Rapid Support Forces militiaman outside the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan (2023) | Sudan War Monitor, permission of publisher

Since his books were banned in Sudan in 2011, Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin has been forced to critique war, state violence, and injustice in his country from a distance. Exile has only sharpened his dissent. The title of his latest novel, The Achus Whose Dreams Soared Like a Drone, satirizes the Sudanese paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF), who call themselves the Achawas, “strongmen.” The novel is coming out in Arabic next month; a French translation will follow.

Baraka Sakin, who was born in 1961 in Kassala, Sudan, has gained international recognition for his novels and short fiction depicting war, social life, and sexuality in Sudan. His novels have been translated into English, French, and German, and have been banned in Sudan, Oman, and Kuwait. He has nonetheless won a devoted Sudanese readership—inside the country and in the diaspora.

Baraka Sakin’s writing feels especially precious at a time when Sudan’s cultural heritage is under threat. Since war broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the RSF in April 2023, nine million people have been displaced in Sudan and across Africa. My friends in Sudan have lost their homes, and many have lost their relatives. And the RSF has systematically looted and burned down university campuses, museums, and archives; they have stolen people’s homes, possessions, and memories. I think of a tiny personal loss amidst a year of enormous losses: the guitar I gave to my ex-partner when we broke up. When he sought refuge in his mother’s village in Sudan’s Jazeera region at the start of the war, my ex took the guitar with him. Then the RSF attacked the village, and they fled again, leaving their home and all their belongings. Now the paramilitary group has our guitar, or what remains of it.

How do we make sense of this violence? I asked Baraka Sakin. The following is an abbreviated version of our conversation, which took place on June 4, 2024, while I was in Cairo and he in Paris, where he lives in exile with his wife.

—Anna Simone Reumert

Anna Simone Reumert: Your novel The Messiah of Darfur describes a war that took place in Darfur around 2003–2005. It’s considered a classic among your readers now, but reading it today feels like reading about the present war in Sudan.

Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin: When I wrote that novel, nobody believed that the violence it describes would happen to them. Because what the Janjaweed [the colloquial name for the militia that became the RSF] did in Darfur felt far away to them, living in Khartoum.

Reumert: And now history is repeating itself. What might we learn from that?

Baraka Sakin: This is an old war, and a war that continues. The Janjaweed, who are leading this war, are an old story in Sudan. Their aims throughout have been clear: to change the demography of the country, replacing the Indigenous Africans. But Hemedti [leader of the RSF] has a more simple goal: he wants material wealth.

Reumert: And he is winning in that respect; the RSF are winning the war militarily and economically. But are they also winning hearts? The RSF is using their position as westerners from Darfur to claim that they are marginalized, as if striking a war on the rich. What do you make of this? Does social class play a role in Sudan’s war?

Baraka Sakin: The RSF men are not more marginalized than the rest of Sudan. They are striking terror on our society, raping, looting, destroying our culture and universities. Their recruits are young and uneducated—they don’t understand what it means to be marginalized. They are only thinking of their own benefits. They have no morals. And they cannot be part of Sudan’s future for this reason. Not because they represent any certain tribe but because they represent a certain behavior. They are war machines.

You know, the philosopher Hannah Arendt said that violence is not always intentional or a product of bad will. Violence sometimes occurs because people are unable to think for themselves, it becomes reactive, like a defense mechanism from living in fear.

Reumert: The banality of evil …

Baraka Sakin: The gun has become a type of thinking for the Janjaweed [RSF]. They can’t think of other ways to express themselves.

Reumert: The procession that you describe at the end of The Messiah of Darfur is a striking scene in this regard. All the characters of the novel, representing all aspects of Sudanese society—fighters, mothers, orphans, intellectuals, and the religious—, are marching in union, but the Janjaweed are missing from the picture. Is this your dream image for Sudan?

Baraka Sakin: Yes; the procession is an image of emancipation, redemption, it depicts the Sudanese people moving towards freedom.

Reumert: But do people necessarily need an authority to unite around? It struck me that the same term you use for this prophet’s procession (in Arabic, mawkab) was the term protesters used in the December 2018 revolution, when the Sudanese united around a leaderless movement.

Baraka Sakin: We’ve learned from history that there must be a leader. The demand of the revolution was radical: to demilitarize Sudanese society, which had been under military authoritarian rule for 30 years. They demanded that soldiers return to their camps and the RSF dissolve. But the opposite happened. The transitional government [which took power under a unity agreement in August 2019] centralized the military, bringing Hemedti up front. Sudan needs a leader that is disconnected to this power. The “Messiah” in my novel about Darfur is not connected to any religion, he is a symbol of spirituality. The opposite of political Islam, which has ruled the country for so long.

Reumert: There is a sense that the world has stopped talking about Sudan—the country that birthed a popular revolution that made headlines across the world only five years ago.

Baraka Sakin: The world doesn’t care about Sudan because they think this is a civil war; it is being presented as a war between two generals. But this is not true, this war has international parties who send weapons and money.

Reumert: Are you hoping that your new novel, which depicts this war, will increase awareness about Sudan and the war?

Baraka Sakin: Yes, of course. But I am not only recording history. I have written it in a surrealistic way that draws on our cultural imagination, using traditional storytelling from Sudan.

Reumert: But all the violence you describe, like rape, killing of children, is not imaginary, it is a violence that took place and is taking place. Does writing this have a certain therapeutic quality for you?

Baraka Sakin: Yes; I get rid of my fear when I write. And when I feel fear, I start to write. And I do a lot of research for my novels. Before I wrote Samahani, which depicts the history of slavery in Zanzibar, I read 32 books about this topic. Then I spent the next year forgetting everything I read. Then I started writing.

AR: Why did you need to forget before you could write?

Baraka Sakin: Because you need a distance between fact and imagination. You have to smell the history in a novel, but a novel is not a historiography. It has to contain multitudes and opposites, like the experience of living in heaven and hell at the same time, which was the experience for Africans living in slavery.