Revealed: chaining, beatings and torture inside Sudan’s Islamic schools

Oct 19, 2020 by

Two-year BBC News Arabic investigation uncovers horrific conditions, with boys as young as five facing violence and sexual abuse

 Inside the khalwa in Sudan run by Sheikh Hussein, who died earlier this year.
Inside the khalwa in Sudan run by Sheikh Hussein, who died earlier this year. Photograph: Jess Kelly/BBC News Arabic

Fateh Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani

An April evening in the suburbs of Khartoum. After months of undercover work, I had learned to time my visits to khalwas, Sudan’s Islamic schools, to coincide with evening prayers. I entered while the sheikhs (teachers) and 50-odd boys dressed in their white djellabas were busy praying. As they knelt, I heard the clanking of chains on the boys’ shackled legs. I sat down behind them and started filming, secretly.

I began investigating after allegations emerged of abuse inside some of these schools: children kept in chains, beaten and sexually abused. Khalwas have existed in Sudan for centuries. There are more than 30,000 of them across the country where children are taught to memorise the Qur’an. They are run by sheikhs who usually provide food, drink and shelter, free of charge. As a result, poor families often send their children to khalwas instead of public schools.

I had been working as a journalist in Sudan for five years, but this was the first time an assignment really felt personal. I was taught at a khalwa: a place where I would try to get through each day without being beaten.

The complex to the right is the al-Khulafaa al-Rashideen school where two students, Mohamed Nader and Ismail, were severely beaten.

The complex to the right is the al-Khulafaa al-Rashideen school where two students, Mohamed Nader and Ismail, were severely beaten. Photograph: BBC News Arabic

In 2018, I began what would become a two-year investigation with BBC News Arabic and take me to 23 khalwas across Sudan. Before proper undercover equipment from the BBC arrived, I taped my phone inside a notebook, to secretly film.

Despite having gone to a khalwa myself, I was shocked by what I found. I saw children – some as young as five – beaten and shackled like animals. One boy with deep, raw wounds around his ankles told me: “We can be in groups of six or seven all chained together, and they [the sheikhs] make us run around in circles. Whenever one of us falls over we have to get up again because they keep whipping us … They say that this is good for us.”

One of the worst experiences I had was in 2018 at Ahmed Hanafy, a well-respected khalwa in Darfur. In a study room, under a hot corrugated iron roof, a small boy was held down and whipped more than 30 times by a teacher. The only sound in the room was the lashing of the whip and the boy’s anguished cries. I wanted to grab the whip and hit the sheikh, but I knew I couldn’t. When I later contacted the school, the sheikh confirmed they do beat children but denied this incident ever took place.

Another disturbing case was that of two 14-year-old boys, Mohamed Nader and Ismail. When I visited them in hospital they were lying on their stomachs, unconscious, their backs stripped of flesh. They were beaten and tortured so badly they nearly died.

“They kept them in a room for five days without food or water,” Mohamed Nader’s father, Nader, told me.

Chains worn by pupils
Chains worn by pupils at al-Khulafaa al-Rashideen. Photograph: Jess Kelly/BBC News Arabic

“They rubbed tar all over their bodies. [Mohamed Nader] has been so badly beaten you can even see his spine.”

Source: Revealed: chaining, beatings and torture inside Sudan’s Islamic schools | Global development | The Guardian

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