This year marks 126 years since women of Al-Matama in Sudan tied themselves together and plunged into the River Nile to escape the humiliation of rape. Now, history is repeating itself.
On April 15, war broke out in Sudan between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force operating under the SAF. Since then, SAF and RSF have been fighting in at least half of Sudan, and most of the fighting is concentrated in Khartoum state and the Darfur region, where the head of the RSF, General Hemedti, hails from.
This war is largely being fought on civilian property and women’s bodies. From the onset, SAF’s strategy targeted all RSF sites and training camps in Khartoum and beyond. At first, we believed this strategy would end the war as quickly as it began, but we did not know that the thousands of RSF fighters scattered into neighbourhoods would find refuge in our homes. We were slowly replaced in our city as they kicked us out to live in our homes. They took over our cars and helped themselves to our belongings. In some houses, they held the women captive to serve them and held them in sexual bondage and slavery.
The highways grew more crowded each day as families tried to escape the fighting. At first, we were adamant about staying put in the comfort of our houses, but as the RSF ravaged neighborhood after neighborhood looting and occupying, it became difficult to hold onto. A month into this carnage, they moved into our old house, built in the 1940s by my mother’s uncle and most homes around it. My uncle, who had to return to his apartment to pick up their passports, was told to hurry up and not even consider returning. They continue to live there amidst our memories and family history, unbothered. We no longer belonged in our houses and our city, for millions, even our country.
Rape as a weapon of war
E is a young woman living in the old part of Omdurman, the old capital of Sudan and one of the cities that make up Khartoum state, where the current capital is located. A few weeks into the war, sometime in May this year, as the RSF were advancing towards her family’s house, E did the one thing she believed could save her from rape; she jumped to her death from a storied building. When I read about E, I remembered Z. I recalled driving my friend to the famous Bahri market in Khartoum North around the time of the big Eid in 2019. My friend told me that it was Z’s first time out since “it” happened, and her family had finally allowed her to leave the house.
A few weeks earlier, she had spent the night at the sit-in in front of the army headquarters like thousands of young men and women did in months of protests against the former government of Omer Al-Bashir demanding a civilian-led democratic transition. On the morning of June 3, 2019, soldiers stormed the sit-in, terrorized, raped and killed young protestors. This massacre was live-streamed, and the videos showed hundreds of RSF soldiers doing the unthinkable.
Z was raped that day and her life ended there. It didn’t really end there, but it was a slow death as her parents pulled her out of university and locked her in the house for weeks. That day, when my friend accompanied her to buy a dress for Eid, she was happy that Z was finally coming back to life. We didn’t know that it wouldn’t be for long, though. A few days later, her family forced her to marry her cousin and taken to a village she knew very little about. When her family left the village after her wedding, she found herself alone and the little life left in her was unbearable. She ended her life in silence. When my friend visited the village a few weeks later, an old woman told her, “Z was betrayed over and over again.”
When the internationally-mediated political agreement was finally signed between the military and the political force in 2019, just a few weeks after Z bought her dress, our mutual friend called me in tears. “The agreement was signed by the political leaders, and this is all over the lives of Z and many other women.” She was right. Two coups later and a flawed transitional government, more women are now raped inside their homes in Khartoum and other cities across the country. In the fight between the SAF and the RSF, they are nothing but collateral.
But the betrayal Z suffered is part of a long line of history. 1897 is the greatest year of betrayal and shame for communities in Northern Sudan, especially in the River Nile state. It was 12 years into Al-Khalifa Al-Taaishi’s rule, and most of what is present-day Sudan was suffering under the Second Mahdiya rule. The period that followed the First Mahdiya under Mohamed Ahmed Al-Mahdi, who succumbed to his death shortly after his army took over Omdurman and fought off British occupation. Al-Taaishi’s rule was brutal, and communities were upended; this period was known for mass displacement, hunger, killings and persecution.
Villages were raided, and entire communities were either killed or displaced for not showing enough allegiance to Al-Taaishi. In July 1897, following a fall-out between Al-Taaishi and one of his military aides, Abdullah Wad Saad, Al-Taaishi sent Mahmoud Wad Ahmed, an army general, to invade Al-Matama, a town on the banks of the Nile River in present-day River Nile state. The conflict there was the beginning of the end for the brutal Mahdiya rule, and it further deepened the bitterness against Al-Taaishi and his fascist rule that a little more than a year later, Sudanese soldiers fought Sudanese soldiers in the fateful battle of Karari, an area located in present-day Khartoum state close to Sudan’s capital city.
One side fought for the Mahdiya state and the other fought for the British empire as this battle ushered in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Karari was such a definitive moment for Sudan that we continue to say that “the men died in Karrari” because about 10,000 men died and 11,000 were wounded during that battle. The massacre in Al-Matama was eulogized in poems and folk tales. Renowned historian Ismat Zulfo wrote in his book Karrari that Mahmoud’s army was somewhere between 10,000-12,000 and Abdallah Wad Saad had no more than 2,500 fighters.
The women of Al-Matama knew that they would come after them when the men finished fighting each other. Folk tales and poetry tell us that they tied each other with ropes and even used stones to make their bodies heavier than usual. Then, they drowned together in the River Nile with their children. Their long braids entangled them further than the ropes. The women who stayed in town were shoved on wooden boats and taken to Omdurman, where they were subjected to sexual slavery by the Mahdiya soldiers.
“Our women left a legacy in the divans…they protected their honor from the betraying pigs …when they refused life and gave up on any good, it brings … they agreed and embraced the waves and floods..”
My translation of a popular poem on this incident. The poet is unknown.
July is the rainy season in Sudan; the Nile would flood with “Dameera”, a Nubian word for flooding that happens during the rainy season and would cause heavy silt, making it difficult to swim. In this case, the women couldn’t have survived due to the silt and the crocodile-infested waters.
“They dove into the Nile and they imitated the crocodile…” another verse of the poem.
I was always told that the spirits of the women continue to live in the River Nile. The same river was used for the wooden boats that took the other women to Omdurman and the same wooden boats that took hundreds of families to Shendi and other cities on the banks of the Nile as they tried to flee the killings of 1897.
History keeps repeating itself
The stories of the women of Al-Matam have been passed down from generation to generation. In fact, when grandmothers wanted to speak of injustice, they wouldn’t use the word; they would simply say, “do you think the world is still Mahdiya?”. It turns out that it is.
Death by suicide is almost a tradition for Sudanese women and is lauded as their attempt to save their honor. Honor is most closely associated with protecting your virginity. Your honor doesn’t belong to you because your body is a common territory controlled by society and your family and tribesmen. The idea of protecting your honor, thus protecting the honor of your family and community, is very deeply embedded that simple things such as riding bicycles are seen as a threat to your virginity, thus a threat to your honor.
With all stories of rape circulating in the media at the hands of the RSF, it almost seems that we are back to 1897. We have very little information because the shame and stigma make it difficult for the girls and women and their families to make a report. The director of the government unit to combat violence against women in Sudan reported 50 cases in Khartoum; many of the victims are between 12-18. Rapes are happening inside homes, and some girls and women are kidnapped from their homes.
A widely circulated audio recording of a community leader in North Darfur explains that girls kidnapped by the RSF in Khartoum state were brought to cities in North Darfur, and their families were blackmailed to pay a ransom for their return. The Darfur Bar Association noted that they have received credible reports that there are now markets for girls being sold into sexual slavery in Darfur. The community leader noted communities that were affected by the Mahdiya never had a chance to forgive and now this is happening again, which would further the divide in Sudan. It seems that all roads lead back to 1897.
Wartime rape and social media
A family member sent me a video of rape on Whatsapp in his attempt to document the crimes of the RSF during this conflict. Without reading his accompanying message about the content of the video, I opened the video only to be taken aback by the gore and brutality of two men gang-raping a young woman. I couldn’t sleep that night. When I decided to share my feelings about it online, many people flooded me with messages asking I share the video.
One message was from a rape survivor requesting the video with her. She wanted to check if it was her. It turns out that the RSF had raped her as well, and she was filmed, so she had been waiting for the video to come out. The horror of surviving rape and waiting for such a violation to be disseminated! We started talking instead, and it turns out she was raped before the war, so she didn’t have to see this horror too. Her last message still remains with me. She just wished that her rapists were among those killed by fighter planes. That was from a deep place of being denied, and in Sudan, justice in the case of rape, in a society that values virginity over everything, is almost impossible.
Rape here is not only about the women; it is about degrading the entire society and forcing it to submit to the militia’s rule. Rape has always been used as a weapon of war in different places in Sudan, and women and children have had to live with their trauma. At the societal level, rape is dealt with as a collective shame that needs to be forgotten. Men relatives of the survivors are commended for stepping forward to marry them as a way to save their honor.
Rape has been difficult to prosecute in Sudan because although the law was reformed, the procedural law and a discriminatory legal system still ask women for several witnesses to confirm their rape, making the process difficult and traumatic for women. One thing is different about this war; the communities are now witnesses to rape. They saw the videos filmed by the RSF, neighbors hear screams coming from houses nearby and sometimes they saw girls dragged into cars and trucks taken away from their homes.
So will it always be 1897, or can we act differently?
Reem Abbas is a Sudanese Feminist researcher, writer, and freelance journalist. Here are her past writings.