From euphoria to tears: the story behind award-winning Sudan photo

Khartoum (AFP) –


It was one of the iconic images of Sudan's revolution: demonstrator Mohamed Youssef, just 15 at the time, holds his hand to his heart as he roars a nighttime poem of protest amid a sea of lights.

Agence France-Presse photographer Yasuyoshi Chiba took the award-winning picture just two weeks after armed men had stormed a Khartoum sit-in, killing and wounding scores of anti-government demonstrators at the height of last year's uprising.

"I was chanting with excitement but I felt immense sadness for those who were killed or disappeared after the dispersal of the sit-in," Youssef told AFP in an interview at his home this week.

"After reciting the poem I went somewhere away from the protest gathering and cried."

Demonstrations sparked by a hike in bread prices had rocked Sudan from late 2018 onwards, quickly escalating into calls for the toppling of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

The strongman was ousted by the army in April 2019, sparking hopes for a peaceful transition, as mass rallies continued to demand civilian rule.

But on June 3, armed men in military uniforms stormed a long-running protest camp outside army headquarters in Khartoum, killing at least 128 people according to doctors linked to the protest movement. Official figures say at least 87 died.

- 'Martyrs' blood' -

Two weeks later, protest leaders were planning an evening talk in Youssef's neighbourhood of Jabra, in southern Khartoum.

Internet services had been largely cut off and security forces deployed across the capital.

In Jabra, the power had gone out and residents were scrambling to find generators and erect roadblocks against any possible incursion.

"Everyone was tense. We feared security forces would storm the area," Youssef said.

But as the night wore on, protesters gathered and shouted revolutionary slogans.

Youssef, in a light blue shirt and lit by the mobile phones of his comrades, launched into verse.

"As drums beat at dawn, we take to the streets... we won't back down, none of us will cower," he chanted.

Other demonstrators shouted "revolution" as he paused between verses.

"Our patience has worn thin," he went on.

"Our struggle will bear fruit that will be watered by the martyrs' blood."

Chiba's image of the scene won the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award last week, with judges saying it symbolised "hope".

For Youssef, it brings back intense memories of "excitement and sadness".

Youssef and his family were regular faces at thousands-strong demonstrations demanding Bashir's ouster and accountability for crimes committed in Sudan's conflict zones.

"The massacres and bloodshed in Darfur were the main reason why I took part in the protests," Youssef said.

The Darfur fighting erupted in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels rose up against Bashir's Arab-dominated government, which they accused of marginalising their region in western Sudan.

The United Nation says the conflict has killed some 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million others.

- 'The fighter' -

Youssef's family, including his two brothers and two sisters, had celebrated Bashir's ouster and called for him to face justice over corruption and his role in Darfur.

In August, they welcomed a long-awaited power-sharing deal between top military officials and protesters, with a civilian-majority governing council and a technocratic government overseeing a three-year transitional period.

But Youssef said he is still "dissatisfied" that those responsible for the killings at the sit-in and in Darfur have not been held to account.

In February, Sudan agreed to hand Bashir over for trial at the International Criminal Court, which has been demanding his arrest for over a decade.

The 76-year-old, detained a Khartoum jail since his ouster, was sentenced in December to two years in detention at a reform facility, on corruption charges.

Today Sudan, long beset by economic woes, also faces the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic, with 162 confirmed cases and 13 deaths so far.

Youssef, who attends a private school and hopes to become a petroleum engineer, has been confined to his home since March under strict quarantine rules.

Now 16 years old, he said he is using the time to read up on Sudan's history, and insists he sees hope for Sudan's transition.

"They need time to resolve the crisis," he said.

His parents say his teachers and peers nicknamed him "the fighter" after the image went viral.

His father, Othman, told AFP: "His photo is a tribute to the Sudanese revolution."