Violence against protesters in El-Obeid on July 29, 2019

Violence against protesters in El-Obeid on July 29, 2019

Tue May 19 2020
More than 60 injured and at least 6 killed during protests

Introduction

  • Location: El-Obeid
  • Date: 29 July 2019
  • Reported killed: 6
  • Reported injured: 62
  • Potentially responsible: Rapid Support Forces (RSF)

This is an investigation produced by the Sudanese Archive in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center Investigation Lab. We’ve employed open-source tools and techniques to verify gathered evidence, including video footage, published reports and testimonies. This investigation examines how civilians and students protesting military rule and calling for a transition to a civilian one were violently attacked by members of the security forces.

On 29 July 2019, secondary school students in the city of El-Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan, staged a protest over a lack of vital services and the rundown conditions in the city. The students came out from several institutions, marching through the main market area protesting against the lack of water, electricity and public transport. In their chanting throughout the rally, the protesters also made two demands: a speedy transition of power to civilian rule, and justice for the pro-democracy protesters killed outside the army base in Khartoum on 3 June 2019.

Since the ousting of Sudan’s ex-leader Al-Bashir on 11 April 2019, youth groups and opposition activists have organized a series of nationwide rallies to step up pressure on the Transitional Military Council (TMC) to speed up power transition. Unlike most of the countrywide demonstrations which were largely coordinated by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), El-Obeid's protests on 29 July appeared to be impromptu. They took place just one day before the leaders of the civilian opposition and army generals from the TMC were set to renew talks on power sharing during the transitional period. The two sides had already signed a deal on 17 July setting out the transition’s institutions and the creation of a joint civilian-military council. However, before finally reaching a power-sharing agreement on 17 August, talks repeatedly stalled over disagreement on the proportions of representation in the sovereign council which has now been formed to govern the country. The two sides also disagreed on the constitutional declaration that is supposed to define the structures of the transitional period, redeployment of forces and immunity for army generals who were linked to crimes against protesters. The El-Obeid protests thus erupted in a period of growing distrust and heightened tension between the civilian-led opposition and the military junta.

Mainly attended by teenagers wearing their school uniforms, the protests started in the early morning. According to the SPA, gunmen dressed in army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) fatigues fired live ammunition at school children soon after they marched into the city’s main market area. According to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors (CCSD), which is closely associated with pro-democracy protesters, the use of force claimed six lives, three of whom are minors, and left 62 persons wounded, four of whom are in critical conditions.

Screenshot of CCSD tweet on the total death toll in El-Obeid

Wider implications:

Widely dubbed in the media as the “El-Obeid massacre”, the death of young students in the city fueled further protests and brought life to a halt. More residents took to the streets in the immediate aftermath to demand justice for the victims. "It is unacceptable that young people are being killed. …Those who committed these crimes must be brought to justice", said one of the residents who joined street rallies to condemn the violence. From 30 July onwards, government authorities decided to shut down the city’s schools and markets. They also imposed a curfew and deployed extra military personnel to contain the growing unrest. The loss of lives in El-Obeid also triggered a nationwide furor, mounting popular pressure on the TMC to hand over power to civilians. The SPA and the opposition Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) both accused the army and the RSF* paramilitary group of deliberate use of force against peaceful demonstrators. They subsequently called the public to join street rallies and demand justice for the victims. The two groups stressed that the formation of a civilian government was the only way to ensure independent investigations into the killings. The opposition also cancelled scheduled talks with the TMC the following day and dispatched a delegation to El-Obeid to assess the situation on the ground. Meanwhile, some voices within the FFC called for an indefinite cancelation of talks and resumption of street protests to overthrow the military rule .

Screenshot of the SPA calling for a rally for a civilian government following El-Obeid deaths

On 30 July 2019, from the afternoon and throughout the night, numerous rallies were held in more than 20 cities across Sudan, including the capital city of Khartoum. Hundreds of youths and schoolchildren in uniforms participated in angry protests to denounce the bloody crackdown in El-Obeid. Waving Sudanese flags, protesters rushed to the streets with some chanting “killing a student is like killing a nation" and "the people want to fight for the rights of martyrs". Some protesters placed roadblocks and set fire to tires to express their anger, "we will protest until we obtain justice or we bring down the regime”, said a protester who took part in a gathering in Khartoum.

Similar rallies also took place in other Sudanese cities, including En-Nuhud the second largest city after El-Obeid in North Kordofan, Wad Madani in central Sudan, Ad-Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile state, Port Sudan and Kassala in eastern Sudan.

The violence in El-Obeid also drew regional and international condemnation. The African Union envoy has called for a quick trial of perpetrators linked to killings. UNICEF also denounced the deadly use of force and demanded the Sudanese authorities investigate and hold all those involved responsible for their heinous actions.

Demand for fair retribution

In response to the violence in El-Obeid the SPA drew up plans for nationwide rallies. In a series of tweets, the group announced that it was coordinating efforts to stage a million-man march of fair retribution on 1 August alongside the FFC, resistance and neighbourhood committees as well as student groups. The aim of the march was to show solidarity with the victims’ families and demand justice for them. Under the Twitter hashtag “El-Obeid is bleeding”, the SPA identified trajectories and gathering points across Khartoum. Some of these areas include, Al-Barary, Al-Manshiyah, Al-Ta’if, Arkawit and Al-Jirayif in Khartoum east, as well as Wad al-Bashir, Al-Fitayihab, Al-Saliha and Al-Muhandisin in Omdurman. Hundreds of people turned up to protest in these locations as well as numerous other places.

A tweet released by the SPA on 30 July, announcing coordination with the FFC to launch a protest in the wake of the El-Obeid violence. It also invited neighborhood committees to disseminate info through posters and writing on walls to draw crowds for the march.

A post by the SPA announcing “the one- million-man march of fair retribution” on 31 July in coordination with the neighborhood committees of Khartoum East.

Another post by the SPA announcing gathering points including some neighborhoods in Khartoum to protest the El-Obeid killings.

A tweet by the SPA sharing the gathering points in Omdurman

Government reaction

In response to the events in El-Obeid, the governor of North Kordofan state, General Al-Sadiq al-Tayyib Abdallah, blamed what he called “infiltrators” and rogue elements for the violence. He said in statements to the pro-state TV channel Al-Shrooq that infiltrators had exploited the peaceful march and caused chaos. He further accused them of looting property from the local branch of the Bank of Khartoum and making similar attempts to plunder the Sudanese French Bank in the city. Following the governor’s statements, the TMC leader Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan, described the killing of students in El-Obeid as a “sad and regrettable” loss of lives. The TMC further disclosed that it had identified seven members of the RSF who were involved in the deadly shooting. According to statements by the chairman of the Security and Defense Committee in the TMC, Jamal al-Din Omar, the seven members of the force were on duty guarding the Sudanese French Bank (a site of major incidents) during the protest. He said they opened fire on the protesters causing death and injuries. He added that the alleged culprits were subsequently dismissed from the RSF and handed over to the public prosecutor in El-Obeid to stand trial.

However, the TMC’s spokesman Lieutenant-General Shams al-Din Kabashi mentioned afterwards that nine RSF soldiers were involved in the killings and added that all of them had been dismissed and detained for trial.

What happened:

In the early morning hours on Monday, 29 July, 2019, students gathered to protest the lack of public services in El-Obeid. Several live videos posted online shortly after the students took to the streets feature tens of girls and boys wearing school uniforms marching through the Central Business District. As the march grew bigger, government security forces continued to monitor its progress. They were planning to disperse the crowds. Analysis of online evidence, including video materials covering the protest, which document the assemblies of students from the early stages of the protest to later on when security forces were deployed to break up the march.

The following video was posted as a Facebook live video on Monday, July 29 at 9:22 am, Sudan’s local time. It features a peaceful gathering of students walking the streets. The students can be heard chanting “no education in harsh conditions”. The scene in this video roughly represents the early stages of the protest. The time of the video is consistent with the position of the sun at that time, which would have the shadows pointing roughly in the direction of the gas station. That gas station can be seen in the images below.

The Sudanese Archive geolocated the footage to these coordinates: 13.1842716,30.2194887, the beginning of the video shows the corner of a blue building, marked in purple on the satellite image, as well as a tall post marked in yellow and a gas station marked in green. The building and the gas station can be seen on Google maps; the blue building is a bank. By cross-referencing its logo (RCB) to banks in Sudan, it was confirmed to be the Real Estate Commercial Bank.

The multi-colored building and the gas station can be seen on Google maps

Continuing the march, students turn from the gas station towards the street where the multi-colored building is located on its corner:

The students change direction into a new street

More clues and markers highlighted in the above Google map

The second part of the video was also posted as a Facebook live video on Monday, 29 July at 9:22 am. In the following view, the video shifts to show a large tree and another building across the street from the gas station, both of which can also be seen on the satellite image above. The time of the video correlates with the position of the sun at that time, which would have the shadows pointing roughly in the direction of the gas station, which can be seen in the images below.

Cross-referencing the shadows on SunCalc\**

Though not visible at this stage, government security forces were seen to be following the progress of the march as the students walked slowly towards the blue building. However, the protesters were abruptly forced to head in the opposite direction as a result of an apparent use of teargas. Some of the female students tried to mitigate the effect of the teargas by covering their faces with headscarves whilst retreating.

Soon after this, the students re-grouped and headed back to the original direction as can be seen in the video:

Protesters rush back in the opposite direction as the narrator in the video says teargas is being used to disperse them

Students regroup, turn back again and continue the march. They are now facing the large tree

Another scene from the video showing protesters in the space between the two buildings

Moving on, the protesters now appear in another scene. They assemble in the empty space between two buildings. The video was posted at 9:26am on 29 July 2019.

Images of the buildings and protestors were also captured during the march and posted online. The images were most likely taken at these coordinates: 13°11'03.1"N 30°13'05.8"E. The two buildings outlined in green and red are positioned across from each other and match the same look of the buildings in other videos.

The building outlined in green matches the unique building shape of the blue building in the picture taken

SunCalc proving the video was filmed at 09:26am

Shadows in the video match the sun’s position at 09:26am in Al-Obeid on 29 July. The livestream timestamp also corroborates that.

Further video evidence documents the protests developments and shows students joining their colleagues at the square between the two buildings referenced above. Live comments were posted by activists reporting a significant presence of security services, including police forces and military personnel around the area. The live comments were later removed due to the removal of the video itself which was retrieved by the Sudanese Archive from the origin. Activists also advised student protesters to remain vigilant. Security forces were reportedly following the crowds at a close range. The protesters start to walk again, they appear to have become more organized, chanting anti-government slogans and clapping.

The following video was streamed live at 10:29 am on 29 July and shows big crowds of schoolboys and girls in motion.

This shot from the video clearly shows a dark screen, tall building with a red roof, a blue chimney and a large mosque with a blue-green dome in the background, which was confirmed to be El-Obeid’s Great Mosque

A closer inspection of the building in the video reveals the presence of a chimney as well as the shape of the roof and the buildings large shadow that indicates it as significantly taller than surroundings structures. These traits match the features of the building seen in satellite imagery.

First image: the chimney atop the building from the video, second image: the chimney seen on Google Maps.

Protesters then moved north then north west from the red circle to the black one, according to the footage and Google Maps.

The route protesters likely took from north to northwest

The video was posted on Monday, July 29 at 10:29 am. This makes sense given the position of the sun and the shadows seen in the video, both of which have shadows pointing in the direction of the screen and the tall building.

SunCalc proves the time the video was posted based on the shadows

The location was geolocated to the same coordinates as the above, right by the El-Obeid’s Great Mosque

The video shows large numbers of student protestors walking along the street. First image: mosque, building and billboard are outlined

From this location, geolocated by identifying the dark screen, protesters proceeded to another scene in a large open space surrounded by several low buildings located here: 13°11'03.1"N 30°13'05.8"E. The video below features student protestors turning away from the dark screen onto another square. The video was broadcasted live on Facebook on Monday July 29th at 10:32 am. This is consistent with the temporal sequence of the progress of the march. In addition to that, we checked MapChecking to see how many people could be in that area and the tool shows the space could have easily fitted 3,500 people.

Video shows protesters moving away from the large dark screen

The same video above starts by showing the screen and the tall building with the chimney, then panning across a large open space

A different video, shot in the same location reveals a tall teal building, marked on the map in green. The time of the video also correlates with shadow positions they are pointing almost parallel to the teal building (below) which is accurate given the location of the sun at that time of the day. The sun should cast shadows towards the tall building with the chimney, as seen in the video.

Images from a live video stream

The student protesters are now advancing towards the teal building as seen in the same live video above.

Further progress of the march is captured in another video posted as a Facebook livestream at 10:53 am on Monday 29 July. The video features the young protesters moving from the location above and arriving at the head office of the Bank of Khartoum.

Bank of Khartoum on Google Maps

Bank of Khartoum, located here: 13.1848269,30.2169491 and marked in red, can be seen throughout the video with a 24-hour ATM located right in front of it.

Video shot featuring the student protesters in front of the Bank of Khartoum

Another group of students, mostly schoolgirls can be seen approaching the bank from the narrow street on the left.

Video shows a group of schoolgirls arriving at Bank of Khartoum from the alleyway behind the bank

First image: orange building, second image: a tall building in the distance and a black screen or billboard

Another angle in the video shows an orange building across the street from the circular bank building, marked on the map in blue. A different scene in the video shows a tall building farther away (marked in orange) as well as a black screen on the street (marked in green).

As more students approach the bank, gunshots are heard four times from an undisclosed spot.

Though the videomaker says on camera that there are snipers atop the Bank of Khartoum’s building, nothing can be seen to corroborate that.

The 24-hour ATM machine captured on video

A scene in this video shows students moving away from the teal building and approaching the square at the junction towards the distinctive green-pink building. The video, most likely posted around 11:00 am local time, is consistent with the progress of the march. The green-pink building is located opposite the Sudanese French Bank across the street.

Gunshots can also be heard in the below video with people seen fleeing.

People and protesters fleeing

The video was most likely filmed from this location: 13°11'10.9"N 30°13'00.2"E

The building outlined in red can be seen on the Google map

According to the shadows below, the below video was likely taken between 11:00 - 11:30am.

Time confirmed according to SunCalc

Towards the end of the video, more than one person can be heard saying, “He killed one. He killed him.”

In this video, shots released at this moment can be heard from afar. It is thought to be filmed from around this location: 13.185977, 30.216701.

Outlining the two opposite buildings on Google Maps

And according to the shadows, the video was likely taken around 11:30 - 12:50pm.

By retracing the the shadows on SunCalc, we can confirm the time this video was filmed

The following video shows men in military gear at a close proximity to some unarmed protesters.

Former Bellingcat’s open source investigator and BBC Africa Eye journalist Benjamin Strick geolocated the video to this location: 13°11'10.6"N 30°12'59.4"E. We corroborated this geolocation as shown below and it seems to have been taken around 10:15 - 11:10am according to SunCalc. The location is 260 meters from the Bank of Khartoum, according to Google maps.

Outlining the tree and building on Google Maps

The next video was also verified and geolocated here: 13°11'07.8"N 30°13'00.5"E.

The video as geolocated on the map

A similar video from a different angle, most likely taken at 11:00 am shows security forces using machine guns.

Marks as seen on the map

Death and injuries

Though it is not captured in footage, injuries and deaths from gunshot wounds reported by the CCSD, coincided with the shootings and violence witnessed in El-Obeid on 29 July. Although the injuries and deaths are not captured on video, gunshot sounds are captured. People can also be seen fleeing and yelling that there are shootings.

Crowds at El-Obeid Teaching Hospital

The crowds at El-Obeid Teaching Hospital (مستشفى الابيض التعليمي‎), located around 13°11'6.42"N, 30°13'19.94"E.

Based on the position of the sun, the video was filmed live with a timestamp of 12:16 pm; the shadows in the video are relatively short and are to the back right when facing north around 12:00 - 12:30 pm.

A picture of the teaching hospital

Marks compared to Google Maps

Clues outlined on Google Maps

More buildings in the video can be seen on Google Earth below.

Clues as outlined in Google Earth

According to a report released by the CCSD, more than 60 protesters were treated from gunshots at the El-Obeid Teaching Hospital. Some of the victims were pronounced dead shortly after being taken to the hospital. The committee also mentioned in a separate update that a victim by the name Younis Adam Younis passed away in the ICU at the Police Hospital in Khartoum, after being airlifted for treatment.

The list of victims who died at Al-Obeid Hospital on 29th of July includes a student named Ahmed Abdelwahhab. His funeral, covered in a live stream video became a rallying point for angry mourners who marched to the slain student’s home in the Petroleum neighborhood in El-Obeid. The crowds said government security forces have deliberately targeted the victims and called for justice.

The conclusion

Through the collection and verification of information provided by online resources, the Sudanese Archive team was able to produce this investigative piece on the crackdown on protesters on 29 July 2019 in the city of El-Obeid. Documentary evidence, including video material, imagery, news reports, social media posts, and others are used to map out the evolution of the protest from its early stages to the crucial point when live ammunition was fired around the Sudanese French Bank. Six people were killed, and 62 others were injured in the El-Obeid incident. While the open source documentary evidence indicates the potential involvement of the RSF based on the appearance of individuals in army fatigues similar to those of the RSF and shooters seen atop Toyota 4x4 trucks, vehicles famously used by the RSF, further field investigation will be needed to corroborate this material and identify the perpetrators.

*The RSF were given a "regular force" status in 2015. Two years later, they were assigned under the Sudanese military forces, which reported directly to former President Omar al-Bashir.

**SunCalc is an open-source tool that helps investigators as well as photographers and other professionals calculate sun movement and other related variables and conclude timing and vice versa, using an interactive map.