Sudan's Internet Outage

Jun 16, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The entire country of Sudan has now been without Internet for 13 days. The government has shut down all mobile Internet and most of the hard-wired connections in the country in an effort to smother pro-democracy protests. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports that amid a faltering revolution, lack of Internet has changed life in little and big ways.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The Impact Hub is one of a handful of places that still has Internet in Khartoum. So like the old days, everyone is stopping by to check email, Facebook and Twitter. Omer Kaddam and Muna Suliman design board games. They say the Internet blackout has made work more difficult. And as activists, they say it has made organizing a revolution a little more challenging. There's no WhatsApp for messaging, no social media to call for mass action.

OMER KADDAM: (Through interpreter) Now they're forced to meet, and they're forced to organize better. They're forced to, like - because you know the people. You see them.

PERALTA: Kaddam says what's happening now is neighborhood committees are meeting in person, and they've set up a rule. Every person has to set up an SMS texting group with 30 people they know personally. And they use that to pass along the verified reports. One of the concerns is that much of this organizing is happening in the open. Internet apps like WhatsApp and Signal were used because they are encrypted. There was no way for the Sudanese government to spy. But Suliman says they've found ways to make simple texting safer.

MUNA SULIMAN: (Through interpreter) Some of the people who have foreign passports, their local number's being dedicated to circulate the stuff that would bring you trouble.

PERALTA: The military junta running Sudan says it shut down the Internet because it was being used by activists to plan a coup, so they say they will not bow to pressure from human rights groups and the international community to turn it back on. I find Islam Elbeiti working in a corner office. She's a jazz musician. And she says when the Internet went off two weeks ago, it was almost unbearable.

ISLAM ELBEITI: I would literally lay in bed for an hour. What do I do with my life, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

ELBEITI: It's really crazy. I look around me. I see books. I'm like, I don't want to read. I see movies. I watched everything. I start cleaning.

PERALTA: She also realized this was an opportunity. The Internet is off. The military is on the streets, so her whole family gathers in the living room and plays card games for two hours a day.

ELBEITI: We sit, and we play Uno. And we argue, and we fight. And we laugh. And then we sit with my mom, and we talk about, you know, their lives and our lives. The best part is that the conversation is without distraction.

PERALTA: And much of that conversation is inevitably about the revolution. Elbeiti says the real reason the Internet is off is because the military junta running the country doesn't want Sudanese to see how violently they dispersed the pro-democracy sit-in. She's watched some of the videos. They show troops opening fire on unarmed protesters. They show young protesters being carried, bleeding.

ELBEITI: When more people get to see what really, really happened, it's going to either unify us or really, you know, break a lot of people.

PERALTA: Either way, she says, the Internet will eventually be turned on. The truth will emerge, and the country will have to come to terms with a cruel and violent chapter in its history.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Khartoum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.