On the 14th of October, the Public Order Police (POP) carried out a sweep in Umm Dawm, an area in Eastern Nile in Khartoum state, leading to the death of five civilians – three women, an infant and a young man – as well as the arrest of dozens and the spread of fear in an entire community.
Umm Dawm lies on the banks of the Blue Nile, the farm area is mainly inhabited by low-income communities, internally displaced and migrant workers. The majority is involved in the informal sector, working as tea-sellers, alcohol-sellers, petty traders and brick-makers. On Wednesday October 14, the Public Order Police carried out a raid in the neighborhood. With the POP being infamous for their brutality during the kasha, also known as sweeps or on-spot raids, people began running for their lives.
The Public Order Police is part of the POR, or Public Order Regime, in Sudan. The POR is a set of laws and mechanisms which prohibit and enforce a range of behaviors; offences can be interpreted with great latitude and are enforced by a special police and court system with a reputation for violence and summary justice. Procedures before the Public Order Courts largely fail to meet fair trial standards, despite Sudanese constitutional protections guaranteeing due process for the accused (Article 34, Constitution of Sudan), and lastly involve the imposition of penalties such as fining, imprisonment and lashing.
In an attempt to avoid arrest, those trying to escape were whipped and beaten with batons by the officers. The desperate attempt made them run towards the Nile, and ultimately led them to jumping into the water, even though the majority does not know how to swim. This did not spare them from police brutality, as the police officers followed them into the water. A relative of two of the victims described the situation as follows:
“They began shooting live ammunition in the air and in the water and began throwing rocks at those trying to swim towards safety”
Achol Kuol, a 40-year-old woman of South Sudanese roots, was attempting to swim when a police officer threw a rock towards her which hit her forehead causing her to lose conscious and ultimately drown due to her severe head injury.
A mother, whose name is unknown, had left her six-month old daughter behind, hoping the Public Order Police would not inflict harm upon her child.
“A police officer held the girl and threw her into the water as he said, ‘Go follow your mother,’” said one of her relatives.
She was eventually rescued that day by the men and women who were trying to stay afloat in the water, but she died a few days later as a result of the trauma and injuries she sustained.
Salwa Ali Koko, a 35-year-old mother, also jumped into the water and drowned as she didn’t know how to swim. Her body was found by fishermen when it washed up on the shores of Al-Hafliya in Khartoum North and was later identified by her family. Fatima Ali Nato, a 45-year-old mother, and Eisa Ali Bakheit, a 30-year-old single man, also drowned that day. An eyewitness said that while all of them were in the water, hardly alive and unable to swim against the forceful current, they told the police to stop shooting and hitting them with stones as they will die anyway.
They were told, “No, we want to kill you instead”.
A few days later, Bakheit’s body appeared in Shendi, in River Nile state, almost 200 kilometers North of Khartoum. Nato’s corpse has yet to be found. The Public Order Police, ignored the community and bystanders who were appealing to them to briefly pause the sweep and to call the Civil Defense Rescue Operation to assist those who were about to drown. Unfortunately, their pleads were ignored, leading to a deliberate loss of lives.
The tragedy continued to unfold outside the water, as at least seven women and three men who made it out of the water ran into a nearby farmland. The POP managed to arrest them later and they were brought to the POP station, where they were fined 500 SDG for charges of brewing alcohol.
“They ran as if they had committed a crime which has never been committed in the history of mankind, that is how the Public Order Police made them feel,” Sudanese activist Jalila Khamis commented on the event.
As the community in Umm Dawm continues to search for the remaining body the government, and especially the POP, refuse to take responsibility for the incidents. The Ministry of Interior Affairs denied the happenings and emphasized in a statement that no one has drowned for at least two weeks, making it difficult for relatives and the community to coordinate with the Civil Defense Rescue Unit to continue their search for the missing body.
“Each police unit is blaming the other; the Public Order Police blamed the local police forces, and at the end, we were told that all of the victims have committed suicide,” a relative of the victims stated.
The incidents of the 14th of October are a clear example of the scope of brutality employed by the Public Order Police during their raids. This was not an isolated incident as in March 2012 when Awadia Ajabna, a school teacher who lived in Al-Daim neighborhood of Khartoum, was shot by the Public Order Police on her doorstep after an argument with police officers. Further back in 2010, Nadia Saboon, a tea-seller, tried to escape the POP during a kasha sweep in Souq Arabi market, when she fell on an iron bar and suffered injuries, which ultimately led to her death.
The Public Order Laws have a clear gender bias, which leads to an average of 40 women per day who are arrested for offenses falling under the laws, which prescribe fines, imprisonment or flogging as sentences. Many of those affected come from low-income communities, and represent marginalized groups of society, such as women working in the informal sector, IDPs and migrant workers. Lastly they end up at Omdurman Women’s Prison, where they face months of imprisonment when they are unable to pay the hefty fines (which at times measure up to 20,000 SDG, more than 2,000 USD).
SIHA is alarmed and deeply concerned with the incidents and the brutality of the Public Order Police and strongly condemns the incidents of October 14. Since 2009, SIHA has been advocating for a reformation of the Public Order Laws, as the gender biased laws are one of the main instruments used to regress women’s rights in Sudan and to persecute the public presence of women and represent a continuous threat to their well-being and the possibility of living a life of dignity in Sudan.
For further reading, a detailed analysis of the Public Order Regime carried out by SIHA can be found in English, Arabic, and French here: Beyond Trousers: The Public Order Regime and the Human Rights of Women and Girls in Sudan (2009).
The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) is a coalition of over 80 women’s civil society organisations from across the Horn countries inclusive of Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Somaliland, Eritrea and Uganda. The organisation works on women’s access to justice, promoting and protecting women’s human rights, activating women’s political participation and supporting economic empowerment.