He thought of the children when he went to sleep. The story would occupy his thoughts when he woke up. “It was my daily life. And that’s what kept me going. Because I was thinking of it all the time.”
For two years freelance investigative journalist Fateh Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani worked on a story that exposed how young boys are shackled and abused in khalwas – Islamic schools in Sudan. He went undercover in 23 of these schools.
Al-Hamdani had spent time in a khalwa as a teenager.
He said what he saw during his investigation was much worse than the beatings he had endured as a 14-year-old. “I didn’t expect it to be that brutal. It was like I saw it for the first time. The only familiar thing was that they were studying the Quran.”
Initially, he tried to make secret recordings with his phone, but his cover was blown.
Working with a BBC team gave him access to better equipment and eased his fears about being “prosecuted at any time” if he would be exposed.
Reporting on traumatised children wasn’t easy.
Al-Hamdani says he chose his words carefully and didn’t ask the boys to describe their trauma. “I didn’t make any promises that I could take them out of this place, or I could help them in any way. My goal was just to give them a voice. That’s what I was trying to do.”
The biggest challenge, he said, was that his family members were upset with the documentary.
His parents were worried for his safety and he got kicked out of a family WhatsApp group after the documentary aired in October 2020.
Some saw his work as an attack on Islam.
The investigation got the attention of the Sudanese government, which stopped funding khalwas pending a review, and promised to act against the schools featured in the documentary.
A court case against teachers at one of the schools is ongoing.
Al-Hamdani is pleased that the investigation started a conversation about a taboo topic. “Parents started doing proper research about the khalwas they’re sending their children to and they started talking to their neighbours and other people about the changes that should happen in khalwas.
“And that’s the most important thing – because change happens from society upwards.”
He won the New Voice Award in the 2021 One World Media Awards for this investigation. The awards recognise “the year’s best media coverage of the Global South”.
The documentary also received an Amnesty International UK Media Award, a Royal Television Society Television Journalism Award and has been nominated for a Peabody Award.
There are two versions of the documentary. Sudan Khalwas: Undercover in the schools that chain boys was broadcast on 19 October 2020 and is 16 minutes long. The 48 minutes version is titled The Schools that Chain Boys and has had 314 502 views on YouTube.
Featured image: A screenshot from the documentary.