Attempt to flee Darfur ends violently in Egypt
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
MARKER NO. 6 ON THE ISRAELI BORDER, Egypt ” For Hagga Abbas Haroun, a 28-year-old refugee from Sudan’s Darfur region, four years of struggle to bring herself and her family to safety ended violently last month on Egypt’s border with Israel.
In her last moments, sketched by fellow refugees, their lawyers, Bedouin desert guides and Egyptian border officials, Haroun hugged the cold rocks and sand of the desert floor at night for cover, her 2-year-old daughter at her side. She was waiting, along with other families fleeing Darfur and other troubled areas of Sudan, to sprint across the border into Israel.
A sudden wail from one of the Darfur children broke the night silence. The darkness was suddenly filled with the excited shouts of Egyptian border guards and then the muzzle flashes and boom of gunfire.
The journey that Haroun and 21 other refugees risked early on July 22 was part of a recent flood of migrants from Darfur and other troubled regions of Africa attempting to cross the border from Egypt into Israel this summer. After receiving only five of the refugees in 2004 and 59 in 2005, Israel as of late June had up to 50 African refugees crossing its border a day, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
The Sudanese refugees had fled across Sudan’s northern border into Egypt over the past several years, escaping wars in their home country. In Egypt, the refugees said, they found little help from international agencies and almost no jobs ” and they faced discrimination and occasional deadly attacks by Egyptian security forces. Now, the refugees are pressing farther north across Egypt into Israel, hoping for jobs and safety in the Jewish state. As many as a third of the refugees attempting the crossing into Israel come from Darfur, a region of western Sudan where Arab fighters allied with the Sudanese government attack African villages and refugee camps in a campaign that President Bush and others have labeled genocide.
The Israeli government earlier this year allowed a few of the Sudanese refugees to take jobs inside Israel. But that decision may have inadvertently encouraged this summer’s influx, the refugees said.
In Israel, hundreds of the Sudanese refugees are being held in prisons, in mushrooming tent cities and trailer parks, and on remote kibbutzim in the desert, while the Israeli government presses Egypt to take them back. The unwanted influx has given rise to an intense debate in Israel, on whether a country born from the Holocaust can justifiably deny haven to desperate families escaping a modern-day genocide in Africa.
Egypt regards its border with Israel a military zone, and anyone trying to cross it is considered an infiltrator. Egypt has tried about 50 of the refugees in military court in the last six weeks, said Bilal Amr, an attorney representing some of the refugees before military tribunals in the city of Ismailia, on the Sinai Peninsula. The men, and women without children, have been sentenced to one year in prison. Amr’s clients in recent weeks included a Sudanese man carried into court on the back of a fellow defendant, Amr said; both of the man’s legs had been shattered by bullets when he was captured by Egyptian security forces.
Since July, Egyptian border guards have repeatedly used lethal force on the unarmed refugees. Egyptian security forces confirm shooting and wounding two Sudanese men in separate incidents at the border in the first days of July. Israeli soldiers told news media that they watched on Aug. 1 as Egyptian guards shot and killed two Sudanese refugees at the border, then dragged two other refugees from the border and beat them to death with rocks.
The beaten and bound body of another Sudanese man was found near the border on Aug. 8. Egyptian officials said the man likely was killed in a money dispute with Bedouin guides. Israeli media quoted officials there as saying Israel has surveillance video proving the man was shot by Egyptian security forces.
In Haroun’s group, Egyptian officials acknowledged, the victims included women and children; all of them were survivors of the killing in Darfur.
Not an easy choice
Haroun came from a village in the Nyala region of southern Darfur, her cousins now in Egypt said. She was the oldest of nine children. Her parents poured their resources into her education, investing for the family’s future. Haroun graduated from the University of Sudan with a degree in commerce and became engaged to another Darfur college graduate, Saddik Sahour Abkar.
In Darfur, Haroun’s education led to her becoming known as someone who was outspoken, said her cousin, Harron Abdel-Gabbar, and his wife, Nora Hamed. Her fluent Arabic made it possible for her to speak to outsiders on behalf of other villagers, many of whom spoke only local languages, the cousin said. In Darfur, that placed her under the suspicion of local authorities.
Arab Janjaweed militiamen killed Haroun’s uncle and aunt in 2003, and then one of Haroun’s brothers, her cousins said. Haroun and her fiance fled to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. There, they and other Darfur refugees faced bleak options: head back for refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad, and risk more attacks there, try their luck in Libya, or head north into Egypt. They headed north.
Brutality and prejudice
The newly married couple found Egypt crowded with 2 million or more of their countrymen, survivors of the massacres in Darfur and years of civil war in Sudan’s south.
When a January 2005 peace deal formally ended the civil war in southern Sudan, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees refused to register any more Sudanese in Egypt for political asylum. Thousands of the Sudanese staged a three-month sit-in in front of the U.N. refugee office in Cairo to protest. Egyptian riot police stormed the camp on Dec. 30, 2005, using water cannons and beating the refugees. Rights groups and government health officials said police killed at least 20 of the Sudanese refugees.
Haroun had taken her turn at the sit-in, but was not there the night police attacked, said Samira Saleh, one of Haroun’s closest friends.
The sit-in brought out the prejudice some Egyptians hold against dark-skinned Sudanese ” saying that the Sudanese use drugs or carry AIDS. Some Sudanese said they found it more difficult to get jobs after the sit-in.
Abkar, Haroun’s husband, supported her and their baby daughter, Samar, by scrounging at demolition sites. Haroun’s mother and father called her frequently, begging for help for her surviving family still in Darfur.
“All of her concern was to get money to them,” Saleh said.
‘Any day we can die’
In late July, the number of Sudanese refugees caught or wounded while attempting the Israeli border crossing still seemed small compared with the number who made it across.
“Even if there is killing, the flow of people increases,” said Salah Tukka, a 43-year-old Darfur refugee. “Because we know if we go back to Darfur, any day we can die.”
Haroun and Abkar made contact with an Egyptian middleman in Cairo. The middleman connected them with Bedouin guides to lead them across the border. Haroun sold her gold jewelry and her household furnishings to raise the $600 fee the Bedouins demanded, her friend Saleh said.
Saleh pleaded with Haroun to stay, she said, telling Haroun her future in Israel was “ambiguous.”
But Haroun spoke only of her crushing guilt for her family still in Darfur, Saleh recalled. “She said, ‘I came to Egypt and I’ve done nothing’ ” for them.
Haroun’s husband, who was captured after the shooting, later told a military court that he had hoped to find work in Israel.
Haroun told Saleh that she dreamed of her family winding up in Europe or the United States.
The tiny black bag Haroun packed for the journey reflected her dreams ” clothes for her young daughter, her own carefully preserved diplomas, and, despite its weight, a hardcover Arabic-English dictionary.
Where Haroun was going, she hoped to speak English.
Shots ring out
The smugglers came to take Haroun, her husband and daughter from the Egyptian border town of Rafah at 10 p.m. on July 21, according to accounts the refugees later gave to relatives and friends in Cairo and to their attorneys and the Egyptian military courts, as well as accounts from the Bedouin guides and Egyptian border officials.
The refugees traveled as a group of 14 adults and eight children, two of them still nursing.
At Border Marker No. 6, across the border from the Israeli city of Beer Sheva many miles away, the Bedouins took the African families to a crevice between two curving ridges. The border ” a few dozen yards of rocks and a stretch of wire fence ” lay atop one of the ridges. From below, the refugees could see an edge of the border, a rusted Egyptian watchtower on the ridge, with border guards on duty. The Bedouin guides split the large group into two for the crossing. The guides waited for a shift change by the border guards and then left with the first group to cross. It was past midnight under a waning moon.
Haroun and her husband stayed behind, in a group with all the children, Abkar and others recounted later. They lay in the dark, tensed. Some tried to rest for the journey ahead. Haroun lay with Samar, cradling her.
Then one of the other children suddenly cried out, sobbing.
The Egyptian border guards raised their weapons. They aimed toward the sound of the wailing child, according to accounts from the refugees and the Bedouins. And the guards opened fire.
A 9-year-old girl from Darfur was shot in the back, Egyptian officials and refugees said. A man was shot in the stomach, according to the official accounts and to the refugees and their attorneys. One woman was wounded but survived.
Haroun lay on the ground. A bullet had pierced her skull behind one ear. Her blood splattered Samar. Another bullet drilled into the Arabic-English dictionary.
A military autopsy confirmed what Haroun’s friends and husband already knew: She was seven months pregnant. Her unborn child died with her.
In a statement, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry upheld its policy of lethal force against the Darfur refugees. “If those crossing refuse to heed the order of authorities to stop, then authorities are forced to deal with them in such a manner to ensure respect for the law.”
Late last month, the young Egyptian commander at the Rafah crossing, Col. Amr Mamdouh, gave a different account of the shooting. Haroun and her family had been running for the border, he told The Washington Post and other news agencies. Egyptian border guards shouted “three or four times” to stop, he said. “But they refused. So in this case we had to fire shots, warning shots, in the air.”
“In the dark we cannot see the women from the men. And all of them are black,” Mamdouh said, shrugging.
Back in Cairo, Haroun’s friends mourned her death. For survivors of war and genocide, “it should have gotten better. We should have moved from worse to better,” said one friend, Resala Yehia.
“It never got better,” Yehia said. “It’s just moving to another death.”