Egyptian Terror: Fear And Loathing Across The Sinai

The Egyptian regime and Islamic militants kill civilians every day. If they are killed by the militants, then they are victims of terrorism, and if they are killed by the military, they become terrorists.

Keeping watch in the Sinai near the Rafah crossing
Keeping watch in the Sinai near the Rafah crossing

In the city, you pray everyday not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was waiting for my neighbor in a small almond farm between our houses when the moment arrived. I was lying down on a soft sandy spot by one of the trees for half an hour on a breezy fall day, when I realized that he wasn't going to show up. So I ecided to go back home.

As I stood up to get going, the sound of gunshots rang through the air, and I heard a voice shouting, “Freeze, motherfucker! Freeze!”

The sounds and voices were getting closer and closer to the farm, and I could only turn my head right and left in shock trying to find out who was asked to freeze.

Four soldiers appeared in the little farm as I squatted by the tree. I raised my hands up waiting for them to see me, preparing myself for the worst.

Three of them stood in a row and started shooting randomly in the air. The fourth was clearly confused as to why his colleagues were shooting, or what they were shooting at, but he joined them anyway, shooting lower and closer to me.

I threw myself on the ground and decided not to say a word, thinking that if they saw me, they would either shoot me or arrest me.

Six other soldiers joined, asking the first group what happened, but no one heard them because of the heavy gunfire. Eventually, one soldier replied that someone shot at them and ran in my direction.

My entire body froze hearing that. I was lying on the ground under the whistle of bullets for 40 minutes, which felt like 40 years. The thought dominating my head at that point was that my name would end up in a headline announcing the killing of another terrorist by our valiant forces, with proud praise and cheering.

Luckily, nobody saw me that day. The suspect was also not found. Eventually, the shooting stopped and I made it back to my house.

A few hours later, a headline in a national newspaper read: “An armed attack on a checkpoint in the city. Our troops dealt with the attackers.”

Two years later, I still have no clue what that was all about. But my stomach is still in knots. Therapists, psychiatrists, yoga, exercise and meditation would only temporarily soothe the internal unrest. The anger, pain, bitterness and stress would return with every single bullet that I hear, and that's what the city's soundscape consists of nowadays.

It wasn't always this way

This city once flourished â€" it was calm, laid back and peaceful, despite the tight security. Most of its residents worked in agriculture, at the border crossing or in the government, occasionally paying visits to the beach and chatting the night away around the fire. Both of these favorite pastimes are growing to be a distant memory, given the 7 pm curfew and a shoreline that has been off-limits to civilians for over two years.

In 2007, the city entered a new era of vibrancy following a siege on Gaza with the Hamas takeover. A few months following the siege, Gazans tore down the wall that separated the Strip and Egypt. Everything changed: people, land, politics and even the weather.

It was like some sort of a dream. You get a phone call saying that the wall had been torn down and you can actually go and visit Gaza. Despite its proximity, Gaza had been largely off-limits for people on the Egyptian side of the border, just as Egypt was for Palestinians, save for some exceptions.

But that dream ended a week later when almost everyone crossed back to their side, loaded with all kinds of goods from the other land.

The big event left everyone wondering: Was this real? How did it happen? People predicted that Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak allowed this to happen as informal support to Gazans following the Israeli siege. Whatever it was, it would never happen again, we thought. The borders were closed. And what came after was only chaos.

The tunnels came in reaction to the impossibility of crossing. Within two years, there were more than 2,000 tunnels around. Anything you could or couldn't think of was coming and going through the tunnels. There were more outgoing goods than incoming ones. And while the tunnels served as a survival mechanism for the city's betrayed economy, they also became the city's curse.

With the January 2011 revolution and the ensuing security void, the city became almost stateless. It was a self-governed space until 2013, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister, asked Egyptians to give him a mandate to fight terrorism following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. The military announced the start of an ongoing operation in North Sinai aimed at eradicating terrorism. The city was claimed as a target, with the tunnels seen as the main vehicle for supplying militants and arms.

Change, again

The government imposed a curfew at sunset for almost two years. Main roads were closed, with the nastiest of checkpoints deployed in the few streets that remained open.

Moving between Arish and Rafah, once a 35-minute trip, now takes up to three or four hours. You spend them stuck at checkpoints waiting for a military convoy to pass, which could take hours, and driving around the blocked parts of the road.

The government blocked two of the three main cellular networks in the city, saying that terrorists use them often. The remaining one is dead for most of the day.

The everyday nuisances aside, frightening raids on the residential parts of the city have also become part of that tumultuous everyday. The raids can happen at any time of the day or night.

Ahmed*, 22, didn't operate a tunnel himself, but just stored goods, like cartons of cigarettes, for others. For over a month, troops raided his house on a daily basis, insulting his family in the process.

Ahmed was never caught until an officer in the last raid came with dynamite in his Jeep, threatening Ahmed's father that he would bomb the house if Ahmed didn’t turn himself in within 24 hours. On their way out, the troops arrested Ahmed's two young brothers. They were detained and tortured until their brother turned himself in a day later. No one knows of his whereabouts to this day.

In October 2014, militants killed 33 soldiers 12 kilometers from the border with Gaza. The government claimed that all the weapons used in the attack came from Gaza, and in response, developed a new tactic that would eradicate the whole city.

The new tactic consisted of creating a buffer zone that would forcibly displace tens of thousands of the city's residents, and bury the entire city under the ground for having the geographic misfortune of being in a sensitive area.

Laila*, in her 20s, had to watch her neighbor’s house being demolished as part of the buffer zone plan. An officer supervising the demolition process accused her of distributing sweets when terrorists killed soldiers, and immediately labeled her a traitor.

Laila told him that it was only reasonable for civilians to hate officers and wish them all dead when they demolish their residences, and arrest and kill their people. Offended, the officer and his team decided to demolish her house as well. Not a single thing was allowed out of the house before it was flattened to the ground. Because the house was demolished informally, Laila didn't receive the compensation allocated for those who lost their properties in the buffer zone.

Laila moved into another flat in the city, in a compound developed by the government. One soldier spotted her while Laila was searching for her new neighbor's house, and went to inform the same officer who had an altercation with her of her whereabouts. By the time the soldier and the officer went to her house, she was gone. Insulted by her fleeing, the officer and his team decided to figure out her location by arresting and torturing her neighbor's son for a few hours until he finally gave in and disclosed her whereabouts. They went to the new place, broke in, threw everything out of the window and left, just like that.

Salah Salem was a young man in his late 20s with a mental disability. He was walking home when he was stopped by one of the military checkpoints. They asked him for his ID, which he didn't have. He told them he was “with the intelligence,” as he used to buy bread for the Rafah intelligence office every morning.

They detained him at the checkpoint and resumed checking other cars and people. He decided he would walk away while the officers were busy with other cars. They asked him to stop twice, witnesses say, but he didn't respond. He was shot twice in the back and died on the spot.

Along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Photo: Wilson44691

The security forces wouldn’t allow anyone to help him, and said that the ambulance was on its way. The ambulance showed up half an hour later. Salah became “a terrorist who broke through a checkpoint and was dealt with by our brave soldiers,” a headline read in a national newspaper the next day.

In order to obtain his body and bury it, Salah's family was forced to state that the reason for his death was a bullet from an unknown source. Not only did Salah die senselessly, he has also died as a terrorist in the eyes of most people.

Civilians are the only losers

The leaders of the Province of Sinai â€" the peninsula's major militant group, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdes â€" are mostly people who were freed from prison in 2011 and 2012 by their very same enemy today: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which temporarily ran the country in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. They reorganized and declared war on the military. With the group growing bigger, they swore allegiance to the Islamic State and rebranded themselves the Province of Sinai.

The number of troops and ammunition increased, as did the number of militants. The crackdown intensified, and so did the militant group’s operations against the troops. They both announced their victories. They both amassed gains from the battlefield. Through them, the state has managed to deploy draconian measures, and through the state's indiscriminate crackdown, the militants are gaining more support.

In the middle, residents remain the only losers.

Death has become the cheap currency of the city. Citizens are killed by both sides everyday. If they are killed by the militants, then they are victims of terrorism, and if they are killed by the military, they become terrorists.

In calling the city's innocent dwellers terrorists, the military has played on the long-standing racism against the area, often cited as the reason for its miseries.

The level of the troop's brainwashing against the city's people has made military members believe that everyone who isn't part of the army is automatically against them. But killing innocent people and calling them terrorists in a dirty propaganda campaign will not work forever.

As a civilian lost in the war on terrorism, it has become harder to define the word "terrorist." The image of a terrorist that the state propagates is usually associated with a beard and a Kalashnikov. But under the current circumstances, the image of a terrorist I have now is associated with tanks, bulldozers, caps and Kalashnikovs.

The magic is turning against the magician. In its “war on terrorism,” the military is only witnessing the growth of the beast it is fighting.

*Names have been changed. The author of this article has chosen to remain anonymous for security reasons.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

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?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

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

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

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

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

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.

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