Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
Issue No.398
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Letters from the front

By Lameece Abdel-Ghani

At first, it was presented as a routine military exercise. But for those who came along for the ride, it soon turned into a full-scale offensive. At 2 pm on 6 October 1973, they launched themselves against the Israeli positions dug in on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. For thousands of men at the front, the hour had come when they would shed the shame of the 1967 defeat and restore the nation's pride in its army and confidence in its leadership.

Sitting in the trenches hours before an air strike against Israeli positions in Sinai marked the beginning of the offensive, Lutfi Labib was depressed. He was thinking of his acting career, and how other aspiring young actors were making a fortune while he sat trapped in a hole awaiting an unknown fate. As it turned out, he didn't have to wait long for his hour of glory to come.

"When zero hour came, there was only one choice, win or die. We all worked as one," he said.

Now Labib, having caught up again with his fellow actors, is eager to recount his war memories. In 1973, he was assigned to canteen duty with Battalion 26 south of Suez City. His job was to keep the books. "There was an account sheet for every soldier, and at the end of each day I would leaf through the logbook and write 'lost in action' at the foot of every other page". For Labib, the war experience was more than just a series of orders and abrupt 'Yes Sirs', "it was about a mass of ordinary men, coming from different backgrounds to fight for one cause".

Labib conjured up the picture of the first soldier he ever saw die. "Said Abdel-Razik from Rosetta was among the first to climb into the boats crossing to the eastern bank, but a bullet from the other side got him first." Once on dry land, the soldiers "felt a strong bond to this precious land and no one could force us off."

Shortly before the war ended things seemed to be turning sour: the Israelis laid siege to Suez City. The city's residents would feed and shelter the soldiers, an interaction which Labib describes as one of "the true stories of war". The men invented new ways of rationing food and collecting rainwater; the Ramadan iftars brought Muslim and Christian soldiers to one table and the long hours of waiting gnawed at everybody's nerves. "We would listen to a bombshell as it was fired, listen to it near the ground and wait for the end," Labib recalled.

Leaving the army at age 25, Mahmoud El-Wardani felt like an old man. Although he never served on the frontline, it took him six years to recover from his war experience. He was responsible for burying the dead soldiers whose bodies were brought back from the battlegrounds. Wardani, now a novelist who works for the literary review Akhbar Al-Adab, is still haunted by memories from 25 years ago. "He looked like a small child," Wardani said of the first soldier he buried. "His name was Tharwat Mahrous Attia. A slim, dark youth from Banha." Wardani was not frightened, but overwhelmed by a "strong sense of responsibility for delivering this young man safely to his final resting place."

Assigned to the infantry's personnel department, Wardani was charged with receiving the corpses of soldiers who died in hospital and delivering them to be buried in a group cemetery for martyrs. The cemetery housed the remains of soldiers who died during Egypt's many wars with Israel -- 1948, 1956, 1967 and now 1973.

The most difficult part for Wardani was sorting through the personal belongings of the dead men. "Simple items. A wedding ring, an unfinished letter, family photos, a cigarette box," Wardani recalled. "It wrenched my heart that these personal objects would indiscriminately become a statistic in an official record."

Wardani kept his conscript duty a secret from his friends back home. "I felt that if I told them, I would be betraying the memory of these gallant soldiers," he said.

"My microphone was my rifle," recalled Hamdi El-Kunayessi, now director of Egyptian Radio. In 1973, he was the radio's war correspondent. He did not merely content himself with watching the news unfold. In his daily broadcasts, 'The Voice of the Battle', 'The Diary of a War Correspondent' and 'Letters from the Front', Kunayessi brought the mood of the embattled soldiers into the homes of the listening public. "Every day, at the crack of dawn, I went to the frontline, returning at sunset to edit my programmes," he said.

Kunayessi vividly remembers one seriously wounded soldier who was ordered to turn back. "Tears ran down his face, as he unsuccessfully argued that we was fit for battle. Those brave men taught me the true meaning of honour."

After the war, Kunayessi turned down an extraordinary promotion by President Anwar El-Sadat for his outstanding coverage of the war. "Whatever we did as civilians does not compare with the sacrifices made by the soldiers who were willing to give up there lives without waiting for a reward".

One only needed to prod the memories of the 'plastic soldiers' a little to be met with an avalanche of tales of sacrifice and valour. 'Plastic soldiers' was the term used to refer to the troops who survived the Israeli siege of Suez City on minimal food rations. Youssef Rizk, Samir Shaaban, Abdallah Ibrahim and Abdel-Malek Abdallah today live a quiet rural life in Mansoura, but have an insatiable appetite for reliving the stories of their war.

Now in their '50s, they spoke with youthful enthusiasm about how they refused to give up their position. "We were protecting our land, and would never leave," Ibrahim said. The four men, who participated in both the 1967 and 1973 wars, used simple words to describe exceptional moments. "The leg of one officer was blown off by a shell," recalled Shaaban. "He lifted it high in the air and repeatedly shouted, 'Allahu Akbar' [God is great]."

They remember and cherish the names of their superior officers who shared their food with them and helped maintain their morale. "When the fighting began on 6 October, we felt that the moment had come to take revenge and regain our land and pride which we had lost in 1967," asserted Rizk. "If it wasn't for the cease-fire, we would have pressed on deeper into Sinai."

Galal Shaaban, an infantry soldier, has an inexhaustible collection of war stories. With great emotion, he remembers collecting and burying the remains of fellow soldiers -- "no matter how small"; plunging into a crossfire to collect the wounded; surviving for days and months on scarce rations of food and water. For Shaaban, the Egyptian soldier exemplified "strength and faith; he was some one who welcomed death with open arms without awaiting any reward."

Israel's success in establishing a bridgehead on the Canal's western bank did not dampen the spirits of the Egyptian troops. "We danced and cheered when news came that our warplanes were about to strike the Israeli positions, although that meant that they would be bombing our positions as well," Shaaban recalled. "Unfortunately, it never came to that."