The noose tightens
Sudanese asylum-seekers scattered in churches and hospitals around Cairo tell Gamal Nkrumah
about the horrors of the New Year's Eve police raid on their camp
Click to view caption|
Garbage collectors clean up the messy park on 31 December that has been used as a squat for Sudanese asylum-seekers
On 1am Friday morning 4,000 armed Egyptian police stormed a park close to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo in Mustafa Mahmoud Square, Mohandessin, where an estimated 2,000 Sudanese asylum-seekers had staged a sit- in to protest against their situation in Egypt. The police raid lasted for four hours and according to Egyptian officials resulted in the deaths of 27 Sudanese asylum-seekers. Human rights groups, as well as the refugees themselves, put the death toll higher, at more than 100. Some 75 policemen were wounded in the operation.
The pre-dawn raid is one of the most racist episodes in Egypt's modern history. The refugees were camped on a traffic island on one of Cairo's main thoroughfares. Not surprisingly, the spectacle of hundreds of Sudanese refugees camping out in the open had attracted much media and public attention. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced that it was deporting 645 Sudanese it classified as "illegal immigrants".
Questions are now being raised about how Egypt has failed Sudanese asylum- seekers. And it is not only the authorities who are implicated, but the public as well. Sudanese people, particularly southerners, face daily harassment in the streets of Cairo. They are subjected to racist taunts, and insults hurled from the unemployed. Egyptians are understandably angry at the deplorable conditions they face, including joblessness and disfranchisement, and it appears they have been unable to resist the temptation of scape-goating the estimated five million Sudanese residing in the country.
"The indecent and inhumane assault by the police is deplorable. The people of the Nile Valley, Egyptian and Sudanese are one. Nothing can justify such brutality," Hamdi Hassan, spokesman of the parliamentary bloc of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Muslim Brothers, the largest opposition bloc in the People's Assembly, were the first political group to issue a statement condemning the forcible evacuation by the police of the Sudanese asylum-seekers.
"Egypt's image has been irrevocably damaged," Hassan continued. "The police exhibited the same crassness with which they treated voters during the parliamentary poll a few weeks ago. The situation is untenable."
"Egypt must show it can shrug off its introspection and focus again on the geopolitical challenges in its own backyard. It should be using its leverage in Sudan to help reverse political uncertainty there."
Hard questions must now be asked about the Sudanese experience in Egypt. The widely-held view that southern Sudanese are drunken, lazy, uncivilised brutes who "deserve what they got" can only poison, rather than improve, relations between faiths. The stereotypical view that they are Christian and animist trouble-makers has been fanned by Egyptian xenophobes who circulate rumours that both local and foreign churches are championing the Sudanese, employing them and helping them financially. In the absence of any other source of welfare provision it is true that a number of churches have provided refugees with shelter, food and clothing, though one could reasonably expect such actions to be lauded and not condemned.
A southern Sudanese woman, recently attacked by a hostile mob near Al-Sakkakini Church, told the Weekly she fears for the safety of her family. She has moved her pitifully meagre belongings into the church for safe-keeping. "I am afraid to walk on the streets alone. Egyptians think all Sudanese women are prostitutes," she said. "We are at the mercy of the mobs."
Her experience is by no means an exception as relations between the Sudanese and their Egyptian hosts have soured. But why the sudden antagonism? It is a puzzle given that the Egyptians and Sudanese people have traditionally enjoyed close fraternal relations. Have the Sudanese overstayed their welcome?
Pumping her fist in the air, an elderly woman embarked on an anti-Sudanese tirade. "They had made such a mess of our beautiful square. They were an eyesore."
Such views are not uncommon. Many Egyptians appear to believe their country is being over-run by Sudanese.
"They are filthy and rowdy and stick out like a sore thumb," explained an angry woman who lives in the vicinity of the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque. Indeed, Egyptian onlookers, mostly youngsters, cheered the police as they stormed the park.
The growing hostility to the Sudanese appears to be a classic case of blaming outsiders. The belief is common that the refugees take jobs from their hosts, and commit crimes. They are also suspected of competing for public services. There are, however, some Egyptian human rights groups that have taken up the Sudanese asylum-seekers cause, and several are involved with legal aid provision for the 70 per cent of Sudanese asylum-seekers rejected by the UNHCR. Championing the rights of refugees has become something of a moral crusade.
Asylum-seekers believe the raid was approved by the Sudanese government, despite the fact that Khartoum initially voiced its condemnation. The government of Sudan has since been silent, though rumours are circulating that the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo will declare a day of mourning next week and that the Sudanese ambassador, Hassan Abdul-Baqi, will be recalled to Khartoum.
"The authorities seem to have abandoned any idea that Egypt's good name counts," said Wagdi Abdel-Aziz of the Al-Ganoub (South) NGO. "The situation is dire. There is a real danger that the Sudanese in Egypt will become further alienated."
Al-Ganoub has helped mobilise Sudanese refugees to protest against the issue of the so-called "yellow cards" -- UNHCR-issued identity cards that show the bearers are asylum-seekers. Only a few of them are issued with the "blue cards" that show the bearer is acknowledged as a refugee by the UNHCR.
According to Sudanese asylum- seekers, arrested refugees were categorised by the UNHCR-issued cards they hold.
"They separated people by the colour of the cards they possessed. They put yellow cards in a group, blue cards in a group and those with no cards (unregistered) and no passports in a third group," says Hanadi Fadel-Youssef, a lawyer and human rights activist.
"We tried to get the women and children out but they started attacking us. They did not distinguish between children and others. There are people who died from the water cannons they fired and others from lack of oxygen because they were trapped under the plastic shelters . Many bled to death," she said.
"The police attacked people who were trying to save the children. The police first said they would not attack us, that they were there for the Muslim Brothers who were staging a protest. But it was a lie. The number of police was very large."
Fadel-Youssef, who was detained in Tora Prison for 48 hours following the raid, reports that the police issued a warning on Thursday evening but it was in Arabic which 75 per cent of the refugees do not understand.
Following the attack Fadel-Youssef visited several hospitals, including El-Sayeda Zeinab Hospital, where she found 27 bodies of Sudanese asylum- seekers, including 11 children.
The incident provoked a flurry of diplomatic activity. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit sent explanatory messages to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to the Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and to the Islamic Conference Organisation and the African Union. He said the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had approved the evacuation of the makeshift camp, something the UNHCR denies.
"Who are we to tell a sovereign government what to do? We have been giving the government updates and we reported the deteriorating health conditions at the park. We never requested the forced removal of the asylum-seekers," said Dessalegne Damtew, deputy representative of UNHCR in Cairo.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, issued a strongly-worded statement criticising the Egyptian authorities.
"We negotiated with both the government and the self-appointed leaders of the Mohandessin sit-in," Damtew said. "We told the government that there was nothing more we could do."
The experience of Talha Soleh Osman, bearer of a yellow card from Kordofan, western Sudan, is typical. "I was taken to Manshiat Al-Bakry (Al-Meqawlon Al-Arab) prison camp. There were about 400 of us including women and children. There was a baby in the prison with no mother. There are many injured people."
Yehia Saleh Salem, who possesses a blue card, told the Weekly he was beaten about the head and forced on a bus. "I was on the bus with a person who was bleeding. I told the police to put the man into an ambulance and not the bus because he was dying. Two people died on the bus -- a child and the bleeding man."
"There was a woman in labour on the bus. There were 35 people injured on that bus with broken arms, legs and necks. They were just given rags to clean the wound but no medical treatment."
"There was a child, eight months old, whose mother died in the hospital. The child is suckling still. Neither the father, nor the baby, has identity cards so they will not be released."
As time wears on, keeping millions of potential Sudanese asylum-seekers fed and clothed, not to mention pacified, is going to be a huge challenge for the Egyptian authorities.
"We were afraid that we were going to be deport to Sudan. People are injured seriously and refuse to go to the hospital because they are terrified of the Egyptians." It is now hoped that the surviving Sudanese asylum-seekers can lead as normal a life as possible in Egypt. That may be too much to hope for, though.