April 11, 2015
KAFR AL-SHEIKH — Sheikh Hamada sits by the lake to eat his lunch and remembers times gone by. "In the old days, the water was so clear," he recalls. "You could throw something in there and see it under the water. Now it's awful."
Lake Burullus lies in the northern Egyptian Delta, in the province of Kafr al-Sheikh, which is connected to the Nile through the Brembal Canal and to the Mediterranean through the Bughaz of Lake Burullus. At 420 square kilometers, it's the second largest of the country's natural lakes and produces a third of all fish sold in Egypt.
Around 240,000 fishermen work on the lake, most having inherited the profession from their ancestors. But the trade is no longer being easily passed on through generations.
Hajj Ali comes into the modest coffee shop near the lake and exchanges quick greetings with his acquaintances. He doesn't know exactly how old he is, but he knows he's over 90. As he sips his tea, he recounts the old days. "This coffee shop and this entire street were part of the lake," he says. "Where it narrowed, there were once farms and houses on it."
He remembers working with his father on the lake as a child, and recalls the days when he would throw his net in and pull it out the next day full of fish. He hasn't fished on the lake in decades because of his old age, but neither have his sons and grandsons, who inherited the profession. Some have taken to fishing in the sea, and others have traveled overseas.
Fishing on Lake Burullus — Photo: Fathi.hawas
One of Ali's sons drowned while attempting to leave the country illegally. He left behind four grandsons who Ali raises with his granddaughters from another daughter who also died.
Over the last 20 years, the lake has suffered from multiple forms of pollution, exacerbated by the control of big fisheries and lack of oversight.
Small-scale fishermen suffer from the mafia-run larger-scale fisheries, and motorboats that violate the fishing code, which contribute to pollution and the lake's ruination.
"I have been away for eight years," Hamada says, adding that making a living from the lake is no longer possible for him. "I travel to Saudi Arabia because the lake is not the same as it once was." He suggests that the root of the problem is the basins, which direct water away from the lake to nearby fisheries.
Hamada regrets seeing the lake he fished since childhood deteriorate, to the extent that if he casts his net, he may lose it or find it torn. He explains this is no accident. "Thieves of the fisheries," as they are called locally, tear the nets to send a message that the area is under their authority.
The mafia, who shoot if you get too close, dominate a group of islands on Lake Burullus that are good for fishing, Hamada says. They established large tanks to catch fish in bulk, without concern for the ecosystem and leaving nothing for the small-scale fishermen.
"Moving along the road to Kafr al-Sheikh and then Edko, you pass by so many basins," Hamada says, adding that former Kafr al-Sheikh Governor Zaky Abdeen set up fisheries in Yadd Bahary on the road to Alexandria and sold them to the largest traders.
Hamada is not the only one angry at the mafia" domination and the increasing presence of fish farms on the lake.
Stagnation exacerbates pollution
Saad Abd al-Aziz was a fisherman years ago, but he stopped working after his nets were stolen by the fishery thieves a number of times. He simply couldn't afford to keep replacing his nets. "We don't eat from the fisheries, even if their fish costs us a pound," he says, explaining that the fish are contaminated from pollution and have caused several people to get sick.
Abd al-Aziz says the lake is polluted as a result of stagnation, because the water doesn't reach it anymore. There used to be openings between the islands through which water circulated, he explains. The lake had 10 of these openings, but the fishermen who have taken control of them illegally and set up farms have obstructed them all.
The Water Surface Police aren't much help, he says. They only work from 6 a.m. to 6 pm. Violations often start as soon as the police end their working day, and they refuse to listen to requests by local fishermen to extend their hours.
Besides stagnation, there is the issue of sewage drainage. The sewage drainage center is a well-known site in the city of Borg el-Borolos. If you ask any of its inhabitants for directions, they always give them in relation to the sewage center.
In addition to sewage drainage, the lake also suffers from artificial drainage from a center in the Kotnsher that is full of chemical and industrial waste from factories in Mahalla and Kafr al-Zayat.
Near the coffee shop, Abdallah Shams works as a driver, transporting passengers in a small pickup truck. "Drainage from the fisheries is the main reason for the loss of hope in the lake," he says. "In the old days there were so many different kinds of fish. Now you only have two, Bolti and Tubar."
Vice President of Balteem's City Council, Essam al-Tobgy, sits behind a modest desk, on which there is a calendar that hasn't been changed in months. "All of these problems that newspapers are writing about existed four years ago," he says. "There is no pollution in the lake now."
Former Kafr al-Sheikhn Governor Mohamed Ezzat Agwa has made several visits to make announcements that the lake is clean. This is in stark contrast to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs' 2013 annual report, which detailed increasing levels of pollution in the lake.
There was also a marked decrease in the number of phytoplankton, which is the main source of nutrition for organisms in the lake. The pollution has also affected plant diversity, according to the report.
One step forward, two steps back
Major Shaker al-Balasy, the only person in the Office of Water Surfaces in Baltim, says that a recent campaign targeted fisheries and motorboat violations. The campaign, which started in March, has resulted in the return of about 25,000 acres where there had been encroachment. They have since become areas for free fishing. There remain around 35,000 acres still under encroachment at the northern end of the lake.
But the campaign also has its victims.
Eid Hassab al-Naby, the owner of a motorboat that was among 70 confiscated by the authorities, stands alone on one side of the lake. "They took my boat from me," he says. "I want my voice to reach the government. The lake is only for the big shots. But those who are weak can barely even live."
He finds it hypocritical that the government seizes small motorboats critical to the livelihood of families while doing "nothing about the big motorboats that belong to the traders and the mafia of the fisheries we reported."
Naby, who has worked on the lake for 30 years, dropped out of preparatory school to work with his father. He now works for a daily wage, like many of those whose boats have been confiscated. He says he tried to talk to the governor, but they won't let him in. "Security dismisses me at the door, even though the governor tells the media that his office is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.," he says.
He had to sell his wife's gold jewelry to buy new fishing nets. He says the head fisherman colluded with security to confiscate the boats, suggesting he's affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and was trying to create problems for Sisi. But he explains that the fishermen are patriotic and have not paid any attention to this conspiracy.
The Burullus nature reserve was established in 1988 by presidential decree, and an environmental affairs program was established to monitor it. The contact for the program on the website is out of service, as is the office listed in the city of Baltim, which hasn't been opened for months. The large building is completely closed at 10 a.m. Not a single employee is present, and stagnant water surrounds it.
The town's inhabitants know most of those working on the program, but when you ask them about it, they say, "A center for environmental affairs? There is no such thing. There is no environment here anymore."
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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