencies are not restructured, you will soon call us the guerrillas of Jabal Awliyah," reads a banner carried by dozens of men marching across the sit-in site. Jabal Awliyah is a southern Khartoum suburb.

If anyone doubts the determination of the protesters to stay put until their demands are met, one slogan chanted by many sums up their resolve: "Fall or not fall, we are set in concrete here".

Others wear paper hats with the motto: "Our sit-in is our weapon".

"Don't steal my revolution," reads one graffiti message.

A protester makes flares from aerosol cans at the sit-in outside the Sudanese army headquarters in Khartoum. Hamza Hendawi for The National

Entire extended families walk for miles each day to take part in the sit-in. Many of them continue to sing and chant slogans as they make their way home late at night through the dimly lit streets of Khartoum, a city of about eight million people.

"We have been living on so little for years and we have genuine and pressing demands that must be met," says Ibrahim Arbab, 35, a teacher from Khartoum.

Mr Arbab is paid by the hour for teaching maths at private schools and blames nepotism for his repeated failure to land a job at a government school.

"Al Bashir is gone but his regime will not fall overnight," he says, sitting on a small stool near the green straw mat where he sleeps.

"We are staying here until it does and we have the stamina and tenacity to do so."

Mr Arbab's resolve is common among the protesters at the sit-in, which appears to be fairly well organised.

"We are fatigued, but I would rather die here than fail," says Mohammed Goudah, 31, an IT engineer. "We have had enough of the military-Islamists combo."

Organisers say a system is in place to ensure there are enough protesters at the site overnight to discourage the military from reclaiming the area.

Those coming in after nightfall, many carrying bedding and prayer rugs, chant: "We are the revolutionaries of the night".

When approaching the barricades, they humorously shout: "Put your arms up and the search will be gentle", which rhymes in Arabic.

At the entrance, a recorded message broadcast through a bullhorn urges protesters to donate money to buy water and food for those who sleep over at the site.

Next to the bullhorn is a transparent plastic box stuffed with small notes. Trucks loaded with plastic bottles of water move slowly through the crowds for anyone to pick up free of charge.

There is also a public address station that announces the names of children separated from their families at the site and plays old favourites.

The lyrics of one song that has proved a hit with the protesters are: "The closest place to my heart is my home, Sudan, which resembles a new dawn or a smile".

The main stage of the sit-in is used for folk dance or musical performances. If a protester wants to address the sit-in or to perform, they need to register a day in advance.

On Thursday night, a popular Sudanese rapper who goes by the name Ayman Mao, an Al Bashir critic who has just returned from exile, set the place alight with a song about oppression under the former regime.

When he sang, the protest site resembled a massive outdoor concert, with men and women swaying to the music while holding their mobile phones above their heads to record the event.

A Sudanese man beats time on a steel rail crossing for chanting crowds at the sit-in outside the army headquarters in Khartoum. Hamza Hendawi for The National

Adding to the carnival-like atmosphere is face-painting, with Sudan's green, white, red and black flag the design most in demand. People of all ages, including toddlers and babies, have them on the cheek or the forehead. Cost: 20 US cents.

Protesters also wrap themselves in Sudanese flags, using them as scarves or headwear, depending on their size.

There is food on sale, including mango slices, peanuts and dates, all packed into small nylon bags, and falafel and egg sandwiches. Khartoum's famous "tea ladies" offer hot tea and coffee brewed over charcoal.

Acts of kindness and chivalry are common.

Men use cardboard pieces to fan sweating protesters marching at the site. Others use torches to warn protesters of water puddles.

Some run in front of ambulances frantically beating drums to get people out of the way.

Summing up the prevailing sentiment of the sit-in is the slender young man stripped down to his undershirt, who tirelessly beat a heavy metal bar against the elevated steel rail crossing on which he was precariously perched.

With every beat, the crowd screamed: "Freedom".