From Sudan to USI with the Scholars at Risk programme

As often happens during wars and conflicts, the pressure of current events trumps the past: the ongoing civil war, with its tragic news, overshadows the long and rich history of Sudan to which Professor Ahmed Hussein Abdelrahman Adam has dedicated his studies. An associate professor of archaeology at the University of Khartoum, in recent weeks, Adam arrived at UniversitÓ della Svizzera Italiana thanks to the Scholar at Risk (SAR) programme to which USI has been a member since 2016.

Professor Adam speaks passionately about the archaeological sites in Sudan, adding bitterly that many of them are now inaccessible to scholars because they are occupied by the military. And this is despite the importance of studying and appreciating the civilizations of ancient Nubia. "It is a long-debated issue: many of the early archaeologists who studied those sites considered Sudan as a part of Egypt: they wanted to discover extend of Egyptian civilizations, not Sudanese. We realized we were dealing with an independent civilization only after studying major archaeological sites". Professor Adam cites the site of Kerma, which has one of the oldest and highest mud building in Africa and it is discovered by Charlie Bonnet from Geneva in Switzerland: indeed, one of the leading scholars was the archaeologist Charles Bonnet of the University of Geneva as he working in Kerma civilization more than 40 years, the history of Sudan is vibrant: we have very rich civilization starting from the prehistory until the Islamic period, for example, the kingdom of Napata who ruled Egypt during the 25th dynasty era, the empire (kingdom) of Meroe, the Medieval period, Islamic period and then the modern history of Sudan."

Professor Adam’s research interest is not only on cultural heritage and archaeology but also about museums and tourism: he was the head department of archaeology, director of the University of Khartoum museums, director of Training and Teaching Assistants at the University of Khartoum, and he is director of Suakin and the Red Sea Project for Archaeological, Cultural, and Environmental Studies. But all this was interrupted and no longer sustainable because of the war in Sudan.

"My country, Sudan, has been experiencing political upheavals since 2013," Professor Adam explained. The previous 30-year regime was ousted in 2019; the following transitional government faced resistance and obstacles from the former regime and support from the military council. "The result is that the army has effectively seized power, preventing the establishment of a democratic government. I have been very active in the fight for democracy. On 27 December 2018, I chaired the first meeting of the University of Khartoum Staff Initiative at the University Professors House. We issued a statement condemning the violence against peaceful marches and civil protesters (including our students, many of whom were seriously injured). In the same statement, we called for a peaceful transfer of power. As a result, members of the former regime arrested some of my colleagues and tried to arrest me. I was the target of telephone threats, stalked at work while shopping and wherever I went." This constant harassment continued until, in April 2019, Professor Adam left Sudan, going first to Germany and then, on 1 June, to Ethiopia. "When I returned to Khartoum on 30 June, I found out that the peaceful sit-in in front of the General Command of the Sudan Armed Forces had been dispersed on 3 June 2019 and that many people had been killed in Khartoum and other cities in Sudan. As the University of Khartoum is located near the army headquarters, the army stormed and vandalised the university. Living near the university, I walked to work despite the tension in the streets.

Since then, the situation has only worsened. "Tensions culminated in the coup d’Útat of 25 October 2021, which was extremely violent, and the military placed the entire city of Khartoum under a strict curfew. Access to the campus was prevented, and power and telecommunications were continuously cut off. "The atmosphere remains extremely tense.

As a university professor, it is extremely difficult in such a situation to carry out my research and teaching. Opposing corruption and defending truth and justice puts me at risk".

In 2021, "an attempted coup d’Útat by the radical Muslim party that had ruled Sudan for 30 years led to a new revolution, to the hope of transition to a truly democratic government. But the situation remained dangerous". So Professor Adam sought the protection of the Scholars at Risk programme: "I needed a safe place where I could work, where I could write books and articles. I sent in the needed documentation and did several online interviews, with all the difficulties involved: sometimes I had to record my answers and send them when I could find an internet connection". Professor Adam’s request was accepted; all left was finding an institution to host him. ’I was contacted and interviewed by Professor Lorenzo Cantoni, head of the UNESCO chair at USI: we hit it off from the start. There is no archaeology department at UniversitÓ della Svizzera italiana. Still, my research on cultural heritage, museums and tourism fits in perfectly with the work being done at UniversitÓ della Svizzera italiana. So, thanks to the invaluable assistance of USI International Relations and Mobility Service, we processed all the paperwork to allow me to come to Switzerland and continue my research. I would therefore like to thank Professor Lorenzo Cantoni, Silvia De Ascaniis, Maurizia Ruinelli, Sybilla Storer, all the staff and the students and researchers I have met so far for their welcome".