Passing by on the other side

International Herald Tribune/ Daily Star Egypt

March 6 2006

Philip Whitfield

Twenty-seven Sudanese refugees, including children, have died as Cairo police broke up a makeshift protest camp, Egypt’s interior ministry says. Riot police fired water cannon at the Sudanese protesters, who had been refusing to leave the camp, set up in September near United Nations offices. A stampede was reported as police forced hundreds of people on to buses. The Sudanese had been demanding that the UN refugee agency place them in a country with better conditions. But the UNHCR said it had no power to guarantee their demands were met.

The TV lady rang at two minutes before five in the morning. She’d gone off on her own, got muddled up and went home.

“Are you still there?” she inquired. “Of course,” I replied, “I think I’m the only journalist here.”

I put the mobile back in its holster. On the dot of five the mayhem began.

From the top step of the Alwatany Bank of Egypt there was a clear view. The front line of police in riot gear stepped across the roadway and approached the garden which seemed to me to be about half the size of a soccer pitch and forms a convenient way to merge traffic from four directions in Gamat Al Dowal.

The riot-police didn’t run. They didn’t frighten. They didn’t bang their truncheons on shields. Most didn’t even pull down the Perspex visors.

The street lights reflected on their helmets. The big LG sign on the tall building to their left was unlit.

They walked, as anyone would, into the Garden though, given the risks, purposefully. Reporters describe these occurrences as the end of a stand-off.

But let’s be clear.

Since Midnight, the major general and a posse of junior ministers from Interior, had pleaded and cajoled with the belligerents in the garden to “move along” and take the buses that had been brought up to ferry them to a camp somewhere.

About every half hour several of them walked to the tents and approached the Sudanese leaders. They were met with abuse.

“Look,” the major general, said, “We are not here to harm you. We want you to leave peacefully and in an orderly manner. These buses will take you to a camp and then it’s for you to decide whether to stay there or to go where you choose. No-one is saying you can’t stay in Egypt. But, you can’t stay here. It’s filthy. There’s one lavatory for several thousand people and many of you are sick, some with pneumonia.”

“We’re not going nowhere,” their leader, in his twenties, responded.

The major general decided to go over his head. He took a microphone and spoke to the crowd of refugees through two big loudspeakers mounted on a truck and powered by a noisy little red generator they’d rigged up.

He’s a soft-spoken man, dressed like a banker with the courtesies of a doctor. “I urge you to leave this garden. No harm will come to you,” he said.

12.27            I texted a friend. “Thousands of police here now. I think they’re going to hose them with water canons first.”

12.34            Here we go.

12.43            Cops say 8,000 police, 5,000 refugees.

12.48            Four channels to take refugees out at corners. Police columns now 6-20 deep.

1.10            Big debate going on among refugees. European-looking guy turned away as mediator. Police unconcerned with me. Stand-off can’t last much longer.

1.21             Big movement. Twenty police negotiators at the garden entrance. Police say time to go. Refugees shouting. Police say fight expected.

The major general and his party stop to talk to the man from the ministry I’m standing with. We get into conversation. He’s concerned the media won’t understand they’ve been negotiating with the refugees for three months, he says, almost every day.

“We’re giving them time to think about it after each conversation,” he says.

My watch says they’re giving half-an-hour to chew it over. Every time, they say No.

2.06            Big pow-wow. Police say it’s time to go. Sudanese shouting. Troop movements behind me.

2.33              New negotiator. Stocky guy. Bald. Troop formation is a classic Roman phalanx.

2:38              Pick up the phone and listen (Police chanting and stamping. Sudanese jeering).

2.47              Pick up phone (Sudanese jeering.)

3.15              Looking bad.

4.00              Major general huddles with officers and takes fourth floor window in apartment over bank.

I walk the full perimeter. Everyone knows what’s coming.

5.00             It comes.

They’d been singing, dancing in the rain jets of water from the fire canons. The Sudanese, mostly young men, but some older and some women and children, were dancing with their arms in the air.

It was almost festive.

The police weren’t aggressive. It was like the Derby games between Liverpool and Everton when the Spion Kop opens up with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the Evertonians flaunt their hymnal.

There was another burst of water, arcing across the night sky, pelting the frail creatures whose refuge was nothing more than a stretched out plastic shopping bag across two poles.

5.01 Dull thuds from 20 feet away as baton meets pole, club meets skull. Screams. Running. Not an inch between soldiers marching forward.

5.03   A sea of black helmets, bulbous black-headed warriors engulf the garden. Thuds. No singing. Mayhem.

5.04   Casualties. Police. Bedraggled. Comrades in arms. Lifting onto a stretcher. Ambulances wailing. Sirens. Bedlum.

5.10   Wounded Sudanese. Blood. Lots of it. Three men unconscious. Dragged barefoot. Bones scraping road. Resistance. Clubbed. Kicked. Dragged. More blood. Shock.

5.15   Policeman unconscious. Carried fireman style out of the melee.

5.16   Plain clothes (secret) police go in.

5. 18 Quieter.

5. 20 Calm.

5.25  It’s over.

I pick my way though plastic bags and suitcases strewn one way or another. Puddles from the water canons. Grim faces. No reporters in sight.

The refugees seem to be across the street in white buses, more than a dozen of them. As I close in, their faces are forlorn, aimlessly looking back at their garden.



Home for a while?

All that was left.

Just now they’ve lost their dignity, all that refugees mostly ever have.

My route home is up Syria Street.

On the way, I spy a rug, or perhaps a blanket in the roadway. It’s crumpled up, not quite a roll.

There’s a woman lying on it.

She’s dead.

A foot away, another ball of wool. It’s a young lad, maybe 10 or so. The policeman kneels down and puts his fingers under the youth’s nostrils. No breathing. The cop, mortified, looks up and eyes two men to lift the body into a truck.

Nearby a man and a woman. Their eyes are closed, as if sleeping. They are dead, too.

Three paces forward a huddle of cops stand silently in ring around a child. She’s clutching a doll and she’s asleep, curled up. I think she’s no more than six or seven.

Then reality dawns. Her eyes will never open.

They pick her up, ever so gently, and carry her to a van and open the doors to ease her in.

I look around. The bus drivers are revving their engines to take the Sudanese refugees to their camp.

Then I carry on home, not sure what to make of it.

Who’s to blame?

Me? I had argued with the Sudanese leader earlier. “You can’t win,” I told him. “Go where you’ll be safe. It’s damn cold here. What are you achieving?”

He stared at me. Utter contempt.

He was young, ill-schooled in negotiation.

Earlier, in the afternoon. I’d called a priest and told him what might happen. He said he’d known about it from the morning.

He’d called back later and said because it was going to begin at Midnight, he couldn’t make it. He was preaching in the morning. He needed rest.

I let it go at that. Yet wasn’t he the very person these Christian Sudanese would have listened to? They do when he’s in the pulpit. And he picks up some hefty cheques to provide comfort for them, enough to cover a couple of staff salaries.

Where were the people from All Saints’ Cathedral? They’re supposed to be taking care of the refugees. Abed, I guess. The Bishop makes a big song and dance about the church’s outreach to the Sudanese and collects a lot of money to look after them, enough to cover a lot of staff salaries.

Next time they preach a sermon on the parable of Good Samaritan, they should ask: “Who passed by on the other side of Gamat Al Dowal Street on December 29, 2005?

Did it really need thousands of police to clear a grassy roundabout? Wasn’t it taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut? Only a quarter, or less, from the ranks of riot-geared cops were used to muscle the mob off out of the garden?

Why did they have to go in at 5? Couldn’t they have been more patient?

What about the people doing all the complaining: the folk who live in the expensive apartments atop the bank? Haven’t they heard of tolerance? As they came home from parties at around 3 a.m. they giggled and joked about the suddenly-free parking slots outside. Today there are some empty seats in the Sudanese schools in the huts they use. The pupils are in the mortuary.

What about the UN? They started it all when they stopped the Sudanese allowances. Why? What about the decision to stop giving the Sudanese visas to go to Canada? Who decided that?

What about the Sudanese themselves? Until Midnight, or thereabouts, they could have walked across to Chili’s, or down the road. No-one was holding them on the traffic island. No-one was forcing the women to taunt the cops.

The statement said they died in a stampede. Who’s to blame for starting it?

Of course, everyone can feel guilty, and that means none of us accepts the responsibility.

I’m left with an image: A child and her doll. A cop almost in tears. A window in a bus, steamed up, almost hiding the numb face of a gaunt Mum. A caring man who tried his best to avoid the worst. Cops who didn’t run amuck. Proud people with nothing but rags in grocery bags, trying to hold on to their self-respect.

And our communal inability to resolve problems peaceably.

When do we start learning?

That’s the pity of it all. We move on to tut-tut the next dreadful incident.


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