KHARTOUM, Sudan — Omar Ismail sang a revolutionary song as he frisked people before letting them pass a barricade of bricks and twisted metal in the capital city of Khartoum last week. It was past 10 o'clock at night, but people still streamed toward the massive sit-in outside the country's military headquarters, where thousands of protesters calling for a new government have been camped since April 6.
Ismail confiscated any potential weapons and checked identification cards. If any government officials aligned with the previous regime of President Omar al-Bashir, security forces, or members of Islamist student groups tried to enter, he would arrest them, he said.
"The law here is our law," said Ismail, 21, who before the revolution studied software engineering at a local university. "The law here is freedom."
The sit-in, a sprawling collection of tents, stages, kitchens, and checkpoints that stretches for nearly a mile on the streets of Khartoum, has become the heart of an unprecedented uprising seeking to remake one of the world's most oppressed countries.
What started in December as a bread riot in a small industrial town outside Khartoum, snowballed into a nationwide movement — and one of the world’s largest and most impressive nonviolent mass actions in recent memory. It reached its zenith on April 11, when Sudan's Islamist dictator, Omar al-Bashir, failed to break up the sit-in and was forced from power in a military coup. Al-Bashir had ruled Sudan since seizing power in 1989, and his reign was marked by civil war, accusations of genocide in the country's Darfur region, a collapsed economy, and the secession of the nation's southern half.
“The law here is freedom.”
Now, a military council is in control, but protesters are refusing to leave until the generals give way to a civilian government. The protesters say without the political pressure generated by the sit-in, the revolution will fail.
"Here, I feel like I can say anything I want," Ismail said. "That's not possible yet [outside the sit-in], because people out there are still afraid, because national security [forces] and [the] army is still there."
The sit-in’s primary goal is to pressure the country's rulers, but it also serves as a site for the release of frustration that built up during Bashir's rule. Draped in flags and with their faces painted, protesters spontaneously erupt into chants that take the form of long, rhyming call-and-response poems. There are near-constant speeches. Some people simply yell their grievances.
"They have turned us into a nation of beggars ... We want blood for blood!" shouted Hanin Khalim, an out-of-work civil servant, in a circle of a dozen fellow protesters. "Anybody from the previous regime, we don't want them in the new government!"
The revolution goes beyond politics, and the sit-in often feels more like a rock festival than a political rally. Women freely walk without headscarves, while teenagers hold hands and flirt, both of which were taboos under Bashir's rule. The scent of marijuana occasionally wafts through the crowd. Alcohol — officially banned by the government — is easy to find.
“They have turned us into a nation of beggars.”
Music is constant, from small drum circles to nightly concerts, which have featured reggae artists, DJs, Sudanese pop stars, a violin orchestra, and a saxophone-playing soldier. There is public art nearly everywhere. Colorful murals of Nubian queens and people killed in the revolution blanket the walls surrounding the sit-in, while an outdoor studio has brought together dozens of artists painting a three-kilometer-long canvas that when finished will be the world’s longest painting.
"For 30 years, we've been living under oppression. Artists couldn’t draw, and no one could really, genuinely express their opinions,” said Hala Minawi, an engineer who helped organize the painting project. “Since the revolution, people can say what they want, and the artists can paint what they want.”
Some scenes can seem almost surreal: Banners of two Darfuri rebel groups — the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement — fly within sight of the headquarters of the army they battled for the last decade and a half, while images of atrocities committed in Darfur are also on display, with lectures to educate the public on what took place.
"I cried tears when I saw this site," said Adam Ishmael Mohamed, an elderly paramount chief of the Fur tribe from north Darfur, who survived the atrocities committed by the Bashir regime but has lived in a displaced persons camp since his village was destroyed.
Besides Darfuris, people from around the country have poured into Khartoum to join the sit-in, which stretches for nearly a mile outside Khartoum’s military headquarters and international airport. In April, a train carrying hundreds of protesters arrived from Atbara, the industrial town where the revolution started, and in recent days there have been convoys from al Damar in the east and Halfa in the north.
Samoel Davala, a middle-aged chemical engineer, came to the sit-in from Blue Nile state in the south, where for nearly eight years the government has tried to crush a rebellion, forcing tens of thousands of civilians into neighboring countries as refugees.
"We need our voices to be heard in Khartoum, so that we can reflect the voices of the people all over Sudan whose voices can't be heard," Davala said.
To keep the sit-in going as long as necessary, the protesters have set up a network of checkpoints, medical clinics and kitchens, with hundreds of volunteers like Ismail stepping in to help.
At one clinic, powered by generators and shielded from the sun with plastic tarps, at least 40 doctors volunteer daily to treat demonstrators affected by dehydration, heat stroke, asthma, and other ailments. Their medicine and equipment has been donated by fellow Sudanese at home and abroad. Despite its makeshift quarters, both doctors and patients told VICE News that the quality of care is better than what is available at government hospitals, which have been ravaged by cuts under a drive to privatize health care.
“It feels like you have gone through a new gate for a new life, a new gate where you can make your dreams real.”
"In public hospitals there are lifesaving drugs that we run out of, not once or twice, but regularly," said Dr. Tamadur Osman, who works at a public hospital during the day but comes to the sit-in after work. Pointing to a dosage of an anti-inflammatory asthma treatment, she added: "The last time I saw this in a public hospital was two years ago."
To feed the revolution, five kitchens churn out three meals a day, distributed for free to anyone at the sit-in. At the largest kitchen, in an occupied university building, geography teacher turned head chef Saddiq Ahmed Hassan sliced thick slabs of beef while volunteers hauled in a huge sack of onions.
"Everything you see around you is a contribution from the people, we didn't buy anything," he said. "Some will come with a small bag of flour, some with a truckload."
Hassan said every day his kitchen cooks 250 pounds of beef and 220 pounds each of lentils and fava beans, and distributes 16,000 loaves of bread.
"If this proves anything, it proves the way Sudanese people come together in the face of a crisis," he said. "It also proves the hatred the Sudanese people had for the previous regime."
As the infrastructure and entertainment at the sit-in grows, protesters say they are even more dedicated to staying put to achieve their demands. Back at the checkpoint near midnight, Ismail vowed his first taste of freedom would not be his last.
"It feels like you have gone through a new gate for a new life, a new gate where you can make your dreams real," he said. "I can die through that gate, but I don't want to go back."
Jason Patinkin is a reporter who has covered East Africa since 2012.
Cover: Protesters paint a Banksy image with a Sudanese flag on a wall on the night of Sunday April 28 at the sit in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum (Jason Patinkin for VICE News).