In his memoirs on his time in Kober prison, the late Sudanese historian and Marxist Mohammed Saeed Gaddal recalls being alerted by urgent shouts from fellow inmates that a statement from Major Hashim Atta, leader of what would come to be known as the July 1971 communist coup (elsewhere dubbed "corrective movement"), was imminent. Cheers erupted in Kober prison as the radio broadcast that Jaafar Nimeiry had been removed from power, and the historian was released for a brief period. The rest is bitter Sudanese history. Atta along with others in the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) including its general secretary were executed; Nimeiry waged a campaign against the Sudanese left that it has arguably yet to recover from; and the late 1970s witnessed Sudan's increasing dependency on foreign capital as US and Gulf alliances were strengthened, laying the foundations for the economic ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood who would seize power in 1989.
For Gaddal, his release from prison was short-lived. Less than a week later, his name along with those of many of his comrades would be read out on the airwaves as Nimeiry returned to power; these individuals were declared fugitives to be handed over. Fearful of encountering an over-excited vigilante in the street, Gaddal turned himself in to the local police station; others were woken from their sleep in their homes with guns to their heads and escorted to various prisons.
This July marks the fiftieth anniversary of the communist massacres, a cataclysmic event in the history of the Sudanese left that has invited much soul-searching over the years as well as enduring animosity towards those national and international forces that aligned with Nimeiry. And whilst the military barracks, schools, universities, and workplaces are recognized as places whereby political ideologies and strategies were formed and reformed, the years many on the left spent in prison have inspired less appreciation for Sudan's prisons as sites of similar significance. This is particularly notable given the position Kober occupies in Sudanese history as a place that has housed nearly every political leader across the spectrum, from leaders of the White Flag League to Ismael al-Azhari to the recently-deposed Omar al-Bashir.
By the 1970s, various forms of Marxism had "traveled" thoroughly across the continent—often by way of anticolonial nationalism—and the social, political, and economic conditions in each country meant the theories generated and experiences varied locally. In Ethiopia, the Soviet-backed Derg regime would come to power in 1974, overthrowing the monarchy and unleashing waves of violence whilst facing resistance from Ethiopian and Eritrean movements that articulated alternative socialisms. In Egypt, the experiences of communists under Nasser served as a warning to their Sudanese counterparts to maintain their autonomy from the Sudanese Free Officers. In Morocco in July 1971—less than 10 days before Atta's movement—communist officers sought to overthrow King Hassan II, leading to executions and mass arrests in Tazmamart prison. Incarceration was a common experience increasingly captured in memoirs, novels, poems, and illustrations; prisons were also often the medium by which Marxist theory traveled and transmuted.
In this article, I focus on the period immediately following the failed attempt to oust Nimeiry through the experiences of those incarcerated by centering Kober prison—the location where many communists were held—as a key site of the massacre's "aftermath;" a place where prisoners were both haunted by the recently executed and strengthened by the memory of their defiance, as well as through each other as survivors of the anti-communist campaigns. This article emerged from an earlier interest in documenting poems, songs, and writings that emerged from the cracks of prison walls. Social relations featured prominently in memories, shifting my lens to relations of solidarity, fury, gallows humor, and eventually the long shadow of 1971. I returned to old and new conversations in an attempt to explore 1971 beyond the lens of rupture. Drawing primarily on memoirs and discussions with those imprisoned at the time, I approach Kober as a crucial archival site of the Sudanese left—not so much a place to excavate for physical remnants that prisoners left behind, but rather one that houses histories of past resistance within its walls. In doing so, I aim to make a small contribution towards a greater understanding of the experiences of the Sudanese left whose strength and decline is referenced often but rarely engaged with outside Sudan, and their mobilization against a backdrop of catastrophic failure.
Ghosts of Yuliyo
Built under the Wingate administration in 1902 in northern Khartoum, Kober (Cooper) is by no means Sudan's most feared site of detention; that title belongs to the astutely named "ghost houses" established under Bashir, whilst several prisons outside of Khartoum vaunt even more wretched conditions. Rather, Kober's infamy is partly linked to its long history and role as a site of famous executions such as Mahmoud Mohamed Taha in 1985. In the summer of 1971, it would become the location of perhaps the single largest concentration of Sudanese communists in a single space over a prolonged period of time, as escalating confrontations between the SCP and Nimeiry reached their lethal peak.
On 19th July 1971, a group of communist officers moved to remove Nimeiry from office, placing him under "house" (palace) arrest and declaring themselves leaders of a corrective movement. Although the records of the SCP suggest the party's leadership were unaware of the coup until it happened, the SCP nevertheless supported it once it was announced, thereby tying its fate to the coup's outcome. Sadat's ascension in Egypt in 1970 and the 1969 overthrow of the Libyan monarchy which brought Gaddafi to power both occurred shortly after Nimeiry first came to power, shaping the regional response. Egypt immediately sent military reinforcement in support of Nimeiry, whilst Libya threatened to down a plane carrying Sudanese communist officers from London, forcing it to land in Benghazi. Military courts were set up to issue rapid death sentences, and Khartoum became awash with the sound of gunfire and sight of armored tanks throughout the day and night. Within a week, those officials involved in ousting Nimeiry along with countless others had been executed. The leader of the short-lived Revolutionary Council Babiker al-Nur managed to scribble a final message to his wife on the insides of a cigarette box; his parting words read "know that I died with courage."
Many communists either went into hiding, or crossed borders in order to escape the same fate, and wanted posters bearing the faces of leading SCP figures at large were disseminated. Police stations and prisons swelled with detainees, and Kober was almost entirely cleared out of "regular" inmates to house hundreds of the thousands rounded up as part of Nimeiry's counter-coup. Others, particularly leading SCP women, were placed under house arrest or taken to locations such as Omdurman women's prison. In a letter to the Minister of Interior written in 1973, Suad Ibrahim Ahmed—then a member of the SCP's central committee—registers her 785th day of detention without trial, demanding an explanation denied to her and thousands of others. In Kober, the daily and seemingly never-ending glut of new arrivals meant many were forced to sleep in the prison yard as the crowded cells were unable to contain them all.
Testimonies of those first days of incarceration reveal a funereal atmosphere, coupled with a suspicion bordering on paranoia of unfamiliar detainees and broken only by moments of bitter gallows humor. It was in the courtyards of Kober, where leading communists including Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub, Joseph Garang, and Shafie Ahmed Elsheikh had been executed by hanging or firing squad only a few days earlier, and now the prison was full to the brim with anyone suspected to be sympathetic to the communists. The heterogeneous background of those imprisoned partly illustrates the SCP's ability to permeate various sections of society—railway workers, artists, teachers, union leaders, ministers, professors, university students, carpenters, and even school children were all incarcerated—but also how far Nimeiry had cast his net, targeting many on the left regardless of whether they had any knowledge of the coup. Many had no idea why they had been arrested, whilst others were merely accused of looking unperturbed when news of Atta's coup emerged. Accusations that one was a communist were wielded against individuals to address personal vendettas in the knowledge that mere heresy could result in incarceration and, keen to leave no communist unaccounted for, security forces also knocked on doors inquiring about the whereabouts of individuals who had long died.
Attempts were made to transform the prison under the direction of Nimeiry in order to make it more inhospitable and, according to those incarcerated, break them into submission. The quality and quantity of food were deliberately downgraded; regular guards with rifles who had previously guarded the prison walls were replaced by paratroopers who wielded machine guns and joked about opening fire on the communists; detainees were ordered to sleep on the hard floor; reading materials were banned; family visits were prohibited and many who needed medication and medical attention failed to receive it during those early weeks of incarceration. Prisoners, particularly those who had spent time in Kober before, attributed these punitive measures directly to Nimeiry rather than the prison officials, perceiving their incarceration as a continuation of the confrontation with the regime. Their response can perhaps be loosely divided into three overlapping areas: educational and cultural activities, protests against immediate conditions, and attempts to transform the structures of the prison itself and social relations it engendered.
In an attempt to perhaps ward off the ravages of despair, the SCP called on inmates to transform prisons into sites of theoretical knowledge. For a party declared illegal for much of its existence, Sudan's prisons had long been a site of intellectual development and political organisation. The SCP's insistence that Marxist theory must be generated from local realities and not "applied" from afar meant an emphasis on relational pedagogy that would adapt to the persecution its cadres often faced. Educational measures began almost immediately and were swiftly punished; one prisoner caught delivering a lecture received a week in solitary confinement. Prisoners consequently developed new methods for clandestine education—henceforth, all lectures would be presented without documents, prisoners would be separated into smaller circles to avoid arousing suspicion, and they would make the most of the nights when there was less surveillance. The banning of books forced alternative forms of horizontal pedagogy; with no reading materials to draw on, inmates relied on their memories and co-producing knowledge through collective study. Lectures and seminars expanded to include history, philosophy, economics, and agriculture as well as language classes such as English, French, Russian, German, and local Sudanese dialects. Inmates also used seminars to debate and deepen their understanding of the theoretical ideas of other movements, such as the Republican Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood as well as Marxist theory.
Cultural classes included yoga, chess clubs (with chess pieces carved from bread), and sports clubs. A weekly "talking" prison magazine was created as writing tools were initially banned, featuring satirical commentary on political events and internal prison news, with an editorial board established to represent different detainee groups. Mock front-page photos were staged for the magazine, and theatrical plays were produced and enacted for special issues. A prison choir was formed which performed songs against Nimeiry and in commemoration of those executed. Many artists initially sympathetic to the Free Officers sided with the communists in 1971 and were rounded up accordingly; these included the singers Mohammed Wardi (whose songs were consequently taken off the airwaves) and Mohammed Elamin, along with the poet Mahgoub Sharif. Together, these and other inmates would produce a plethora of revolutionary poems and songs in Sudanese vernacular that would be invoked during subsequent periods of political upheaval, most recently as part of Sudan's 2018-19 uprising.
Gaddal also recalls Wardi transforming the beginnings of the Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim's poem "al-khabar al-akhīr ʿan ʿabdel khaliq maḥgūb" into a song, an incidental memory that stands out more sharply today in light of Greg Thomas's work revealing how—at the very same time—Qasim's poems had also traveled to George Jackson's cell in California (and traveled "back" out as Jackson's poem). Read alongside this connection, the anecdote illuminates another link in the constellation of how poetic resistance crossed continents, bypassing borders and cages whilst generating new meaning in this process of travel and metamorphoses. These links also probe prevailing notions of Black-Arab connections that tend to neglect Black people in the East or see the two as spatially distinct, opening up ways of exploring divisions as much as solidarities in the South. Wardi never completed the song, and his rendition only exists in the memories of his fellow prisoners, having been birthed and buried in Kober.
As with lectures, many of these seemingly harmless activities did not go unpunished, illustrating how the authorities viewed them as a form of resistance. Many inmates saw transfers as a way of breaking bonds between them, with the relocation of Sharif to Shala prison in Darfur intended to separate him from Wardi in response to their artistic collaboration. In reality, then, there was substantial overlap between those activities I try to categorize in the next section as direct confrontation and those that inmates deemed self-educational or cultural activities, with the latter punished in a similar way by prison officials. In turn, these punitive approaches engendered a more directly confrontational approach from prisoners.
Political Organization and Confrontation
Committees were formed in order to organize prisoners by ward and a practice referred to as the "commune" ("al-kumyūn") was implemented. Items such as cigarettes, food, and other perishables brought in by relatives of detainees would be pooled together and distributed equitably amongst them due to the recognized inequalities that existed amongst prisoners. Such a practice was not unique to Sudan nor the communists; similar systems were widespread not only in other prisons in Sudan but also by detainees in various countries, though in Kober this was explicitly seen as putting socialist rhetoric into practice. Not everyone participated in the commune system, however; some of the more affluent opted out with one group earning the nickname "Kuwait" for their stark abundance in the desert, whilst others participated in various degrees—one inmate attempted to hide chicken from his family to eat alone, only to have the prison's stray cats reach it first.
We also see how Kober served as a microcosm of broader struggles through Nimeiry's visit on 18 August 1971, less than a month after the massacres. Guarded by soldiers and paratroopers armed with machine guns, the president stood before rows of those communists and suspected communists who had survived his bloodbath. In anticipation that no one would raise their head, thereby symbolizing his decisive victory over the SCP, Nimeiry asked that any communists identify themselves. Prior to his visit, it was agreed through the representative prison committee that members of the SCP's central committee would admit to being communists—one former detainee recalls his friend and fellow schoolboy absentmindedly standing up in response to Nimeiry asking for communists to stand, before being quickly yanked back down by other inmates sitting next to him. The willingness of the central committee to still declare themselves communists were seen as the first act of defiance to Nimeiry and led to them being taken to cells for interrogation; the second came from detainees not part of the central committee—some had long ceased to be members of the SCP—who nonetheless chose to deviate from the agreed position and walked out after them to symbolize their opposition to Nimeiry; the third was the refusal by these inmates to respond to Nimeiry's questioning, earning them each two weeks in solitary confinement on his orders. Although brief, the decision to visit Kober nevertheless shows how Nimeiry initially perceived it as a site symbolizing his destruction of the SCP, and the reception he received illustrates how prisoners refused this characterization, marking it as a space of continued political confrontation.
This incident was one of many attempts to display the regime's power over prisoners; another example can be seen in elections. Political prisoners were denied the vote—a denial attributed to the way the communists would invariably skew the results against Nimeiry. In his writings on Ibrahim El-Salahi's prison illustrations, Salah M Hassan highlights how prisons at the time imposed spatial (though porous in practice) segregation between "conventional" and political prisoners, with the former afforded legal rights not extended to the latter. Definitions of prisoner groups also shifted with political winds as governments continuously redefined the figure of the "enemy" or "deviant;" the countless women who brewed beer and defied public order laws are yesterday's "conventional" prisoners and today's political prisoners. In presidential elections, Nimeiry was the only option on the ballot, and prisoners could either vote "yes" (in support) or "no." Khalil Elias recalls a "regular" prisoner informing the communists that he had voted for Nimeiry, despite his visceral criticisms of the president. When asked why, he explained that the two ballot boxes were kept far apart, and in order to vote "no" one would have to walk across the room in full view of the guards, thereby making his vote clear. The absurdity of this farce, reflecting the way fraud became increasingly brazen as it filtered down to the scale of prisons, was such that they could only laugh in response.
Despite their dire carceral conditions, prisoners were determined to improve their situation through collective action. The biggest improvements undeniably came from hunger strikes. Long a preferred method of resistance by political prisoners around the world, hunger strikes have often been adopted as a way of protesting prison conditions and imprisonment itself. In late 1971, the SCP initiated and coordinated a hunger strike in multiple detention sites across the country simultaneously, including in Khartoum, Darfur, Port Sudan, and Kordofan, to the surprise of both the guards and government. In prisons that housed detainees from multiple political parties, these strikes were instigated by groups of communists who, for all intents and purposes, functioned as branches of the SCP in prison. Although prisoners had attempted hunger strikes before—a strike by one cohort sent to solitary confinement ended with them being taken to the hospital—this strike was different for its high levels of participation and ability to cut across spatial divides. Communists on the outside informed the relatives of detainees (including those abroad) who supported the strike and worked to ensure it made the news. Mobilization from outside the prison publicized the strike, placing additional pressure on both the prison guards and the government. The anti-communist campaigns had sought to remove them from the streets and public memory; these strikes served to challenge this erasure.
Amongst inmates, the strike is recalled with pride for both the discipline communists (many of whom were already suffering from malnutrition) showed and as a reflection of their organizational capacities as guards across prisons were astounded by their synchronization. The success of the strike was almost immediate: it not only led to improved conditions—books and family visits were permitted, the pool of "commune" resources swelled with better food and medicine, cultural and sports clubs were no longer prohibited—but also recognition of the communist leadership as speaking on behalf of detainees by prison guards. The final negotiated deal was presented by committee representatives to the rest of the detainees, who voted in favor of accepting it and ending the hunger strike. As well as material gains, the strike served to strengthen the sense of solidarity and consciousness amongst inmates as political actors challenging the regime's domination across multiple scales and reinforced the relationship between those in Kober and their comrades elsewhere. Strikes would continue in the future and yield continued success, including the development of new prison regulations co-produced with detainees. Many organizational ideas were therefore put into practice on a micro-scale; committees became recognized representatives of detainees who would negotiate conditions with prison officials and draw up educational and entertainment programs. The anniversary of Sudan's 1964 October revolution in which the SCP and unions played a key role was marked as a day for celebration with exhibitions, seminars, and music. Prisoners reconstructed the spirit of October through slogans and cardboard signs, mingling the hope of the 1964 uprising with the sorrow of July 1971. A symbolic coffin was carried across Kober commemorating those martyred, and amongst former prisoners, the event is often recalled as one of mourning and catharsis as well as celebration and defiance.
The liberation of prisoners—be it through the storming of prisons or occupations and protests outside of places of detention—has been a recurrent feature of uprisings around the world. Whether this comes at the hands of the masses or a desperate ruler keen to placate those demanding his fall is immaterial to the fact that, during moments of revolutionary upheaval, prisons that are too often in the background become visible sites of contention and symbols of a dying order. In 1985, as part of what would come to be known as Sudan's April intifada, protestors marched to Kober prison to release inmates; one protestor recalls her group opening cell by cell in search of comrades. This last cohort of the 1971 prisoners to be released would include Mahgoub Sharif, whose multiple spells in various prisons over the years produced revolutionary anthems that traveled across prisons and into the streets that were now ablaze.
Few emerged unscathed by their experience, including those spared from the gallows and scars of torture. Some left with lifelong prison-induced illness, for others the financial and emotional toll of periods of incarceration left their families destitute and tore marriages apart. Whilst incarceration produced new lifelong bonds, it also destroyed old ones. Although thousands were released over the years, many continued to experience heightened surveillance and harassment leading to cycles of arrest, whilst others who evaded capture in 1971 would be imprisoned in later years. The former Executive Officer of the militant railway workers union Qasim Amin was first captured in 1974 and became paralyzed in Kober, dying shortly after being released for medical reasons. For as long as Nimeiry remained in office, prisons would continue to swallow up communists, and it would take an uprising to liberate them all.
By all measures, the scale of defeat the Sudanese left experienced fifty years ago can hardly be overstated. The goal of the SCP was to overthrow the old order and transform society; to bring about a proletarian revolution that many of its members believed and argued could not be imposed from above by the generals, whether Free Officers or communists. Nimeiry's brutal response and subsequent shift rightwards—influenced by wider international factors as well as ideological shifts—brought about economic transformations that undermined the traditional bourgeoisie but, rather than empowering forces of the left, now empowered those the SCP referred to as the parasitic bourgeoisie who found a home in the Muslim Brotherhood.
In tracing the aftermath of July 1971 in an attempt to provide snapshots of an alternative vantage point, my intention, therefore, is not to downplay the scale of damage inflicted. Yet the narration of 1971 as marking the destruction of the communist movement in Sudan has too often left little room for exploring experiences of survivors as part of this same political history; these are often situated as marginal to the broader history of the Nimeiry era and confined to the category of personal memories. Many have (correctly) highlighted how the left was in retreat and diminished due to its cadres being imprisoned, exiled, or in hiding, without necessarily following the immediate experiences of those "hidden" or exiled. Part of this is undoubtedly due to deeply hostile conditions as attempts to rebuild after Nimeiry were interrupted by the 1989 coup that unleashed immeasurable violence unevenly across what became two nations; "disappearing" became an act of survival.
Recognizing that the dispersal of communists requires us to adjust our spatial focus in order to understand how they sought to overcome this fragmentation, these memoirs, melodies, and interviews shed light on their everyday experiences and how they envisaged prisons as another site of political practice and theoretical inquiry. Kober was a colonial production, and the memories formed within its walls tell histories of Sudanese nationalism, anti-colonialism, Marxism, and political Islam that, perhaps paradoxically, serve as the dark underbelly to official colonial and postcolonial archives. Through these memories, shadows also emerge of prisoners who appear in the "peripheral vision" of those who narrate; a momentary mention of fleeting ghosts, fragments of familiar individuals that are never quite enough to permit a reconstruction of their story, but nevertheless remind us of these un(der)told histories. Kober is but one location and the experiences of those confined across Sudan—particularly under house arrest and women's prisons—along with those forced into exile can tell us another story of the Sudanese left. As calls are made by survivors to turn ghost houses into museums, the question of what happens to Sudan's "official" detention sites remains in the margins of public debate. The way in which inmates have historically re-imagined Sudan's prisons—as sites of revolutionary pedagogy, creativity, and camaraderie—can help force questions about what to replace them with at a time when, around the world, calls to build a world without prisons appear all the more urgent.
 Gaddal, M.S. 1998. Kober: zikriyat muʿtaqil fi sijun al-sudan. Cairo: al-Sharikah al-ʿalamiyyah li al-tibaʿah wa al-nashr.
 With thanks to the Jadaliyya editor who flagged the Moroccan experience.
 Interviews took place between 2020-2021, primarily in Sudan and the UK, though these interviews also revisited previous discussions about incarceration over the years in order to center 1971.
 As early as 1963, the then-leader of the Sudan African National Union William Deng ranked Sudanese prisons into three categories; the third and "worst" for "serious" political offenses which included Juba, Yei, and Kajo-Keji prisons in now-South Sudan where he argued southern Sudanese prisoners were executed.
 In his poem about 1971, the Egyptian communist Zaki Murad relates these events to a "demonic" alliance over "al-ard al-samra." Given the fluidity of the term "samra," whether Murad as a Nubian-Egyptian is referring to the "darker" world or Sudan specifically is unclear; what he does capture is a sense of foreboding that echoes broader developments over this decade. See Murad, Z. 1971. Khowateer 19 Yuliyo, published in Al-Akhbar and reprinted in Bob, A., 2012.
 Message in cigarette box from Babiker al-Nur, 1971. Copy of full text available in Bob, A,, 2012. Yuliyo. Idaʿat wa-wathaʿiq. Khartoum: Markaz Abdel-Karim Mirghani al-Thaqafi.
 Ibrahim, S.A. 1973. Letter to the Minister of Interior. Copy also available in hizb al-shuyuʿi al-sudani archives at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.
 Interview with former prisoner and SCP member, 2021.
 Elias, K. 2008. Kober-Hagen: wa al-zikriyat fi sijun jaʿfar nimeiry. Khartoum: al-Sharikah al-ʿalamiyyah li al-tibaʿah wa al-nashr.
 Interview with a former prisoner and member of the SCP, 2020.
 Gaddal, M.S. Zikriyat.
 Salih, M.A, 1986. Yomiyat mo'taqil siyasi. Khartoum: al-Najm al-fiddi.
Kaballo, S., 2010. Zikriyat mo'taqal siyasi fi sijun nimeiry. Dar ʿazza lil-nashr wa al-tawzeeʿ.
Salih, M.A. Yomiyat.
Kaballo, S. Zikriyat.
Gaddal, M.S. Zikriyat. For the full poem see al-Qasim, S. 1993. al-Aʿmal al-kamla. Kuwait: Dar Suad al-Sabah.
In his unwillingness to part with his cigarettes, Gaddal sardonically lamented the inmates hurry to implement an "ugly socialism," later joking that it was in this moment he realized there was a disconnect between his theory and practice.
Elias, K. Kober-Hagen.
Interview with a former prisoner and SCP member, 2021.
Gaddal, M.S. Zikriyat
Elias, K. Kober-Hagen.
Salih, M.A. Yomiyat.
Gaddal, M.S. Zikriyat.
 Elias, K. Kober-Hagen.
Interview with SCP member, 2020.
Abdel Qadir al-Rifaʿi, 2012. al-Munadil Qasim Amin. Omdurman: Markaz Abdel-Karim Mirghani al-Thaqafi.