Washing the Blood from the Streets in Sudan
By Themba Lewis
The prospect of return for many refugees is an unfathomable fate; many would sooner commit suicide (and do). In fact, under international law, the act of refoulement — returning a refugee to the country from which they have fled — is not only a violation of the 1985 Convention Against Torture, but a breach of the most fundamental tenet of refugee law.
From a balcony high above Mustapha Mahmoud Park, a resident of Cairo’s busy Mohandiseen district frantically searched for his video camera to document the scene below. Egyptian riot police had surrounded a small park and threatened thousands of demonstrating Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees with forcible removal if they did not voluntarily board waiting buses for detention. What the amateur videographer saw that night became, the next morning, the biggest news story in the world. That night, December 30th, 2005, the brutal police attack on the demonstrators resulted in injuries and at least 27 deaths.
Scenes of bloodied Sudanese made the front page spread of the New York Times, and CNN, the BBC, and al-Jazeera all covered the event live. Largely unreported are the stories of why the refugees were there, and the responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency created to provide protection and assistance to refugees worldwide, and its donor countries, including the United States, Australia, and Britain.
For many refugees, flight from persecution is only the beginning of a long struggle for the reclamation of basic rights and dignity. In Cairo, that struggle has been complicated by UNHCR’s ineffectual role in ‘integrating’ refugees into a society that is unwelcoming and sometimes downright hostile. While the issue of racism is a contentious one in Egypt, police programs, like 2003’s “Operation Track Down Blacks” that rounded up hundreds of people for interrogation in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, expose a particularly menacing underside to the predominantly black-African refugee experience in Egypt.
Because the ultimate authority for dealing with refugees lies with the host country, UNHCR’s work in a place like Egypt is hard. The Egyptian government maintains a significantly anti-integration refugee policy that makes education, employment, and healthcare all but inaccessible. Coupled with many refugees’ frustration with livelihood obstacles in Egypt and their wish to be resettled elsewhere - an option available to only a tiny fraction of refugees - the task of UNHCR is gargantuan.
Refugees must routinely wait months and years for the interview that determines their access to protection and assistance, and even then are often rejected without explanation. Appeals are possible but rarely contradict UNHCR’s original determination. Those who do succeed in gaining official refugee status often receive nothing more than the bare minimum of assistance, and how well they are protected depends on the host country’s policy.
Since its inception, UNHCR has pursued three durable solutions to refugee situations: repatriation (return to the country from which they fled), resettlement in a third country, and local integration. Repatriation, UNHCR’s preferred solution, is a violation of international law unless done completely voluntarily, because it contradicts the fundamental premise of seeking refuge, indicating that a person is no longer in need of protection. Resettlement is a prized achievement for many of Africa’s refugees who dream of better lives in Europe or North America. However, it is limited by strict and meager quotas, subject to the whim of local political climates and international relations. Ultimately, the third solution of local integration determines the social and geographic fate of many refugees, including most refugees in Cairo. However, UNHCR’s ability to successfully enable local integration in Cairo is restricted.
Without enough donor funding or resettlement spots to relieve the pressure of huge numbers of refugees, UNHCR depends on transit countries with limited resources, like Egypt, to shelter refugees. And so in Cairo, faced with contradictory bureaucracies, strained resources, discrimination, practically non-existent protection, and little chance of resettlement, a group of Sudanese refugees began to demand reform by sitting quietly in a park.
Mustapha Mahmoud Park is little more than a large grassy median in the midst of traffic, surrounded by a short iron fence, opposite one of Cairo’s most frequented mosques. The refugees chose the spot strategically. Not only was it logistically viable - with access to water and bathrooms at the mosque — but it was only yards from the front door of UNHCR’s regional offices, and unavoidable to Cairo commuters. The protest’s start date, September 29th, was also significant; many refugees were losing whatever seasonal employment they could find, the hot summer sun was beginning to cool, and it was just days before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time characterized by massive mosque attendance and a generous and hospitable spirit; a time to consider the less-advantaged.
Within days, banners were hung around the park calling for international attention, accusing UNHCR of mismanagement, and commemorating the deaths and disappearances of refugees in Egypt. A makeshift kitchen, a hospital, complete with IVs and medications, and organizing committees — media, security, hospitality — were created. The park’s population increased more than ten-fold within a week as refugees arrived from all over Egypt. Fed up with living in inhospitable limbo, they brought all their possessions — blankets, suitcases — in hopes that this protest would lead to change, or maybe a better life somewhere else. “What if the UNHCR doesn’t respond to your requests?” I asked one of the organizers, a few weeks into the protest. He looked at and said, “We will wait here, we will die here.” UNHCR responded by claiming no responsibility for anything that might happen to the protesters.
“We arrived in Mohandiseen at 2 am,” Nour Khalid, a fifteen-year-old from south Sudan recalled. “The first thing I saw was a huge number of police standing everywhere near the garden. They were wearing black and holding rods and shields. Some were sitting in front of the garden but they stood up when they saw us coming. They told us no one is allowed inside. I saw other Sudanese people in the same situation, unable to get inside. One of them was crying because his kids were inside the garden.”
Nour is an asylum-seeker in Cairo. She fled the war in south Sudan with her family three years ago, traveling to Khartoum on borrowed money and few supplies. With her mother and two brothers, she found her way from Khartoum onto a 1957 Hungarian passenger freight for the notoriously exhausting three day journey through the open desert across the Egyptian border, tracing the Nile to Cairo. For the past three months they had been sleeping in shifts alongside the 2000 other Sudanese asylum-seekers in Cairo’s Mustapha Mahmoud Park to protest the UNHCR and their dismal experience as refugees in Egypt.
The night the riot police cleared the park, Nour and her family had returned to a shared flat on the outskirts of Egypt’s sprawling capital to do laundry and get some supplies before returning to the protest. While there, the phone call came: “something is happening, maybe traveling.” To Cairo’s 20,000 strong Sudanese refugee population, traveling is a loaded word, used to signify forced deportation and return to Sudan.
The prospect of return is an unfathomable fate for many refugees; some would sooner commit suicide (and do). In fact, under international law, the act of refoulement — returning a refugee to the country from which they have fled — is not only a violation of the 1985 Convention Against Torture, but a breach of the most fundamental tenet of refugee law.
The international definition of refugee was created in Geneva in 1951, a time when the protection of refugees was politically and morally validating; the definition applied to Europeans displaced by World War II. As refugee crises shifted to the global South in the following decades, official terminology changed to eliminate date and geographic restrictions, but the global North’s commitment to house and protect changed as well. Refugees were no longer considered heroes to be welcomed, but burdens to be shouldered, or kept out altogether. Politicians used anti-immigrant and xenophobic appeals to gain political support, and popularized the image of the invading foreigner, leaching from the system and stealing jobs. UNHCR, at the will of donor countries, has reflected these political trends, and so refugees fleeing to Australia and the global North are increasingly left stranded in resource-strained transit countries like Egypt, Libya, Indonesia, and Morocco.
In the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, UNHCR the camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo became de facto militarized zones and recruiting centers for killing raids back into Rwanda by the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide. The realities on the ground overrode the political imagery of international humanitarian action, and ultimately, the Rwandan army closed the camps by force, opening the debate about the effectiveness and motivations of the world’s refugee assistance body.
“Look around,” Yasser said one day in October while we were walking through the park. “We’re a map of Sudan. We’re here from the South, the North, Darfur . . . . We are Christians and Muslims but we pray together.” It was Ramadan at the time and Yasser was proud of the fact that so many non-Muslims were waiting to eat until sundown, to break the fast together, alongside their Muslim counterparts. “Those people,” he slowly swung his arm towards the crowd, spread out on patchwork blankets and tarps, tilting his hand up ever so slightly, “they are victims of peace when in the past they were victims of war.”
As a result of a ceasefire and peace treaty in south Sudan, UNHCR Cairo ended refugee interviews for all Sudanese in 2004, anticipating that stability would soon come to their homeland; instead, they began to promote voluntary repatriation for Sudanese like Nour. Yet the UN’s own news network for Africa reported that the south was ‘not ready’ for any such return, and refugees continued to flee northward. In Egypt, however, they faced a future on hold: no way forward, without the possibility of resettlement, and no way back, their country crippled by landmines and continuous fighting. As Yasser told one UNHCR official during a protest negotiation meeting: “Go ask the new arrivals if the south is safe!”
The refusal to accept voluntary repatriation was the first of thirteen requests made by the protesters to UNHCR. Other requests called for extra protection for the elderly, women, children; refusal of arbitrary detention; protection from Sudanese government personnel, the re-opening of closed files, a rejection of living under discrimination, and most controversially, a rejection of local integration. The obvious solution to their underlying complaints was resettlement.
UNHCR remained dismissive, claiming that the demonstrators were economic migrants feigning the role of refugees to sneak into the West, an attitude parroted by the media. Had the organization gone to the park and done a simple survey, as one local graduate student did, they would have found that the overwhelming majority of demonstrators, more than 75 percent, held UNHCR refugee identification cards.
During the protest’s three months, Egyptian police had maintained a friendly relationship with the protesters, who felt, for the first time in Egypt, that the police were protecting them. When, on December 29th, police attributed their swelling numbers to a phony political rally at the nearby mosque, few demonstrators suspected anything. But just after midnight, 5,000 riot police in padded vests and metal helmets surrounded the park five rows deep, and journalists’ cell phones started to ring.
As a photojournalist told me the next morning, “by 2 am everyone knew something was going on.” The protesters were told to board busses to be taken to camps with clean water and food. The response was overwhelmingly one of skepticism. “Let us send five people to check out the camps and report back to us,” the demonstrators suggested. There was no time, an officer responded. “Then let a UNHCR representative go and report back,” the demonstrators asked. Again the police refused, and announced over the megaphone: “You have five minutes to leave the park.”
Moments later multiple water cannons drenched the crowd. Mothers hid their children under tarps, and the elderly were shuttled to the park’s central tree. The riot police started marching in place, chanting “Egypt, we would die for you.”
At 4:30am two officials from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement entered the park to negotiate at the behest of the Egyptian authorities. The protesters refused to leave for the camps until given guarantees about their destination. “This is your last chance,” came the final warning over the megaphone, “to get on the busses.” The protesters huddled together. Two minutes later, the police shut off all the streetlights and entered the park from all sides, batons raised.
Nour and her mother were on the outside. “I heard the Sudanese people screaming inside and they were saying ‘Allahu Akbar.’ I saw some praying inside the garden. Then the Egyptian police attacked the Sudanese people inside the garden and they beat them savagely. I was so scared and I cried really hard. The people who were standing with us cried also.” Within an hour the park was clear. All that remained were the blankets and suitcases full of belongings. By morning the eerie silence was broken only by the morning call to prayer and scratching of harsh brooms sweeping pools of blood from the wet pavement.
Early official reports claimed that 12 people died, and that the protesters had provoked the violence. However, human rights lawyers recorded at least 27 bodies, and protesters compiled a list of 53 dead. In total, 2,174 Sudanese, many unconscious, bleeding, and close to death, were bussed to horrendous detention facilities. One boy collapsed and died of exhaustion, only to be yanked out from his mother’s arms by officers. Another demonstrator hanged himself. Over the following weeks, the detainees were slowly released to random parts of Cairo, separated from their families and belongings. In prison, the feared Sudanese government had registered all of their names.
The Egyptian government never released autopsy reports, and refused to allow relatives to transport bodies to Sudan for burial. What is surprising about the Egyptian government is that they did not raid the refugee protest sooner. Protest without a permit is illegal in Egypt. Over the course of the demonstration, Egyptian police broke up many other protests, one only a few yards from the park. Such a long sit-in is unparalleled in Egypt, and is indicative of the increasingly tenuous relationship between UNHCR and host countries with many refugees and few resources.
Like most transit countries, Egypt views refugees as a temporary phenomenon, in need of short-term shelter until their home countries return to normal. Little effort is made to integrate refugees through education, employment, or medical services. Similarly, refugees consider their situation to be temporary, until they find resettlement through UNHCR or, sometimes, smugglers. Resettlement countries have strict quotas for receiving refugees, and only accept refugees through UNHCR. Ultimately, this quandary forces UNHCR to promote local integration, a solution that neither refugees nor their transit countries want.
Policy debates about refugee issues occur at the highest levels of government, out of reach of refugees themselves. However, Sudanese in Cairo, like Ivorians and Sierra Leonians in the north of Morocco, Bhutanese in Nepal, and Somalis in Yemen, are demanding entrance into the dialogues that determine their futures.
However, a top-down mentality pervades UNHCR and its donors: a refugee is expected to say only “thank you.” UNHCR donor and resettlement countries that criticized the protest’s brutal end, like the United States, Australia, and Britain, need to also reconsider their UNHCR donations and resettlement policies, which could result in tremendous positive change.
In Cairo, nothing has changed for the refugees except increased resentment and desperation. “You will be aggressive against the community that degrades you. If you are oppressed by someone, this oppression stays inside and if it is released there will be an explosion,” Yasser said to me. He is worried about the future, terrified of being arrested by Egyptian authorities, but found a sense of worth in the protest. “But just listening is a psychological treatment. Listening to our voice, this protest.”
Themba Lewis is a printer/designer and freelance writer who spends most of his time trying to keep the desert out of his Cairo apartment. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or through his website www.mtpleasantpress.com