Monday, 8 December 2014


Sunday 23rd November

At 10.40 pm,  seven or more masked men waving machetes, sticks and knives, burst into a Sudanese restaurant/cafe in the Osman area of Cairo. They attack the cafe customers  and attempt to behead two men. Cafe worker, Ahmed, 25,  has his head his split open, and his arms hacked in an attempt to defend himself. His ear is practically severed.  Another man, Khalid, 19, is tied to a chair but is saved from being decapitated by  but is saved by passers-by. Cafe owner, Gamal, 35 and Sudanese, has left  the cafe to collect paint rollers and buy sugar and coffee. When he returns,  the walls and floor of the cafe are covered in blood. Ahmed and four other injured men are on their way to  nearby hospitals. Later, Gamal realises his Tablet had been stolen in the attack  along with personal documents  containing his  address and that of his family.  

 Osman is bleak and isolated. In  winter the wind blowsthrough, raising sand and in summer, the heat is searing. It's been tacked on to 6th October, a souless satellite town built in the desert and  a mix of gated condiniums, cheap housing and shopping malls. Osman was added by Hosny Mubarak to house Egyptians from the City of the Dead,  displaced by an earthquake. More recently  Syrian and  Sudanese refugees (mainly Sudanese)  have moved into the area. Most of the Sudanese refugees are from Darfur, South Sudan who found their way  to  Salloum, a wretched  refugee camp on the Egyptian-Libyan border before coming to Osman. The area offers  cheap housing, and work can be found in nearby factories. Gamal, who lives outside the area,  invested all his savings in opening the restaurant because, as he says,  "There is  nothing there in the area for the Sudanese people. I wanted to do something for is very hard. They need somewhere to meet and relax.' Immediately after the attack, he closed the cafe for  fear of his and his family's  safety. He will not return, even though it is his only source of livelihood.
Monday 24th November
It becomes apparent that the attack on the restaurant is just one of a series  that regularly target Sudanese refugees in Osman. Earlier this year,  an 11-year-old Sudanese boy was allegedly raped by three Egyptian men. The identities of the men are apparently  known to the police, but there have been no arrests. On the night previous to the attack on the cafe, Mehdat, 27, had an arm practically  sliced off in an machete attack. "It's nothing new," says one unofficial community leader, "We are regularly mugged, raped, attacked by Egyptians here and the police do nothing. We are in a state of seige.' By the end of the week over 70 people will have moved out of the area, children kept  from school, husbands afraid  to go to work because they want to protect their families even though they will earn less. Rumour is rife, but a picture is emerging of the attacks,  implicating   Sudanese gangs from outside the area, possibly orchestrated by Egyptians. It is not sure Ahmed will make it.

Tuesday 25th November
Breaking his bedside vigil at the hospital, Gamal goes to the Section 2 police station in 6th October  to report the crime and ask for protection.The police station is responsible for the Osman area. He is told that  nothing can be done  unless he  gives them the names and addresses of the criminals. Gamal visits  the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee  agency) offices in 6th October  hoping that it will provide  the protection it is mandated to do. He needs to take his stuff out of the cafe but is not sure how safe he will be. Along with a  growing crowd of frightened Osman residents, he waits outside its  barred office. Abandoned by Egyptian authorities, the agency  is their only hope for protection. Their hands reach out through the  bars, waving their documents, hoping to catch the attention of a UNHCR worker..   A security officer stares at Gamal through a security gate. He asks if he can see a protection officer - it is a matter of urgency. The officer refuses with a blank 'No'  "It's a security case. My family and I are in danger." says Gamal. 'No,'  the officer repeats. Another officer thrusts a list into Gamal's hand of of UN numbers to call. Later, Gamal and his partner pack up their flat and leave. Doctors say Ahmed will recover.

Wednesday 26th November  
Frustrated by lack of protection, Osman residents demonstrate outside the UNHCR in 6th
October. One Sudanese woman says she has moved out of Osman with her 15-year-old daughter but cannot afford to live anywhere else. They are sleeping  on the small green opposite the UNHCR offices along with other refugees. Emam is a member of an association of  Osman female residents. She says  that eight women have been raped this year. There are many women living alone in Osman without their husbands.  They  are either missing in Sudan or have been killed. They are too frightened to leave their homes. "We won't let our children go to school," Emam says, and adds that the Sudanese residents  tried to set up their own school but had to close it when some Egyptians began stoning the children. 

Zainab has strange scars on her arms  which she says are all over body. 'From when I was
in Darfur,' she says, and falls silent. She clutches  a piece of paper from Medecines Sans Frontieres, which documents the medical treatment she received after being raped. The document describes how Zainab was asked to work as cleaner for an Egyptian woman. She  went to the house and was forced into a room by the woman and raped by three Egyptian men. She has three children and she says she is  sleepng in the open with them outside the UNHCR office. She is pregnant, but won't say if it is as a result of the rape. Women chant around their banner calling for protection and action. The UNHCR has said it is in a meeting to discuss the Osman problem and someone will come out later to meet them. When the protest has ended, no one reports having met up with any UNHCR official. 

"I am coming every day to try to get to see someone," says one man, "I have lost my job because of it and the office never answers it phones." Another man claims he has an appointment with the UNHCR re his refugee status in 2017.

 Ahmed undergoes a seven hour operation. Doctors say he will recover. Mehdat is in another hospital in Cairo and is not faring so well. He may lose his arm. His wife and baby daughter sleep on a bed beside him but the hospital is charging them  20LE day. The family don't have the money and they no longer have a home. "I can't go back to Osman. There is no security," Mehdat says, ' I dont like this hospital. My arm is smelling.'  The medical costs of both Ahmed and Mehdat are to be met by the UNHCR although nobody from the agency has been to see them, although BISTIC, an NGO for refugees that works alongside UNHCR has visited. 

Thursday 27th November
Gamal spends all morning ringing the UNHCR Egypt, but no reply.  He is now living with his elderly parents and siblings, including a brother who is severely disabled as a result of torture by the Khartoum regime. He risks returning to the restaurant with friends to photograph the damage and the  blood splattered over the floor and walls.

Friday 28th November
Gamal continues ringing the UNHCR. Still no response. He feels he is putting himself at risk again  by going to the office in 6th October. "For sure, some of the members of these gangs will  be there," he says.

Saturday 29th November 
Frustrated, Gamal returns to the UNHCR office in 6th October. He stands with a growing
number of Osman residents, most of whom want to present their case to a protection officer.   Gamal finally catches the attention of one of them. She tells him he must phone the office. He tells her he has been doing this for several days and there is no response. 
  "Keep trying" she says dismissively.
 "I need to see a protection officer. it's an emergency case,"  Gamal says balancing himself against the wall and bars.
 "I am a protection officer," she replies curtly. 

Gamal loses his patience and begins to shout. She moves away, then returns to hand him  a paper through the bars with the phone number of the Protection Office. 

Sunday 30th November 
Mehdat has been told to leave the hospital by a doctor because he had gone to the police to report his case without telling the hospital. He stands outside on the hospital steps with his wife and baby, and no money. A friend advises him to try and get back into the hospital. 

Tuesday 2nd December 
 Ahmed is moved to a UN safe house through BISTIC. Neither the police, nor a UNHCR officer, has been to see him. Gamal and his family  has been visiting him regularly, taking food - it's  the only time they leave the house.  "I feel responsible for what happened to him," Gamal says. "It happened in my cafe.  I feel very bad and I want to  do all I can to help." 
Mehdat  returns to the hospital in which he has no confidence. Doctors have told him he may lose his hand. The safe house which Mehdat claims  was promised to him by a BISTIC worker has not materialised. 

Friday 5th December  
Via the intervention of a journalist, Gamal is given an appointment to see a protection officer at the office in 6th October on Monday 8th. His hopes lift and he prepares his documents, and photographs of the restaurant for the meeting. A friend, who has been trying to set up a new business in Osman, calls to say an X has been cut into a notice on the office door and smeared with blood.  "Leave now," Gamal says.

Monday 8th December 
Mehdat receives the news from BISTIC  that he is to be moved with his family to a safe house. Gamal receives a phone call from a protection officer to say he need not come to the office. An interview is conducted over the phone. 

The officer asks, "Why didn't you open the restaurant again?"

"Obviously, it's not safe any more," Gamal says incredulously. "Nowhere is safe in Egypt." 

He says he was asked who he thought was responsible for the recent spieght of vicious attacks. "I don't know. It could be organised gangs or organised by governments. Who knows? THis is the job of the police.   She just asked me a lot of questions, like what did I want the UNHCR to do? She should know.  She suggested I collect my stuff and start a business somewhere else - as if I have the money to do that!  In the end she told me there was nothing she could do  and  told me to contact BISTIC to ask about a safe house. She said she would look into getting protection while I took  everything out of my restaurant, and would find a lawyer, but she refused to give me her number for further contact."  

Shortly after the call, Gamal received another call from  UNHCR Egypt offering another appointment to see them......

Tuesday 9th December
Gamal turns up for his early morning appointment at the UNHCR 6th October office. He tells the security guard he has an appointment.

 "No you don't," says the guard.

"Please check,' says Gamal giving his name. The guard shakes his head.

Gamal tries to be calm, and insists the guard checks with an officer that he has an appointment. FInally, the guard is told to let Gamal through. The interview is conducted by telephone at a counter, with the UNHCR office on the other side of of a plate of  glass. The officer appears sympathetic and confirms that Gamal has a lawyer and that the restaurant cannot be cleared until the lawyer has seen it, and that possibly a safe house can be found for him and his family. 

"I'll call you," she says. 

"Don't take too long," Gamal says. "I might not be around for long." 

Thursday 11th December
Reports of another attack on a Sudanese restaurant in Cairo. One killed. Report yet to be confirmed. 

Saturday 13th December 
Ahmed moves back to his flat in Osman, despite fears for his safety.  

Sunday 14th December
More protesters outside the UNHCR offices in 6th October.  Gamal has another meeting there with a UNHCR officer. This time it is held behind the barred wall, near the security gate. There is no privacy. He is told the UNHCR cannot offer protection, apart from offering Gamal and his family a 'safe' flat. He would have to find the flat and it must cost no more than 500 LE a month (£50). UNHCR will pay the deposit and the first month. "This is impossible to find in Cairo. The only place you will find such a low rent is in Osman and places like it," Gamal says. "We will have to stay where we are." He wants protection for when he goes to collect the contents of his restaurant, but the UNHCR are not able to provide this and the police certainly won't. He is however, given official refugee status. He is also told to expect a call from the office in two days time.

Mehdat has declined The UNHCR offer of a 'safe' flat and moves back to Osman, while his wife and child stay with relatives.  "They are killing us in Egypt," Gamal says, "Everyone here is." 

January 2015 Update

Frustrated by not being able to contact UNHCR Egypt by phone, Ahmed  camps outside the 6th October in freezing cold temperatures. Gamal and a relative accompany him and stay awake all night, wrapped in blanekets. When UNHCR staff arrive in the morning they warn Ahmed that if he does this again, his case will be dropped. Nevertheless, he manages to get the appoointment he wanted. 

Gamal grows increasingly frustrated. He has been receiving threatening phone calls, and  makes  several more visits to the UNHCR offices in 6th October. Yet again he faces the rudeness of the security guards "They think they are case workers and it is not their job to question people and get information from them," Gamal says. He is  told he has a lawyer to help his case, but doesnt hear anything more for days. Following the intervention of a British journalist and a friend, Gamal  and his family are allocated a UNHCR volunteer and, finally, things start to move. He is referred to an NGO that assists refugees to find work, but there is nothing suitable. His brother's case concerning medical treatment abroad, seems to be moving forward. "I am not going to believe it, until it happens," Gamal says, looking tired and thin after two months  of continual stress.

'The protection of 33.9 million uprooted or stateless people is the core mandate of UNHCR.'


                                     All the names in this diary have been changed. 

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