By a Middle East and North Africa Staff Member*
When asked why he left Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, “Odeh” could only laugh, then pause. He struggles to answer any question that reminds him of his former life. Then, he told me the story of how, one night, he was sitting at home with relatives when Egyptian soldiers broke down their door, knocked over food-laden tables, and raided their home. In seconds, they went from eating food cooked over a live fire – as families in Sinai traditionally do – to gun-wielding soldiers forcing Odeh, his parents, and other older relatives against the wall, yelling at them to put their arms up.
His cousins, all children, screamed and cried – sounds Odeh heard echoing from neighbors’ homes when soldiers raided their homes as well. Odeh knew that those arrested might never be heard from again and that soldiers sometimes executed people during raids. He prayed that everyone would survive family dinner.
The soldiers left as abruptly as they came, fortunately arresting no one this time. Violent home raids occur frequently in his neighborhood. While claiming to pursue terrorist activity, the Egyptian army arbitrarily detains thousands taken during these home invasions across North Sinai, which made Odeh wonder whether their goal was actually to protect them or terrorize them.
It was just one of several violent acts he witnessed, including two brief detention experiences, pushing him to flee his home while he was still a young man.
Egypt’s military has been fighting a conflict in North Sinai Governate, the northern part of its Sinai Peninsula, against “Sinai Province,” an Islamic State-affiliated militant group. But it is civilians like Odeh who bear the brunt of the conflict.
Government soldiers have forced out tens of thousands from their homes, “disappeared” hundreds, and have carried out extrajudicial killings, according to a new Human Rights Watch report, “’If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai!’: Egyptian Security Forces and ISIS-Affiliate Abuses in Northern Sinai.” The Egyptian government regularly cuts communications to the area and severely restricts electricity, drinking water, car fuel, and other essential goods. The army has recruited some locals, including past criminals, into unofficial militias to threaten, abduct, and torture people suspected of having ties to the ISIS-affiliate. North Sinai has been deemed a “closed military zone” and journalists are barred from reporting there – all in the name of fighting Sinai Province.
Egyptian police and army soldiers’ arbitrary arrests mark daily life in the areas where militants have been the most active, residents told Human Rights Watch, including the towns of Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed, al-Arish, and their surrounding villages.
Odeh couldn’t understand why the army often failed to protect people from Sinai Province fighters. To him, it seemed the army’s counterterrorism tactics mostly targeted civilians.
He had seen the Sinai Province fighters around his hometown. “They’re not human,” he said. Odeh described them as taking their time when they conduct missions – such as a killing or an abduction – as if they had nothing to fear from the military.
It is well-known that the group deliberately attacks civilians, Odeh told me. Among their main targets are those known for working alongside and with government forces, army sympathizers, Christians, Muslims who oppose their understanding of Islam, and many others.
Once while driving across the once-rich farmlands of Sinai with his family, Sinai Province fighters stopped them at a temporary checkpoint manned by the ISIS-affiliate and forced them to witness an execution, in the vicinity (around 100 meters) of an Egyptian military checkpoint. The fighters had detained a man in his late twenties, accused of cooperating with Egyptian security forces, who was traveling with his mother.
Odeh saw Sinai Province fighters drag the victim from his car, throw him on the ground, and recite prayers aloud for people in other vehicles to hear and watch. The fighters then sliced the man’s throat. His mother jumped out of the car, screaming, picking up and throwing sand.
“They stopped us all to watch. It came out later in a video,” Odeh says.
Not long after, Odeh decided to leave Sinai and seek a new life outside Egypt.
Sinai residents have told Human Rights Watch that the police and military treat residents of North Sinai with instant suspicion, as if they’re working with or hiding Sinai Province fighters. The military’s abuses have become so extreme, that many people, like Odeh, believe the military deliberately targets civilians in North Sinai, and that soldiers don’t want to protect them from the extremist militants. In 2018 alone, the army conducted house demolitions that destroyed at least 3,600 homes and commercial buildings, as well as hundreds of kilometers of farmland, leaving tens of thousands of civilians with little or no remedies for temporary accommodation, new jobs, or schools for the children. Of the relatively small North Sinai population (less than half a million), the army and police have arrested over 12,000 people from July 2013 to the end of 2018.
Since the conflict’s start, Odeh and his family say they have felt increasingly isolated from mainland Egypt, as if Sinai residents were off the Egyptian government’s radar except as a security threat. Egypt’s biased media coverage, including government Facebook pages that tally deaths of extremists and terrorists and never mention the terror and abuses faced by residents, has taken a toll on people living in Sinai.
“You don’t feel like you’re counted [as a citizen] in the country,” Odeh said. He said he feels like Sinai residents are not depicted as “as people, as humans that don’t have enough food, milk, or places to live… The [social media smear campaigns] made the world hate us where Facebook comments say, ‘you’re a terrorist, you’re a traitor, you’re part of Israel!’”
Still, Odeh misses Sinai. Sinai to him is Egypt, and home. Egypt to him is the farmland he knew, the house, the neighborhood cats, the neighbors, and the people. He gets homesick when he thinks of his father feeding their animals in the morning, the smell of the bread his mother makes, and almond trees. He says at night, when almond trees shine, it’s like watching something enchanting, magical. He is afraid that they won’t be there when or if he ever goes back.
“I was happy with the simple life.”
Now, a few years after leaving Sinai, he is seeking residency abroad. He remains too afraid to share his location and situation publicly. During our interview, Odeh stopped talking several times. Although willing to speak, he was still afraid that sharing his experience might mean the army, the pro-army militias, or Sinai Province fighters could harm his family, who still live in Sinai.
When asking him if he misses Sinai enough to go back, he paused, but this time he didn’t laugh.
“Everyone has someone who’s been killed or arrested by terrorists or by the government... Everyone has feelings inside them, like someone who has seen their father killed. How is this going to be healed?”
Even if the conflict ended tomorrow, things can’t go back to normal, he says.
“A small child can identify the different types of airplane noises and tell you what kind of fighter jet it is; he can tell you what all the sounds of fear are,” he said. “Even the children aren’t children anymore.”
*This piece was written by a Middle East and North Africa staff member who wished to remain anonymous.