The Sudanese capital Khartoum was frozen by fear on Sunday after a week of violence shattered protesters’ hopes for a peaceful, democratic revolution.
As if the city had been conquered by an occupying force, the centre was deserted but for the dreaded Rapid Support Forces stationed on every corner. Armed with rocket propelled grenades and high calibre machine guns mounted on military vehicles, the young soldiers kept watch on Sunday as other security officials, opposition groups said, continued to make arrests in the city’s suburbs.
The crackdown by the armed forces has upended negotiations between Sudan’s civilian opposition and the military leaders who seized power from Omar al-Bashir in April, leaving Sudanese in fear of what could happen next.
One scenario is a debilitating stalemate if the military leaders refuse to cede power and the civilian opposition sustains its resistance. International mediation efforts began on Friday, led by Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian prime minister, but the military council immediately rejected the opposition’s conditions for new dialogue.
Another possibility, experts warned, was a potentially more dangerous conflict if elements of Sudan’s sprawling armed forces, such as the RSF, began competing for power.
Such a struggle would lead to violence “far worse” than that witnessed on Monday night when the RSF raided the main opposition demonstration in the centre of Khartoum, leaving more than 120 people dead, said Hussien Karshoum, a former peace negotiator for the Sudanese government.
Since April protesters had occupied a network of streets in the city beginning in front of the ministry of defence. At its height, the sit-in had taken 30-40 minutes to walk through, a labyrinth of tents and temporary shelters housing activists, political groups and professional associations all pushing for democracy in Sudan for the first time in a generation.
By Saturday the protest had been reduced to rubble. Along the main boulevard piles of ash settled where shelters had once stood, diggers shifted debris and heavily armed military trucks patrolled. Colourful murals painted by the protesters were all that remained, a reminder of the democratic hopes the sit-in had once protected.
As RSF soldiers policed the city some opposition leaders on Sunday told the Financial Times they could not meet in person, reluctant to leave their homes or reveal their location for fear of being detained.
Two opposition figures were arrested on Friday after meeting for mediation talks and the harassment continued over the weekend, according to the Sudanese Professionals Associations, which has headed the opposition movement.
Undeterred, the group called for an indefinite general strike and businesses were shuttered on Sunday across the city.
“In the face of these catastrophic and repressive developments, we call upon the workers in all institutions and facilities . . . to engage and strictly adhere to the tools of civil disobedience and the general political strike,” it said. “We salute the commitment and dedication of the revolutionary people of Sudan.”
Khartoum residents said they had never seen their city so militarised, even in the 30 years living under Mr Bashir’s dictatorship.
Many are still in shock. “A description will never give you the whole truth,” said Solomon Osama, a 27-year-old orthopaedic surgeon who has been at the frontline of the protests since December. “It was a massacre.”
Mr Osama was one of hundreds of medical professionals to have played a central role in Sudan’s nascent revolution, participating in the demonstrations and treating its victims. Since April, every night after finishing his 12-hour hospital shift, Mr Osama would head to the sit-in to treat the injured.
On Monday night, Mr Osama said he witnessed terrible scenes that he would never forget: armed men throwing more than a dozen bodies off a bridge into the Nile; soldiers firing into the waiting area of a hospital emergency room; a patient bleeding out from a gunshot wound to the stomach as the ambulance inched its way across the city.
“The gunfire was so loud you could imagine you were in a war zone,” he said.
Five days on Mr Osama was still treating Monday night’s victims. He spoke to the FT on Saturday after completing a six-hour surgery on a broken spine. The patient, in his 30s, had been beaten with clubs and whips by five members of the RSF, he said.
Integrated into the armed forces in 2013 as a paramilitary group, the RSF is a merciless, unpredictable force, explained Dr Karshoum. Headed by Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the number two in Sudan’s transitional military council, the RSF’s fighters are mostly very young, battle-hardened men drawn from different militias across the country, he said.