BIR AL-ABED — "For 20 minutes, they kept firing at us. We couldn't hear anything else because of the sounds of the gunfire. Everybody was running. Some were trying to escape and others were looking for their children — no one was spared, young or old. When the militants were done firing, one of them said: ‘This is what happens to those who antagonize the mujahideen.""
These are the words of Magdy Rizk, a resident of Rawda village. Rizk was at the Rawda mosque when militants opened fire at people praying inside on Friday, Nov. 24. He is now hospitalized at a hospital in nearby Ismaila. And though he was shot three times in the legs, he was spared the fate of the 305 people who died in the attack. Among them, his own son.
Rizk teaches mathematics in a primary school in Bir al-Abed, the closest city to Rawda, where the attack took place. He is from the Nile Delta city of Beheira but moved to the Sinai for work in 1991, which he says was a personal choice. He brought his wife along, and in the Sinai they raised three boys — the eldest of whom was the one they lost on Friday.
"On Friday, I went to pray in the mosque with my three sons. Seven minutes into the sermon, we heard the sound of gunfire outside. They then entered the mosque and opened fire on us, without discriminating. They were about 10, maybe more. They wore military attire, with their faces masked, and they were carrying a black flag. They fired for 20 minutes or more. When they spotted someone moving, they fired at them. My older son is a martyr. He had just finished studying at a technical healthcare school in Ismailia and was waiting to be employed ... He's in a better place now," Rizk says, from his hospital bed.
These people ran away from death, were displaced — only to come and find death.
"There was no way to talk to them," Rizk says. "They didn't come to talk. They came to kill because they think we are infidels. They say the mosque belongs to a Sufi order, but what I know is that it belongs to the Ministry of Endowments. Also, not all the village residents follow Sufism."
According to Rizk, it took ambulances half an hour to reach the mosque area after the attack, most likely because militants were firing at anyone trying to come to provide help. They had also set up barriers to keep cars at bay.
A man, who asked to be called Abu Salma, was coming to visit an injured relative in the hospital. Despite attempts by security to prevent journalists from speaking to Rawda residents, he told Mada Masr about the mosque's relation to the Jaririya Sufi order: "These people think that they are fighting the Sufi order, but not everyone at the mosque followed the order. Seventy percent of the mosque's attendants don't follow it, and 70% of those injured are people displaced from Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah," he says, referring to the internal displacement within the Sinai in the wake of a heightened conflict between Islamist militants and military forces.
"These people," Rizk says of those displaced from the Sinai cities, "ran away from death, were displaced — only to come and find death."
Islamic State-affiliated Sinai Province militants instructed Rawda villagers last week to stop performing Sufi rituals near the mosque, according to a source in the village who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. No group has claimed responsibility for Friday's attack.
Rizk asleep on his bed at Suez Canal University Hospital in Ismailia — Photo: Ibrahim Ezzat/Mada Masr
Rizk recounts waking up on a morning, over a year ago, and finding sand barriers blocking the streets of the village. When the residents asked security forces about the barriers, they were told that there was a threat of terrorist attacks. The same measure was taken several times over the following year. There were sand barriers around the mosque that was attacked on Friday at some point as well, he says.
Still, Rizk says he wants to go back to the village the moment he is discharged. He says that, if he dies, he wants to be buried next to his son in the village.
"No one should speak of evicting us from our land. I am against the evacuation of the Sinai. If people leave the Sinai, the terrorists will leave with them. Who will secure our houses, if we leave them?" Rizk asks, with anger in his voice.
Rizk also urges the Coptic Christians, who were forcibly displaced from Arish in February 2017 amid threats and targeted attacks from Sinai Province, to return to the Sinai to defend their land.
He remembers Mariam, a colleague who taught English, but who has since moved to Ismailia.
If people leave the Sinai, the terrorists will leave with them.
"We were so happy to get an English teacher finally. She would come all the way from Arish every day — a 45-kilometer commute. But a decision was made that Christian teachers who left are now on an "open holiday." She transferred to Ismailia, and her salary is still sent to her every month from the school. In the attendance sheet, next to her name, we draw a dash, and write: Christian sister displaced to Ismailia."
One of the frustrating things for Rizk is how the Sinai is covered in the media, and how the children of the Sinai are casually accused of collaborating with militants. He speaks of the belief that Bedouin people are inherently traitors. "I have lived here since 1991 and always felt safe. It is easy to talk about betrayal, but it is a harmful word for many people here." He also argues that such widespread accusations deter people from aligning themselves with the state in its fight against militants.
It should be noted that it was very difficult for Mada Masr to have access to speak to Rizk, with security actively preventing journalists from reaching out to the injured. Plain-clothes police officers were stationed in the hospital corridors and at the doors of injured residents' rooms. They asked all visitors to provide identification, as well as the reason for their presence in the hospital. When journalists managed to enter a patient's room, a police officer would follow and ask them to leave.
Khaled Megahed, the Health Ministry spokesperson, said that the ministry had issued a directive to prevent media from speaking with the injured, without offering any explanation for the restriction.
*Translated by Lina Attalah
Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.
If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.
The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.
Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.
This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.
It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."
In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.
Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.
Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.
But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.
In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.