|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
30 August - 5 September 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
photos: Randa Shaath
A breath of dustIs it necessary that the upgrading of Cairo's infrastructure be achieved at the expense of the poor? Jailan Halawi seeks an answer
Although the completion of the Cairo ring road will save motorists a great deal of time and trouble, it inevitably means the displacement of the residents of certain areas -- and they are bound to be low-income districts. On 22 August, some residents of the City of the Dead at Bab El-Nasr cemetery in Gamaliya were given notice that they had to leave the only abodes they had known for years, to be relocated to cities north-east of Cairo.
The dismantling of sections of the cemetery and the relocation of their inhabitants are necessary to open a new route linking Salah Salem and Port Said streets. Unless this new route is opened, traffic will be blocked following the opening of the Al-Azhar tunnel in October.
The initial part of the plan is to widen the road passing through the cemetery by 25 metres, for a distance of 1 kilometre.
More than 1,000 graves had to be dismantled and 109 families relocated to El-Salam and El-Nahda cities, official reports said.
But at what cost?
According to residents, the government gave them one day's notice to evacuate the cemetery and move to alternative housing. "We woke up one day to the frightening sight and sound of bulldozers demolishing the graves in which we reside. Flabbergasted, many of us stood in front of the bulldozers trying to stop them, but to no avail. We were beaten and pushed away mercilessly by the Central Security Forces," one resident said.
According to the official plan, cemetery dwellers would be moved in stages, starting on 22 August with the relocation of 62 families. The remaining 47 families were to be relocated by the end of this week.
For those waiting to be relocated, life in Bab El-Nasr cemetery has been particularly harsh of late, with demolition work proceeding next to their dwellings. While workers and bulldozers tore down the road-side graves, all public utilities were disconnected and water and electricity were cut off from the yet-to-be demolished areas. In order to obtain water for their daily needs, residents have had to go to nearby mosques and collect water in jerrycans and jars. Taking a shower or cleaning their children has become an extremely labour- intensive luxury.
Umm Ahmed, one of the residents, told Al Ahram Weekly, "I and the people here are not against this project. We understand it will serve the national good, but what about us? We don't mind that we have to be moved, but move us somewhere where we can make a living. Most of us work around El-Gamaliya; if you settle us in El-Salam City, what on earth will we do?"
Saber, a carpenter who is waiting to be relocated, explained that cemetery dwellers are afraid of what the future has in store for them at their new location. "All our interests are based in Gamaliya. We work here and our children's schools are here. I cannot afford to pay LE4 daily to transport my children from El-Salam to their schools in Gamaliya. The government did not even give us enough time to register them with other schools in El-Salam."
El-Mahmoudiya, where the 62 families were relocated, is one of Cairo governorate's alternative housing projects at the far end of El-Salam city. According to the contracting company's engineers, they were only informed on 21 August of the relocation date. The governorate allocated 32 apartments on the ground floor of two of its buildings for 32 displaced families. Other evicted families were resettled in the Atlas neighbourhood of El-Salam City.
THE CITY of the Dead has long teemed with the sounds of living. Children playing, families gathering, friends greeting: all the chatter of life rejoicing among the quiet graves. But now, as large sections of the cemetery's inhabitants are forcibly moved on to make way for a road, the joyful hurry will cease, to be replaced by the whine of the bulldozer and the seethe of unending traffic.
As their home crumbles into the maw of a bulldozer, [From top]a family raises hands in helpless horror; a woman folornly surveys the result of the decision to "take a knife to the wound and clean it."; dignified despair on the faces of a family soon to be without a home. Once a dwelling place, soon a statistic. [above] The shape of a life, now so much rubble.
But these apartments are a complete mess. Some of them were used for years by the construction company as warehouses, and so families have to co-habit with piles of garbage and stacks of iron pipes and wood. Some apartments do not even have a front door. There are openings for windows but no window-panes or shutters. Although water is connected, drainage systems are lacking.
"I received walls, not a house. The flat I got lacks all sorts of utilities and I will have to pay a lot of money for the necessary adjustments," Hamed Abdel-Fattah, a street vendor, complained.
Madiha, a mother of five, charges that the government does not consider the cemetery dwellers "humans beings" who have the right to a "dignified life." "We did not do anything wrong to be humiliated this way. It's true we're cemetery dwellers but we had no better place to go. Now that the government is moving us from the cemetery, why can't they do it right? Or is it because we're poor they think we can't fight for our rights?" Madiha said.
Worse, each of the relocated families was informed that in five years time they will have to pay LE75 as a monthly instalment towards ownership of their flat 20 years later. "My monthly pension is LE55; how can I pay the instalments?" exclaimed Ahmed, an 80-year-old undertaker.
In response to the issues raised by the cemetery dwellers, Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata told the Weekly, "Cairo is a city of problems and our strategy is an all-out attack on these problems. For years, cemetery dwellers have been a major concern."
The governor insisted that those affected by the construction would be compensated. "This is a project for the public good. It is necessary to take a knife to the wound and clean it. It is painful, but necessary," he said.
"Our objective is the removal of all the graves [with the exception of historic ones] that were not included in the original construction plan," the Governor explained.
Contrary to what the families said, Shehata insisted that they were notified two years ago of the eviction and urged repeatedly to register their names with the municipal council in order to move to alternative housing.
"People do not like to listen to the government, I don't know why. They seem to doubt that the government is here to serve them," wondered the governor. Hence, Shehata continued, "they had to be confronted with a "fait accompli."
In order to carry out the governorate's project, two problems had to be overcome. First, the remains of the dead had to be removed and, second, the cemetery dwellers had to be relocated. As for the first problem, the remains of the dead were collected by their descendants and taken to alternative graves in 15 May City south of Helwan.
According to the governor, cemetery dwellers had no right to live where they made their homes because the land is state property. And yet, "we are providing them with alternative housing although they violated the law [by living on state property]. We aim to give them a better life."
In dealing with the multi-faceted challenges facing the city, the governor stresses the importance of the bigger picture. Shehata describes the strategy adopted by the governorate as comprehensive, comprising eight main programmes: infrastructure, cleanliness, Nile protection, preservation and development of historic Cairo, cultural development, traffic, human development and investment.
He rejected charges that the human cost of development was not taken into consideration and that only the poor have to pay for the upgrading of the city. "We have prepared alternative housing for the purpose of relocation. So when we moved the residents out of certain areas in Cairo, such as Bab El-Nasr cemetery, we had places to compensate them with. Meanwhile, we are working on all problems; special committees have been formed to research and solve various problems that may arise. We have also made an agreement with the Social Fund for Development to study the cases of those who want to upgrade their facilities and see what can be done to make the necessary adjustments."
Further, the governor assured, "we will facilitate transferring children to schools in their new neighbourhoods and assisting their parents in finding employment. No doubt problems and drawbacks will arise, but things will get better if people help us by respecting the law."
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