They have harrowing tales to tell. The close to 200 Coptic families who fled from the face of Islamist jihadis in North Sinai hometown of al-Arish were received with open arms in other places in Egypt, mainly in the Suez Canal towns of Ismailiya and Port Said. Yet the terror and shock that drove them out of Arish are difficult to wipe off.
“We realised we had to leave”
“I have lived in Arish for 55 years,” said 89-year-old Seifein Morqos, the oldest among the Copts who fled their hometown. “I used to work with the Education Ministry before I retired, I was an army recruit during the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, and I lived in Arish under the Israeli occupation till 1973; I never saw such terror! We lived in peace; the place possesses serene beauty and the people were always friendly. We were never threatened or attacked.
“Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 and the consequent Islamist terror. We began to see masked Islamist jihadis driving through town with black flags and banners splashed with emblems of swords and Islamic slogans. We started seeing strange people in the streets and hearing non-Egyptian dialects, mostly Palestinian and Syrian. The threats against us Christians and the killings began. Yet we kept our ground and lay low for six years.
“But lately, the threats escalated; we got messages that said: ‘Leave tomorrow, you Crusaders, or we’ll hang your heads on the top of your houses.’ When seven Copts were killed in the space of three weeks last month, and when the Islamists were not content with murdering our men in the streets in broad daylight but broke into the safety of a Copt’s home and killed him and his son in front of their family members, we realised we had to leave. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/coptic-exodus-from-al-arish/19144/]
I left with nothing but the clothes on my back and my walking stick.” The old man could not hold back his tears.
Nabila Fuad is living the tragedy of seeing both her husband and son killed before her eyes. “The doorbell rang,” she said. “My son opened, only to be met by masked terrorists who shot him dead in cold blood. My husband ran out of his room at the deafening sound of the shots, but they shot him too. They looted the house and put the bodies on fire. We couldn’t even bury the bodies because the Islamists banned the burial of any Copt in Arish, so we had to leave and bury the two men in Suez where we originally come from.”
“They are totally devoid of any human sentiment,” the mother of Wa’el Youssef, the 35-year-old trader killed in front of his wife and son in Arish, described the Islamist terrorists. “They shot him dead then sat down to eat potato chips and drink Pepsi Cola.”
Lorans Anis, a homemaker from Arish, insisted that the normally peaceful and unprotected Copts were targeted in revenge for the army’s strike against jihadi militants in Gabal al-Halal in North Sinai. The strike constituted a remarkable intelligence and combat feat on the part of the army, and led to a resounding defeat of the Islamists. Ms Anis was not alone in her opinion; many of the displaced Arish Copts who talked to Watani expressed the same viewpoint.
Adel al-Bibawy, a trader in his early forties, told Watani that he got to know he was among the Copts targeted for killing. “But I lived near a military checkpoint in Arish, so they couldn’t get me.” A woman who had been his neighbour sat lamenting the home she left behind. “All our belongings, all our life savings!” she wailed. “We heard they have looted them. Even my poultry! What’s to become of them?”
Marking Copts’ houses with crosses
Reda Soliman, a man in his sixties who lived and worked in Arish for some 30 years, and whose roots go to Beni Sweif, 100km south of Cairo, is now back in Beni Sweif. “I had to move out together with my wife and three sons. The Coptic community in Arish is a close-knit one, and I had to help with the burial process of the Copts who were killed. I had to handle the scorched, unrecognisable bodies. It was a horrifying experience; the forensic doctor himself said: ‘I never in my whole career saw such atrocity’.
“The threats against us started with marking Copts’ houses with crosses, and escalated to the killings. The Islamists had so infiltrated Arish’s Muslim population that you never knew who intended to kill you: could it be the microbus driver? The street vendor? The porter next door?
“I left and came here to Beni Sweif where I was moved by the warm accommodating welcome with which I was received, both by the governorate authorities and by the Church.”
The same sentiment of being welcomed with warmth and help that went beyond their expectations was voiced by many among the Arish families who fled to Port Said, some 28 of them. Hosny Nimr Labib, 55, told Watani that he was a schoolteacher, married and with four children. “We were living in terror during our last weeks in Arish,” he said. “After the volley of threats we received daily I forbade my wife from leaving the house even to go to her work, and also my daughter from going to school. I couldn’t risk their lives. But then the terrorists started attacking the Copts inside their homes and we had to leave.”
The Coptic families who left Arish settled down mainly in Ismailiya, Port Said, Beni Sweif, Sharqiya, Gharbiya, Minya, and Sohag. The local authorities and churches generously took care of them, providing them with living quarters and amenities, health care, as well as job opportunities with the State and in the private sector. Their children were placed in schools and universities equivalent to those in which they had been enrolled in Arish. Swift measures were taken so that pensioners could collect their pensions in their new locations. It helped a lot that donations poured in from all over Egypt: the Armed Forces, Parliament, churches and NGOs, as well as private contributions.
An almost devoid-of-Copts Arish has been witnessing security strikes against the Islamists; it was announced that so far 11 terrorists were killed. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi vowed to avenge the killing of the Copts in Arish. After the Copts left, the Islamists turned their attention to the next weak link in the community: the women. They stopped a busload of female schoolteachers who were all in higab, the Islamic headscarf, and demanded that they should fully cover themselves up in niqab.
In the meantime, everything possible is being made to make life easier for the displaced Coptic families. Prayers, therapy and counselling are offered by the churches to help traumatised children in the first place, also men and women. Carnivals, games, music and art now constitute regular activities for young and old.
Last Friday saw the Marine Scouts in Ismailiya organise boat trips in the Suez Canal for the Arish families. It was a day of fun and music, and worked to raise despondent spirits.
Reporting from Ismailiya by Nader Shukry and Nasser Sobhy; from regions across Egypt by Nour Seifein, Girgis Waheeb, Nermine al-Zahar, Medhat Mounir, Ra’fat Edward, Sobhy al-Zayat, Mahmoud al-Shazly
8 March 2017