Friends, family of Sudanese left in dark amid telecoms cuts

Friends, family of Sudanese left in dark amid telecoms blackout
6 min read
Washington, D.C.
06 November, 2021
Loved ones of Sudanese inside the country and around the world are struggling to reach people amid phone and internet outages, leaving them with little to no information about their wellbeing.
Sudanese are continuing to organise demonstrations, despite nationwide telecom cuts. (Getty)

Bakry Elmedni hasn’t spoken with his family since October 25 - when Sudan’s military captured control in coup that has since blocked off most communication in the country.

“The last time I talked to my family was when I talked to my sister on the 25th. That was the last time I heard from anyone,” Elmedni, associate professor in public administration at Long Island University and president of the Sudan Studies Association tells The New Arab. “It seems we might be in this for a while. I know a lot of people are having the same issues. What makes it even more painful is not just that we’re not able to talk, but that we don’t know what’s going on.”

This near-complete nationwide internet cut and widespread block on telephone calls has left the loved ones of Sudanese wondering about their safety, as an unknown number of civilians continue to be arrested, detained, and in some cases killed by the military. Some news reports estimate the numbers in the hundreds, though some Sudanese see this as an underestimate given the nationwide blackout.

Inside Sudan, these same problems are compounded with little access to media and to another people.

A weak connection, if any

People trying to reach their friends and family in Sudan report having to wait to hours just for a short call. Amid the blackout, sometimes just getting a notification, such as a double-blue check on WhatsApp, to know that the call has gone through is enough to tell them the person on the other line is OK.

“You make the call and see if it works. At least if someone picks up, you know they’re ok,” Mo Seifeldein, councilman for the city of Alexandria in northern Virginia, who has barely communicated with his immediate family since the coup, tells TNA.

Crystal Murphy, associate professor of political science at Chapman University, who spent around 15 years living and working in Sudan, tells TNA that she’s just looking for signs that her friends are checking in online, mainly through the WhatsApp blue checkmark.

“With my foreign number, I don’t want to put anyone at risk. I know when someone is online, but it’s extremely rare,” she says. “I’ve seen some of the brutality we’ve been able to see from videos. It makes me very nervous for everyone’s safety.”

Yasmin Badri, executive director for the NGO We Care Tucson, says it took her about a week to reach her brother. When she finally got an internet connection, she says, “It was still difficult to hear him on the phone, and from his voice he was highly stressed and didn’t want to explain what he was going through because he was afraid to talk.”

Internet as a human right

With the internet as one of the main means of communication, particularly for younger generations, the concept of it being a human right has emerged as a topic of discussion. In 2011, the United Nations released a report in which it stated its recognition of “the unique and transformative nature of the internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.”

This official acknowledgement has been used by human rights activists around the world to argue for better internet access for the general public. This knowledge has been used to the advantage of some governments to repress information they believe could undermine their agenda. In the case of the past couple of weeks in Sudan, some see this as a way for the military to hide its brutal crackdown on civilian demonstrators.

“If they’re not afraid of anything, why not open internet?” asks Mosaab Hassouna, a filmmaker and activist, speaking with TNA from Khartoum, where he can get short windows of spotty internet connection.

“The outside world can’t understand the true situation because the internet is cut,” he says.

Being cut off from his country, Seifeldein says, is causing “a lot of anxiety, fear, and a feeling of helplessness.”

Virtual news blackout, little international interest

With his mind on the situation on the other side of the world, Seifeldein has to maintain his life in Virginia, where not everyone is following the news on Sudan.

“People around here are not in tune or fully aware of what is happening,” he says.

Last Saturday, he joined Sudanese from across the US in marching to Congress to demand that it put pressure on the military to restore civilian rule. Very few non-Sudanese attended.

For those who are desperate for news on Sudan, there is not much to meet their needs. What little information that is coming out is from social media updates and homemade videos uploaded when there’s a momentary internet surge.

Elmedni says he learned by coincidence that friends were detained at the beginning of the coup.

“I found out from random luck that two friends were arrested in front of the UN building in Khartoum,” he says. “Someone saw the arrests and posted it online.”

Perspectives

“This is intentional. The coup leaders know that if people are allowed to talk to each other, people will organise. And they don’t want people on the outside to know what’s happening on the inside.”

Despite this information crackdown, Sudanese are finding ways to organise.

Organising amid telecom blackouts

Demonstrations are being planned daily by word of mouth, as Sudanese take to the streets, often without knowing if their message will reach the outside world.

They say they have learned lessons from 2019, when the military government imposed a two-week-long internet blackout amid civilian demonstrations.

In addition to centralised demonstrations, they are organising localised neighbourhood protests.

“The revolutionary committees are at the ground level,” says Hassouna. “People are physically organising themselves at the ground level. That’s the only way they have. When started cutting calls, we started taking the door to door strategy.”

“We came to this stage with a lot of loss. We’re determined to have a democratic transition,” he adds.

What happens next?

As the country’s standstill continues, some are already worried about the long-term implications. Will the elderly who have been staying home out of safety get the care they need? How will people who are dependent on remittances (Sudan’s main source of hard cash) receive money if they can’t go online to reach their bank accounts? And if the situation continues, will it become more difficult to salvage the civilian government?

“It’s a matter of life and death for some people,” says Seifeldein, who describes this strategy of isolation as an open prison. “If you’re younger, you can handle it. If you’re older and need medication, you can only tolerate it for so long. It might not manifest immediately.”

Badri also worries about Sudan not getting back on its feet in the near future, describing the fatigue of people going through a similar crackdown two years ago.

“Two years ago, at the same time, Sudan was going through the same conflict. Now, the political situation has gotten worse and Sudanese people are so exhausted, mentally and physically,” she says.

Seifeldein also fears for the future, pointing to the vulnerability of a transitional government.

“This is a military regime that has been ruling for 30 years. It has committed a lot of atrocities, and it’s unlikely they’re going to hand over power easily. I’m afraid it’s going to get better before it gets worse,” he says.

“I really can’t stress the feeling of betrayal people are feeling with this isolation.”