Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 October 2001
Issue No.555
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Living on death road

When do people decide they've had enough? Mariz Tadros tries to find out

The last straw: (top) Police decend on the village of Abu Sena; (below) Everyday, people are forced to traverse dangerous highways (photos: Abdel-Wahab El-Seheiti)
It was a Saturday morning like any other. Reda Rizk, mother of four, woke early to prepare breakfast for her children before they headed to school. Little did she know that this would be the last time she would share a meal with her 15 year old daughter, Nesma.

That morning, 22 September, Nesma didn't finish her breakfast. Friends came round early to walk with Nesma from their village to the Cairo-Alexandria highway where they caught a microbus every day to school in Qalyub. Normally, it took the children only a few minutes to walk to the highway. But today was not a normal day.

Witnesses say that Nesma was just about to cross the street when a speeding car slammed into her, flinging her into the air, before smashing her to the ground. She died instantly. Crowds of people -- men and women, school children and youths -- saw Nesma die; the accident happened during rush hour when everyone was standing at the bus stop ready to commute. As news spread that a school girl had been killed on the road, people ran in panic towards the highway.

"Everyone went out on the road. All the youths, all the families. They all ran. Everyone has children that cross the road every day to get to school. They were scared for their children. When they saw Nesma on the road, people screamed, they were so angry," said one eyewitness, who preferred not to be named.

"Nesma is dead! Nesma is dead!" howled Nesma's uncle as he rushed to tell her mother. A few minutes later, the body of Nesma was laid on the only bed in the house, drenched from head to foot in blood.

Witnesses say that terrified children on the highway screamed and wept hysterically. Men and women from nearby villages, who also suffer from the highway, came in droves to grieve at Nesma's loss. Traffic froze.

There are conflicting accounts of what followed. Police tried to disperse the crowd, which, provoked, blocked the rail tracks and burnt the ambulance that came too late for Nesma. Central and special security units moved in and fired tear gas. It took three hours to disperse the crowds. By then, 36 people were wounded, including three policemen, who suffered tear gas suffocation. Dozens of rioters were detained. The media condemned the grieving crowd, calling their actions the "unjustified" behaviour of "hooligans."

A week later, Al-Ahram Weekly visited the house of Ismail Mohamed, Nesma's father. Straw mats were spread as people dropped by to offer their condolences to the family. Even the governor of Qalyubiya, Adli Hussein, had paid his condolences. He attended the funeral and offered LE3,000 in compensation to the family. Peering through the door of the house, Reda, in no uncertain terms told us she had had enough of journalists. "What do you want with us?" she raged. "My daughter is dead! You have written enough rubbish about her and about the people of this village. They are not hooligans, but of course nobody wants to hear."

It is not every day that people spontaneously gather on a highway to riot, even in the aftermath of tragedy. Two years ago, a speeding car killed six children and nobody took to the streets. In the last six months alone, over 50 people have died, and that is apart from those merely injured. None of these tragedies was followed by open expressions of anger.

Nor are the people of Abu Sena different to other Egyptians. They are not politically organised; they are not part of an over- or underground social movement. Mostly they are simple farmers and civil servants; their village very like the next. So why did they rise that day?

The same answer is reiterated over and over: "We have had enough." Nesma's death, argue the villagers of Abu Sena, was not fate: it was an accident that could have been easily avoided.

Two years ago, the people of Abu Sena realised they had to make crossing the highway that rumbled through their village safer. Many people came and went from the village and traffic on the huge road in their midst was heavy: and getting heavier. So the villagers spoke to their MP, and petitioned the governor to have a cross-over bridge built.

Abdel-Nabi Said Abdel-Salam, a villager from Abu Sena recounts, "The governor agreed that there was a need for a bridge, but said it required a lot of money, and that the people should try and contribute. So we all collected LE50,000. Everybody paid. Those who could afford to, and those who could not. And let me tell you, we are not well off."

Month after month went by, and again and again the villagers were promised that the Highway Authority would build the bridge. But it never did. As the villagers patiently waited for their promised bridge, the highway was robbing them of more and more young lives. Gihan, a school girl, died while crossing; two young men were bed-ridden with serious road injuries. And the list goes on.

Some wanted to hire private vehicles to take their children to school so they wouldn't have to cross the highway. "But at LE35 a month, we just couldn't afford it. And at the same time, we are obliged to take our children to school. We can't just let them sit at home," said one.

Indeed, the villagers don't have a choice. All the local secondary schools are in Qalyub. Pupils must commute to get an education. Civil servants have to commute to Qalyub every day, for work. "This is a highway. The lowest speed for any car is 120km/h. You should see the road in the morning between 6:30 and nine, and in the afternoon from two to four," said Farouk El-Dib, an MP from Qalyub.

"When Nesma died, people decided that was it. They'd had enough. Those who knew her, and those who didn't, felt compelled to tell the government that this is what they have been afraid of all along. That it has happened too many times," said Nesma's sister.

Another woman put it a little differently: "People went out because they felt helpless and hopeless. They didn't expect anything from the government, they just wanted to express their anger," she said, on condition of anonymity.

"People were scared for their children, they don't know whose child will be next. Now mothers go and help their children across the street, even the older children. They are in a panic," commented another.

Most of those who spoke to the Weekly said that public anger was the only way left to make the authorities listen. "They would have done more than this if it was necessary. People thought they must catch the attention of the authorities somehow: otherwise this will be just another passing tragedy, another victim that everybody forgets," said a middle-aged woman, whose husband is currently still in jail after being arrested during the riots. Just then, a relative interjected, "They keep telling us this month, the next, the next: and nothing gets done. People felt that if they do this (riot), the government will listen. And let's be honest: when did they build the bridge in Mit Ne'ma? People saw what happened in Mit Ne'ma and thought to themselves 'How are we going to get the government's attention? What else could they do?"

The Mit Ne'ma incident took place on 5 March 2000. A truck was roaring through the village of Mit Ne'ma, which is 15 km north of Cairo, and not far from Abu Sena. It hit Samah, a 14 year old school girl, killing her instantly. Thousands of people demonstrated on the highway in fear and outrage. When they refused to budge, and traffic was brought to a standstill, police scattered them with hydrants from fire trucks. The villagers, feeling doubly aggrieved, resorted to riots similar to those in Abu Sena. Then, as now, thousands of soldiers moved on the site. Samah's funeral was postponed, which aroused the villagers' anger further, and 48 people were detained. But shortly afterwards the bridge at Mit Ne'ma was built.

Will the villagers of Abu Sena now get their bridge? Officially at least -- the answer is "yes." Only a few days after the tragedy, Adli Hussein, the governor of Qalyubiya, was quoted by the daily Al-Ahram that seven cross-over bridges will be built over all the "hot spots": in the village of Abu Sena, and the neighbouring villages of Sandion, Kalma, Kafr Abu Goma, Mit Assem, Kafr Elwan and Al-Safayfa. But he added these are temporary solutions, blaming the accidents on the poor awareness of pedestrians who cross highways recklessly, or with animals.

Still, there are no signs of construction work, sighs a frustrated El-Dib, the MP: "The Highway Authority visited the site where the bridge should be built two days after the tragedy and promised to commence work immediately. But so far they have done nothing."

"The people of Abu Sena are angry because there is no respect for their humanity," he added. "If there was, this cross-over bridge would have been built long ago," he says. He blames government routine and the Highway Authority. In addition to the LE50,000 donated by the villagers, the governor of Qalyubiya had also contributed LE50,000 towards the construction of the bridge, he said. The money was then sent to the Highway Authority to proceed with the construction. The project was approved, and bidding for contractors began. But an error in the wording of the tender meant cabinet approval had to be sought before work could begin. "It was delayed by government routine that was simply unnecessary. Since then, the Highway Authority has stopped the project. People didn't know what had happened and thought their money had gone for ever," explained El-Dib. He believes the sight of Nesma's family carrying her body from the highway "provoked the feelings of many people."

El-Dib also scorns those who blame the villagers themselves for the accidents. "I come from Mit Halfa, a village not far from Abu Sena. Ever since a bridge was built in our village, we have not had a single accident. Not one," he said.

Mohamed El-Tahan, head of the roads committee at the People's Assembly, agrees. El-Tahan suggests that the problem has many facets. He argues that 65 per cent of road accidents result from human error, like drivers speeding, or ignoring the traffic code, or driving unroadworthy vehicles. Other accidents come about thanks to bad weather, or technical faults with the road. Commuters are also increasingly resorting to privately-managed forms of transport like microbuses, whose drivers are known for their notorious road sense, because of the deteriorating quality of public transport. Then again, there is the problem of the high traffic flow on the highways. It is estimated that 50,000 cars use the Cairo-Alexandria Agricultural Road each day. "The agricultural road was built in 1954, when the load on it was hardly what it is now, and when people's mobility in the villages was not like now," said El-Tahan.

An estimated 80 per cent of road accidents happen to children -- and 80 per cent of these accidents happen on fast roads.

One general solution would be to extend the ring road around Cairo, which currently exits between Shubra and Qalyub. El-Tahan suggests that another exit from the ring road could be built near Banha, thus relieving some of the pressure on the agricultural road in Qalyub.

According to El-Tahan, there is also a serious road shortage in Egypt. "Traffic on highways now is as it is in the middle of Cairo. We now have 42,000km of road. We need double that in the next ten years," he said. As for building cross-over bridges, El-Tahan suggests that if a bridge is built close to every village, excluding hamlets, then 150 cross-over bridges would be needed on the agricultural road from Cairo to Alexandria.

The reason for the scarcity of roads, argues El-Tahan, is the same as that for insufficient cross-over bridges: underfunding. "What the government is allocating at the moment is simply not enough. We have mentioned this in our committee report, presented to the People's Assembly. This issue needs to be prioritised."

Back in Abu Sena, the events of that fateful Saturday are no longer openly discussed. As soon as the subject comes up, people deny that they were involved or on the highway. They were at home, in the fields: anywhere but there. According to Nesma's sister, police have been keen to track down all those who were on the highway that day. "Men are scared now. Some even go and sleep in the fields, because the police might go to their homes to pick them up. Anybody who was on the highway could be accused of hooliganism. The village is being terrorised."

An official from the prosecution department confirmed that forty people are currently detained for interrogation, and while some have been released, others believed to have been involved in the riots are still in jail.

Eighteen year old Mona, Nesma's cousin, was one of two girls taken into detention (the other was a 12 year old). "I ran to the highway when I heard the screaming. Nesma was just being taken away. People were wailing and throwing stones. I started doing the same for about an hour and a half. When the police came, I ran to avoid them, and a car hit me. I only regained consciousness in hospital. I then went from the hospital to the police station where I was detained for three days. I just wanted to vent my grief and anger for Nesma but I didn't hurt anyone."

"By punishing us, they are encouraging drivers to go ahead and squash us and not care about the consequences." said one man on condition of anonymity. As for the driver who hit Nesma, an eyewitness, an engineer from Bulaq Al-Dakrour who was on the highway at that time, noted the car number plate and wrote to the authorities describing the car, a Hyundai with Cairo plates. He told how the driver, a woman, was using her mobile phone and speeding when she hit Nesma. But up to a week after the accident, there has been no arrest. Nesma's mother did not seem to care. Her thoughts are with the people in the village who are detained. "All I want is for them to return safely to their homes."

More people were detained this week at the village of Kafr Shukr, in the governorate of Qalyubiya, after a secondary school student was killed crossing the highway and protests erupted. Once again, villagers blocked the highway and set fire to vehicles. Once again, press reports documented the millions of pounds in material loss suffered by the government at the hands of "hooligans."

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