Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 May 2007
Issue No. 844
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Broken promises

It is two months since a fire destroyed the shantytown of Qalaat Al-Kabsh, yet more than 150 families remain homeless, reports Reem Leila

Click to view caption
Central security forces surround Qalaat Al-Kabsh before it was almost evacuated on Tuesday

Almost two months after Qalaat Al-Kabsh shantytown, in the popular district of Sayeda Zeinab, was destroyed by a fire, more than 150 families remain homeless.

Official reports suggest that the 20 March blaze that swept through the area was caused by either the explosion of a gas cylinder or an electrical short circuit. More than 300 wooden shacks were destroyed, leaving an estimated 1,000 people (about 350 families) homeless. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif immediately announced that alternative accommodation would be provided and Cairo's Governor Abdel-Azim Wazir set the end of April as the deadline for families to be rehoused. While 200 families have been relocated to housing units in Al-Nahda, on the Cairo-Belbeis desert road, 150 remain without shelter, sleeping on the ruins of their shacks.

On Thursday, dozens of the homeless protested in front of the People's Assembly to demand new houses. They then headed to the headquarters of the Cairo Governorate where they were met by security forces. The demonstrators say they were beaten by the police, and that several protesters were detained.

On Monday, security forces blockaded Qalaat Al-Kabsh, preventing residents from leaving the area until evening. Bulldozers were used to load the residents' scattered belongings onto trucks. Confused residents chanted "there is no God but Allah, the [Cairo] governor is the enemy of Allah," with many wondering out loud whether the forced evacuation was a ploy to get rid of them. Local officials and police officers insist that the remaining families had no legal claim on the houses destroyed in the fire, and therefore no claim on alternative housing. Though the police operation managed to drive the families away from Qalaat Al-Kabsh, they returned the following day, to be met, once again, by the police.

Two months after the fire, the area, which has been earmarked for upgrading, looks like a bombsite. Broken furniture and clothes are scattered everywhere and there is neither water nor electricity. Malnourished children play amid the devastation, their families sleeping on top of the wreckage they once called home.

"I have lived here for 41 years. Don't I deserve an alternative house?" asks Um El-Arabi, a long-term resident of the area. Yet according to officials, the remaining families all come from other areas, and are seeking to capitalise on the fire in order to obtain a new home.

Ayman Ahmed, a 12-year-old school boy, complains about the lack of electricity. "My final year exams are at the end of this month but I cannot study once it is dark. I do not want to fail my exams."

Most of the current residents say they had contracts which were destroyed in the fire. "Don't people like us have the right to be treated as human beings and be compensated, even if it's only with a one-room apartment," pleads Layla Shahat. "I have been sleeping on the street along with my husband and our four children since the blaze."

Local official Nadia Ahmed says the governorate has compensated all contract holders who lost their homes in the fire.

"Those remaining are all outsiders. They either claim that they have either lost their documents in the fire, or, they forge their contracts in order to obtain a government apartment fraudulently."

Ahmed claims that the authorities are studying suitable solutions, and that the "problem will be solved within the coming few days".

Meanwhile, Qalaat Al-Kabsh residents say they will demonstrate in front of the presidential palace if officials do not fulfil their promises. "Although the police scare us we will protest for our rights," asserts Mohamed El-Sayed, a resident of the area.

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