Egyptians in Gaza: 'We escaped from certain death'

Rafah, Gaza – Surviving in a dirty tent in southern Gaza, Salman Shigan cannot return home across the border to neighbouring Egypt – because his home no longer exists.

“We escaped from the unbearable persecution and almost certain death carried out by the Egyptian army, during what they called the counterterrorism operations against jihadist groups in Sinai,” the 71-year-old told Al Jazeera.

Shigan’s family home in northern Sinai was demolished by the Egyptian army in 2015, as soldiers worked to clear areas where armed fighters were alleged to be hiding. The incident prompted him to suffer a heart attack. After partially recovering, he and his family – including 24 children and grandchildren – fled to Gaza through a tunnel used by smugglers.

Egyptians who have crossed the border have found a new set of challenges in the blockaded Palestinian territory [Isra Namey/Al Jazeera]

The Egyptian army has not compensated the family for the destruction of their house. “They left us to face unknown destiny with our young children … Now, we live in abominable conditions and hugely suffer to get the basic services of water and electricity,” Shigan said.

Egypt’s Sinai province has been rocked by violence and instability since armed groups stepped up attacks against the army after the 2013 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. In response, the Egyptian army launched a massive military campaign, which involved the demolition of hundreds of homes. Caught in the crossfire, hundreds of Bedouin tribespeople have fled the region for Gaza.

The flow of refugees from the Sinai has continued into this year, with many telling of how their homes were demolished, their loved ones persecuted and their lives destroyed. But they are not finding much comfort in the Gaza Strip, where a crippling Israeli-Egyptian siege has made life unbearable for many of the territory’s two million residents.

Adel Abdulrahman, who has been acting as a spokesperson for the Gaza-based Egyptian residents, told Al Jazeera that to date, about 500 had settled in Gaza, mostly in the Palestinian half of Rafah city. They have been subsisting on the help of relatives or handouts from humanitarian charities. Tens of thousands of others have remained in Sinai.

“The marginalised community of Bedouins in Sinai are the ones paying the price for the [ongoing conflict],” Abdulrahman said. “The continuous Egyptian operation against those fighters can never justify the violation of residents’ human rights.”

Since 2013, he said, 30 Egyptian civilians have been killed in Sinai by the military or armed groups, and another 150 have been injured.

An estimated 500 Egyptians have settled in Gaza, mostly in the Palestinian half of Rafah city [Isra Namey/Al Jazeera]

Aisha Silmi, 50, finally made it to Gaza in 2016 after many aborted attempts to cross the border. After living for three decades in the Egyptian half of the divided city of Rafah, Silmi and her family were expelled from their town by the Egyptian army.

She recalls the day an Egyptian battalion raided her house, frightening her children and ordering them to leave.

“They rigged the corners of my house with explosives and set them off by remote control in front of my eyes,” Silmi told Al Jazeera. “The ordeal did not stop there; they even started to frantically chase two of my sons, accusing them of having links with the militants.”

The Egyptian army ultimately arrested two of her children and brutally beat them before releasing them, she said, noting that the family began preparing to move to Gaza shortly thereafter. They were not compensated for their demolished house and had to start from zero in Gaza. Silmi says that she lives in constant fear over the fate of her relatives remaining in Sinai.

Aisha Silmi and her family were expelled from their town by the Egyptian army [Isra Namey/Al Jazeera]

“I am so much afraid for them and their destiny there,” she said. “Not every one of us who wanted to travel to Gaza succeeded, and sadly many are still stranded in the desert.”

Ziad Sarafandi, the head of refugees’ affairs in Gaza, told Al Jazeera that the Egyptians who had fled across the border needed help badly. His office was trying to assist them by securing scholarships for their children to study in local universities, along with coordinating with the United Nations to help provide basic aid.

“Those refugees sought shelter in Gaza, which is mainly constituted of refugees,” Sarafandi said. “Despite the bad conditions here, we can never abandon our Egyptian brothers and sisters.”

Meanwhile, those Egyptians who have crossed the border say they are continually haunted by their losses as they struggle to survive in the blockaded territory.

Mohammed – who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the Egyptian army – said that he was forced to flee Sinai amid fears of being killed or injured in the ongoing conflict.

“We escaped from certain death. After my son was captured by the army, tortured and lost one of his eyes, I told my family that we cannot continue to live here for one more day,” Mohammed said. “We moved to Gaza through the smuggling tunnels. My daughters and my ill wife were very afraid while crossing the tunnels.

“The war is so cruel; it stained our children’s minds with very bad memories and experiences,” he added. “In spite of our pain and loss, we are trying to remain composed and get back on our feet again. But I am looking for a day when the war is over, to turn back and build my house in Sinai with my family.”

Source: Al Jazeera