6 - 12 July 2000
Issue No. 489
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region Focus International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
'Villages like ours'By Amira Howeidy
Stereotypical images of sleepy hamlets, "where nothing ever changes", are untrue of the Nile Delta village of Mit Halfa as, indeed, of any other village in the country. The past 10 days in Mit Halfa went well beyond the normal hustle and bustle of contemporary rural life in Egypt, however. A small radioactive rod which led to the deaths last week of agricultural worker Fadl Hassan Fadl and his nine-year-old son has placed the village firmly in the focus of official and media attention. Its umda, Mohamed Mahmoud Gendia, never thought he would have to deal with such a crisis. Mit Halfa, he said, "has always been a quiet village. Who would ever have thought of radiation?"
Gendia was standing with dozens of policemen, prosecutors, lawyers, journalists, photographers and curious onlookers. They had come to watch as Mohamed El-Touni, Al-Qalyubiya Governorate's district prosecutor, questioned the accused, Salem Sayed Ahmed, owner of the metal-welding company to which the deadly object had belonged. The rod was found in the very field where the crowd had gathered.
The fresh smell of mint leaves in the air made it almost impossible for anyone to imagine that it was here that Fadl had found a mysterious piece of metal that sparked nationwide speculation after his death was made public. The Atomic Energy Authority (AEU) put an end to the guessing when it released a detailed report on Saturday.
AEU's director, Abdel-Hamid Zahran, said the mystery metal was in fact radioactive iridium, used to x-ray points where pieces of metal have been welded together and thus detect possible flaws. Investigators found the object was owned by a private pipe-welding company, a sub-contractor in a project undertaken by the government-affiliated Petrogas Company in Mit Halfa.
A company technician, Raafat Mohamed Ali, had lost the object while working in the fields. Although he reported the incident to Ahmed, they did not notify the authorities.
The two men searched for six days, but failed to locate the piece of metal; the tragic result was the death of Fadl and his son. Other members of the family have been quarantined in the Abbasiya Tropical Diseases Hospital. Meanwhile, more than 90 villagers who had blood samples taken by the Health Ministry were said to be suffering from a severe deficiency of blood platelets. Changes in their blood composition have also been reported.
Ahmed and two technicians from his company were arrested on Saturday. "It's not my fault that the technician lost this object; I'm not to blame," Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly before he was driven back to the prosecutor's office in a police car. "I don't like the way things have developed and I feel it's unfair."
The event has turned Mit Halfa, 15km north of Cairo, into an overnight attraction. "Police cars were speeding in and out of the village all the time and, at one point, cordoned off the entire village when the object was being removed from Fadl's house," said Mohamed Khalil Zeit, a 47-year-old agronomist. "The local and international media were visiting all the time, and officials, too... It was major action. And I was scared to death."
Says Professor Fawzi Mansour, a former head of the AEU, "Radiation creates fear because you can't see, feel or smell it... It has no colour and it goes through walls. Such fear is understandable, especially if information is unavailable." Pointing to the press coverage which was far from accurate until the AEU issued its report, Mansour said, "Everyone spoke about it but no one appeared on TV to explain to the people how to protect themselves and what this was all about."
"I recommend that a group of scientists go to Mit Halfa and do the explaining from there because the people are still afraid," he told the Weekly.
Indeed, more than a week after the news broke, uncertainty and fear still grip the village. Soraya Ramadan, 28, is married to Fadl's nephew. "I can't sleep at night. I was examined but never informed of the results. The only thing I was told to do was to go to Banha for further tests," she said.
Her husband echoed her worries. "We are in the dark. We've been told we're fine but we don't trust what they tell us. I'll go get myself examined somewhere else again," he told the Weekly.
The same measure of mistrust was evident among some people who were initially fed misleading and at times totally inaccurate information. The opposition Al-Wafd newspaper was the first to cast serious doubts on official statements initially released. It suggested the metal found its way to Mit Halfa because Egypt was being used as a nuclear waste dumping ground. Moreover, it claimed that experts from the US Navy assisted AEU specialists in locating and removing the rod from Fadl's house.
"This is nonsense," snapped Raafat Youssri, professor of radiobiology at AEU. "How on earth can anyone say that a foreign party assisted us in this?" He shrugged off suggestions that Egypt could be a nuclear dumping ground. "We have a strong radiation monitoring network with 38 stations across the nation. No one can enter the country with radioactive material without us knowing it immediately."
According to Law 69/1960, the AEU and the Ministry of Health share responsibility for supervising radiation sources. But AEU officials cite their expertise in arguing that they should be the sole supervisors. A cabinet decision supporting that position is expected soon.
"I don't see any reason why this supervision has to be regulated by a 40-year-old law," argued Mansour. Other measures must be taken, he added, such as teaching medical students how to diagnose radiation poisoning.
Although the mystery metal has been identified, things have not returned to normal in Mit Halfa. Apart from residents and engineers from a nearby petroleum company, barely anyone had set foot in the village until it made its sudden, explosive appearance on the news last week. Puffing on his shisha at a sidewalk café, Zeit muttered: "Villages like ours don't become known until disaster strikes."