BBC Investigation Uncovers Widespread Abuse In Sudanese Khalwas

From 2018-2020, investigative journalist, Fateh Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani went undercover in 23 different Sudanese Islamic educational institutions, known as khalwas. He witnessed and filmed physical and emotional abuse carried out by the religious men, or sheikhs, in charge of the schools. In 2020, Hamdani released a documentary for BBC News Arabic with video evidence of children from the age of five being shackled, beaten and starved of food and water. He also spoke to some children who accused the sheikhs of sexual abuse, however, they did not appear in the documentary. Hamdani began his research to find evidence for the widespread abuse in Sudanese khalwas in order to expose the sheikhs and their abuse of power. His aim was to create a platform for the vulnerable children who had to endure this abuse.

According to the Sudanese government, there are nearly 30,000 khalwas across the country. These schools receive government funding as well as money from private donors in Sudan and the rest of the world, which means that they are free. The schools are seen as an alternative to government-run schools, particularly in remote villages where government-run schools might not be based. Khalwas are boarding schools and students only go home during the holidays. Khalwas have existed for generations and as part of the curriculum students are taught to memorize the Koran. Many Sudanese families see them as an important part of their culture and national identity.

Recently, a number of videos of children being physically abused in khalwas have been shared on social media platforms. The local media in Sudan has also published some stories of rape, alleging that the sheikhs were the perpetrators. Despite this level of publicity, the Sudanese government and some human rights organizations have ignored the alleged abuse.

After a particularly dangerous experience when Hamdani was chased out of Haj el-Daly khalwa by a sheikh, he took the evidence he had gathered to the Arab Reporters in Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) who put him in contact with BBC News Arabic. Hamdani was assigned a producer, Mamdouh Akbik, and together they planned the logistics and safety of the investigation. In his BBC article about the documentary, Hamdani writes that “the real game changer was when I received the secret recording equipment. It gave me the confidence to continue my work.” Prior to this, Hamdani had been recording the khalwas on his mobile phone.

Throughout his investigation, Fateh Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani witnessed and filmed numerous incidents of abuse. In several of the khalwas, children were chained up and beaten if they could not recite parts of the Koran from memory. In 2018, Hamdani filmed inside the Khalwa al-Khulafaa al-Rashideen, which was run by Sheikh Hussein at the time. Ismail and Mohamed Nader, two students at the school, were imprisoned for five days without food or water. They had been beaten so badly that doctors did not think they would survive. However, after months of surgery and physiotherapy both boys are alive. Mohamed Nader spoke to Hamdani about his experience, stating that he witnessed rape carried out by the sheikhs and some of the older students, as well as routine physical and emotional abuse. Mohamed Nader said that he was struggling with his mental health and that he was too scared to go back to school.

Mohamed Nader’s parents raised a legal case against the perpetrators to try and prevent further child abuse in khalwas. In Sudanese society, sheikhs have held power for many generations and, therefore, legal cases against them can be dangerous, with many being settled outside court. Mohamed Nader’s parents told Hamdani that they had no interest in settling their legal case for money. Their first court appearance was postponed because one of the defendants, a teacher allegedly involved in the abuse, failed to attend the hearing.

Eventually three teachers were charged following the abuse of Mohamed Nader and Ismail but Sheikh Hussein’s trial was postponed a further five times. The Sudanese legal system continues to fail the boys and their families who are entitled to justice. Sheikh Hussein died in a car accident before his trial and all the charges against him were subsequently dropped. However, Khalwa al-Khulafaa al-Rashideen continues to operate as a school under the leadership of Sheikh Hussein’s brother who is allegedly opposed to imprisoning and beating the students.

In 2019, nonviolent protests saw the Sudanese people apply pressure for country-wide reform. After 30 years of oppression, Sudan has a transitional government, led by Dr. Abdalla Hamdok, an economist with experience in public sector reform, governance and peace-building. Sudan still remains in a precarious position as the country continues to deal with fractured political parties as well as armed movements. The transitional government is tasked with putting forward a national agenda and it is imperative that tackling the abuse in the khalwas is a priority.

In the case of Mohamed Nader and Ismail, the legal system failed to convict all of their alleged abusers. Furthermore, the khalwa has been allowed to remain open under the leadership of Sheikh Hussein’s brother. The Sudanese government needs to instigate a country-wide investigation into the abuse in khalwas. The khalwas should remain closed while the investigation is ongoing and the government should provide free education in government-run schools so that children can continue to learn in a safe environment.

In cases of abuse, children are often not listened to and, therefore, the Sudanese government must put children at the centre of its investigation. There is a clear trend in the abuse documented by Hamdani, and his research showed that some of the older students had been manipulated by the sheikhs to become abusers. The Sudanese government should conduct sensitive interviews with all khalwa students, providing them with physical and mental medical assistance throughout the process.

The hierarchy which allows the sheikhs to abuse their religious power must be challenged. This will be not be an easy feat as generations of power have put the sheikhs in an almost untouchable position in Sudan. In her conversation with Hamdani, Mohamed Nader’s mum asked “Must we sacrifice our children just to honour religious men?” However, by changing the khalwas, future generations will be able to respect Islam and to understand the Koran without fear of abuse.

The transitional government must also make changes to the legal system so that people are proportionately punished for abusing  children. Existing cases should be prioritized in order to pursue convictions and achieve justice for those who have been abused.

The case against some of the teachers accused of abusing Mohamed Nader and Ismail has been postponed once more due to coronavirus. This gives the government time to organize a wider investigation into child abuse in Sudanese khalwas. When the case eventually comes to trial, the boys’ statements must be taken seriously and punishment must be applied.