RAFAH - Those living in Rafah have military forces responsible for securing the border at their doorsteps. While this should provide extra protection for the locals, on Sunday, it was the locals who struggled to save the soldiers undergoing a brutal attack.
The failure to prevent an attack on a military checkpoint, carried out by unknown militants, and the slow response of both forces on the ground and officials stand as a staggering demonstration of the ongoing security vacuum in Sinai, Egypt’s strategic eastern gate.
While local media and politicians alike are busy mourning the deceased soldiers, and sounding alarms about the rise of terrorism in the Sinai, there is little attention to the broader failure of the state on the peninsula, locals say.
As they were getting ready to break their Ramadan fast, leaving the watchtower vacant, soldiers at a military checkpoint situated two miles away from the Karam Abu Salem border crossing were attacked by unknown militants who killed 16 soldiers and injured seven others.
Witnesses said the attackers came in three cars, shooting the soldiers and stealing a military tank. The tank headed toward the Israeli border and was destroyed by Israeli aircraft seconds after crossing into its territory.
Those residing near the attack site who rushed to the scene to help the injured soldiers said they had to act on their own, and faced a lack of cooperation from military forces stationed at checkpoints set up every few miles inside Rafah.
Bassam Ouda, who was among the locals who transported the bodies to Rafah Hospital in their personal cars, said the military forces in nearby checkpoints refused to help them.
“We told the officers to come secure us while we got the injured soldiers. They refused, saying that they hadn’t received such orders and couldn’t desert their posts,” Ouda said.
Witnesses said ambulances arrived after locals had already transported most of the bodies and the injured soldiers to Rafah Hospital, and that military forces arrived at the site after the attack had finished and the perpetrators had escaped.
Mohamed al-Moattar, a shop owner who lives near the site, said that members of different tribes were still chasing the attackers on the loose. He said this has always been Sinai’s version of law enforcement, which lacks any reliance on the police.
Slow action on the ground was mirrored by similarly slow reactions on the official level. President Mohamed Morsi only issued standard statements following the attack and failed to show up to the soldiers’ military funeral on Tuesday.
A failing state
Many who witnessed the attack are saddened by the difference between the slow reaction on the Egyptian side and the swift response on the Israeli side, especially with reports in the Israeli paper Haaretz that Israeli officials had warned the Egyptian government of possible attacks. There are reports that Israel evacuated its citizens from the area two days in advance.
Saleh Abu Lefeita, a car dealer and a Rafah community leader, said the government had evacuated some residents on the border 20 days prior to the attack.
Many locals complained this is not the first time military forces have failed to take the necessary action. Locals said the many Rafah checkpoints are only for show, as extremist groups train out in the open and goods smuggled into Gaza through illegal tunnels pass right through the checkpoints.
Last month, two soldiers were shot at another Rafah checkpoint, and in August last year, Israeli forces killed five Egyptian security officers on the border, triggering a temporary diplomatic crisis. In another demonstration of loose security in Sinai, the pipelines delivering gas to Israel have been bombed 15 times in the last year and a half.
Sunday’s attack escalated security fears for Sinai residents. Sawsan al-Ayesh, who lives next to the attack site, left her home and took her children to her mother’s. When the attackers threw what seems to have been a smoke bomb, Ayesh thought her house was going to be blown up with her and her children in it.
“We used to feel safe, with the military around us. Now we’re scared and we can’t go back home. We’re scared that we’ll get blamed for this while we are in the line of fire. These soldiers are family for us,” she said.
The incident has caused renewed calls for the modification of the three-decades-old peace treaty with Israel, which allows Egypt only a limited number of soldiers on the border, with meager arms.
Pillars of security
Locals vehemently denied early reports that the operation was a joint effort between Palestinian factions and Sinai Bedouins, saying that while Bedouins could have been hired by the perpetrators to help them, they couldn’t have been involved in planning the attack.
“People here may get involved in individual acts of violence related to revenge, but this kind of organized operation doesn't happen in this area,” Abu Lefeita said.
The incident has also triggered anti-Palestinian sentiment among Bedouins in Sinai who blame Palestinian factions.
Many witnesses said they recognized the perpetrators’ Palestinian dialect and that they were repeating jihadist chants as they carried out the operation.
Morsi has been criticized for opening up the Rafah crossing, a decision that was reversed following the attack.
Saeed Hamad, an elderly Bedouin whose house is across from the attacked site, cried as he recounted how the locals were unable to come to the rescue of the soldiers after they were shot.
“These are our children that died. This is an Israeli plot, we would be fools to think otherwise,” said Hammad.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.