As the Sudanese Revolution is ongoing and is met with implacable violence by the military, Reem Abbas offers us a beautiful and powerful text about the barricade, not merely as a political architecture, but more importantly as the site where the Revolution takes place.
Long after the protest ends, tear gas is fired and people are arrested, the legacy of the protest and the battle that ensues before its dispersing will continue to mark the streets. The tarmac will have massive black stains courtesy of tires that were set on fire and left to burn for hours. Burned trash will also line the sides of the street, but the most prominent feature will be the barricades.
Khartoum does not really have a central square where people can protest. Since the protests began in December 2018, the main scene for protests was neighborhoods. The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a coalition of trade unions that guided and organized the protests that overthrew 30-year-long president Omer Al-Bashir in April 2019 and continues to guide the protest movement to achieve civilian rule, would sometimes call for protests in Abu-Janzeer square or Al-Gandool roundabout in downtown Khartoum. Abu-Janzeer was a square at some point and was an important place for student protests decades ago, but it is now a confusing parking lot surrounded by a mall and gold shops.
One of the main characteristics of the Sudanese revolution is where it took place: it took place everywhere. Khartoum is linked to its twin sisters, the cities of Omdurman and Khartoum North, through bridges. Several bridges connect the cities to one another, but the water borders can also isolate especially when the bridges are closed by the authorities or traffic is controlled when a protest is announced in one of the three cities. Between December 2018 and April 2019, daily protests took place in the three cities. People would often protest in their neighborhoods marking their territory and mobilizing based on trust and social networks.
Protests have an ecosystem. It involves creating a makeshift clinic inside one of the houses, arranging safe-houses and vehicles for activists, documenting the protest after it starts to inspire other neighborhoods and also assigning roles to different individuals based on trust. Those roles can be broken down into assigning a tear gas man: a person who returns the tear gas back to the riot police, a chanter: a person who leads the protest with chants and slogans and security details: a number of individuals who monitor the movement of security agents and riot police and warn the protestors.
One of the most important components of the protest eco-system is barricading the neighborhood. A barricade is a temporary barrier that is erected on main streets to stop traffic before and during the protest and also slow down the movement of the police and security forces. The barricades are also erected inside the alleys and side-streets to restrict the movement of the riot police trucks and in turn, protect the protestors when they run into the side-streets for protection. Barricades are also used during civil disobedience to shut down the city. The city was shut down a few times in the last few months and during those days, all main streets would be barricaded to extremely limit the movement of people.
Barricades are not just makeshift barriers, they represent the neighborhoods in which they are erected. They tell a larger story of how the community can come together and contribute to building the barricade. A good barricade needs time and man-power. It needs resilience with protestors often working under Sudan’s close-to-the-equator blazing sun. It also needs innovation as you constantly have to come up with objects that are heavy, sturdy and will be difficult and time-consuming for the forces of oppression to remove. Old chairs and sofas that have had their good days, but were abandoned a long time ago and were parked in people’s backyards took center-stage. Bricks that were brought in for an ambitious rehabilitation process or left over after a new room was built in someone’s house became useful as bricks turned some barricades into walls. Large pottery plant pots that never nurtured plants to bloom were also used as well as large clay jars that are used to store water.
The barricade is a communal effort. After all, the community is contributing to building something that will protect them and guard them from possible beatings, arrests and will save them from having their houses raided. At one point, the police confiscated a barricade. It was a long pipe that was used in Burri and the police carried the heavy metal pipe onto a truck and away from the neighborhood. The protestors there wrote an ode to it, remembering how they sat on it to talk, strategize and have tea.
On April 6, hundreds of thousands marched to the army headquarters in Khartoum and after making it there, people stayed. Tents were set-up for people to sleep, a makeshift clinic and a kitchen were set-up to feed the revolutionaries and oversee their health, several stages were brought in for politicians to speak the truth and for singers to perform and for artists to mobilize. The sit-in turned into a city of its own. It had a free library, classrooms for street children who had no access to the public school system, therapy for those traumatized or anxious, walls and pavements became canvasses for artists to express themselves and translate the revolution into murals. People owned the space as they reclaimed their power over the government and the army soldiers who would sneak into the spaces in front of the stages or the activity tents to listen to people debate, watch documentaries and enjoy revolutionary music. People felt safe at the sit-in. Safe because they withstood live ammunition several times to bring down the government of Al-Bashir, but also because of the barricades.
The barricades made it to the sit-in two days after it was set-up. People organized and formed a committee made up of representatives from the different neighborhood groups that used to organize, protect and mobilize the protests in their neighborhoods. They began building barricades using makeshift tools they found. They used bricks, billboard signs and objects they found around the area. The barricades had groups of men and women who would take shifts guarding them. They would search everyone entering the sit-in after chanting “put your hands up, we will search you with courtesy.”
At the sit-in, the barricades were not the objects that made them up. The barricades were bare and unshielded bodies of men and women who put their lives at risk to protect the protestors inside. They were always the frontline of all battles that attempted to dismantle the sit-in in the last few weeks until the militias finally managed to dismantle it on the third of June. They are where people resisted, fought with their hands and threw rocks and held their ground when the battle got close.
The barricades are where you would see blood, pouring on the first day and then still sticky and covering the ground, the bricks, and the different objects stationed there for a few days. The barricades are the most dangerous place and like we say in Sudan, “it is the tip of the cannon.” The barricades were cherished and protected with dear lives as it represented dreams and aspirations of a generation of young men and women who dreamed and fought for an uncompromising and dignified future.
The sit-in was dismantled and they removed the blood-stained barricades that would tell stories of courage and horror if they were given a chance to voice words. But then the whole country became a sit-in, and we quickly scrambled to gather our tools and objects and barricaded our neighborhoods once again.
We believe in them even if they can’t protect us from live ammunition, the whips that fell onto our backs and the failed promises.
The barricades are here to stay and they are our way of resistance. ■