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Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

Hiader grew up in Darfur hinterland, tending his family camels which in turn paid his and his siblings’ fees. That was until 2003. That year, the region’s two rebel groups – the Justice and Equality Movement and Sudan Liberation Movement, declared war on the Sudan government, accusing it of marginalising and oppressing the country’s non-Arab population, and demanded more meaningful inclusion in government. The government’s response was brutal and unforgiving: Allying with a notorious local militia known as the Janjaweed,  the government deployed a scorched-earth policy in the region that killed thousands of people, displaced millions, and was accused of ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide against Darfur’s ethnic tribes – the Fur, Masalit and the Zaghawa.           

Hiader’s family was among those displaced, and they had to trek about 70Kms to find a place to settle in. By the time they arrived at their new locality of refugee, more than a week later, they had lost most of their camels and other belongings to the strain of the journey and had to begin the next phase of their lives from scratch. 

For Hiader, the tragedy was double fold. Aside from the psychological shock of forcing their family from a place they had long called home, he had to contend with the routine loss of family, friends and loved ones. One of the earliest of these, was the murder of his teacher, a students’ favorite, in an airstrike by Sudan’s armed forces. Hiaider says his death never left him the same:  

“He was like a father to many of us. He was very involved in many of our lives, helping us discover our talents, and nurturing us to become responsible citizens, beyond the classroom."

Hiader and his fellow students mourned him for days, and for many, life never remained the same after that.

“The war severed the learning environment in schools in the area. Once the airstrikes began, the teachers who were sympathetic to the government abandoned their posts to join government forces, while those sympathetic to the rebels disappeared altogether. With no teachers in classrooms, students also soon followed. You would go for a school break and return to find that some of your colleagues had not returned to school, only to learn later that thy had either been killed or joined rebel ranks.”

This traumatic experience awakened Haider to the human rights abuses taking place all around him. At University, he and his colleagues ferociously debated the conflict to which many of them had lost family, friends and loved ones, and their childhood innocence. That was 2005. At the time, Khartoum was finalising a peace agreement with the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army which helped bring to an end the other conflict in the southern part of the country that had equally claimed so many lives.

“There was a lot of political activity around the multiple conflicts in Sudan at the time, and as university students, this piqued our interest. We started debating the root causes of the war, which led us to confronting issues like racial discrimination, exclusion, and under-development in many of these theatres of conflict, which in the end led us to the issue of the human rights of the victims and communities affected by conflict,”

Armed with this consciousness, Hiader moved to raise awareness about the multidimensional impact of the war. Through the Darfur Students’ Association, Hiader and his colleagues moved to draw the world’s attention to especially the human rights violations that accompanied the conflict, from starvation, the recruitment of child-soldiers, to sexual assault, among others.  

“At the time, media reporting on the conflict had been banned, and most of the country did not know what was happening in Darfur. So, our activism helped fill the void, to tell the rest of the country of the situation in Darfur which they could not learn from mainstream news,” he says.

From University, Haider joined a civic initiative – Democratic Thought Project, and quickly rose through the ranks to become the Project’s coordinator in Darfur. Here, in this theater of conflict, the Project would courageously print and disseminate leaflets and brochures with easy-to-read information on the various issues around the war, like women’s rights, transitional justice, public accountability, among others, which they would then follow up with organised public readings to ensure that the community appreciated these issues.   

From 2018- 2020, he was part of the masheesh adeela (which in English means Umbrella), an initiative aimed at ensuring community inclusion in any peace negotiations targeted at resolving any of Sudan’s multiple conflicts.

“Sudan has had many peace deals, but they fail because the community is never involved. So, this initiative was to correct this- to raise social awareness about peace efforts and to mobilise citizens to participate and own them,” he says.

Buoyed by the social response to his civic engagements, Hiader joined Adeela for Art and Culture (Adeela), a civic organisation dedicated to supporting grassroots youth initiatives for peace around the country . A year back, a revolution had overthrown Sudan’s long serving dictator Omar Bashir, only to be hijacked by the military, pushing the country’s youth and other professionals back to the streets.

Haider and Adeela moved to organise and coordinate youth initiatives devoted to promoting peace and advocating for human rights protection in communities, by providing them with grants and technical support. From 2020 to 2023, Adeela supported more than 250 youth initiatives with financial and technical support, including local resistance committees organising to secure their communities from sporadic violence.

Then April 2023 happened. On the morning of 15 April, residents of Khartoum woke up to aerial bombardments as Sudan’s ruling military partners, the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces exchanged gunfire in a zero-sum battle for supremacy. By the end of Day two, 180 people had already been killed, including three humanitarian workers working with the World Food Program.

Adeela had to close its offices in Khartoum. Hiader for his part run south, first to White Nile State on the border with South Sudan, and later to Upper Nile State in South Sudan, and finally to Juba. It was an exhausting experience.

“I had to spend more than two weeks trying to find my way. In South Sudan, the army manning roadblocks stripped me of all the money I had left. By the time I reached Juba, I had no money left. So, I thank DefendDefenders for facilitating my evacuation from Juba to safety here in Kampala,” he says.

The current war has altered Adeela’s mission to now look for humanitarian aid for those still trapped in conflict back home. Haider says the priority now is an end to conflict.

“We’re advocating for a permanent ceasefire, opening of safe humanitarian corridors. In our different parts of refugee around the world, we’re also documenting violations and hoping that we will galvanise a global momentum to end the conflict. Sudan is our only home, we cannot give up on it,” he says, matter-of-factly.