Cairo Airport: the 22 coffins that came from Italy

It’s the end of October and two boats sink off the coast of Italy while carrying, according to the Egyptian press, about 184 Egyptians who were trying to enter Europe illegally.

Cairo Airport: the 22 coffins that came from Italy
Le delta du Nil
Sunday 11 November, at dusk. A crowd has gathered in front of gate n. 35 of Terminal 1 at the International Airport of Cairo. They are waiting in front of this gaping aperture for 22 coffins coming from Italy. A strange confrontation is taking place: a silent crowd, whose anger has been submerged by sadness, is facing nervous policemen on the watch, closing in on the area as if an imminent assault to the black gate was about to take place.

Five days ago, six coffins coming from the same place passed through this entrance. The week before, five coffins came back from the same place. Always sent by Italy, these bodies which keep pouring on Cairo Airport since the beginning of November, are those of young men who have drowned just as they were setting foot on the shore of their wildest dreams, the Schengen fortress.

It’s the end of October and two boats sink off the coast of Italy while carrying, according to the Egyptian press, about 184 Egyptians who were trying to enter Europe illegally. The announcement of this misfortune is met by an uncanny silence from the official authorities and only the press – together with its public - seems to take interest on the deceased and their families. Their front pages have given a daily report of the macabre body count drawn out of Italian waters. The authorities will wait for yet another week, on 6 November, to finally give an official statement: the Egyptian Ambassador in Rome declares that 141 persons have survived and that 28 bodies have been recovered. Read between the lines: some fifteen bodies have not been found. His Excellency also tactfully underlines that: “Many of the bodies could not be recognized since they stayed in the water for several days, making it more difficult to identify them and to therefore contact the families.”

The families in turn have come in numbers this evening. They claim that no one has contacted them, they just read the news on the press that 22 bodies were due to arrive tonight. Many of these family members had come a week before in front of gate 35 to recover their dead, but when the bodies arrived, theirs wasn’t part of the lot.

So they left empty-handed and have come back today hoping this terrible suspense will end. This is the case for Mamduh Abdel Ezz, who has come to take the body of his 22 year old nephew, Said Abdel Moneim, back to his parents. Deep blue eyes, a grey jalabiyya and a white tagelmust, Mamduh is a peasant as poor as his nephew was, and has used his last penny to come here again, just as for all the other uncles, aunts and cousins present, and rent an ambulance for the second time, parked on the other side of the street, to bring back Said’s body to El Cherqiyya, a small town in the Delta of the Nile. “Said had wanted to leave for a long time and we tried to dissuade him, but his life had turned into hell and when he told us he had decided to go but had no money, each one of us gave him the little he had…” As if soothed by his won voice, Mamduh keeps on talking, in a same tone of voice. Said was a peasant, he didn’t earn more than 5 to 10 liras a day (about 1 Euro) but was the only son of an old diabetic, with an amputated leg, and had to take care of him in a country in which looking after a sick relative is a luxury. So, one day he decided to break this vicious circle and all his family contributed to raise the 5000 liras (614 Euros) that smugglers require in advance. Families make these contributions to help at least one of them to break free from poverty once and for all. Or suffer the ultimate defeat. They all prayed for him to arrive safe and sound and most of them are here tonight, sitting on the sidewalk since ten in the morning, waiting to recover his body.

Some families have endured an even worse fate. The mother and father of Khaled Abdelhamid El Zawawi knew nothing of their son’s plans. Khaled, unemployed and also 22, decided to make the big jump without telling his parents. His father discovered the truth in the middle of the night, when one of the smugglers called him requesting the immediate payment of the second half of the sum due for the trip: “your son is on the boat with my friends, if you don’t pay right away we’ll throw him in the water” … Most candidates for departure seal an agreement with the smugglers, “They pay 5000 Lira in advance out of the total sum of the 25.000 requested and undertake to pay the rest once they arrive in Europe and find work, but the smugglers in this case wanted to be paid beforehand. Many families tell the same story” explains a friend who has come to wait with Khaled’s older brother.

It’s dark out and the weather is unusually freezing cold. At 11.00 PM some officers start spelling out family names, the relatives are invited to cross the other side of the barrier to identify the bodies. A woman comes out of a car, drops a shawl on my shoulders and silently goes back inside her old Fiat to keep on waiting.

Two rows of chairs have been placed against the walls that form the open air corridor leading to the big black gate. A falsely compassionate governmental hand has placed these chairs there and covered the walls in the typical Egyptian fabric used as decoration in funerals, usually in the mosque were the ceremony takes place. The tidy rows of chairs are empty. Families are kindly asked not to use them: “It’s because there are journalists and they want the cameras to show that they’re giving back our dead in respect and dignity” , explains an overwhelmed young man in cold anger. Why are all these policemen standing nervously behind those metal barricades? “To prevent the crowd from bursting out, there are many people here tonight and more are expected to come” answers the officer in charge in a hasty and tense tone. “These people think there are 22 bodies to be collected but only 16 of them have arrived tonight. Please don’t tell anyone or the situation will become untenable” he confesses.

He fears the worst. But it’s these poor people who have suffered the worst tonight: quietly, they waited until 3.30 in the morning for their bodies to be delivered to them, and in a disquieting silence, they lifted them in the ambulances which will take them back to the Delta of the Nile.

Daikha Dridi
(30/11/2007)

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