Even the dead don’t go back to Sudan

Themba Lewis

At 10am, the tenth-floor window offered a strange sense of calm. It was December 31st, 2005, and the sky was still clear, unclouded by dust and exhaust. The rooftops and minarets offered an unusually sleepy grace from this bird’s-eye vantage. It was as though the massive urbanity of Cairo was bracing for the new year at just the right pace.

On the inside of the glass there was a different story. Twenty-four hours earlier, 4,000 armored Egyptian riot police had brutally attacked and forcibly detained more than 2,000 Sudanese refugees at a protest sit-in at Mustapha Mahmoud Park, two officers on each refugee, just across the Nile. Many of the refugees had been beaten or trampled to death, almost half of the dead were children under the age of twelve.

I was in the war room, a modest flat belonging to Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond. It was thick with cigarette smoke and a cacophony of mobile phones and accented dialects: English, Arabic, and others unrecognizable. Dr. Harrell-Bond is fierce in her intolerance of injustice, and infamous among refugee circles. She had founded the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University and had been decorated with the Order of the British Empire by the Queen. While academics and journalists extolled her efforts towards refugee rights as ‘revolutionary’, others quietly gossiped in the corners of restaurants. “I think she’s like Kurtz,” I overheard a woman say over a Lebanese meal once, “up there in her apartment, surrounded by dark shapes”. Her home, a locale known to many in the refugee community, had become a makeshift damage control center, reeling in the aftermath of the violence. Lists of dead, injured, and detained were written and re-written and witness testimonies were taken.

The doorbell rang at regular intervals, and on the couch sat a Sudanese lawyer, her hair and clothing cold and damp from the water cannons of the night before, telling of babies too young to eat solid food separated from their families, and contorted bodies in pools of blood. A stop at the window, even for quick glance, felt selfish.

* * *

Five months later I met Thomas Akol on the terrace of a modern city-center building at the American University in Cairo, just off Midan al-Tahrir. Thomas had been in Egypt for four years, and like a number of his Southern Sudanese counterparts, was legally recognized as a refugee by the United Nations. He does well compared to many here, working in engineering and taking a course at the American University. A few weeks prior to our meeting, before an audience of international ambassadors, connected journalists, researching students, and other refugees, he had announced his own impending death with determination and exhausted desperation. He would kill himself, he announced at the AUC Forced Migration and Refugee Studies program seminar, and he would do so publicly and dramatically, if they could not help him with a dead body.

“She is called Theresa,” Thomas told me on the terrace, remembering with a deep and visible sadness the aunt he had lost at the Mustapha Mahmoud protest. They had disagreed on the gathering, and he had actively discouraged its leaders, refusing to participate. Theresa, on the other hand, had lived in the protest park with her four children for a month, sleeping on mats and eating communally prepared food. On December 30th Theresa called Thomas at about 1am. She was back at her flat, but had heard that the police were at the park, and that the the refugees assembled there would be resettled to another country, far from here, someplace the respects human rights, if they could just get to Mustapha Mahmoud on time. They argued. Thomas questioned the logic of the idea – even if such a thing were to happen, why would it happen in the middle of the night? He challenged and quizzed her before giving up. She wanted to leave Cairo. She was steadfast. “‘Okay,” he told her, “I cannot prevent you from going, but go alone, without the children, I will take care of them.” She agreed, hung up the phone, and left. It was the last time they ever spoke. She was dead within hours.

* * *

The sheer brutality of the violence that December morning in Cairo became worldwide news almost immediately. It was an above-the-fold front page headline – over a full color picture – in the New York Times, and garnered substantial coverage on CNN, al-Jazeera, and the BBC. “I saw women and children sitting down being beaten by police,” a reporter from Agence France Presse later recalled, “very enthusiastically, too. I saw two guys being beaten while unconscious, totally inert. In twenty years of reporting, I never saw anything like this: people being beaten with such hate and ferocity, like animals.”

The protest had lasted for three full months – unprecedented for a demonstration in Mubarak’s Egypt, a country not known for its patience with dissent – and at its height involved nearly 3,000 refugees and asylum-seekers. Leaders had approached the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office with a list of grievances drawn from the thick fabric of fact, experience, rumor, and fear that encased the refugee community: a rejection of repatriation to Sudan, a need for extra protection for ‘vulnerable groups’, an end to arbitrary detention by Egyptian security, and a rejection of local conditions. The protesters were fighting for the impossible in a country that had only a few years before instituted a detention and deportation campaign tellingly dubbed Operation Track Down Blacks. While many hoped for resettlement in the West, few said so overtly, choosing to criticize the abusive and rights-less existence on the fringes of Cairene society. All expressed tremendous distrust of the UNHCR. “I am suspicious of that office,” Thomas told me, “they will do nothing if you go there. I don’t know if it’s a lack of training or interest, but they don’t understand the idea of ‘refugee’.”

The protest had been both inspirational and divisive in the greater refugee community. While none would argue that refugee life in Cairo is easy, opinions vary about how to – and who should – address specific grievances. A huge proportion of Egypt’s refugee population is Sudanese, having fled the long civil war in the south or having made their way up the Nile more recently from Darfur. All seek better lives, and many appeal to the regional office of the UNHCR for formal refugee status recognition and the consequent legal residence, international protection from return, and access to services. Once recognized as such, a refugee faces three potential options: resettlement to a third country, integration into the local community, or voluntary repatriation to the country from which they came. For many Sudanese in Cairo, and arguably all refugees, the last option is simply not possible. They cite ongoing conflicts and infrastructural problems – not to mention thousands of landmines – throughout the south of the country, and a steady outflow of new refugees backs up their concern. Resettlement to a third country is restricted by immigration quotas, unfriendly policy, particularly in the aftermath of September 11th, and elaborate and complicated application processes that operate on a super-structural level and often require meetings with high-ranking embassy officials and UNHCR endorsement. All told, many thousands of refugees reluctantly face the only remaining, and legally impossible, option: integration in Cairo.

Struggling with an official unemployment rate of over 20% and little sign of progressive change, Egypt is hard pressed to incorporate substantial refugee elements into its oppressively strained and exploitative economy. The same goes for education and healthcare, two sectors that are perpetually under-regulated, financially corrupt, and all but inaccessible to immigrant populations. Augment these hardships with routine discrimination and human rights abuses, particularly from security forces and landlords, and refugees have little enthusiasm for local integration. The protest at Mustapha Mahmoud Park represented, for many, a way out and a regained sense of personal agency, hope, and forward momentum. For others, like Thomas, it was a reckless move, jeopardizing whatever precarious legal status was enjoyed, and offering new justifications for harassment and abuse at the hands of the state.

* * *

When the police finally raided the park in the cold, pre-dawn hours of December 30th, few if any of the protesters were prepared for the level of violence rained down upon them. All but the inert and dead were forced into detention centers and released slowly over the course of weeks, and only after registering their names with the Sudanese National Congress Party, the hostile government they had fled. Lists drawn up from multiple sources counted the dead in a range from ten to well over 250, but twenty-eight bruised and broken bodies eventually found their way to Zenhom morgue in downtown Cairo. A twenty-ninth body never made it to the morgue; a man had hung himself in detention, incapable of facing the morning.

As the sun rose on the 30th, the park was eerily empty; mangled benches, twisted metal, broken trees, and a knee-deep layer of suitcases, blankets, photo-albums, and ID documents were all that remained. Surrounding the perimeter, below taut yellow police tape, were scattered letters to resettlement countries, pleading cases in fear of violence and abuse. The only sound that broke the crisp winter morning was the cold scraping of twig-brooms on wet concrete, washing away pools of blood.

* * *

Back in Barbara Harrell-Bond’s tenth floor apartment, scraps of paper strewn about cryptically listed names and prisons in practically unintelligible scribbled code. The mobile phone is the lifeline of a mobile population, and a blanket text message had been sent out to every number stored on every phone in the room: ‘What is your name? Are you okay? Where are you detained? Who is with you?’ The calls started to come in, from phones smuggled into detention centers scattered far across the city, reporting that they had seen children die, yanked from their mothers arms by Egyptian security, even after boarding busses for detention. Others called to report on others dead: so many bodies are at such-and-such hospital, or that there were more dead here-or-there.

* * *

Courtney Mitchell, a mental health therapist and psychosocial worker with a local NGO which asked to remain anonymous, kept a journal of her visits to the morgue in the first few days of January. “It has been approximately forty-eight hours since the forced eviction,” she wrote on New Years day, “I make my way to a friend’s apartment where several Sudanese refugees have gathered hoping to receive some assistance in locating missing loved ones. Cigarette smoke and hollow-eyed looks of shock greet me as I enter; the smell of sweat and sheer exhaustion in the room is palpable. A man sits on the sunken couch, head in hands, and looks up at me with bloodshot eyes. A Sudanese man with him tells me in English that the man’s one-year-old son is dead.” At their request Courtney accompanied the two men to the morgue where they were met by a row of riot police behind plastic barriers. After a series of obstacles, she and the two men were able to enter the morgue. Courtney, not being immediate family, was not allowed in to see the body. “The man casts a last anxious glance over his shoulder at me,” she recalls, “and disappears behind the door…less than five minutes later he re-emerges with his head in his hands, he leans against the wall for support and slowly slides to the ground, crying silently.” Back upstairs, the man is required to sign various papers and releases. “The man signs with his inked thumb print, as he is illiterate,” Courtney notes. “He does so without knowing what he is signing and without caring.”

Thomas faced the morgue, but it was not until the third of February, more than a month after her death, that he was finally able to go for the body of Theresa. UNHCR had promised financial assistance to those burying bodies – 1,000 US dollars for each deceased refugee, to be dispensed by its implementing partner, CARITAS – in order that the bodies may be flown back to Sudan if relatives so desire. In the days immediately after the police attack, not a single family requested local burial. All wanted the bodies flown home.

Representatives from UNHCR-Cairo did not reply to my inquiries, but others acquainted with the negotiations told me that the initial offer from UNHCR Cairo was 500 Egyptian Pounds (LE) for each family to cover burial costs – an amount nearing US$90. This sum was grossly low in consideration of the families’ wishes, and under pressure it was raised to the similarly inadequate sum of 1,000LE. Facing increasing outcry from human rights advocates, it was again raised, this time to 3,000LE (US$520), and ultimately to the US$1,000 figure. According to Courtney, who worked closely with the families making arrangements for shipping bodies to Sudan, “the estimated budget for the body transfers to Khartoum and onward to Juba or elsewhere, ranges from US$3,000 – 6,000.” Even the lower of the two numbers leaves the cost three times higher than UNHCR’s final offer, making transport back to Sudan all but impossible.

* * *

Thomas insisted that Theresa be buried in Sudanese soil. On a February morning he traveled to the morgue expecting to retrieve the body and escort it to an awaiting aircraft at Cairo International Airport. “I signed several papers,” he recalls, “and went to the Sudanese Embassy but [the Sudanese authorities] said the body couldn’t be sent until they have a letter sent from the Sudanese Minister of Affairs.” A letter was drafted and permission to send the body was granted. The Egyptian government approved, and UNCHR approved, and, finally, Thomas went to the morgue to receive the body. Everything, it appeared, was in order. “But then,” he told me, “when I was on the way to the airport, they stopped me.” This is when, he continued, “everything turned upside down.”

* * *

Thomas had sent Theresa’s orphaned children to Sudan that same week, with funding from a local charity (UNHCR had declared the orphaned children were ‘not of concern’ to the office). It was only a few days later that I had first met him, at a seminar hosted by the American University in Cairo’s Forced Migration and Refugee Studies program. The program had assembled preliminary findings in an independent investigation into the protest and its grisly conclusion. On a cold Wednesday evening these findings were presented to a full house of refugees, UNHCR officials, media representatives, and the general public.

Thomas wore a fine suit, and following the presentation, raised his hand. “What I would like to know,” he asked, “is what can we do about the bodies of our beloved ones? I have gotten all of the documentation from Egyptian security and from the Sudanese embassy, but still they refuse to release the body to go back to Sudan.” The room was silent. Few had any real knowledge of the complex struggles facing the families of the deceased, and none had mapped a path to success. He minced no words about his frustration and his plan to kill himself if foiled one more time in what had become an endless string of attempts to recover Theresa from Zenhom morgue, deliver her to the airport, and have her flown back to Sudan. He needed closure, and he wanted journalists to accompany him on his next try – to cover the result, one way or the other.

* * *

Before ever approaching the morgue, Thomas had spent the month of January making arrangements for Theresa’s transport. Not the least of his challenges were raising the requisite cash and coordinating with relatives to collect the body in Khartoum. After unsuccessful attempts to actually receive the US$1,000 expense payment promised by UNHCR, Thomas resorted to begging on the street for the 4,000LE (US$690) he would need to pay for the arrangements. In a country in which a respectable job with the Government, or as faculty at a university, will net 500-1000LE a month, 4,000LE is an unfathomable sum.

Much of the Egyptian media blamed the refugees themselves for their demise, praising the security forces for removing what many saw as a blight in the urban landscape. Few voices discussed the conditions under which refugees live in Cairo and the reasons behind their protest, though many Egyptians face similar financial and healthcare related hardships. A thick resentment and clear lack of understanding permeated the press. Why are they here if they so hate this place? Why do they compete with us for our jobs? The social climate was not, therefore, particularly sympathetic to the refugees’ cause when Thomas sat down on a busy Cairo street with a handwritten sign attached to his chest. He was not optimistic, but had no other options but to beg for help. He was surprised by the response.

“One Egyptian man saw what I wrote,” Thomas recalled when we met on the terrace, “and he asked me what my name was. He asked, ‘you had someone who died during this event?’ and said, ‘I’m sorry. I saw it happen. I’m sorry it happened at Egyptian hands, we [Egyptians and Sudanese] have a good historical relationship. The army should have had another alternative, to make another plan than to make it that way. How much does the ticket cost?’ And then he gave me 4,000 pounds, and he said ‘if this isn’t enough, here’s my phone number’ and this is how I got the ticket, it wasn’t UNHCR.”

* * *

Throughout early January Courtney Mitchell continued accompanying family members to the morgue, to observe treatment and to provide support and international representation in the face of an unsympathetic Egyptian security apparatus. “Imagine that your family member is dead,” she recounts, “and it is likely that other family members are missing or in detention, and you are now told that you have to go the police station to file a police report, then to another office to obtain a death certificate, and to another to have a document issued stating that you are the relative authorized to claim this body, etc. Imagine further that you have lost your documents in the violence of the forced park eviction, whether UNHCR identity card or passport, and as such, cannot prove legal residency. You know that authorities are arresting and detaining persons considered to be illegal, for possible deportation back to a country where you may face prosecution that may be of such an extreme nature as to rise to the level of persecution. Going to the police station under such conditions does not appear to be a safe option.” Nearly a week after the violence she wrote, “many bodies are still unidentified, including several children, as loved ones sit in detention asking desperately about their missing children. Friends and family members on the outside don’t want to tell them that they could be dead.”

For some families the specter of death is too much to accept, and they refuse to acknowledge the possibility. “Photos of missing children are circulated, although several of the little ones are not missing, their bodies are actually lying in the morgue,” Courtney continues, “four children have been left orphaned by the death of their mother. A neighbor tells me that she has explained to the children that their mother is at the store and will be coming home soon, unable to bear the burden of being the one to break the news.”

Not helping the situation, many in Cairo’s Sudanese community are particularly wary of Egyptian doctors. For years, accusations of black market dealings in human organs have fueled overwhelming suspicion. Egyptian doctors, the story goes, prey on the vulnerability of Sudanese and others, particularly refugees, to cater to the needs of an awaiting and wealthy clientele in the Persian Gulf. Organs are harvested during standard operations, refugees claim, or when a person has freshly died.

This issue would resurface continually over the course of the next four months. “Many families,” Courtney recalls, “not understanding the rationale for the scar from the autopsy, are convinced that their loved ones have been cut in such a manner for illegal organ harvesting. A woman cries to me, telling me that her son’s eyes have been taken and that the hospital told her that they assumed consent after the child was dead when the family was not around to prevent the corneas from being taken. I have no reason to doubt what she has said, making it even more difficult to convince others that the scar is related to a standard autopsy, part of the police investigation into the cause of death, and not organ removal.”

* * *

Thomas expressed little concern about organ removal. He wanted to have the body buried, to have this happen as soon as possible, and to have it happen in Sudan. The airplane was supposed to go at 10:00am on the day of his initial attempt. That morning he had signed the release papers and began the trip to Cairo International Airport. He was stopped, midway, by state security. “The government said ‘no, you should not take the body now because it’s in the early hours and journalists will see and make a problem’ they said, ‘choose any other day,’ and I said Friday. No one works on Friday, it will be empty.” Thomas had chosen strategically, Friday is a day of prayer and kindness in Islam. The security forces refused to answer. Instead they claimed that if he took the body back to the morgue they would make a ‘special security arrangement’ and travel back out with him in convoy. They said they “needed to pray and then they would take me safely [to the airport, that we] would go back. I showed them my papers, and said, ‘Are there any missing or illegal or incomplete papers?’ They said, no, there is no problem, your papers are all right, we just want to go back to pray.”

Once back at the morgue, Thomas was informed that he would not be allowed to take the body to the airport. It was not permitted to go back to Sudan and this order had come from the Minister of Interior himself. Defeated, Thomas decided to approach the Sudanese Embassy for help. Egyptian security, however, refused to let him leave without the body. “They said there was no room for the body at the morgue now, and told me I should receive the body” Thomas told me. “I said ‘my house is not a hospital, I will take it to the airport,’ they said no but wouldn’t receive the body. We were arguing and arguing, and I left, and I left the body outside.”

* * *

The next day was spent trying to discover where the plan had hit a snag. Thomas set off to find whoever had issued the ‘block order’ and discover why. Egyptian authorities claimed the Sudanese Embassy had intervened, and the Sudanese consulate argued the opposite. Again Thomas approached Egyptian security, who again claimed not to have a problem with the removal. The problem, they said, “is with the Sudanese government.”

For some days this back-and-forth continued across the frustratingly frenzied maze of minibuses, taxis, mule-drawn carts and fearless pedestrians that fill Cairo’s bustling streets. Trips between the morgue and Embassies, or the Ministry of Interior and a meal, can take many hours. On February 10th, facing the expiration of the ticket he had begged on the street to acquire, Thomas tried again to get the body to the airport, and again did not get far. The body, they told him at the morgue, was “under arrest.” Nobody would be able to get it out until state security allowed it. The Sudanese Government, they claimed, forbade it.

* * *

By now it way late February, nearly two months since the bodies had been delivered to Zenhom. Unburied, they slowly decayed while relatives scrambled fruitlessly through bureaucracy and opaque geo-politics for their release.

At the end of their rope, some Sudanese suggested having another demonstration; others wanted to bring a case before the courts. All agreed that they were powerless. Death certificates, while issued, left the ’cause of death’ blank, so a case couldn’t be brought against Egyptian security for mistreatment. The Sudanese government continued to maintain a willingness to have the bodies shipped to Sudan, but made no efforts towards that end. Egyptian authorities also claimed support, but continued to hold the bodies, ‘pending orders from above’. While UNHCR maintained that the bodies should be able to be buried in Sudan, it did little to press either government and indeed tried to convince the bereaved to bury locally, both by directly communicating that suggestion and by significantly under-funding the trip home. The Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), the major challenge to the government in Khartoum that had lead the war in the South for nearly a decade, stepped in to support the (predominantly Southern) refugees, but in the end backtracked, “stating that it is the responsibility of UNHCR as the agency that asked the Government of Egypt to intervene by dispersing those protesting in the park.” While support remained scarce for the refugees, there was no shortage of finger pointing.

“Finally,” Thomas told me, “I gave up. I said, ‘I refuse to go to any more offices, I will stay at home’, they were torturing me. The Sudanese government called me and said ‘come get the body and bury it locally’ and I said ‘I’m busy, I have a job. And what if the body is disturbed? What if organs have been removed?’ And they said ‘Sudanese doctors have been sent to check the body’.” This only furthered Thomas’ frustration. “I said ‘why did you send doctors here to check the body instead of just sending the body to Sudan?'”

* * *

Waiting for secondary autopsies to dispel the suspicion of organ snatching was later cited as the main obstacle between the bodies and burial. According to the Sudanese Embassy, doctors were flown from Khartoum to re-examine the bodies and prove that everything was as it should be. Many refugees, with little access to the bodies, feared the worst. “Two pieces of information have subsequently come to light that explain the delays and problems regarding the transfer of bodies from the morgue to families and, eventually, to Sudan,” a later investigation reported. “First, UNHCR has noted that it took a considerable amount of time to verify the identity of those who had been killed and then to find relevant family members. Second, a joint investigatory team—consisting of officials from the Sudanese Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the Interior, and Justice in partnership with a forensic doctor from the Egyptian Ministry of Justice—was formed to investigate the widely circulated rumors of organ theft. According to a UNHCR email, it was the Sudanese authorities in Egypt that requested no bodies be allowed to leave the country until the investigation was completed. The team completed its work on February 15 and made its findings known to the relevant authorities; it is not believed the findings will be made public.”

Thomas met the Sudanese physician team at the morgue. “I took a taxi immediately to look at the bodies,” he told me. “A man said ‘the doctors came and said everything was alright.’ But they were lying to me. Someone else told me, ‘they opened the bodies again’ but they didn’t. ‘Only two days and all the bodies will go to Sudan,’ they told me, ‘and all the organs are in place.’ A little later I told someone else that I wanted to see the body of my loved one, without telling him I knew about the doctor’s visit, and he let me into the room and closed the door behind me. I was alone in a room with 20 bodies, but the bodies were all sealed and stamped in the cardboard boxes, and nothing had been done to them. The boxes had not been opened; the seals were still on them. They were stamped.”

* * *

The days wore on and pressure to bury locally continued. Not only were the bodies more than two months into decomposition, but it was increasingly apparent that no one with the power to do so had any interest in intervening on behalf of the bereaved. The Egyptian Government, having defended their argument that they were not responsible for the deaths, had strong reasons for not wanting the bodies released and examined; the Sudanese government had little enthusiasm for welcoming home exiles who had died protesting the suggestion that they return to Sudan; and the UNHCR, the organization committed to the protection of the refugees, would not put up the funding or political fight to make the travel possible. CARITAS began dangling 5,700LE in front families who agreed to bury locally.

Thomas was unwavering. For a third time he tried to send Theresa’s body back. Once again refused, and pressured to sign for local burial, he finally gave up. He walked away. “‘Do whatever you please with the body,” he said, “bury it if you want, I will not sign” and then he went home.

Burial proceedings began in early March, a full nine weeks after the protest break up. Not a single body was returned to Sudan.

* * *

Police surrounded the morgue when Thomas, defeated, eventually arrived to sign for local burial. Authorities from State security, the Sudanese Embassy, and the Egyptian Government were all in attendance. “‘I thank God that we have met and that both the Sudanese and Egyptian government are here,'” Thomas announced, “both of you have been telling me that the other party has been refusing to release the body for burial in Sudan. Now that you are both here, tell me, who has been refusing to release the body to go to Sudan?'” It was a daring risk to embarrass diplomatic officials in front of State security. “I was immediately detained by an officer and taken behind a building” Thomas said. “He asked, ‘why are you making a trouble?’ and I said ‘the truth should be said – and I am just asking. We are the people who lost our beloved ones. What is the great, great crime that we, the relatives, have committed?” His resolve flared once again, and he reversed his decision. “I will not sign for the body to be buried here, I am Thomas Akol and I will not sign.'”

* * *

“The Egyptian and Sudanese governments share important interests and propensities,” Maria Golia wrote in an article for Egypt’s Daily Star insert in the International Herald Tribune, “the brazen abuse of human rights not least among the latter.” In the aftermath of the protest, the international furor over the savagery of the beating, the arbitrary and prolonged detention of children, and the lack of respect for international law exhibited in early discussions of returning the refugees to Sudan was as loud as it was brief. While scribbles of paper were being tallied in Barbara Harrell-Bond’s tenth-floor apartment and Courtney Mitchell was comforting devastated fathers, mothers, and children, Human Rights Watch demanded an independent investigation and sent a letter to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, berating his use of excessive force; editorials sprang up on the internet and buzzed through global radio-stations about Egypt’s ‘rights record’; the Sudan Organization Against Torture and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights ‘strongly condemned’ the crackdown from their London and Cairo offices and demanded the immediate release of the bodies and compensation for the victims families. Even the Bush Administration, hesitant to criticize a ‘democratic ally’ in the War on Terror, spoke out against the event. But the attention was short lived, much of it gone within a few days, and now it was March in Cairo, and while the story had not yet concluded, the refugees were all but forgotten. No international watchdog stepped in for the oft demanded ‘independent investigation’, no organization provided emergency funds for bodies to be transported home, no concerned group offered the necessary counseling and trauma services, and no country, even those so critical of the ‘brutality’ in Cairo, stepped up to offer even some portion of the 2,000 Sudanese protesters and their families the security of resettlement.

* * *

The psychological toll of the burial ordeal on many refugee families was extensive. While Egypt and Sudan often pay lip-service to the idea of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘unity’ tracing back to antiquity, very few would suggest that there are many cultural similarities; particularly between Northern Egypt and Southern Sudan. Acculturative stress is high among refugees in Cairo, even many years after arrival. Few feel comfortable navigating the intricacies of Cairene social roles and rules, if they are ever provided the opportunity. Non-Muslims rarely find themselves able to create lasting relationships, and are often isolated and lonely. Those of darker complexion often complain of relentless racism and heckling. They fear for their children and dislike the food, they long for the familiarities of their cultural past. Local burial represented perpetual discomfort. Without access to traditional grieving mechanisms and cultural supports, the idea of local burial weighs heavily on the mental health of those fighting for burial in Sudan. Physically exhausted, many gave up, emotionally in ruins.

What happened to Thomas would happen to any human under similar strain, “I went home and I cried and cried all day. It was very painful. I cried a lot, until I became very sick, and I was admitted to the hospital for two weeks.” He had begun receiving threats by phone. “If you don’t sign they will do bad things to you,” a friend had warned him, “they will kill you, they will harm you – I was like you, but yesterday I signed and released the body. These people are persistent and won’t let it go.” The Sudanese Embassy offered him 1,500LE if he agreed to release the body for local burial. He felt betrayed by the offer, and the lack of help when he was fund-raising to send the body home.

Thomas wrote a letter turning all rights to the body over to a fellow teacher, Charles Bunira, and declared himself finished with it. His name would not be on a local burial authorization. He had done all he could do. He had written away his beloved one.

* * *

On March 25th, 86 days after she was killed at Mustapha Mahmoud Park, Theresa was released to Charles Bunira for burial at the Cupola Catholic Church Cemetery in Cairo. Theresa was released with another body, a child, both to be buried at the church in a joint ceremony. “The child was carried out of the morgue and put in the casket outside” Dr. Harrell-Bond noted in an interview at her flat a few weeks later, “I noticed the father nearly collapsing with his grief.” When Theresa’s body emerged, she was completely covered except for her head. “I’ve not seen many corpses after three months, but her head was swollen and distorted. It was awful.”

The bodies were transported across town to the Church where a ceremony was conducted in Arabic. Charles Bunira spoke and the priest spoke. “Afterwards,” Dr. Harrell-Bond recalled, “the bodies were put into what were really cement drawers. They shoved them in and sealed them over. The priest told me that this was so that they could eventually be taken back to Sudan, but I didn’t hear that from anyone else. I’m not sure he knew what he was talking about.”

* * *

For Thomas, things did not end with the burial. Two Egyptian men broke into his house to tell him he was “messing with the wrong people” and that he was “playing with fire.” The threatening phone calls increased. “You tried to fight us and look what happened, the body was buried” one yelled through the receiver before accusing him of forming anti-Egyptian groups in the South of Sudan.

The calls became more frequent. Sometimes Sudanese were on the other end, accusing him of accepting financial reward for ‘giving up’; other times it was Egyptians accusing him of agitating against them. Even his relatives in Sudan disowned him. “We were waiting for so long,” they told him, “and now we hear that you received money, why did you accept it, to bury the body there?”

Thomas changed apartments three times over a five-week period before becoming permanently homeless. The Mukhabarat – state secret police – had been able to track him everywhere he went. They would show up at his door and call his work saying, “you are still causing trouble.” They accused him of actions against the State, and of meeting with opponents of Egypt.

One caller proposed a meeting. “They said, ‘come alone, peacefully, to this place in 6th October City and talk to us.’ I said, ‘who are you? I’m not coming. Since the body has been buried I’ve been doing nothing!’ But they said ‘No, you’ve been meeting with people!’ I said, ‘Tell me who I’ve been meeting? At the Church? This would not be allowed! I am at Cilantro Café and you can come here and talk to me.”

Thomas has considered giving up his refugee status and returning to Sudan, but his mother refuses to receive him home. She heard he is a ‘troublemaker’ through Sudanese television. If not at home, he thought, perhaps he could live somewhere in the countryside; but then he remembered a friend recently killed by a landmine who had the same idea. Maybe Libya or Israel could provide a better life, he suggested during our May meeting, well aware of Israel’s detention policy and the increasing number of Sudanese shot at the border, and the perils of crossing the desert to Libya. “I am living a miserable life,” he told me, saddened in the now dark night air, “running here and there. They follow me everywhere I go, they phone me, they are trying to isolate me completely. If I’m at a wedding or birthday and they ask me to pray or say something, several days later I get a phone call accusing me of talking at a meeting. God knows what I’m going to do.”

* * *

By the end of March, all the bodies had been laid to rest; not one in Sudanese soil. Little has changed in Cairo for the refugees straining to retain their livelihoods and dignity. The UNHCR continues to suggest that many of them ‘voluntarily repatriate’, as the Sudanese civil war, at least on paper, is over. Refugees still flow into Egypt however, and the conflict in Darfur continues. One puzzled and frustrated refugee, attending the only community grievance outlet provided to many of the refugees, the FMRS weekly Seminar Series at the American University in Cairo, declared his dissatisfaction and his frustration with the insistence that ‘going home’ was the only option. “Even the dead,” he said, referencing the decaying bodies in Cairo, “don’t go back to Sudan.”

 

 

(Author note: names changed for protection)

Sources

Azzam, Fateh, et. al., (forthcoming) A Tragedy of Errors: Report on the Events Surrounding the Three-month Sit-In and Forced Eviction of Sudanese Refugees in Cairo. Cairo: Forced Migration & Refugee Studies Program, The American University in Cairo

_____, (2006, Jan 5). Condemning the killing of Sudanese Refugees. London/Cairo: Sudan Organization against Torture (SOAT) & Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) retrieved May 6, 2006, from: http://cihrs.com

Akol, Thomas, (2006, May 7). Personal Interview. The American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt

Golia, Maria (2006, Jan 10). Sudan’s Refugees, Sticks and Stonewalling. Cairo: The Daily Star, Retrieved May 6, 2006, from: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/

Harrell-Bond, Barbara E., (2006, Mar 3). Compounding the Tragedy of 30 December in Cairo. Cairo: Pambazuka News, Retrieved May 6, 2006 from: http:://www.pambazukanews.org

Harrell-Bond, Barbara E., (2006, May 10). Personal Interview. Garden City, Cairo, Egypt

Mitchell, Courtney, (2006). Body Bargaining: How Much is a Dead Loved One Worth? Sudanese Refugees in Cairo Struggle to Identify the Bodies of Loved Ones in the aftermath of violence in a local park. Cairo: Unpublished

Protesting Sudanese Refugee – Name Withheld, (2005, Nov 21). Personal interview. Mustapha Mahmoud Park, Cairo, Egypt

Whitson, Sarah Leah, and Bill Frelick, (2006, Jan 4). Letter to President Mubarak on the Sudanese Refugees in Cairo. New York: Human Rights Watch, Retrieved May 6, 2006, from http:://www.hrw.org/

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