Death in Cairo: Anatomy of a Debacle

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The Egyptians like to call the Sudanese refugees “our brothers.” After all, the neighboring countries have had cultural and historic ties for thousands of years. However, of the multitude of refugees that have fled the turmoil of Sudan, particularly the genocidal killings in the Darfur region, only 30,000 have official refugee status in Egypt. The rest are in legal limbo, hoping to be allowed to migrate to Europe or America, but stymied by local authorities and, in their eyes, the United Nations commission on refugees. On Dec. 30, as 2005 ended, tragedy struck in a very unbrotherly way.

For more than three months a small public garden facing the prominent Mostapha Mahmoud mosque in Cairo’s upscale Mohandessin neighborhood had been occupied by more than 2,000 Sudanese refugees. The refugees chose the garden because it faces the regional office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The leaders of the sit-in had one important demand: to be processed for transfer to a Western country. They refused any half-measure, especially being returned to Darfur in southern Sudan; or to be resettled in Egypt, where they say they suffer from discrimination and random arrest. The trouble was, for months, the UNHCR had declined to talk directly to the protesters in the garden. The Sudanese minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Ahmed Korti, on a visit to Cairo, urged the Sudanese to return home. All to no avail. At one point, the refugees threatened to storm the U.N. office, leading Egyptian riot police to seal off a street along the garden. But the refugees stayed on. “We live here and we will die here,” read signs they posted in the garden.

Indeed, the Sudanese turned the park into their residence. Children were born in the makeshift tents held up by tree branches; weddings were celebrated; fellow refugees who transgressed against others were punished there (a makeshift cage was set up among the trees to incarcerate the offenders). But sanitary conditions declined severely and the Egyptians who lived in the high-toned neighborhood around the park complained to authorities of human waste and garbage proliferating. Three refugee children died because of illness and exposure to cold temperatures. Meanwhile, mosque personnel complained that the Sudanese were sitting on the sidewalk beside the mosque getting drunk and leaving their alcohol bottles littering the pavement. And, in the first week of January, the small garden had to be free to accommodate the thousands of pious Muslims who were expected gather for prayer around the mosque to mark the holy Bayram feast.

And so, late Friday night, riot police surrounded the makeshift camp with public transport buses on hand ready to move the refugees to camps in the desert of Dahshur near the Saqqara pyramids in Giza. For almost four hours police officers used microphones to urge the protesters to peacefully end their sit-in. The refugees responded by throwing empty liquor bottles, iron rods, stones, and tree branches at the police. Police reacted by directing high-powered water jets at the refugees. As the police set upon the refugees, a stampede ensued. The clash ended with about 20 deaths and at least 70 injuries; most of the casualties were children and the elderly. Around 75 police officers were injured.

Egyptian authorities defended their actions, declaring that the Sudanese had refused all efforts of mediation undertaken by U.N. officers as well as Egyptian and Sudanese officials; furthermore, they argued that the Sudanese were violating the law with their annexation of the park and were under an obligation to respect their host country. The Egyptian foreign ministry added that Cairo had to take action after requests by the UNHCR to end the protest because the refugees in the garden did not qualify for the legal immigrant status and many were staying illegally after the expiration of their visas. For the survivors, they have been expelled from their garden and face the new year in camps in the desert, under the shadow of the Dahshur pyramids.