- Fateh Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani
- BBC Arab Service
When I met Ahmed, he was in a room alone and in chains. His body was scarred by the beatings they had given him. You don’t know how old he is, but he’s probably 10.
The school I found him in is one of 23 Islamic institutions in Sudan, known as khalwas, that I covertly filmed over a period of two years, beginning in early 2018.
I witnessed and filmed many children, some as young as 5 years old, being severely beaten, routinely chained, and held without food or water by the sheikhs, or religious men, running the schools.
Some of the children who did not appear in our documentary told me that they had been raped or subjected to other forms of sexual abuse.
There are about 30,000 Khalwas across the country, according to data from the Sudanese government. They receive money from the government and private donors both in Sudan and around the world.
Children are taught to memorize the Quran. Because they don’t charge anything, families consider them an alternative to traditional educationespecially in remote villages where there are no government-run schools. Students are interns and only return home during the holidays.
For many, these schools that have operated for generations are central elements of Sudanese culture and are seen as part of the national identity.
However, in recent years, videos of beaten children have been widely shared on social media and stories have been published in local media about sheikhs accused of rape in the khalwas.
The media, the government and even human rights organizations have the complaints ignored.
I wanted to reveal how widespread abuse is and give a voice to these children who do not have the opportunity to share their stories.
Even I had my own experiences. As a teenager, I attended a khalwa. Every day was an ordeal to try to avoid receiving a beating from the teachers.
I knew I would fight with friends and family over this investigation, but the story had to be told. Along the way some of the people I interviewed accuse meOn of being part of a “western plot to attack religious education.”
When I contacted the BBC, I had already been covertly filming for several months on my own. One of the first khalwas I visited was called Haj el-Daly, where they told me that abuses had been perpetrated.
I walked into the school mosque with everyone else during the noon prayers and filmed secretly with my telephone.
As I knelt, I heard a metallic sound. My heart stopped. I looked up and in front of me I saw that the children had shackles on their legs. They were chained like animals.
With the prayers over, the children shuffled out. But when I was leaving, I heard violent screams and suppressed crying.
The sounds led me to a dimly lit study room, where I found a child crying quietly, with their legs chained together. I started secretly filming what I saw.
This was Ahmed. He told me he wanted to go home. I tried to reassure him, but I could hear the voices of the sheikhs approaching, so I stopped filming and left the khalwa.
The investigative work of journalist Fateh Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani with the Arab Service of the BBC produced a documentary on the systematic abuse of children in Islamic schools in Sudan, a separate one of which you can watch here.
But I came back the next day so I could reveal more of what was going on there.
When I was filming with my phone, I noticed an older student looking at me. He left suddenly and returned a little later with the sheikh in charge of the school.
The sheikh yelled at me, wondering why I was filming the students. I managed to quickly get out the door and onto the street.
The Haj el-Daly administration told the BBC thereafter that there is a new sheik in charge of the school and that the beatings and chaining have stopped.
Memories of my own khalwa
I returned home disturbed. If the confrontation with the sheikh had escalated, no one would know where he would be.
But I was also traumatized by what I saw. It brought back memories of my own time as a Khalwa as a teenager, where beatings were common, although no one was shackled.
I was so eagerly anticipating my first day on that khalwa when I was 14 years old. I tried on my jalabiya – the traditional dress – and waited impatiently for the morning.
But very soon I realized that something was wrong. I noticed that the other children seemed frightened by the sheiks and the teachers.
The abuse started in the evening sessions. If we were sleepy or closed our eyes, the sheikh would whip us. That really woke you up.
I stayed in the khalwa for about a month, enduring many beatings. When I returned home, I told my parents that I did not want to go back, although I could not confess to the abuse I had suffered. They weren’t happy with me interrupting my studies, but they did not force me to return.
After the altercation with the sheikh in charge of Haj el-Daly, I had a hard time regaining my confidence and continuing to film in the khalwas.
I took my evidence to the Arab Investigative Journalism Reporters (ARIJ) group, who put me in touch with the BBC’s Arab Service. From then on, everything changed.
My editor in London assigned me a producer, Mamdouh Akbik. He is Syrian and I am Sudanese, and although we both speak Arabic, our dialects are very different. But it wasn’t long before we worked together really well.
We planned which khalwas we would investigate, collected evidence, and discussed security and logistics. But the turning point was when I received covert recording equipment. That gave me confidence to continue my work.
Sudan is a vast country, encompassing mountains, the Red Sea, and wide deserts. During the investigation, I must have crossed more than 4,500 kilometers of the territory, almost all by bus.
I met families whose children had been badly treated. In some cases they had died while in hospital and it was difficult to establish the cause of their deaths.
Sheikhs have so much power and influence in their communities that families rarely report them. The cases that make it to court take so long that families give up. Or they end up accepting some kind of compensation.
The tough legal battle against the sheikhs for families seen in our documentary is the exception, not the rule. Many families sincerely believe that sheikhs want the best for their students and if “mistakes” are made, it is God’s will.
My own family shares these beliefs and I had to keep my research secret. That turned out to be particularly difficult when I visited a Khalwa in our town, North Dafur, where many of my relatives still live.
After the documentary was released, I was kicked out of a WhatsApp family group. I thought they would at least want to ask me questions or argue with me; instead they treated me like a stranger.
But I did get calls from my parents, who said they would support me, even though they were concerned for my safety. I was relieved that my family was so understanding.
The reaction to the documentary
The documentary has had a great impact in Sudan. The families at the center of our research have been inundated with offers of financial, legal, and emotional support from people in their local communities and around the world.
There has been an outcry on social media, with called to close the khalwaswhile others say our documentary is an attack on Islam and accuse the BBC of anti-Islamic propaganda.
But there is one powerful voice that has shone through its slow response: Sudan’s transitional government, which for the past year has been talking about reforming the khalwas.
On our tape, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Nasreddine Mufreh, stated that there would be no more “beatings, torture, violation of human rights or children’s rights of any kind.”
Following the release of the documentary, the Sudanese government said it would open proceedings against all the schools in which the BBC filmed.
They also issued a law prohibiting the beating of children in educational institutions and cut off funding for the Khalwas while doing a review of schools.
Some of those processes are signs that Sudan is grappling with the ghosts of its recent past, but the presence of thousands of chained and abused children in Khalwas continues to create problems for the country.
That the government takes action will be a test of its willingness to challenge the powerful religious institutions in Sudan.
Some names have been changed.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.