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

A brave new world

By Wadie Kirolos

After a brief stint with the Cairo bureau of United Press International (UPI), I had been re-assigned to their Beirut head office in the early 1970s. In the last week of September 1973, chance would have it that I returned to Cairo for a brief vacation. I was scheduled to fly back to Beirut on 6 October, and was duly driven to Cairo airport, arriving there around 3 pm. To my surprise, I arrived to find the airport closed. The reason? "War has broken out. "War? What war?!

At that time, nothing could have been further from our minds than the possibility of war. Everybody assumed that Egypt was dead, militarily, unable to achieve victory or impose peace. How wrong could we have been. I took a taxi back home, where I safely deposited my suitcase, and dashed to the Cairo office. There, cabled instructions were waiting for me: Do not return to Beirut. Stay in Cairo and help out with the war coverage.

But I had to wait until 22 October to win my spurs as a war correspondent. Local newspapers had their own correspondents who travelled with the Egyptian forces. But the foreign press was only taken across the Canal in small groups, every few days, on a pool basis. This meant that the work was shared out: one man would write the story for the wire services, another for the daily newspapers, while one cameraman would take footage for all the foreign television stations, and so on.

Before dawn on 22 October, a group of foreign correspondents, photographers and cameramen, including myself, travelled by army bus to a point near Fayed in the northern sector of the Suez Canal. There, we were confronted with the birth of a brave new world. It was like coming across a great modern city in the middle of nowhere. There were streets, there were street signs and traffic officers. But all the traffic was military. And the number of troops, tanks and armoured vehicles on the move was, to say the least, impressive.

We were supposed to cross the Canal by a pontoon bridge. But another surprise was in store for us when we got to the edge of the water. The bridge was gone. The conventional wisdom of war holds that once a pontoon bridge has been photographed by an enemy reconnaissance plane, it is only a matter of time before it is bombed, so the structure must be quickly dis-assembled and moved to another location.

Judging by the conversation between our army escorts, this appeared to have been the fate of our bridge. "What a black day," one of them said, apparently concerned for our safety. Unaware that one of the correspondents they were escorting was an Egyptian who understood Arabic, the officers set about discussing the possibility of using a motor-boat to ferry us across the Canal. This was a dangerous tactic, because any moving object on the waterway could easily be spotted by Israeli warplanes flying overhead. Finally, they decided to let the correspondents choose between returning to Cairo or using the motor-boat. The vote was unanimous and we jumped into the motor-launch. Luckily, the Israeli pilots overhead must have decided that we were not worth wasting a rocket on.

On the Canal's eastern bank, we were shown the remains of Israeli vehicles, tanks and warplanes which had been destroyed. We also visited what was left of the Israeli Bar Lev line of fortifications which Egyptian troops had stormed at the war's outset. Then we were treated to an interview with Maj. Gen. Hassan Abu Se'eda, commander of the 2nd Mechanised Infantry Division. He boasted that the road to Tel Aviv was open before him. All he needed was the order to march on.

But the order was not forthcoming. While the situation in the northern sector of the front was excellent, conditions in the southern section were much more complicated. Israeli forces had managed to establish a beach-head on the canal's western bank and they were being encircled by Egyptian forces. Dealing with this situation was the priority for the high command of the armed forces. In any case, the war's objective was not to reach Tel Aviv, but at most the mountain passes of the Sinai.

On the way back, we rode in an army truck. An Israeli warplane swooped low over our heads, and the truck driver, confused and anxious, ground to a halt. The officer sitting next to him shouted: "Get moving, you son of a dog." Luckily, once again, the Israeli pilot must have decided that we were not worth the expense of precious ammunition.

By the time we arrived back on the west bank of the Canal, the UN Security Council had ordered an "in-place" cease-fire, meaning that the warring forces should hold their fire and maintain their existing positions. As a result, the two sides were under great pressure to improve those positions in the few hours remaining before the cease-fire order took effect.

The thunder of artillery was unleashed, and we all hit the ground. We were assured by our army escorts that this was Egyptian artillery in action, the famous artillery of Maj. Gen. Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala. Nevertheless, we were determined to take no further risks and remained where we were, flat-out on the ground. I remembered having read in an American war novel that the most important thing in such a situation is to keep a tight... To be pinned down under enemy fire for hours on end in dirty pants would be to make the experience even more uncomfortable than it need be.

But this was friendly fire. And, perhaps for that reason, my pants survived intact.

It was past midnight when we arrived back in Cairo. A rumour was already going round that we had been taken prisoner by the Israelis. Other wire services, eager to get their hands on my story, had flooded the UPI bureau with telephone calls, only to be told that we were not back yet. Naturally, they had jumped to conclusions.

Once the rumour of our awful fate had been laid to rest, it only remained to tell the world what really happened. As the hours ticked towards another dawn, I sat down in the safety of Cairo, and wrote out my dispatch.