Survival on the edge
The government says it is doing everything possible to save the residents of Dweiqa from another natural disaster. But the residents themselves take a different view, as Ahmed Abu Ghazala discovers
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In 2008, a rockslide in Dweiqa led to the death of 106 and injury of hundreds. A year after rehousing the survivors, other endangered Dweiqa residents are still waiting for the promised units in the Suzanne Mubarak Housing Project. Heaps of garbage, sewerage and thousands of cracks in the walls and ceilings are but part of the problem of Dweiqa residents
A balcony is usually a place to sit, relax, clear the mind, watch life in the street and drink a cup of tea. However, for Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, his balcony could be a place where he could die.
Abdel-Latif's balcony is full of cracks, and its sloping floor makes it a frightening experience just to stand on. Things get more frightening as one steps out onto the balcony itself, which is situated on the very edge of the rock cliffs in the Dweiqa district of Cairo.
Abdel-Latif's house is little different from his balcony. There are cracks in the walls and ceilings of the tiny house -- two bedrooms and a bathroom -- where he lives with his wife and five children. Cracks in the corners of the house are filled in with old clothes to prevent the wind and sand from getting in. Cement lines indicate parts of the floor that constantly collapse because of faulty foundations and are then reconstructed.
The living conditions suffered by Abdel-Latif and his family are similar to those of some hundred other families living above and below the cliffs in the Dweiqa district. However, at least these families are still alive despite the harsh living conditions. Many other residents of Dweiqa lost their lives last year in one of Egypt's worst natural disasters.
At 8.30 in the morning on Saturday 6 September 2008, residents of Dweiqa woke up to the noise of rocks falling from the cliffs above them, destroying 35 houses and killing 106 people and injuring hundreds of others.
Rescue teams hurried to the area to search for survivors, but the disaster was so big that it led to the intervention of the army. Anger also spread among the residents and in the media, with allegations of negligence being made against officials and a case forwarded to the prosecutor-general's office to investigate the allegations.
Many promises were made at the time that all those harmed in the disaster would be compensated and precautionary measures taken to ensure that such a disaster could never happen again. Yet, as media interest in the disaster faded, so did the urgency of such interventions, and Dweiqa today is still home to some 600,000 residents, according to statements made by Hamada Abdel-Fattah, head of the Manshiet Nasser district.
While the area of the rockslide has now been cleared, families are still living in similar conditions fewer than 100 metres away and under and above the cliff. According to Abdel-Latif, who has lived in the area since 1995, "the mountain is cracking up. The gap you can see beneath the floor is more than 40cm wide, and it is increasing with time. We have cemented it over. Otherwise, the whole house would have collapsed."
When Abdel-Latif moved to the area, he was an employee of the Ministry of Education. Earning just LE110 per month and wanting to get married, he had few other options when it came to a place to live.
Another resident of the area, Nabil Mohamed, who lives with his wife and three children in a house not much larger than a small room, considers himself to be a lucky man. Although the tiny red-brick house is surrounded by heaps of garbage, "it did not collapse overnight like our neighbour Farghali Hamed's house, which was situated on the cliff itself."
The constant threat of rock falls from above is not the only hazard of the area. For many residents, the piles of garbage are a serious health hazard. "The garbage often gets burned, but insects and diseases, even snakes and scorpions, are parts of our daily lives. Also, the sewerage widens the cracks in the cliffs," said Gihan Youssef, 43, the mother of three children, one of whom is handicapped.
Yet, despite all these problems, most residents have only modest demands, the most important of which is to be heard. "We just need an official to come and ask us what we need, and then we will answer him clearly," said Umm Badawi, a Dweiqa resident.
Meanwhile, geologists have confirmed the danger presented by the overhanging cliffs. According to Sarwat Abdel-Fattah, head of the geology department at Alexandria University, "these consist of limestone rocks, which have cracks running through them. When sewage water or rain water passes through the cracks, the rocks split, eventually becoming unstable and crashing down."
Abdel-Fattah said that while there were solutions that could help stabilise the rocks, these would require the evacuation of the area. "If the rocks are severely cracked, or if the houses are situated on the cracks themselves, then last year's disaster will be repeated," he said.
Despite this danger, members of the 19 families living directly below the cliffs told Al-Ahram Weekly that while the governorate had conducted surveys on the number of people living under and above the cliffs last year, nothing had been done since.
In an interview, Dalia El-Sayed, 32, the mother of three children and owner of a small two-bedroomed house below the cliffs said that she had been visited more than eight times, her ID had been taken, and she had been told to prepare to move to the new Suzanne Mubarak housing project in Dweiqa in three days' time. However, the move had never happened, El-Sayed said.
"They told us that we would have to move to Badr or Al-Nahda because the houses were not yet ready, and we all refused," said Aida Farag, 49. The residents' work was in Dweiqa, and if they moved they would have to pay high transportation costs, she said.
Other residents explain that they are on the waiting list for the Suzanne Mubarak housing project, and El-Sayed said that she had been told by the district secretary that she was among those registered to receive an apartment. Yet, she continues to live beneath the cliffs.
While some NGOs are making efforts to help people in the area, few organisations are working in the area. According to Mohamed El-Helw, legal consultant at the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ECHR), the area above and below the cliffs is dangerous, but it is not on the same level of danger as the place where the disaster happened last year.
"We have made many complaints to the governorate, but no one has answered us," El-Helw said, adding that the residents' case had even been taken to the Urgent Matters Court and an expert from the Ministry of Justice had been requested to come to check up on people's living conditions and the level of danger. "Unfortunately," El-Helw said, "we lost the case."
El-Helw also raised concerns about the fact that there often appears to be little interest in people's social and economic problems. "Most NGOs now work on civil rights, political issues and allegations of torture in police stations and jails. I hope that more NGOs will appear that will be interested in people's social and economic rights," he said.
El-Helw believes that investigations into last year's disaster have not been satisfactory. "There hasn't been any statement about the investigation, which is ridiculous. The investigation into the murder of singer Suzanne Tamim was announced immediately, but when 106 Egyptians die, the investigation is covered up," he said.
Meanwhile, a source from the prosecutor- general's office told the Weekly under condition of anonymity that there was no information about the investigation of the 2008 Dweiqa disaster, adding that information could be available within the coming months.
While Heidar Baghdadi, the MP representing the Dweiqa district and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, has been following up the conditions of his constituents, some residents consider him to be part of the problem. While the governorate should have moved them a long time ago, land below the cliff belongs to Hashem Abul- Dahab, a relative of Baghdadi, and if the governorate evacuates that area, Abul-Dahab will not receive compensation, they said.
"Many journalists have come here offering to help us, but no one can help us as long as Baghdadi is there," commented one owner of a house near the cliff. Other residents share the same opinion, with another householder saying that "Dweiqa's residents know that Baghdadi is the one preventing our move. We are sure that we will end up like those who died last year because no one can help us."
Baghdadi responded to the residents' allegations by saying that they were false, and that his father-in-law's land had been duly paid for. "He paid for his land. I support him, and I am willing to testify on his behalf at any time," Baghdadi said in a telephone interview with the Weekly. Baghdadi explained that under these circumstances compensation would be paid in the event of evacuation.
Baghdadi also emphasised his support for plans to alleviate people's living conditions in Dweiqa, which include a 150-bed hospital, new green areas and playgrounds, and the hiring of a waste-management company to clean up the area where the Suzanne Mubarak housing project is situated. "Residents in endangered areas have received apartments in the housing project, and by next January another 2,000 units will be given to remaining residents in insecure areas," Baghdadi said.
This will mean that Dweiqa will "be turned into a place similar to Nasr City and Heliopolis," Baghdadi added, saying that another 15,000 housing units were being built 20km from the Suzanne Mubarak housing project. "All these apartments have proper infrastructure, including water, sewerage and access roads," he said.
Yet, while some residents of the area have received units in the housing project, remaining citizens complain that there are still unfilled units even as they remain in their dangerous houses. Immediately after the 2008 disaster, other people from outside the area took advantage of the situation by claiming to be residents of Dweiqa who had lost their homes in the disaster.
According to El-Helw, "people build houses all the time in endangered areas in Dweiqa in order to qualify for apartments. They are among the reasons for the delays in moving those who deserve to be transferred to the housing project." According to a source at the governorate speaking under condition of anonymity, since the governorate has a limited number of apartments, many people go to Dweiqa and build houses in order to qualify for the free apartments.
The governorate had made it clear that no one would be housed in Suzanne Mubarak housing units except Dweiqa residents, and they would have to provide legal proof, he said. Even after the residents are housed, a committee makes sure that those who have been relocated are real residents of Dweiqa. If they are found not to be real residents, "they will be prosecuted, and some people have even abandoned their new houses in order to avoid prosecution for perjury," he said.
There are no empty apartments at the housing project, the governorate source said. "People claim that, and a well-known television talk show repeated the allegation. But it didn't come to the governorate and ask for the truth," he said. While there are unfilled units, these lack necessary infrastructure. "While they may look finished from the outside, they are not," he said.
Before last year's disaster, Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman, the MP representing the area and a former minister of housing, was responsible for the housing project, construction of which started in 2003. After the 2008 disaster, the governorate became responsible for Dweiqa, and it has since been able to transfer people to 4,035 apartments.
The Ministry of Housing is responsible for building the houses, and when the governorate receives the new units the most endangered families are transferred immediately. Of the areas freed up by demolition, 28 feddans until now, these are handed over to the army, in order to prevent anyone building on them. All dangerous areas would be turned into green areas, the source said, with proper scientific supervision being employed to minimise the risk of falling rocks.
Governor Abdel-Azim Wazir had formed three scientific committees in engineering, geology and soil mechanics immediately after the disaster to specify the dangerous areas and make recommendations on the best ways to solve the area's problems. The committees had divided the area according to the level of danger, evacuating people from the most endangered areas first.
Yet, while the governorate source stressed that it is only a matter of time before all those in dangerous areas receive new housing, for some residents time may be running out. In resident El-Sayed's view, another disaster might occur sooner than anyone expects.
"Are we just going to wait until the cliffs fall on our heads?" she asked.