EXPRESS CHECKOUT

Beneath Cairo’s rubble

Posted in Egyptian Affairs, Environment, Law + Social Policy, Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 20 September, 2008

Below in Manshayet Nasser

Thousands in Cairo Still Live in Fear at a Cliff’s Edge
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
The New York Times
September 20, 2008

CAIRO — People still live at the cliff’s edge. Hundreds of children play at the cliff’s edge. And the cliff is crumbling, right under their feet, huge mustard-colored boulders, tumbling away from the mountain wall. The children play. Their parents worry. “If they just gave us tents, we would go live in those tents,” said Samah Abdel Qader, 45, a nurse who has two children and lives at the cliff’s edge, literally. The police have cordoned off the neighborhood; they don’t want any prying reporters, foreign observers or charity groups to get in. “It’s a crisis,” barked one state security agent, when asked why the area was sealed. A crisis for the government seems to be what he meant.

On Sept. 6 a huge piece of this cliff broke off and crushed the lives below, poor people living on the edge of the city. So far, 101 bodies have been recovered, but the true scope of what happened remains hidden beneath massive rocks that rest where they fell. Now the government faces a reckoning: What to do with all the people still buried; what to do with all the people, the many thousands, still living beneath the fragile cliff; what to do with the many people living on top of the cliff; what to do about its own reputation, having failed repeatedly to manage any recent crisis in a way that did not leave survivors angry and alienated. “There is fear of another rockslide every moment,” said a general in the Interior Ministry, the state’s internal security agency, which has taken the lead in this crisis — as it has in all the others. The general is not authorized to release his name but did offer a surprising degree of candor, expressing frustration with the system, top to bottom, that has let so many people down. “There is negligence,” the general said. “The whole country is responsible and every person sitting in his chair is responsible.”

It was late morning, and the neighbors were frustrated by their police-imposed isolation. So they led a tour, passing messages by cellphones to avoid the police and informants, taking visitors onto the cliff, with its frightening view of the pit. Down below was Douaiqa, a poor corner of Manshayet Nasser, a sprawling neighborhood of more than one million residents. Three large excavators were parked and silent. A large awning was set up to shade the plastic chairs for the officers, stars on their shoulders. No work was going on, and neighbors said that as the days had passed the pace of recovery had slowed. “There used to be more people here, but every day it is less and less,” said Said Yousef, who lives on top of the cliff, a safe distance from the edge. “There,” he said, excitedly, pointing to a pile of boulders that had fallen a day earlier. “And there, too,” he said, pointing out a pile of sand way below that he said was also part of the cliff wall just 24 hours earlier.

Some of the homes at the cliff’s edge seemed to have crumbled when the ledge broke away. The area feels like a war zone, like Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, after Russia invaded. People here came out of the ruins, many barefoot, all asking to be listened to. They had ghostly, frightened expressions. “Look at this,” Ms. Qader, the nurse, said, as she pressed her foot on the ground. It seemed to warp under her weight, and then pop back up. She kept her foot pumping at the ground. “Look,” she said again, in a kind of disbelief. She pointed to the buckled wall of her neighbor Hamdi Hussain’s home. He lives in a small brick and concrete room just big enough for his king-size bed. Like the others here, he wanted help from the government. “We went to the municipality, and they just chased us away,” he said. So he went back to his bed, which is a few feet from the cliff’s edge.

The government’s initial response was to tell the people here that it was their fault for living in such a dangerous place, that this was a shantytown of illegal dwellings. But that misses a much broader reality: about 70 percent of Cairo lives in informal communities, which like this one were built without government planning or permission. This corner of Manshayet Nasser is dirt poor but it remains a community of brick houses, some three and four stories tall, running along rocky dirt roads. Officials say that about 100,000 people live there. As the morning grew hotter, the skyline disappeared in a haze of smog. Five women sat in a circle chatting. One was holding a small child on her lap. Another stood up and leaned against a metal cane.

“Of course we are afraid,” said Sabah Muhammad Hussein, 35, a mother of three who was sitting with her neighborhood friends. “They keep telling us, ‘When your turn comes up, we will move you.’ We have lived here for 15 years.” Suddenly, Mr. Yousef grew panicky. “They are coming,” he said, his voice tight with fear. “They are coming.” The police were coming and so he fled, into his house. He has not yet moved his family back from the cliff, but he ran from the police. The government has made some effort to help. Hundreds of families have been moved from buildings beneath the cliffs that were most vulnerable to another rockslide, put first in tents, then in new apartments. But with a bureaucracy that is slow and inefficient in the best of times, the state ended up infuriating the victims, too. One of them, Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud, 42, first went to the municipal council asking for help — only to be told, he said, that he needed to have proof he had lost a house. Many people, the authorities said, tried to piggyback on the disaster to get a new apartment.

“My wife told them we lost everything,” Mr. Mahmoud recalled. He said they told him to get a witness. “My wife said they are all dead,” he said. “Are we supposed to bring them back from the dead?” Mr. Mahmoud’s quandary ended the next morning when Al Ahram, the main state-owned daily newspaper, hit the stands. On the front page was a picture of a rescue worker holding Mr. Mahmoud’s son. He moved into a tent. He hated the tent so he sneaked out of the camp, leaving his family behind, to seek help. He was arrested when he returned, he said. There was no way to verify his account, but he said that the police blindfolded him and asked him, “How long have you been trying to overthrow the government?” They eventually let him go, and he lives now in a rented storeroom. His wife took the children to stay with her mother.

The government put several hundred families in new apartments, then a few days later discovered that about 20 of those families had not been residents of the area crushed in the rockslide. So they were kicked out. “They are all poor, but there are priorities,” the general from the Interior Ministry said. “Maybe they will get a chance another time.”

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.

See also: ‘Egypt rockslide highlights rich and poor divide’ (The National, UAE)

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  1. […] happen. As if there had ever been any doubt, the tragic and all too common landslide in Muqattam on 6th September led to the breaking off of a portion of the cliff overlooking a shantytown in the Duwayqa district, […]


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