Monday, June 30, 2008

Abo Regeila

I’ve heard about, but never physically been to, makeshift housing areas like 3arab Abo Regeila – although these areas visit their more well-to-do counterparts regularly, on donkey carts, collecting rubbish.

3arab Abo Regeila is a collection of shacks built on either side of the Suez – Cairo railway track. A contact having stood me up, I went by taxi and initially couldn’t find it. The taxi driver asked people in the neighbourhood where 3arab Abo Regeila was and they’d never heard of it – despite the fact that they were standing 50 metres away from it. Extreme poverty equals invisibility.

But then perhaps an area like this doesn’t deserve a name, doesn’t deserve to be recognised. It is a long strip of huts, and shacks, and one-storey brick rooms surrounded by rubbish and pools of evil-looking stagnant water and piles of cardboard. All of this is quite literally next to the railway tracks – some of the shacks are barely a metre away from them. Residents say that when trains go past, everything shakes like an earthquake is happening.

When I went this morning the heat was almost unbearable, and there was just no shade in Abo Regeila apart from inside the shacks, which themselves have no air. One room I entered had such an overpowering smell of urine that I nearly vomited. This same room had a poster of a rural scene on the wall, perhaps to replace the absent window.

There is no running water of course, although there is running sewage, pumped from God knows where into a festering pool. Inhabitants complain of constant torment by flies and mosquitoes, feeding on the animal, and perhaps human, excrement which dots the heaps of rubbish amongst which the goats and the children play.

There is a proper amusement park behind Abo Regeila. It is called Hadiqet El-Badr, Badr Gardens, and has a big wheel, swings, clean open spaces…The army owns it. I forgot to ask whether it admits its barefoot neighbours.

These people, hundreds of families, have been issued an eviction order. Nobody knows exactly why the army suddenly wants its land back after ignoring these people for twenty years, but there we are. When a group of journalists and lawyers went today (the eviction order was meant to be carried out today, though usually surprise evictions are carried out, for least resistance) Abo Regeila’s inhabitants were furious, and scared and suspicious, particularly of the motivations of the foreign journalist ‘with the yellow hair’, and I regretted – as I often do – the barrier that foreignness imposes.


CAIRO: Hundreds of families who have lived in makeshift housing next to a railway track for over twenty years are facing the threat of eviction.

The families, who live in Arab Abo Regeila in the El-Salam district of northern Cairo, have not been offered alternative housing.

“These families have lived in Abo Regeila for years without anyone troubling them,” Mohamed Abdel Azim of the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights (ECHR) told Daily News Egypt.

“They were told that the army would be evicting them on the 30th June but have not been offered alternative housing. The reason why they are being evicted isn’t clear – nobody knows exactly what the plans are for this land,” Abdel Azim continued.

While the legal status of the land is unclear, it is surrounded by land owned by the Egyptian army, including an amusement park, Hadiqet El-Badr, also owned by the army.

There are unconfirmed rumours that the army wants to evict the families in order to expand the amusement park.

Living conditions in Arab Abo Regeila are desperate. Families live in either shacks or basic one-storey brick houses constructed on the banks of the Cairo-Suez railway line.

There is no running water – one inhabitant told Daily News Egypt that she collects water from a neighbouring factory – and pools of lurid green stagnant water attract flies and mosquitoes.

Daily News Egypt also saw an exposed swamp of water into which live sewage was being pumped, located in between houses.

Residents said that small children have fallen into the swamp.

“Of course I’d leave if I had the chance – why would anyone choose to stay here living in this filth? But where can I go? I can only leave if me and my children are given somewhere else to live where we can earn a living,” one woman told Daily News Egypt.

Many of Arab Abo Regeila’s residents earn a living by collecting and selling cardboard – which is stacked up almost everywhere in Arab Abo Regeila.

One woman said that the cardboard she sells every 15 days earns her around LE 150.

She said that she uses this money to visit her son, who has been imprisoned for violating the terms of his military service – she says because the family could not afford to lose his source of income.

Another woman told Daily News Egypt that she sells a kilo of cardboard for ten piastres.

While some of their children attend school, economic circumstances have forced many of the families to send their children to work on the donkey carts used to collect cardboard.

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, ECHR lawyer Mohamed El-Helw explained that as a signatory of the United Nations Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Egypt is obliged to provide compensation to people forced to leave their homes and to resettle them, and said that evictions should not involve physical violence.

Egypt has been repeatedly criticised by rights groups for both its failure to provide affordable, acceptable housing for the low-income members of its population and the manner in which the authorities evictions are carried out.

In a statement issued during the press conference ECHR places Arab Abo Regeila within the context of continuing violations of housing rights.

“What is happening at the moment in Abo Regeila is not an isolated incident,” the statement reads.

“Rather, it is a systematic state policy…Despite the passing of a bundle of laws by the government in the People’s Assembly it continues to violate both these laws, and international treaties ratified by the state under which it has obligations towards its citizens including the obligation not to evict people except after consultation with them, and providing them with suitable alternative housing,” the statement continues.

In 2000 the United Nations Committee on Economic and Social Rights criticised Egypt’s policy of forced-evictions, and failure to provide compensation to those evicted.

In March 2007 the Egyptian authorities were strongly criticised after security forces violently attacked residents of Qalat El-Kabsh, Cairo, and used tear gas bombs in an effort to make them leave their homes.

A number of people were injured during the attack.

Over 350 homes in Qalat El-Kabsh had been destroyed by fire but, not having been provided with alternative shelter or compensation, the residents were forced to sleep on the remains of their homes, or in the street.

1 comment:

Q said...

good article.
kudos for giving these ppl a voice. you sound like you went out of your way to find them. no doubt you have a deeply ethical mind.
look forward to your next piece of work.