|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 March 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Doing what they canThe nation is pulling together to donate money for the survivors of the worst train accident in Egyptian history. Fatemah Farag wonders if consolation can really be just a phone call away
Dial 09-009500, and you will hear the story of Mahmoud, a worker from Upper Egypt, who met his fate in Train No 832. You will be told that during his lifetime, poverty separated Mahmoud from his little girl Farah (he was forced to migrate to the city in search of work) and that now he is eternally separated from her by death. The harshness of the experience is cushioned by the knowledge that merely taking the time to make this call automatically transfers LE1.50 into a donation fund for those who suffered losses.
The campaign is sponsored by the Al- Ahram Organisation, TelcoMedia and Telecom Egypt, and has been lent whole-hearted support by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid. The Prime Minister waived all the usual legal procedures that a donation appeal must normally undergo -- such as the need to form a committee to study the campaign proposal.
Al-Ahram daily announced that on the first day alone, more than 3,000 citizens called in, while many more came to the organisation headquarters to ask how they could offer assistance. The result: bank account number 5000 was opened at the Export Development Bank to accept cash donations.
The initiative has snowballed even further since then. The Football Federation has set up a donation fund, while the Egyptian Industries Federation now has special office hours between 7pm and 9pm to accept daily donations. The actors of the play Kidah Okay ("This is OK"), led by actor Ahmed El-Saqqa, donated the revenues of their 7 March performance to the campaign. The owners of 60 cinema halls donated 50 per cent of their total revenue for 7 and 8 March.
Everyone, it seems, is joining in. Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni decided to donate one of his paintings to be sold in an open auction of artistic works, the proceeds of which will be donated to the families of the deceased. And a food processing company has offered to provide 60 job opportunities in both Cairo and Assiut to the children of families who suffered a loss.
Furthermore, small-scale projects for the injured and bereaved will be funded by the General Federation for NGOs and Private Organisations. In addition, the Al-Akhbar daily newspaper has mobilised its charity fund, starting with a donation of LE35,000 fund small enterprises for those who suffered permanent disability as a result of the train disaster.
"That is the way Egyptians are -- when there is a crisis everyone pulls together and does what they can," said Zeinab Mohamed, a banker from Sohag. "When the campaign to collect money for a cancer hospital for children was at its height, we had very simple people taking time and coming into the bank to give whatever they could to the campaign. Some sums were as small as LE5 but the point was that everyone felt it was his duty to participate. We see the same thing happening now."
Not everyone is as enthusiastic, however. On Talaat Harb street in downtown Cairo, Mohamed Omar -- a clerk in a public sector company -- told Al-Ahram Weekly that he did not see "why we, the poor people, the ones who can barely make ends meet, are supposed to come in and save the day. The government should bear its responsibilities and I cannot believe they do not have the money to do it. I mean, they put on fancy shows like the one at the Pyramids for the millennium, so why is it that it is my LE10 that will build a hospital or make a life for a victim of the train accident?"
Attitudes such as those voiced by Omar have hardly subsided, even after a declaration by the Ministry of Social Affairs, over a week after the accident, announcing a paltry LE70 monthly pension for the families of the deceased and survivors of the accident.
Then again, Egypt's is a system that has been undergoing the slow yet sure withdrawal of the state from basic social services within the framework of an economic structural adjustment programme. Inherent within the logic of "adjustment" in the developing world is the understanding that the state has money to offer businessmen tax exemptions in newly industrialised cities, but does not have the luxury of either upgrading public services used by the majority of the populace, or compensating them adequately when tragic accidents occur.
"If we were in the United States, would we hear that the government was paying a couple of thousand pounds to the families of those who died? Or would we instead hear of a court case in which the Railway Authority was sued for millions in damage?" asked Ahmed Abdallah, a law student at Cairo University. "The problem here is that not only does the system not respect the value of the ordinary human being, but people themselves do not realise that they are worthy of much more than a few job opportunities and pounds donated to them by the civic community. They are owed more by the system."
Still, Abdallah has dialled 09-009500 a couple of times. "It is so sad and I guess despite the fact that I think the donations campaign does not solve things I could not ignore it either," he said.
Politics aside, however, the effectiveness of the campaign still comes into question. It was impossible to identify tens of bodies because they were severely charred. At the same time, hundreds of people have come forward claiming to have lost relatives. The question, therefore, is which of these formal requests will be answered with an official death certificate and which will be denied -- and what grounds will be used to decide? A tricky question that still awaits a sufficient answer.
In the meantime, Fatiha lets her black scarf trail in the dust of the road as she walks away from yet another government office. She claims that her brother has gone missing since the accident -- she believes that his remains have been buried in the collective grave dug for the unidentified. "I can't take it any more. We have seen unimaginable horrors in the past weeks. I do not know what I am doing -- if I want the money at all, or if I care about the certificate. I just want God to take me at this point."
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